G5 Numbers

Power Mac G5In his excellent and characteristically exhaustive weblog post on the pros and cons of owning an Apple PowerBook, Jon Gruber advises: “Anyone already using an aluminum-era PowerBook G4 would probably be well-advised to wait” before buying a new Macintosh laptop. He also goes on to say that, in spite of Apple’s pending move to Intel processors, there are still at least “a handful of reasons why someone might want a last-generation PowerPC Mac instead of a first-generation Intel… The current versions of Adobe’s and Microsoft’s suites should run under Rosetta, but I strongly suspect performance won’t be as good as on last-generation PowerPC machines.”

As it happens, all of that is perfect advice for the situation in which I currently find myself. My 1 GHz PowerBook G4 is quickly approaching its second birthday and it’s starting to show its age. It’s noticeably slower than I’d like it to be, and it has no hope of running Apple’s forthcoming Aperture photo editing software. Still, it functions ably for portable computing needs, so I know it’s not quite ready to be replaced by a new PowerBook. On the other hand, if I want to offset the big bill coming my way from the Internal Revenue Service next April, now is the time for me to invest in new computing horsepower.

So I’ve been thinking more and more about buying a desktop machine. Notwithstanding the several desktop Macintoshes I’ve had at my various jobs, this will be the first desk-bound computer that I’ve bought for my personal use since my first Mac, a lowly Power Macintosh 6100/60 purchased back in 1994.It will also be the first time in over eight years that I’ll keep a desktop machine in my home office, such as it is.


From Lap to Desk

This is a counter-intuitive move in an age when laptops are rising in popularity and desktops are falling. But I’m taking to heart the lessons of my incredibly trusty Power Macintosh G4 (Mirrored Drive Doors), which I’ve had at the office for three years. It’s been an absolute workhorse, and its surplus of ports, bays and slots has proven to be continually useful. There are many, many advantages to portable computing, but expandability is not one of them — towers like my Power Mac, on the other hand, are highly adaptable and configurable by the end user, a trait I’ve really come to value.

As a consequence, I’ve been looking closely at the cost of a brand new, dual-core Power Macintosh G5. It doesn’t look cheap.

Power Mac G5 Pricing Estimate

Item Cost
Dual 2GHz Power Mac G5 1,999.00
AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth Addition 99.00
AppleCare Extended Warranty 249.00
Two 1GB Third-party DDR2 SDRAM Modules 275.00
20″ Apple Cinema Display 799.00
Shipping & Sales Tax (approx.) 400.00
Total US$3,821.00

There was a bit of sticker shock when I added it all up. I’m not sure exactly how much I expected to pay — maybe US$1,300 less? I’m fully aware that the Power Mac G5 is, after all, a professional machine and that it comes with an attendant price point, but it still seems somewhat painful that it should be so prohibitively expensive for home users.

This underscores a drawback of Apple’s long-standing, simplified product line: there’s a gap between the company’s offering for home users and its offering for pro users. You might call it the ‘prosumer’ line, for lack of a better term — a market segment that, not coincidentally, camera manufacturers have made the most of in the past few years. By bridging their priced-to-move point-and-shoot cameras and their much more expensive professional grade cameras with reasonably priced digital SLRs, Canon and Nikon have convinced a nation of wannabe photographers to spend hundreds of dollars more than they might otherwise have for cameras, lenses and accessories.

It’s perhaps too convenient an analogy to be realistically applied to Apple, because prices for the company’s consumer and professional lines aren’t as dramatically far apart as what we see in the camera industry. But it’s a shame that, for those for whom iMacs or Mac minis are insufficiently expandable, the only alternative is the grand expense of a Power Mac G5.

The Right Mac for the Right Job

To be explicit, what’s missing is essentially a more expandable counterpart to the iMac G5 — a serious machine based on a version of the same, top-of-the-line processor but, crucially, without the iMac’s built-in display. Instead, a reasonably powerful video card would allow users to add an Apple Cinema Display (or any third party monitor), or to swap that same card for a more powerful, game-friendly substitute. The production savings from the display could be spent on a more manipulable enclosure: a mini-tower with at least one open drive bay and two available PCI slots, along with room for the addition of a moderate amount of RAM, perhaps up to 4 Gigabytes. While we’re at it, the machine may as well be priced similarly to the iMac, as well: US$1,399, say, for a 2.1GHz model equipped with a 250GB Serial ATA hard drive and an 8X SuperDrive.

Naturally there’s the danger that such a model would steal market share from the Power Mac G5 line, cannibalizing sales that might otherwise have gone into more expensive models because of this alternative machine’s expandability. This existing gap between Apple’s consumer and pro lines is, of course, no accident; it’s a sign of shrewdness, not incompetence, that the company’s current offering forces consumers like myself to spend for more horsepower than I truly need. I acknowledge that readily, and I’m realistic about that proposition being a very good reason why Apple isn’t likely to bring a machine like what I’m asking for to market anytime soon. Not soon enough, at least, to factor into my buying decision for this year. For better or worse, there’s probably a new Power Mac G5 in my near future.

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  1. Can you explain this line to me: “On the other hand, if I want to offset the big bill coming my way from the Internal Revenue Service next April, now is the time for me to invest in new computing horsepower.”

    I have never understood the reasoning that it would be beneficial to spend $3000 on a new computer to save a couple hundred in income taxes.

  2. That sticker shock? Picture paying that for a Powerbook. That’s what it’s like in the non-US world.

    I’ve been thinking along the exact same lines though, even if I do pay a premium. I’m strongly tempted by the dual-core G5′s, since portability is covered by the Powerbook I already own. I’m a little tired of how slow a G4 feels these days.

  3. I second that motion. As my Powerbook is a little on the slow side, I could really use some more horsepower. However, it’s not so slow that I need to shell out for a G5 and monitor, and I’d like more screen real estate than an iMac. (Or at least the option for an additional monitor in the future.)

  4. Maybe a lot of this is symptomatic of how far behind the G4 processor is, too. A laptop that can serve as a legitimate alternative to a powerful desktop might not make me yearn so much for expandability — unfortunately, it would be lying to describe even the fastest PowerBook G4s as plausible desktop replacements.

    Jeff: talk to your accountant, you may be missing out.

  5. Your powerbook will run aperture as long as it has tons of memory. i saw aperture running on that machine at the photo expo. The real problem is drive space. the program eats drive space (it comes on 2 DVDs) and needs lots of free space to operate happily.

  6. Timbo: When you saw Aperture running on my PowerBook model, was it snappy, or did it chug along painfully? Based on the abysmal performance of iPhoto on this machine, I’m skeptical that Aperture would perform acceptably even if I could get it to run.

  7. Re your Mac pricing:

    Buy out of state mail order and you can cut the tax…also many companies offer free shipping…

    if you want to save on the screen go for a refurbished display.

    If you must buy through apple try the educational store…. say you are a student at internatiional center for photography… they don’t check and you save 10%

  8. aperture was fine… again it all depends on the memory/hd space and that machine was stacked full.

    Runs much better than iphoto on the same machine. Iphoto degrades with the number of photos in the library, aperture does not.

  9. My money would be on an iMac G5 for now, especially since you’re going to buy a 20″ screen anyway. It’ll run Aperture reasonably well, and everything else will run beautifully on it. Expandability tends to become a more pressing requirement after you’ve owned the computer 2 years, at which point you can just buy a new iMac – or one of the Intel Powermacs that are sure to be a) cheaper, b) smaller and c) quieter than the current G5 Powermacs. I’ve had great service from my G5 for two-and-a-half years (except for a couple of failed logic boards…), and I STILL haven’t put anything more than a sound card in it (and only then because I had one lying around that I thought I should use). My vote: a G5 iMac and a bunch of new, tax-deductible toys.

  10. while it may not be very popular to say this, i do think that this is one of the reasons for apples lack of market share… almost 4 grand gets you a lot of pc – why you’d want it is a different stoy, but for you average user apple has a reputation as a bit expensive and i think not having a decent midrange adds to this…

  11. Build a PC ;D.

    Apple’s aren’t expandable. I’m sorry to say it, and as much as I love Apple and all their products, for someone who needs a top-end machine for a reasonable price, building a PC is the best way to do it. I’m not saying run windows either. Run Linux. (Dual-boot if you need windows aps.)

    Ah well. Apple is probably too beautiful for you to resist, but remember why we’re not in the garden of eden? Temptation is the devil’s daughter :).

  12. That sticker shock? Picture paying that for a Powerbook. That’s what it’s like in the non-US world.

    Amen to that Dave. And that’s the prime reason why most of my Latinamerican colleagues prefer to buy a ticket all the way to Miami and buy a Mac there. Being local prices what they are, you can get it waay cheaper, change your surroundings for a day or two, and still leave with some spare change. Sure, forget about Applecare and other U.S. commodities — fortunately, the two Macs I’ve owned so far are built like tanks and are still going strong.

  13. Other than RAM it doesn’t sound as though you necessarily need a G5 Desktop. A 20″ iMac sounds more like it. And get a second monitor later – you can hack it to get a virtual desktop.

    What expansion do you need? These days, other than Video Cards, you don’t need that many extras which are card-based. If you need drives which is more likely – you can use the Firewire slots (or USB2).

  14. Sorry Khoi but accountants who give this advice are giving bad advice. Granted if you want or need the computer then by all means go ahead and buy it. But buying a computer solely to save on taxes is wrong.

    Let’s run the numbers. Say you make $50,000 a year, if you are single that comes to taxes of $7,915. Now you buy a $3000 computer which reduces your taxable income by that amount. Taxes on $47,000 comes to $7,165 a savings of $750.

    So you spend $3000 to save $750, your losing $2,250. Like I said before if you are buying it because you want or need it then great go for it but buying anything unnecessary just to save on taxes isn’t smart.

  15. Richard: Expandability, at least for me, comes in handy later in the computer’s life cycle, when you can add new technologies via the available PCI slots. However, I’m starting to think maybe that a 20″ iMac is the best solution after all. Rather than overspending now, I can theoretically put that money towards a newer iMac-type machine in two years’ time (emphasis on ‘theoretically’). If nothing else, the iMac has a tremendous advantge in its dramatically smaller bulk — and presumably it’s much quieter than the notoriously noisy Power Mac G5 too.

  16. “if you are buying it because you want or need it then great go for it but buying anything unnecessary just to save on taxes isn’t smart.”

    I think he is buying it because he needs it. And if he can in effect get a $750 discount in the form of a reduction in tax liability, then seems like a win-win to me!

  17. Hey there, a well-written post, even for you. I recently bought a 20″ iMac and am loving it, but the fan noise is definitely noticeable. I like to have ambient music on in the background sometimes while I work and the noise from the fans can pull me out of it sometimes.

    The fans are probably quieter than the Power Mac, but it’s also a mere foot or two from your face. If it’s a real concern for you I would recommend going to a buddy’s house who has one, and make sure it’s been on for at least three hours so it gets fully heated up and extra noisy.

  18. I have a Rev. B 20″ iMac and I love my machine. Granted, I don’t play many games but, I do play WoW and it runs pretty well most of the time. It’s the heart of my home music studio and it’s just great. I highly recommend it.

    Also Steve, did you buy the iMac new or was it used? My fans almost never come on and I push it hard. I’ve heard that the first gen G5 iMac had more noise issues.

  19. Since you mentioned how wonderfully your MDD Mac at the office performs, have you considered buying a used one on eBay? I was in a similar situation earlier in the year… and I went with a G4 PowerMac. It’s substantially faster than my PowerBook and iBook, thanks to the massive amounts of RAM and built-in cache the computer has.

    And you’d probably be able to pick up a really stacked MDD for around one grand. Win-win, right? By the time it just doesn’t perform for you anymore, the new Intel G5s will be knocking at your door.

  20. Steve and Alex M.: Fan noise is definitely a concern for me, given the small sizes of Manhattan apartments. A quieter presence is one of the reasons I’m pretty sure now that I’m going to pass on the Power Mac G5 tower. I hope Alex M. is right and that the newer iMacs’ fans aren’t as noticeable.

    Adam: I really do like my Power Mac G4 (MDD), but it may be too old for what I need. I’m really ready to move on to a G5.

  21. Actually, the latest ones should be as quiet or even quieter than mine. They added an extra vent right behind the stand. So it should prove even better at heat dissipation.

  22. Here’s another one to a 20″ iMac. Just to add my 2 cents about the expandability — my guess is, you shouldn’t count on that a lot. Just as an example, mind the introduction of the PCI-express slot, which instantly made all those ultra-hip AGP graphic cards obsolete. So there always remains a chance that by the time you’ll want to upgrade your computer, the new hardware will simply be incompatible, and you’ll still have to get a newer machine to use it. So go for an iMac and enjoy what it can do for you right now.

  23. I’ve actually been saying the same thing for a long time now. Essentially, what Apple’s lineup lacks (and what the rest of the PC industry has) is a computer that is both affordable and expandable. Their affordable computers (Mac mini, iMac) aren’t very expandable; their expandable computers (PowerMac) aren’t very affordable.

    What they need to offer, in my opinion, is essentially a lower-end tower model computer. They actually did offer this very temporarily – when the PowerMac G5 was first introduced and they still had stock of PowerMac G4s that needed to be sold. IIRC, they priced the PowerMac G4 in between the iMac and the PowerMac G5. That’s exactly what I think they need to offer all the time.

    I don’t know what the numbers are for PC-to-Mac switchers overall, but I personally know 10 people (myself included) who have all purchased their first Mac within the last 3 years – 9 of whom purchased a laptop (which are no more expandable on the PC side than they are on the Mac side, meaning that expandability was not their main concern). But of the other people I know who have expressed an interest in switching, the main thing holding them back is the price they have to pay for expandability. These are essentially PC people who like to either build their own computers, or at least add/replace parts. They can’t do this on the Mac side without a considerable increase in cost.

  24. I would like to weigh in here. If you choice is between a G5 iMac at 2.0 Ghz and a PowerMac for expandability, why do you have to go all the way to the top of the line? I wanted to use Aperture, at least to explore it’s possibilities. So I bought a 2.0Ghz Dual Core G5. I bought it through Amazon when they had a $200 rebate on Apple computers. They did not charge any taxes and they shipped it to me overnight for $34. I then bought two 1Gig chips of memory from OWC for $200. I already had a nice monitor. So my total outlay was $2000. It is very fast and runs Aperture just fine. And it is very expandable. And it is way faster than a 2.0Ghz iMac.

    Also, on the tax issue. I am sole proprietor of a small business doing product photography. Any income I make is considered the same as personal income, but then I have to pay both my FICA taxes, and the “employer” FICA taxes on any “profits” I make. So, if the end of the year comes around and I have lets say $2000 in profits, between State, Federal, and FICA I pay almost 45% taxes.

    So if I need a new computer, or other equipment that can be used in my business, it ends up costing me about half of what it would have cost because of the tax savings. Seems like a good deal to me!

  25. i find myself in the same position of craving that G5 power and was wondering if the Apple Refurbished products are any good. a dual-core 2.3ghz is currently just over 2k and looks mighty appealing. anyone purchased Apple Refurb before?

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