That loud crashing sound you heard on Monday was the sound of thousands of Mac users smashing their piggy banks needed to pre-order Apple Computer Inc.'s new Power Mac G5 towers.

Confirming weeks of increasingly frenzied rumors on Mac Web sites, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs delivered the news during his keynote address at the Worldwide Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Jobs declared the top-of-the-line model, sporting two IBM-made G5 processors running at 2 gigahertz, "the world's fastest personal computer."

The Power Mac G5 is a totally redesigned tower with an internal architecture crafted to take maximum advantage of the new chip's power.

While the casual Mac user may wonder what the fuss is about, the new G5 Power Mac is the machine for which pro users (as well as home users with a penchant for power) have waited for more than a year. And almost every advance in technology introduced in Apple's pro lines eventually migrates to its consumer lines.

High sales seen

The arrival of the G5s, to start shipping on Sept. 2, should reverse the declining sales trend Apple's pro desktop line has experienced in recent quarters. Even with the general economy still struggling, demand for these new Macs should be strong.

The top model will cost $2,999; a single-processor G5 at 1.8 GHz will cost $2,399, and the 1.6 GHz model will cost $1,999 -- prices higher than the G4 models they replace.

Perhaps the single biggest advance the G5 offers is that it processes data in 64-bit chunks rather than 32-bit chinks, as the G4 and Pentium 4 chips do.

Advantages of 64-bit computing include speed, of course, but also the ability to address huge amounts of memory. (The Power Mac G5 can hold up to 8 gigabytes of memory.)

Software written for the 32-bit G4 chip will need to be recompiled for the G5 in order to take full advantage of the new chip's capabilities, but Apple claims this is relatively easy. Meanwhile, because IBM and Apple built in 32-bit compatibility, existing software will run seamlessly on the G5.

Claims of high speed

While neither Jobs nor Apple's Web site makes any direct speed comparisons between the G4 and G5 Macs, a matchup of the dual-processor G5 with a Windows PC running dual 3.06 gigahertz Intel-made Xeon processors -- "the fastest PC money can buy," Jobs said -- had the new Mac either neck-and-neck with the PC or well ahead of it.

Jobs also claimed that the G5 beat both the Pentium 4 and the Xeon in certain "benchmark" tests that provide a way to compare the abilities of processors designed by different companies. The day after the keynote some accused Apple of cheating on these tests, but Apple stood by the results.

In any case, discussions on sites like Slashdot pointed out that chip manufacturers typically do everything to get the best possible benchmarks. So objective, reliable results in such tests are hard to come by.

The true test

A far better measure of a processor's abilities is to test it with actual software.

Jobs included plenty of these "bake-off" tests in his keynote, which were much more compelling than the bar charts of the benchmark tests.

In speed tests between a dual G5 and a dual Xeon, the G5 was at least twice as fast as the Xeon PC in every test. Software ranged from the traditional Adobe Photoshop to Wolfram Research Inc.'s Mathematica, a sophisticated numbers-crunching program used for scientific research.

This speed is a far cry from the incremental gains in speed we've seen in Apple's pro line in recent years. For example, the last speed bump to the G4 towers in January took the top model from dual 1.25 GHz processors to dual 1.42 GHz processors -- a boost of just 13.6 percent.

In raw gigahertz alone, the dual G5 model is more than 40 percent faster than the dual G4 it replaces; in practice the top G5 Mac should outperform the top G4 by at least 100 percent. The actual difference won't be known until independent third parties are able to test the machines.

Exclusive ties to IBM

For those who follow such things, Apple's new "G5" is, in fact, IBM Corp.'s PowerPC 970, which many Mac pundits have suspected was destined for the Mac ever since IBM formally announced the chip at last fall's Microprocessor Forum.

Jobs said that Apple and IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., have been cooperating on the chip's design for more than a year, confirming that IBM is making the G5 specifically for Apple.

John Kelly III, IBM's senior vice president of technology, said a few words about the Apple-IBM partnership and then promised a 3 GHz version within 12 months, which should keep Apple's high-end Macs from falling behind PCs again as they did in the years following the introduction of the G4 chip.

'Cheese-grater' design

The Power Mac G5 tower's only negative is its case, which lacks the grace and beauty typical of Apple hardware. Some already have dubbed the machine the "cheese grater" after the aluminum screen grille on the front face.

The squarish aluminum case looks more like a high-tech miniature refrigerator than a computer, and in some ways it is. No less than nine fans cool the innards of the machine, with the internal case divided into four separate cooling zones.

Apparently, heat dissipation took priority in the design of the G5.

So it may not win any design awards, but for the pro crowd clamoring for speed, speed -- and still more speed, the Power Mac G5 delivers.

Software spotlighted, too

Though the new G5 stole the show, the original reason Mac users were excited about Jobs' keynote address was the promised preview of the next major revision of Mac OS X, 10.3, and named "Panther," which was fairly impressive in its own right.

Panther will include more than 100 new features, Jobs said.

A few are taken from the Windows XP playbook, such as quick switching between multiple user accounts on the same machine, but Apple added a touch: when you select a different user from a menu in the upper right corner, the Desktop screen rotates like a three-dimensional cube (users of Keynote will recognize this as identical to the 3D cube slide transition).

Panther's revised Finder adds an extra pane on the left side of its windows that resembles iTunes' playlists. Users can add any folder they like to this window for quicker, easier access to their files.

Perhaps the most dramatic feature Jobs demonstrated was Exposé, which can use either an assigned keystroke or a mouse action to shrink all open windows into thumbnails so you can find the one for which you're looking. This feature will be welcomed by users who like to run many applications at once and keep lots of documents open on their screen

Other features

Other notable features Jobs highlighted were:

  • Font Book: OS X gets a built-in font manager that allows users to preview fonts and install them with a single click.

  • Built-in faxing: The print dialog box gets a new "Fax" button for direct faxing of any document.

  • FileVault: Panther provides advanced encryption for personal documents on your hard drive, something Jobs said many laptop owners requested.

  • Mail: Users can view e-mail in "threads," using the subject line to group related messages together.

  • iChat and iSight: A new version of Apple's iChat instant messaging software enables phone calls and videoconferencing over the Internet. Users can click on a person in their Buddy List and be connected in seconds -- even if the person is thousands of miles away.

    It works with iSight, a tubular $149 FireWire camera designed to attach to the top of your monitor or laptop screen. The iSight is available now; a public beta of iChat is a free download from Apple's site. It times out on Dec. 31.

    Two items dampened the Panther announcements. First, it won't be available until the end of the year, and second, it will cost $129, as did Jaguar last August. The loud complaints then from users outraged by paying full price for an upgrade apparently left Apple unmoved.

    Panther may not be a groundbreaking release, but it will appear next year. Projecting an image of a cud-chewing steer on the large screen behind him, Jobs joked that the "competition" -- Microsoft Corp.'s "Longhorn" version of Windows -- won't arrive until 2005 at the earliest.
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