Although the PowerBook G4 Titanium stole the show at this year's January Macworld Expo (see "PowerBook G4 Titanium Burns Bright" in TidBITS-563), Apple also tantalized the crowds with improvements to the professional Power Mac G4 line, adding faster processors and the capability to create custom CDs and DVDs.
The new machines feature PowerPC G4 chips running at speeds of 466, 533, 667, and 733 MHz, but include only single processor configurations by default. A dual-processor build-to-order option is available for the 533 MHz system for those who use one of the few pre-Mac OS X applications that can take advantage of multiple CPUs. Dual-processor options aren't currently available for the faster processors due to their limited availability. The new machines also feature a 133 MHz system bus, a faster PCI architecture, and, in a nod to the audio and video professionals desiring more expansion options, four open PCI slots. A fifth slot, a 4x AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) graphics slot, is occupied by either an ATI RAGE 128 graphics card with 16 MB of memory (the 466 MHz configuration) or an NVIDIA GeForce2 MX graphics card with 32 MB of memory. An optional ATI RADEON card with 32 MB of Double Data Rate memory is also available as a build-to-order option. All units include gigabit Ethernet, USB and FireWire ports, optional AirPort wireless networking, and a 10 watt digital amplifier (which can be hooked up to Apple's $60 Pro Speakers).
Catching the Boat -- As the current workhorse of the Macintosh line, the Power Mac G4 is the likeliest candidate to act as the hub of Steve Jobs's "digital lifestyle" (see "Jobs Aims Apple for the Digital Lifestyle" in TidBITS-563). Macs currently connect to devices like Palm handhelds and portable MP3 players, but Apple is now improving its position in the digital music revolution by including CD-RW (rewritable compact disc) drives in every configuration except the high-end 733 MHz model. Jobs acknowledged that Apple "missed the boat" on CD-RW, which has been standard-issue technology in the Windows world for some time. (To be fair, Apple bet on video and that DVD standards would coalesce sooner than they did, which gave CD-RW an opening it wouldn't otherwise have had.) Using the included iTunes, users can easily burn their own MP3 tracks to audio CDs. Since the Power Macs run Mac OS 9.1 with Disc Burner built in, users can also burn any data file to a single-session CD simply by dragging and dropping it on the CD in the Finder, and then choosing Burn CD from the Special menu.
It's rare to hear Jobs admit that Apple isn't at the forefront of innovation, so it's no surprise that the company is adding a wrinkle to burning discs beyond even integrating it into the Finder. The top-of-the-line 733 MHz Power Mac G4 includes a SuperDrive: no, not the 1.4 MB floppy drive of the same name which originally appeared on the Mac IIx back in 1988, but rather a Pioneer device that reads and writes CDs and DVDs. More importantly, the SuperDrive can write data in the DVD-Video format, which means anyone can use Apple's bundled iDVD software to burn digital movies and still images onto the disc and play them in most consumer DVD players. With the SuperDrive, for example, graphics or video professionals could easily create DVD-based demo reels and self-promotion materials. In the case of still images, iDVD automatically creates a slide show, so friends and relatives can use their DVD remote control to scan through your photos. Apple will also begin selling "Apple authorized" blank DVD discs for approximately $10 each, well below the standard $30 to $40 price for such discs.
Time to Burn -- As with any new hardware announcement from Apple, the big question becomes: when can I get one? The 466 and 533 MHz models are available now for $1,700 and $2,200; the 667 and 733 MHz models, which use a newer version of the PowerPC G4 chip, are expected to arrive in limited quantities starting in February priced at $2,800 and $3,500. Availability is limited in part by the CPUs, but the SuperDrives reportedly aren't available in significant quantities yet either. Compaq also has a machine that includes the Pioneer mechanism; between Apple and Compaq, supply is likely to be tight for the next six months. Similar mechanisms from other manufacturers will likely appear soon as well, so those with earlier Power Mac G4s (other Macs would work for most tasks, of course, but for DVD-Video, the MPEG encoding is done in software and probably relies heavily on the PowerPC G4's Velocity Engine) should be able to hop on the bandwagon then.
The SuperDrive repositions Apple at the head of the computing pack, but it's going to be something of a tough sell at first when machines are in short supply. Bundling the SuperDrive into Apple's $3,500 machine is remarkable considering that similar stand-alone DVD-writing drives by themselves cost several thousand dollars. But the high end of the Power Mac line excludes most consumer buyers, the audience Apple seems to be targeting with the SuperDrive. When Apple manages to shoehorn SuperDrives into the iMac line and its consumer price tag, DVD burning will truly have a chance at becoming part of the digital lifestyle.