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For the Newly Introduced Power Macs, It's No Chip Off the Old Block

March 17, 1994|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer writer

They look like Macs, they feel like Macs and they run Macintosh software. But they're not ordinary Macs.

The three new Power Macintosh machines that went on sale Monday represent Apple's most significant advance since the introduction of the original Mac 10 years ago. On the surface, they don't seem that much different. The hardware looks just like Apple's existing Quadra line, and the operating system and application programs look and behave just as they do on other Macs. But lurking inside these rather ordinary-looking machines is a very powerful new chip.

The new Macs are the first personal computers to use the PowerPC microprocessors, developed jointly by Apple, IBM and Motorola. IBM has released a $10,000 Unix workstation with a PowerPC chip, but it is not designed to compete with today's desktop PCs.

The new Macs, with a starting price of about $2,100, including keyboard and monitor, are aimed directly at the desktops of current Macintosh and IBM-compatible PC users.

The PowerPC chip, which uses RISC (reduced instruction set computing) technology, doesn't require nearly as many internal instructions or codes as equally powerful central processing units, such as the Intel chips used in IBM-compatible PCs. Because they require fewer internal instructions, they are smaller, more energy-efficient and less expensive than the current generation of Intel Pentium processors used in today's fastest IBM-compatible PCs.

The new machines can run programs from two to five times faster than previous Macintosh CPUs, but to get that extra speed, the programs have to be written or modified to support the new chip. Existing Macintosh software will run on the Power Macs, but at about the same speed as on Mac Quadra. Some programs, in fact, will run slower on a Power Mac, according to Apple.

The company expects more than 50 Power Mac-ready applications within a month, and more than 150 software developers have announced plans to create Power Mac programs.

For some users--including those of us who use our computers mostly for writing, telecommunications and basic number crunching--this extra speed will have little significance. Today's high-end Macs and PCs are already fast.

For those who do design work, manipulate complex graphics, engage in scientific modeling or publishing of large documents, the extra performance can have a big impact on how long it takes to get through a day's work. Over time, new generations of computers often serve as catalysts for new types of software as programmers learn to exploit the power of the new machines.


The Power Macs are also capable of running DOS and Windows programs, but that requires a copy of SoftWindows, a program that lets a Mac emulate an IBM-compatible PC. With SoftWindows, most Windows programs on a Power Mac will operate at about the same speed as on a 386 PC, although some will approach the performance of a low-end 486.

Either way, that's mediocre performance by today's standards, so it would be foolish to buy a Power Mac just to run DOS or Windows. You can buy a high-performance 486 PC or even an ultra-fast Pentium PC for less than the cost of a Power Mac. All Power Macs can read and write IBM-compatible diskettes, and many Mac programs can use the same data files as comparable Windows programs. Apple includes a copy of SoftWindows only on machines with at least 16 megabytes of RAM--the minimum needed for the machine to properly run Windows programs.

Apple hopes its Power Macs will lure would-be buyers of IBM-compatible machines. They're definitely worth considering, but if you buy a Mac, do it because you want to run Macintosh programs, not because it can emulate a PC.

All three new models come with 8 megabytes of RAM, built-in networking, stereo sound and connectors for a monitor, printer, modem, CD-ROM and other devices. The 6100/60 ($1,819) comes with a 160-megabyte hard disk and one expansion slot. The 7100/66 ($2,899) comes with a 250-megabyte hard disk and three expansion slots, and the 8100/80 ($4,249) has a mini-tower case, three expansion slots, a 250-megabyte hard disk and support for up to 16.7 million colors. For each model, the number after the slash represents the speed of the CPU in megahertz. Apple is also offering a $700 upgrade option for some existing machines.

Don't get too excited by what may seem like low initial prices. While they are quite reasonable by Macintosh standards, the basic prices do not include a monitor or keyboard, and most users of this class of machine will want larger hard drives and more memory. I suspect that a lot of buyers will spend between $500 and $1,000 more than the base price.

Because they require new versions of software to strut their stuff, these new machines represent an investment in the future. If I were already in the market for a high-end Mac, I'd certainly consider a Power Mac, but I wouldn't upgrade from an existing machine until I could get Power Mac versions of my favorite programs--unless, of course, I were a software developer or just couldn't wait to get my hands on the latest computer toy.

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