Apple gets juiced up

Upgrades redefine the Mac's role

Raw processing power hasn't always been Apple Computer Inc.'s claim to fame, but the company's latest crop of 64-bit desktop computers might prompt an image makeover. Throw in a host of workplace-oriented software enhancements to the platform's Unix-based operating system, and the rugged individualist Macintosh computer is starting to look corporate.

On the hardware side, the Mac got its newfound muscle through the introduction of the IBM Corp. PowerPC G5 64-bit processor, as opposed to the 32-bit processors of the previous generation of products.

"The 64-bit G5 processor lets you use way more main memory and to do certain types of computations that aren't feasible with a 32-bit chip," said Todd Benjamin, Apple product manager for the Power Mac G5. The size of main memory is related to the processor because 32-bit chips max out at 4G of RAM.

"It is good for somebody who is using video or manipulating large images in [Adobe Systems Inc.] PhotoShop," Benjamin said. "These applications will benefit from large amounts of main memory. Anyone who works with 3-D models will benefit because you can manipulate those images in memory instead of using the hard drive."

The chip is also tuned to attack the floating-point calculations that are important for many scientific applications. The chip can produce as many as four floating-point results in a clock cycle in ideal circumstances. "That is one of the reasons Virginia Tech liked this processor," Benjamin said. The university built one of the world's fastest supercomputers last year by linking Power Macs together in a cluster.

But, Benjamin emphasizes, although Power Mac G5 machines can be used to create a supercomputer, the machines are designed to give desktop PC users more power in everyday applications. So far, the benefits of 64-bit computing have been limited to scientific workstations and PC servers running Intel Corp.'s Xenon processors. But even running

existing 32-bit applications, the G5 is much faster than the G4.

The dual-processor version of the Power Mac G5 is most popular. It runs a pair of 2.0 GHz or 1.8 GHz chips. Single-processor models are available with

1.6 GHz or 1.8 GHz chips.

"When I got my dual-processor G5, it was real noticeable that it was faster than my G4, to the point that the network has become the bottleneck," said Ngozi Pole, administrative and systems manager in Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) office.

The latest version of the Mac operating system, OS X 10.3 Panther released last fall, has several features that are useful to Pole's users. The new Fast User Switching feature gives different users access to different resources on the same computer quickly and easily. The feature has been particularly helpful in an office in which interns outnumber the available computers, Pole said.

When offices were evacuated during the recent ricin scare on Capitol Hill, Pole was able to reach his users' files

remotely with workgroup manager tools, letting him relay files to colleagues who were working from home. "I just went to the server and started e-mailing files to people," he said.

The Senate has also been attacked by computer worms and viruses recently, but those attacks have all targeted Microsoft Corp. Windows users, so Kennedy's Apple-based office has been unaffected. Panther has proved more stable than the previous version of the OS, called Jaguar, suffering none of the dreaded kernel panics that occasionally afflicted Jaguar, Pole said.

"We've had tremendous interest from federal, state and local governments because of the security of a Unix foundation," said Ken Bereskin, director of Mac OS X product marketing. "Every aspect of the OS has been enhanced, from the drivers to the kernel."

One feature of OS X 10.3 that could be particularly useful to federal customers is the FileVault 128-bit real-time encryption. Kennedy's office has not yet begun encrypting its files, but a recent incident in which Republican staffers accessed Democrats' files have prompted Pole to plan to do it soon. "I'm not saying it is going to happen again, but it is what people do," he said.

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


What's new in Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X Panther

Fast User Switching, which lets a user's programs remain running when another user logs on to the computer.

FileVault, which stores files with Advanced Encryption Standard 128-bit encryption.

iChat AV desktop videoconferencing.

Finder file searching that is up to six times faster than in the previous version.

Expose Display Manager, which gives single-keystroke access to applications and files.

File preview with built-in reader for PDF files.

Electronic messaging program with enhanced spam filters.

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