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Power Dressing

The PowerPC

Article from Music Technology, February 1994

The PowerPC should bring whole new meaning to the phrase 'power without the price' But is it still a price worth paying? Ian Waugh has the answer...

You're in the market for a new computer and you're torn between the elegance and sophistication of the Macintosh and the ubiquity and value for money of the PC. Wouldn't it be great if there was a computer that had it all? Well, don't look now but...

Anyone reading last month's feature on buying a computer could be excused for thinking that choosing any of the current models involved a degree of compromise which one shouldn't need to make when spending upwards of £1000. Of course, it could be argued that with any of today's personal computers you are getting power and performance at a price no one would have believed possible a few years ago. Only... well, people did believe it would be possible a few years ago. At that time, no edition of Tomorrow's World would have been complete without someone telling us just how important personal computers would become in our lives and how powerful we could expect them to be. As in so many other areas, we seem to have been waiting for the technology to catch up with the speculation, convinced that better (and cheaper) machines are just around the corner.

Certainly, anyone who buys any of the Mac or PC magazines couldn't fail to have been aware of reports of an imminent new generation of computers which would far outstrip the performance of even the best of today's models - and at a price which would have us all reaching for our cheque books. Is it true? Are the reports exaggerated? And just how imminent is imminent?

Well, I'm pleased to say the answers to these questions are 'yes', 'no', and 'by the time you read this (probably)'.

The PowerPC is a new RISC-based microprocessor family under development by Apple, IBM and Motorola, aimed at bringing "a new level of performance and functionality to personal computing at low prices". I think we'd all drink to that.

Besides the obvious advantages of speed and power, the PowerPC's most impressive attribute is its ability to run both Mac and PC software, giving the user the best of both worlds and eliminating the problem of which computer to buy. This is made possible by virtue of the fact that the PowerPC's RISC processor is more efficient than either the standard PC or Mac chips, and will run software more quickly.

Latest news is that the PowerPC 601 chip which lies at the heart of the machine has just been given a hike in speed from 50MHz to 60MHz, and that an 80MHz chip is expected to appear before the end of the year.

"There seems little doubt that the advent of the PowerPC will be the coming of age of multimedia"

Motorola has also announced the 603, a special chip with low power consumption for use in PowerBooks, although it's unlikely that portable PowerPCs will appear before 1995.

Eager not to alienate its existing user-base (although you'd hardly think it from the almost weekly round of price cuts and obsolescence), Apple hopes to provide PowerPC upgrade options for many of its existing models; as well as the entire Quadra range, this includes the IIvx and IIvi models and the Performa 600 and LC range - though upgrades for these latter machines could take up to 12 months to appear.

Upgrade prices will vary according to model but are expected to start at under $1000 - which probably means £1000 to UK users.

The list of software developers currently signed up to produce PowerPC programs reads like a Who's Who of the computer world. Interestingly, this doesn't yet include any of the music software companies, but in computing circles these are generally considered to be 'small fry'. There are, however, already several multimedia software developers working in this field.

Should you buy a Mac or PC now or wait for the first PowerPCs to emerge? Well, if you can wait you'd certainly be advised to do so. However, although development of the PowerPC has so far broken every target set, it seems unlikely that machines will be available in any kind of quantity before the middle of the year - and it could well be autumn.

There is also the cost to consider. The much-touted price of around £2000 will be for the base system only. Expect to pay several hundred pounds more for a usable setup. If you don't like paying over the odds it could well be into 1995 before the power without the price becomes a reality. But of course, this is all relative. Serious, professional users may well decide that the advantage of having one of these machines immediately outweighs the extra cost. And certainly, anyone working in a competitive industry could well gain a real advantage from using a PowerPC.

It will also be interesting to see what happens to the price of the current range of machines. Even with the recent reductions of up to 50% on many systems, Apple will almost certainly have to drop prices further if dealers aren't to be left with machines that suddenly look underpowered and overpriced. By the end of this year there could be some incredible bargains around. If this is something that's already occurred to you and you're the kind of person who likes to hedge their bets, just make sure you opt for one of the machines which offer an upgrade path.

Power - who needs it?

For the musician and the multimedia user, the PowerPC will make it possible for the first time to choose between the best programs developed for the Mac and the PC, and perhaps more significantly, native PowerPC programs when they become available. But there's the rub. Until existing software is converted to native PowerPC code, it will have to run under emulation. Estimates suggest that Mac software will run at a speed equivalent to a 25MHz 68040 Mac (similar to an LC475) or a 25MHz 486 PC.

The speed and power of the PowerPC is not really needed for music applications - although faster screen redraws and program handling are always nice to work with. Graphics and animation work, however, require all the power a computer can muster, and this is where PowerPC users will really score. There seems little doubt that the advent of the PowerPC will be the coming of age of multimedia.

Planned PowerPC upgrades for Macs

Quadra 950 (through DayStar Digital)
Quadra 900 (through DayStar Digital)
Quadra 840 AV
Quadra 800
Quadra 660AV
Quadra 650
Quadra 610
Performa 600 LC range

Quadra 610 DOS-compatible computer

The first snippets of information about the PowerPCs talk of software being run under emulation, which is bound to slow things down. However, the latest news from Apple centres around the development of a DOS-compatible version of the Quadra 610. This does not appear to be a true PowerPC machine, but Apple seems to be developing it to demonstrate the company's commitment to cross-platform computing.

Incorporating the Motorola 68LC040 and an Intel 486SX microprocessor both running at 2SMHz, the Macintosh Quadra 610 DOS-compatible computer - cute name, guys - is being designed to enable users to run Macintosh, DOS and Windows applications. The machine will come pre-installed with DOS 6.2, and the dual processors will work independently allowing users to run Macintosh and DOS or Windows applications in tandem. You will be able to switch between them at the touch of two keys and even cut and paste data between the two environments.

Dual monitor support will provide users with the option of viewing the Mac and DOS environments at the same time. You'll be able to add a second display monitor without purchasing an additional video card. The computer is expected to support most VGA, SVGA and multisync monitors as well as the Apple 14" or 16" Macintosh Colour Displays. The same hard drive will support applications on all three environments, and Apple plans to offer an internal CD-ROM drive, compatible with all three formats, too. DOS and Windows applications should be able to print to any Mac-compatible printer.

The DOS-compatible Quadra 610 is expected to cost about $500 more than the Mac 610, and Apple hopes to offer an upgrade for around the same price difference.

Stop Press

As we go to press, etc, etc, etc,... Apple has announced plans to offer both logic board and processor upgrades based on the PowerPC 601 chip for a wide range of macintosh systems. Both types of upgrade will provide two to four times the performance of existing Macintosh models when running native applications.

There will be logic board upgrades for the Quadra 840AV, 800, 660AV, 650 and 610 models, the Macintosh Centris 660AV, 650 and 610 computers, and the Macintosh IIvx, vi and Performa 600 products. Additionally, logic board upgrades will also be offered to owners of the Apple Workgroup server 60, 80 and 95. Logic board upgrades will provide full PowerPC compatibility but need to be installed by a dealer.

Apple also plan to offer a lower cost processor upgrade card for the Quadra 950, 900, 800, 700, 650 and 610 models, and the Centris 650 and 610 computers. The processor upgrade card uses the Processor Direct Slot (PDS) in the Macintosh 68040-based systems and will double the existing speed of the computer. The card will be user-installable.

Apple intends these upgrade cards to be available at the same time as the PowerPCs, early in 1994. Prices so far are only in US dollars and will range from $700 to $2,000.

Apple is continuing to work with third-party developers on upgrades for other Mac models. In particular, the company has a licensing agreement with DayStar Digital, under which DayStar plans to develop a high-performance processor upgrade card for the Quadra 650, 700, 800, 900 and 950 systems, and the Macintosh Centris 650.

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Feb 1994



Feature by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

> This Is Marineville

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