MWNY: New Hardware -- a Gamer's Perspective
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Now that we have had some time to study the specs of the hardware revisions announced at Macworld New York earlier today, we can offer some analysis of this latest series of changes and what it might mean for Mac gamers. In some cases, the change is dramatic; in other situations there are legitimate grounds for disappointment. A speed bump is always welcome, as is a price drop, but the question is: did these revisions come in the areas that are critical to gaming performance?
Let's start with the iMac line. Perhaps the biggest let-down of the keynote was the miniscule changes made to this series of computers. Although some "rumors" (and even "news") web sites made themselves look a little silly with grandiose projections of radically changed systems with 15" LCD screens and wireless keyboards, it was easy to discern fantasy from reality in this case -- LCDs are still far too expensive for Apple to feature them on a sub-$1000 system. Nevertheless many pundits warned that without a radical revision the iMac line would continue to have flat or lower sales, and in this we have to agree.
At $1499, the 700 Mhz G3 system will indeed be a very solid gaming rig. With the Rage 128 Ultra hardware introduced at the previous revision (which is just a Rage 128 Pro with a slightly lower power requirement and heat output) you could expect midrange to high FPS in most games, 2D and 3D. Since very few games take advantage of Velocity Engine instructions (in fact no released games currently do) the lack of a G4 chip doesn't mean poor gaming performance; in fact this little iMac has a good chance of being faster than a G4/500 that was twice the cost just over a year ago.
However, the Rage 128 Ultra chipset is clearly a limiting factor for performance, and this system will continue to fall behind as games become more complex and demanding. We were hoping that the Radeon VE or Radeon Mobility might find a home in this series, or perhaps a GeForce 2 MX, but sadly that's not the case. However there are several big events over the next few months which could see yet another iMac revision, so fans of the one-unit wonder should not give up hope.
Apple's speed-bumped G4 Power Mac series sounds a much more hopeful note for Mac gamers. 733 Mhz systems are now the low-end, with the amazing price tag of just $1,699 -- equip this system with a GeForce 3 and strip out some of the extras you don't need, and you have a fantastic sub-$2000 gaming rig that will not only do well against many PCs but have a long life as a viable high-end machine. Previously to get to this MHz you had to cough up $3400 and buy a Superdrive, whether you wanted it or not.
The midrange system is a little awkward, as always -- 867 MHz is no laughing matter, and is just 1 MHz faster than most pundits predicted we would reach; the additional 2 MB L3 cache will mean a lot for Photoshop and other long-instruction processing, but most likely not much for gaming. Again an excellent gaming rig but only benchmarks will tell if the extra 134 Mhz is worth another $800.
Obviously the ultimate killer gaming rig is also the ultimate Mac, and this one is a whopper -- a dual G4 running 800 MHz is a formidable system indeed. However, dual chips typically do not mean much for gaming, even under Mac OS X. The type of threading and processing that games require does not lend itself well to being split over two processors, and even games that have been specifically optimized for dual setups (such as Quake 3 Arena -- the only such Mac game in existence) see boosts in the tens of frames per second, not radical 100% increases. Again only benchmarks will determine the value of this system, but no one spends $3,499 just to play games; this is the sort of machine you buy to do serious business with, and play games as an afterthought.
What this expo did not see are any sort of radical change to the motherboard architecture of the G4 series. The bus and RAM speed remains 133 MHz; the AGP slot is now 4x standard, but not faster. The PCI slots are still 33 MHz, and there is no USB 2.0 support which is becoming standard in some cases on PCs. Gigabit Ethernet is a nice bonus, but no LAN game even saturates 10BaseT, really. The TwinView card is a nice option, but as games only take one monitor, it isn't a big factor from that perspective.
One curious change is the disappearance of the ATI Radeon from the selectable OEM graphics cards available for these systems, though this card is certainly still available as retail. As ATI has been making plans for most of the summer to introduce a new card (and in fact may be showing it behind the scenes at the expo) this seems a precursor to a new introduction rather than a change of policy; overall Apple's hardware is still heavily dominated by ATI chipsets. And in fact the Radeon card is still available as an Accessory option in the Displays section of the Apple store; it would probably take just a phone call to get them to swap it for the GeForce 2 Mx.
Another area of some disappointment was the lack of any updates for the graphics hardware of the G4 Powerbook (also known as the TiBook) or the new Dual USB iBook. While these models are still extremely new and not really "due" for a refresh, it was hoped that the Radeon Mobility or GeForce 2 MX would replace the Rage 128-based chipsets in these models. Again, no one buys one of these as a gaming rig -- they are specialized hardware designed for portable use, and being able to play 3D games on them at all is a bonus. However walking into a LAN party with a TiBook cranking out 50+ FPS in Quake 3 Arena would be a sight to see, but one that will have to wait for the future.
Review: Power Mac G4/733
Overall the most remarkable change to the hardware configurations was the $2000 price drop for the 733 MHz G4. As our own benchmarks of this system reveal, it is a formidable gaming system with spectacular numbers, especially when configured with a GeForce 3. The fact that you can get one for under $2k says the Mac will continue to move forward as a serious gaming machine. And we have to say we like the slightly-refined casing quite a bit, and we're very glad we didn't end up with the transparent monstrosity the rumorz sites were batting about. Be sure and share your thoughts on the new hardware in our Forums.
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