Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 7 (July 2000)

Power Play

By Jim Perry

Given the performance boost the Macintosh platform has achieved with its latest G4 processors, optimized architecture, and advanced connectivity standards, Apple should have no trouble furthering its already strong position in the graphic design, publishing, and prepress markets. But will the changes mean anything to users involved in 3D content creation? Especially to those of us already churning out work on NT and SGI workstations? The short answer is: Yes.

Looking back over the events of past years, it seems clear that Apple got left in the dust when 3D development turned to NT, with its integrated OS support for powerful multiprocessor architectures. In 3D applications, speed is king, and Apple's lack of integrated multiprocessor support cost the company significant marketshare in digital prepress and video production as well as in the 3D market.

Now, however, a change is at hand. With the release of Mac OS X (due out January 2001), the Macintosh operating system will be multithreaded. As a result, all Mac OS native applications should realize significant speed gains without having to be recoded. Users should also find OpenGL performance much improved under OS X, according to Chris Bourdon, Apple's product manager for OS X. "We have already achieved performance on a par with OS 9, and we are just beginning to optimize OpenGL for the final release of OS X," he reports. "There is significant headroom for increased performance."

Even without multiprocessing, the current G4 architecture is proving attractive to some 3D developers. "The G4 chip loves the LightWave code," comments Brad Peebler, vice president of 3D graphics tools for NewTek (San Antonio, TX). The G4 chip is optimized for heavy floating-point calculations, which LightWave relies on to produce its rendering. NewTek is one of a relatively small number of vendors that has continued to develop professional-level 3D applications for the Mac in recent years. Another is Maxon Computer (Thousand Oaks, CA), which recently shipped a new version of its 3D modeling and animation package, Cinema 4D.

Last spring, at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC), the company revealed a prototype dual-processor Power Mac G4 in a closed-door session. The dual-processor unit was running a developer release of Mac OS X and reportedly performed more than twice as fast as a single-processor G4 system.
In developing the Macintosh version of Lightwave 6, NewTek developers worked closely with Apple to make sure the new software would be optimized for the Mac platform.

Of course, how the G4, with or without multiprocessing, will stack up against established workstations running 3D applications-NT machines, for example-remains to be seen. That situation will become clearer when and if more 3D applications and peripherals arrive to take advantage of the machine's capability.

And will they? Perhaps the most telling commentary on this front was Alias|Wavefront's announcement (also at WWDC) of its pending release of Maya Complete for Macintosh OS X. Maya development for the Mac has been quietly ongoing for some time, and Alias has slated the release of Maya for January of 2001, to coincide with the premiere of OS X. Con sidering Maya's market dominance in the digital content creation space, this says much about the potential of the Macintosh 3D market.

Multiple-monitor hardware and software developer Appian Graphics (Redmond, WA) is another company that has decided to jump on the G4 bandwagon with its recent release of the Jeronimo 2000, a dual-monitor graphics accelerator for the G4. Mike Larson, director of business development for Appian, claims that the instruction set of the G4 combined with the Appian J2000 OpenGL hardware acceleration will create some strong competition for Mac OpenGL accelerators such as those from 3Dfx (San Jose, CA) and ATI (Ontario, Canada). 3Dfx itself has only recently begun Mac-related development. The company recently announced its first offerings for the platform-a pair of Voodoo cards.
According to Alias|Wavefront, development for Maya-shown here under Mac OS X-was spurred by unprecedented user demand.

A phenomenon similar to that going on in the 3D market can be witnessed with Apple's push into video production and DVD authoring. Partnering with the Matrox (Dorval, Canada) Video Products Group, Apple has jointly announced the first PCI video card for real-time digital video editing on the Macintosh. The RTMac, architected by Matrox and Apple engineers, is tightly integrated with Apple's Final Cut Pro video creation software to provide real-time editing, effects, and compositing. Fully configured systems are expected to start at under $5000. Apple has also announced that it has teamed with video editing vendor Pinnacle Systems (Mountain View, CA) to offer the Targa Cinß, a broadcast-level uncompressed editing system for under $10,000.

Assuming this development continues apace, the result should be a win-win situation for everyone involved in digital content creation. As pockets of content creation begin to migrate back to the Mac, repurposing digital assets across various media will become less complicated and more efficient at a time when the demand for diverse deployment of content is at an all-time high. With Apple's QuickTime media layer evolving as an extremely popular choice for video editing and audio production tools and Web streaming content, the task of deploying content across many different delivery options such as the Web, CD-ROM, DVD-Video, etc. will be simpler than ever before.

With the substantial speed advantages inherent in the G4 today, and with multiprocessing G4 systems on the horizon and invigorated 3D and video-editing development on the Mac platform, the potential for the balance of power in these markets to shift toward Apple certainly exists. Regardless of whether that comes to pass, Apple will surely shake things up a little-probably a lot-in the 3D and video arenas.

In developing the Macintosh version of LightWave 6, NewTek developers worked closely with Apple to make sure the new software would be optimized for the Mac platform.

Now that Apple has the hot-selling iMac to cater to the price-sensitive consumer space, it is able to focus on delivering performance to pow er-hungry graphics professionals. With the Power Mac G4, the company has taken aim at satisfying the needs of creative professionals in print, video, and multimedia markets.

The introduction of the Power Mac G4 series heralded sig nificant changes in Macintosh hardware, with the most obvious being the shift to Motorola's G4 PowerPC processor. The rede signed G4 chip represented an overhaul of the PowerPC architecture and boosted performance, especially for applications written to take advantage of Motorola's AltiVec vector processing unit. AltiVec has been dubbed the "Velocity Engine" by Apple and has garnered initial support by Macintosh multimedia developers whose applications demand horsepower. The Velocity Engine is now supported by Adobe Systems' Photoshop 5.5, Terran Interactive's Media Cleaner Pro, and Heuris's MPEG Power Professional, to name just a few.

According to Apple, the G4 is the first microprocessor able to achieve sustained performance of one billion floating-point operations per second, or one gigaflop. (The company likes to say that achieving this benchmark puts the G4 in the class of a supercomputer.) In stark contrast to some of Apple's hardware offerings of the past, the performance of this Power Mac G4 is not inhibited by inappropriately matched subsystems that impede system performance. It used to be that Apple outfitted many of even its highest end systems with slow 5400-rpm disk drives. Most likely, this was done as a attempt to strike a balance between performance for the professional while holding down price for the consumer.

The Power Mac G4's performance is accomplished with a new system architecture that implements a 100mhz MPX system bus with 800mb-per-second throughput. With regard to memory, the system supports up to 1.5gb of SDRAM. That's twice the capacity of the original Power Mac G3 mach ines. And maximum memory bandwidth has been in creased from 400mb to 800mb per second.
In addition to the new interface (Aqua), OS X will feature multithreading, which should leverage processor performance.

The unit is rounded out by high-performance display technology and a reasonably fast hard drive subsystem. By utilizing FAST ATA/66 hard drive technology, Apple has settled on a disk subsystem that is economical yet able to provide respectable performance. The ATA drives manage to read and write data at sustained rates of over 20mb per second.

Photoshop users will appreciate the speed boost yielded by the faster drives alone. Since Photoshop manages large graphics files by constantly caching data to and from the Mac's hard drive, a speedier disk subsystem can substantially increase performance in itself, beyond the gains afforded the application by the G4 chip, the Velocity Engine, and the optimized architecture of the new G4 Power Macs. The graphics card provided with the review unit, the ATI Rage 128 Pro Video, is good but could be improved upon. A well-known shortcoming of the G4 with regard to 3D viability is a lack of 3D accelerators. That may be changing. Some boards to watch for are the Voodoo4 4500 PCI and Voodoo5 5500 PCI cards due out from 3Dfx this summer, and the J2000 OpenGL from Appian Graphics.

I ran an informal Photoshop comparison between the Power Mac G4 500mhz system and my 266mhz G3-based Wallstreet PowerBook, both running Mac OS 9.0 with virtual memory set to off. A dramatic difference was apparent just opening the 34.3mb CMYK test file from within Photoshop. Taking 10 seconds to open the TIFF, the G4 bested its G3 counterpart by some 13 seconds. For another Photoshop test, I created a 148.4mb CMYK file and applied the render clouds filter. The G4 took 39 seconds to complete the task, while the G3 required 1 minute and 26 seconds.

For a 3D application face-off, I rendered a small 240-frame animation out of Electric Image Anima tion System 2.9.2. The G4 rendered the animation in 23 minutes 40 seconds, while the G3 took 43 minutes, 20 seconds. While these tests obviously don't compare the G4's performance to Wintel mach ines, they show how the new system represents a dramatic performance increase compared to its predecessors.

The newer generation of Power Macs has eliminated direct support of long-standing connectivity standards familiar to Mac users. You won't find a serial, printer, ADB, or SCSI port on these systems. Instead you will find one internal FireWire port, along with two external FireWire ports and two external USB ports. The good news is that both USB and FireWire options are great connectivity standards that are far more effective and troublefree than the standards they replace. The bad news is that solutions you may rely on that are based around SCSI technology are no longer directly supported by the new Power Macs.

The FireWire ports on the G4 provide fast 400mb-per-second performance. In the case of video hardware, a single FireWire cable not only provides for high-speed data transfers, but also machine control. So, with one simple plug-and-play cable, you can attach your video camera or deck to your Mac, then transfer the clips you want to the machine for editing.
The G4 rendered this Electric Image Animation Studio scene much more quickly than did the G3.

I tested FireWire connectivity on my G4 test unit by hooking up both a VST 37gb FireWire hard drive as well as capturing FireWire data directly from a Sony camcorder. Apart from needing to install appropriate drivers, I realized true plug-and-play simplicity with both devices.

I also tested the G4 with USB products including an ADB-to-USB converter called the iMate from Griffin Technology, which successfully converted my ADB dongles to USB for EIAS 2.9.2, After Effects 4.1 Production Bundle, and LightWave 5.6.

The essential form factor of the G4 tower is similar to that of the previous generation of "Bondi blue" G3 systems. But the G4 graphite towers are trimmed out quite nicely and in contrast to the G3 towers appear more "serious." A nice new feature is that the four corners of the tower case are designed as handles, which add a great deal of functionality when you need to move the system. Users like myself who are always accessing the connectivity options on the back panel will find this simple improvement a real plus.

An especially notable feature of the new G4 case is the side panel, which opens and hinges down with the pull of a single latch. The revealed inside offers unobstructed access to everything you need: RAM, drive bays, PCI, and graphic slots. This is the most accessible computer case I've ever seen, and Apple deserves recognition for finally responding to users who've complained about the lack of such accessibility.

If there is a downside to the new Power Mac, it is the mouse. This awkward hockey puck mouse has been unpopular ever since it was first introduced with the iMac. Additionally, the keyboard lacks a full function-key set, stopping at F12. I never realized how much I relied on F13 until I lost it. The three missing Fkeys were undoubtedly dropped to reduce the footprint of the keyboard.

Apple has taken a big step forward with the new G4 systems. The power and connectivity options make it a desirable option for graphics professionals-and also for some 3D professionals. The price, $3500 for the unit reviewed, puts it in the ballpark for workstations of similar capabilities. All in all, if you're a longtime Macintosh user, you'll be delighted with the power of the new Power Mac G4. If you've never used a Mac before, and particularly if you're involved in video editing, you might just want to check out this machine.

Jim Perry is a 15-year veteran of the printing and prepress industries. He is principal of Empower Direct, which provides consulting, training, and production services to digital content creators. He can be reached at

The Power Mac G4 comes equipped with Mac OS 9, a dramatic upgrade to the Macintosh operating system. New features include support for wireless networking, an expanded file size limit from 2gb to 2tb; AppleScript and file sharing capability over TCP/IP; and a host of other new capabilities.

As a major upgrade, however, it requires a user to be diligent in getting the latest OS 9-compatible updates to any software that is going to be installed. This includes not only major applications, but ATM (OS 9 requires Version 4.5.2 or later), and any USB, FireWire, or other device drivers and font management utilities. Before installing your applications, visit Apple's Web site at os9

For my own part, despite needing some updates for Play's Electric Image Animation Studio 2.9, I was able to install the following without incident: Adobe Photoshop 5.5, Adobe Illus trator 8.0, QuarkXPress 4.1, Adobe After Effects 4.1, Final Cut Pro 1.2, LightWave 3D 5.6.

There are some great features in OS 9 to be sure. It's a worthwhile upgrade, but proceed with caution. -JP

PRICE AS REVIEWED: $3499 (without monitor)
CONFIGURATION AS REVIEWED: OS 9; 500MHz G4 processor; 1MB L2 Cache; 256MB of SDRAM; 27GB Ultra ATA hard disk; ATI Rage 128 Pro Video card
Apple Computer
Cupertino, CA