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Power Macintosh Musings

The Power Macintosh arrived today amid a 90 minute Apple presentation beamed via satellite to over 300 locations around the world. We attended the gala event in Seattle, although except for some niceties such as PowerBars (usually for athletes), apples, and gobs of candy outside the hall and a short introduction by a local Apple person, everyone else in the world saw the same show.

Apple provided little information of substance, but that’s not surprising since the presentation aimed for glitz and market placement. To provide the proper mood, Apple ran a videotape of many, if not all, of their television ads over the past 10 or 12 years (there were even several Apple //c ads at the beginning). The early ads were followed by four or five new ones that we hope appear on television soon, since they’re among the best that Apple has done. A slightly sarcastic voice intones, "The future," and fabulous old footage from early robot movies appears on screen, ending with an aggressive visual transition to the words Power Macintosh and the voice-over saying, "Power Macintosh is here. The future is better than you expected." There were a few variations, but the thrust remained the same throughout.

The presentation flipped back and forth between Apple executives and product managers talking about the machines and showing demonstrations of Power Mac performance. The strangest part was when a product manager from Microsoft – the only company that gave a demo – showed Word 6.0 and Excel 5.0. Instead of demoing special features that the Power Mac (or at least the Mac OS) makes possible, she primarily showed features already available in Windows versions of the software. This was doubly odd considering that there are major applications reportedly shipping in native code today, such as WordPerfect 3.0, whereas neither Word 6.0 nor Excel 5.0 are currently available even in 680×0 code, lending doubt to Microsoft’s claim to ship native versions by mid-year.

The Apple execs made three points about the Power Macs abundantly clear. They are cheap yet fast, backward-compatible, and cross-platform compatible. That pretty much sums up the thinking behind the marketing, so let’s look at each in turn.

Cheap Yet Fast — There’s no question that the Power Macs are fast when running native code, and even though Apple claims 150 vendors are working on native versions of major applications, I doubt you can buy all that many at the same time you pick up a Power Mac. Even if speed is equivalent to a fast 68030 or slow 68040 in emulation mode, that’s fine, since no one should buy a Power Mac if they only want to run old software that won’t be upgraded. As it stands, the Power Macs will only get faster in users’ eyes as more native applications appear in the next six to nine months. InfoWorld found the Power Mac 8100 running native applications to be twice as fast as a 60 MHz Pentium, and five times faster than a Centris 650. The same 8100 running emulated applications checked in slightly below the Quadra 605.

Prices too seem utterly reasonable, with the three models, the 6100, the 7100, and the 8100 vaguely falling into the $2,000, $3,500, and $5,000 price points. There are of course different models and configurations – see above for details. Perhaps the most interesting of the prices is the price on the Power Macintosh Upgrade Card, a mere $699. Add that to the $1,800 a Quadra 650 costs according the used Macintosh price chart in MacWEEK, and you’ve got a decent PowerPC-capable machine for $2,500, some $300 less than the equivalent Power Mac 7100. Considering the possible advantage of being able to boot in 68040-mode for absolute compatibility, the speed hit from the card may be worth the savings. MacWEEK ran MacBench tests on various Macs with and without the upgrade card and a 7100, and found that although video and floating point results were noticeably lower for the upgrade cards, processor speed was comparable and disk speeds appeared better, although that may have been due to the SCSI buses in the Quadra 700 and 950 used with the upgrade card in comparison to the 7100’s SCSI bus.

Backward-compatible — There’s not much more to say. Most everything runs under the new System 7.1.2 on the Power Macs, and some users claim the move to Power Macintosh was smoother even than the move to System 7 or to an AV Mac. Since existing applications run only in emulation; however, there are a few problems that won’t go away without an upgrade. Power Macintosh emulation is based on the 68LC040 chip from Motorola, which lacks a floating point unit. Hence, applications that requires an FPU simply won’t run in emulation. These applications stand to benefit the most from the increased speed of the Power Macs, so they are likely to be upgraded soon. If you rely on such an application, don’t buy a Power Mac until the application goes native, or consider the Power Macintosh Upgrade Card, which enables you to reboot in 68040-mode. Applications that look for specific pieces of hardware within the Macintosh won’t work, such as low-level utilities like Connectix’s Virtual and RAM Doubler or applications that break Apple’s guidelines by touching the serial ports directly, for example. Don’t trust old communication software in particular. Some NuBus cards may require ROM or software upgrades – check with the manufacturer to be sure.

Cross-platform Compatible — No surprises here, although reports continue to differ on how fast the PC-emulation really is. There are few complaints about compatibility though, and any program that can run on the 80286 chip should run fine under SoftWindows. The program also supports networks, although I don’t know enough about PC networking to judge how completely it does so. I suspect that the arguments about how fast SoftWindows performs exist because emulation is an art, and as such, certain tasks may run as fast as a 66 MHz 486, whereas others may poke along at 286 speeds. No matter what though, SoftWindows is a resource hog – as you can see from the configurations above, it only comes bundled on Power Macs with 16 MB of RAM. That’s because SoftWindows itself requires a minimum of 9 MB of RAM, and prefers a good deal more.

What’s Important — The primary fact to remember about the Power Macs is that they are fast Macs. Nothing less, perhaps something more, although that remains to be seen. Apple appears to be targeting three audiences, DOS/Windows users, fence-sitters, and existing Macintosh owners. Of the three, Macintosh users will definitely buy Power Macs in droves. Fence-sitters, or people who have yet to buy a computer at all, very well may buy Power Macs, and in our opinion, they should seriously consider them. Without an existing investment in DOS/Windows software and knowledge, there’s no reason not to get a Power Macintosh that can run almost all Macintosh software and a great deal of the PC software out there as well. Price used to be an issue, but the kind of power embodied inside the Power Macs makes this less of an argument. Finally, although Apple would dearly love to convert existing DOS and Windows users to Power Macintosh, it’s just not going to happen. Users don’t care one whit about what chip is inside their computer; they care about what applications they run. We Macintosh users can carp all day about what a lousy interface Windows has and how clumsy simple tasks like moving directories are, but in the end, these folks will not run their applications in emulation. Why would they? They’re not interested in Macintosh applications – if they were, they probably would have purchased Macs long ago. The only caveat to this is that if the speed of the Power Macs continues to increase significantly while the prices drop, some large organizations might consider moving to Power Macs instead of upgrading existing PC-clones, and since organizations can and do decree what their employees will use, that might result in some added market share for Apple.

The Future — The future may be here, and it may be better than some people expected, but I think the best part of the Power Macs is the avenues they open up. I’m not talking about whole new classes of programs as Apple is, although I never quibble about interesting applications. I think the power under the Power Mac hoods must be used elsewhere first. We need computers that use processor power not to make new tasks possible, but to significantly ease existing tasks. This is an important distinction, because even though the Power Macs may make simplify three-dimensional rendering, they cannot bring it to the masses, since the masses don’t want to do 3-D rendering. Instead of creating new tasks that we can attempt to perform, but which really require even more processor power, how about adding things like (to name a few random ideas off the top of my head) AppleSearch technology built into the Finder, three-dimensional interface elements to improve recognizability, optionally animated icons to improve the awful icons bars we currently have, better speech recognition, and Newton-like intelligent assistance? Perhaps in System 7.5. For the time being, Apple has done an excellent job with the Power Macs, and we wish them the best of luck.

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