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New Power Mac not for everyone, but is a pioneer


Apple's much anticipated overhaul of its Macintosh family is expected to occur in August, bringing a new generation of Power PC microprocessors to its desktop and portable computers. But Apple gave an early preview of the new systems last week when it introduced the high-end Power Macintosh 9500, code-named Tsunami.

The Power Mac 9500 was designed to appeal to professional graphic artists, publishers, multimedia software developers and other demanding Macintosh users who can say "768 megabytes of RAM and several gigabytes of hard disk, please" without giggling. It essentially replaces the Power Mac 8100/110, which has been in chronically short supply anyway.

The prices are powerful, too. A base model equipped with a 120-megahertz version of the Power PC 604 microprocessor, 16 megabytes of RAM, a 1,000-megabyte hard disk and a quad-speed CD-ROM drive will cost $5,000, not including monitor or keyboard.

The most expensive 132-megahertz model, which comes equipped with two gigabytes (approximately two billion characters) of storage, will cost $5,800. Loading the Power Mac 9500 with its maximum capacity of 768 megabytes of RAM would cost . . . well, if you need to ask, don't ask.

According to people who have tested it, the 132-megahertz Power Mac 9500 can churn data at twice the speed of any earlier Mac. No Pentium-based PC currently on the market can match it.

But the most interesting feature of the 9500, in my view, is even deeper under the hood, behind the engine. The 9500 is the first of the so-called "PCI Macs."

PCI stands for Personal Computer Interconnect, and it refers to the internal data pathways, collectively known as the "bus," that shuttle data to and from the microprocessor.

Whether your computer uses the Mac OS or one of those other operating systems, you will need to know something about PCI buses. All of the new desktop Macs scheduled for the August debut will use the PCI bus. In fact, it is one of the few cases where the Mac is playing catch-up with the Windows-Intel systems. (Intel's Architecture Labs in Hillsboro, Ore., was a principal developer of the PCI specifications.)

The PCI bus has emerged as the new standard for plug-in expansion cards, and it is already found on a high percentage of new Pentium-based PC's. It is the probable successor to previous bus standards like ISA, EISA, Micro Channel and VL on the PC side, and NuBus on the Mac side.

Casual users may never need to worry about buses, but they are centrally important for adding special functions like high-resolution graphics, digital video, extra disk drives and high-speed local area network connections.

The shift to PCI is a mixed blessing for people who have filled their current Macs with NuBus cards, since upgrading to a PCI Mac will typically require buying new cards.

For those who want to keep using their old NuBus cards, several companies will sell "expansion chassis" devices that connect to the new PCI-based Macintoshes. For others, however, PCI has many advantages over those earlier bus standards.

It moves data in and out of the system much more quickly, with a theoretical top speed of 132 megabytes a second. That is about three times as fast as the EISA, Micro Channel and NuBus buses. The speed increase might not mean anything to someone who does word-processing all day, but it yields significantly better system performance for demanding tasks like networking.

PCI works with the Plug and Play standard, which will become important for Windows-based computers when Windows 95 makes its debut in August.

And because PCI is being adopted by the Macintosh as well as by other PC makers, some day soon there will not have to be separate versions of every plug-in product. In theory, a given PCI board will fit into either a PC or a Mac, and the only difference will be in the configuration software provided by the manufacturer. The PCI-based Power Mac 9500 is not for everyone, but it suggests good things ahead for Macintosh users.

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