February 21st, 2000
Apple Power Mac G4/400
The Power Macintosh G4, Apple's latest pro desktop line, looks to be an incredibly powerful and capable computer. Matching a beautiful case design with state-of-the-art internals, these systems have shown great promise. To find out if these perceptions were on the mark, we spent some time with one and came out duly impressed.
The Power Mac G4 was introduced on August 31, 1999, replacing the Power Mac G3. When it was announced, the lineup included 400, 450, and 500 Mhz models. While the 400, code-named "Yikes!", used a modified version of the G3 motherboard, the faster models sported a completely new architecture (dubbed "Sawtooth") offering more capabilities than before. Not long after they were announced, Apple actually downgraded the processors, resulting in a lineup of 350, 400, and 450 MHz models. Pricing and features remained the same.
The G4 was updated on December 2, when the G4/350 model started shipping with a DVD drive as a standard. More importantly, that model also received the same motherboard as its faster siblings. The video cards in all three models were upgraded to the new ATI Rage 128 Pro chipset. Prices remained unchanged.
On February 16, at Macworld Expo Tokyo, the lineup was revised again. This time, Apple bumped up the speed of each model by 50 MHz, resulting in the 400, 450, and 500 MHz line up as when the G4 was originally announced. Specifications otherwise remain exactly the same, as does pricing.
As an aside, if you are planning on buying a base G4 system, we recommend you avoid the Yikes! based model if you can; although some are still available at enticing prices, the Sawtooth-based models are a much better buy with their new architecture. Additionally, the current model has a faster processor, as noted above. Externally, there are only minor differences between the two. On the Sawtooth, sounds ports are vertically aligned rather than horizontally, and there are two video-out ports on the video card instead of one.
Specifications and Setup
Our test system was the now low end G4/400 model, priced at $1599. Apart from the processor, this system is identical to the current G4/450. Besides featuring a speedy 400 MHz G4 processor, this system came equipped with 128 MB of RAM, a 20 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive, a Zip drive, a 56K internal modem, 10/100 Ethernet, and a 16 MB video card.
Setting up your G4 is a simple task. Simply plug in the keyboard, mouse, and the power cord, then hook up your monitor and turn it on. Naturally, G4s now come preloaded with Mac OS 9. Besides the usual Apple utilities, you also get Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, along with Netscape Communicator.
Case Design and Ergonomics
The G4 shares its case design with the blue and white Power Mac G3; the main difference is that the G4 sports a graphite and ice color scheme. With handles on top, moving the G4 around is easy, which is more than can be said for most other desktop computers. Our only complaint with the case design concerns the location of the audio ports; it would be more convenient if sound-in and sound-out jacks were located on the front of the machine to supplement those at the rear.
If you need to upgrade or add any internal components, simply open the door on the right side of the case. This lays the motherboard down flat on your desk, giving you easy access to the processor, drives, and expansion and memory slots.
For the most part, the ergonomics of this machine are excellent. Unfortunately, the mouse and keyboard are just plain lacking ergonomically. We found the mouse to be the worst of the two; its circular design makes for very poor user comfort, and even after extended use, we were not completely comfortable with it. The keyboard has a very good feel, but it is not full-size. While this means it takes up less real estate on your desk, the function, navigation, and arrow keys are spaced too closely to others, making it more difficult to use them efficiently.
Internal Architecture and Performance
The G4 models feature the Sawtooth motherboard architecture which has several major advantages over the previous G3 models. One of the most significant differences is that alongside three PCI slots, the G4 has a fast AGP 2x slot; this slot is filled with an ATI video card.
Sawtooth also supports Apple's new AirPort wireless networking. While this feature is not as crucial as it is with portable computers, it is nonetheless a welcome addition. However, you will need to install the $99 AirPort Card to make use of it.
In addition to two external FireWire ports, the G4 also has an internal connector for hooking up internal storage devices. Apple has also beefed up support for USB; the G4 can now boot from a USB device, and also supports USB speakers and microphones. Each of the G4's two USB ports has its own controller, which means you can theoretically hook up a total of 254 devices.
Naturally, the G4 is very fast. However, we were somewhat disappointed with the results of our MacBench 5 tests. With the basic Mac OS 9 extensions and virtual memory turned off, the system returned a processor score of 1243 -- or 24% faster than a beige Power Mac G3/300. The results of the floating point test were better; with a score of 1452, the G4 was 45% faster than the G3. It should be noted that Mac OS 9 generally returns a lower score than OS 8.x. Additionally, those applications which are written to take advantage of the G4's Velocity Engine should see appreciable speed gains. For the record, we also ran the older MacBench 4 tests; the G4 scored 1229 and 1095 in the processor and floating point tests, respectively.
Storage and Video
The base G4/400 comes with a 10 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive, a Zip drive is optional -- no floppy, of course.
While the 10 GB drive that comes standard is adequate, the 20 GB hard drive in our test unit, an Ultra DMA 66 device, is very generous in size. We also found it to be quite fast, handily doubling the speed of a G3/300's SCSI drive in MacBench testing.
The inclusion of a Zip drive is certainly welcome, in both the 450 and 500 MHz models. It more than makes up for the lack of a floppy drive, as exchanging files is easy and convenient, what with the millions of Zip drives in use worldwide. However, we wish that Apple would at least make a CD-RW drive an option for those customers who want one.
All three G4 models include a DVD drive; the 400 and 450 MHz models have a DVD-ROM, while the high end 450 sports a DVD-RAM drive which allows you to record onto high capacity DVD disks. While DVD software titles are currently not common, movies certainly are. So to test out the drive, we rented a couple of movies on DVD. The picture quality was stunning, and we experienced none of the sound synchronization problems that others have reported. (Our G4 shipped with the final version of the Apple DVD Player 2.0; earlier ones had beta versions.) As long as you have a decent set of speakers hooked up to your Mac, watching DVDs is certainly worthwhile. Unfortunately, DVD decoding is done through software, rather than hardware. This means that if you try to do anything else while the movie is playing, it stutters. We also noted that the DVD tray seemed rather cheap and fragile. For aesthetic purposes, the drive is hidden behind a small graphite door.
All G4s ship with an AGP video card from ATI, featuring the new Rage 128 Pro chipset and 16 MB of video RAM. According to Apple, this card offers 40% better performance compared to the Rage 128 card in earlier G4s. The card has two video outputs; one is a standard monitor port, and the other is a digital jack for use with the Apple Cinema Display. The card supports millions of colors and resolutions up to 1600 by 1200.
To check out its performance, we tried a few graphics intensive games. We could find no fault with the performance of Carmageddon 2 and Descent 3; both returned high frame rates even with all graphics options set to max.
Not only do these models feature a new processor, they also have a vastly improved internal architecture that supports AGP cards and AirPort wireless networking. These systems are packed with lots of features at reasonable prices -- a virtue any user can appreciate. We only had a few complaints; we'd like to see a better mouse, and hardware DVD decoding would be a nice touch. However, these are relatively minor points. If you are thinking about getting a new Mac, we recommend this system highly.