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Taking the Power Mac for a Spin

TECHNOLOGY UPDATE

By Eugene Koh

On March 14, Apple Computer unveiled the Power Macintosh series of personal computers, the first fruit of its 1991 alliance with IBM and Motorola. At Apple's recent Seybold Seminars exhibition in Boston I got a chance to kick the machines' tires and take a test drive to see the new "power" for myself.

Without question, these machines are fast. While the Power Macintosh desktop is functionally identical to that of the typical Motorola 68040-based Mac, under the hood the new series is fueled by the PowerPC 601. This is a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) microprocessor that claims to yield "two to four times the performance of today's Intel 1486 and Motorola 680x0-based personal computers," according to an Apple press release.

The new machines run virtually all popular Macintosh software packages without a hitch. But, unless an application is recompiled specifically for the Power Macintosh (in "native" mode, as Apple evangelists call it), the new machines may actually run the program slower than their 68040-based Quadra and Centris counterparts.

Moreover, the much-ballyhooed Microsoft Windows compatibility provided by the SoftWindows system, which comes along with the computer, is laughable. Though the literature claims Windows performance comparable to Intel 80486SX-based PCs, I found the interface to be noticeably jerky when maneuvering the mouse.

Windows emulation is restricted to Microsoft's "386 Standard Mode." This compounds the performance problem and results in a Windows system that loses its usefulness beyond anything but the simplest of applications.

This said, one must wonder, "Does the Power Macintosh merit all the type it has received in the industry over the past few months?" At least when it comes to number-crunching applications, the answer is: "Yes."

Wolfram Research has released a new version of its popular Mathematica system in a native Power Macintosh format, and it is here that the new CPU architecture really shines.

Apple's base price for the new machines far undercut those of typical workstations. Thus, the Power Mac offers an unmatched price-performance package for intensive, scientific applications.

But, users of the new Macintoshes need not own Mathematica in order to appreciate the Power Macintosh's number-crunching prowess. Every new machine comes equipped with a graphing calculator desk accessory that emulates the MacGrapher used in Mathematics 21a--only better.

Formulae are entered in standard mathematical notation, rather than calculator shorthand. Results are rendered in clean 3-D perspective at the blink of an eye and are updated dynamically. (An aside for those who like to tinker: the multi-colored Apple logo from the Puzzle desk accessory may be copied and pasted into Calculator, where it will properly map onto the surface of whatever function is being graphed--pretty cool, huh?)

Desktop publishing, a market that the Macintosh has traditionally dominated, has already staked its claim on the Power Macintosh. Aldus Corporation and Adobe Systems have announced native versions of their popular page-layout and graphics development packages concurrently with the release of the Power Mac.

In sampling a native version of Quark's QuarkXPress' 3.3, I found that while such functions as "search" and "replace" sped through large documents, more graphics-intensive operations seemed to be bottle-necked by limitations in video hardware (though the Power Macs do offer unusually flexible built-in video display options).

MacWeek, a trade journal, reported last week that Apple will premiere three Power Macintosh servers this month, to be dubbed Workgroup Servers 6150, 8150 and 9150 respectively. A new desktop Power Mac, the 9100, is expected to join the current 6100/7100/8100 line soon afterwards. April's offerings will bring hardware expansion options to meet the needs of local-area network administrators.

Despite the flurry of Power Macintoshes hitting the market, most Harvard students looking to purchase a Mac will find Apple's 68040-based LC 575 and Quadra 605 to be better buys for word processing, HSDN connectivity and light multimedia applications.

Those considering the Power Mac for the "combination PC/Mac" functionality that Apple's promotional campaigns tease at should turn away. But those with a need for the Power Mac's number-crunching talent or who simply desire Intel Pentium-level performance in a Macintosh should take a walk over to TPC and try out these new machines.

This is the first in a series of Technology Update columns by Eugene Koh. Please contact the newsroom (495-9666) with any ideas or questions about technological issues for possible use in the series.

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