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Taking It Slow with a Superfast Chip

By Alex Salkever Hot and bothered -- that describes the state many Macheads are in right now. Sure, they're stoked that Apple Computer (AAPL) has finally begun shipping the ballyhooed PowerMac G5 desktop machines. The G5, after all, is the future of Apple. The new chip and processor architecture -- with systems ranging from 1.6 gigahertz to dual processors running at 2 gigahertz -- goes a long way towards closing the yawning speed gap between Macs and Microsoft (MSFT) Windows machines.

So what's got the Mac faithful concerned? The absence of G5 in iMacs. Critics have warned Apple chief Steve Jobs that it's a mistake to fragment the launch of a new chip architecture -- a big deal in Apple land -- by only selling G5 desktops and leaving the laptops and iMacs out in the cold with their aging G4 chips. (I won't even talk about the paleolithic G3 chips that Apple still uses, albeit only for its bargain-basement machines.)

DARK MUTTERING. Some Apple aficionados take a dark view of Jobs spurning laptops a mere eight months after the master marketer dubbed 2003 "The Year of the Laptop" at the MacWorld exposition in January. By splitting the high-end computer product line between two chips, some skeptics mutter, Jobs could well kneecap sales of iMacs and Powerbooks.

A conspiracy? Not really. Apple's strategy of a fragmented product launch makes perfect sense. Sure, he could have put the new IBM-made (IBM) G5 chips into laptops and iMacs. But Jobs wants to bide his time -- and with good reason.

I don't doubt that design specs for a G5 that would work well in laptops, and iMacs are already sitting on the hard drives of Big Blue's chip designers. But they would have to be slower versions of the G5 due to the current physical limitations of the new chips. The 1.8 gigahertz version -- only the second-fastest -- of the PowerMac G5 microchip processor series sucks up a huge amount of power and puts out enough heat to burn toast. The power is not an issue when you can plug your machine into a wall. But to cool down the G5 box, Apple resorted to an anodized aluminum chassis and space-age cooling system using nine -- count 'em, nine -- different fans to keep the machine copacetic.

SIZZLING LAPTOPS. The exotic cooling system is clearly not an option in laptops or iMacs, where space is at a premium. If Apple merely shoehorned the G5 into current hardware designs for its smaller machines, they would run so hot you just might be able to cook an omelette on them. That heat can seriously affect performance, not to mention making it very uncomfortable to use a laptop while it rests on your legs.pple will probably have to combine thermal tricks with a larger design to accommodate ventilation mechanisms.

"The first ones will probably be fairly large. And they might feel hot," says Dan Harden, CEO of San Jose (Calif.) computer and industrial-design company Whipsaw. In laptops, hefty power consumption translates to wimpy battery life, which, in turn, means angry customers toting around heavy extra batteries. "Batteries have finite storage right now, and the more power a laptop consumes, the shorter the battery life. You don't want to run your computer for only one hour," says Laszlo Kish, a professor of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Most likely, Apple will wait until sometime next year, when IBM comes out with a more efficient version of the G5. IBM already has plans to release a version of its Power4 chip around the end of this year. It's in the same family as the G5 but designed for super-thin "blade servers," potent computers used to power networks that tend to be stacked one atop another in a tight-fitting rack. Like laptops and iMacs, blades have serious heat constraints. So this chip could prove a precursor for a specialized version of the G5. "IBM has process technology that they aren't using in the chip yet. If they chose to do that, I don't doubt they could get this chip down to a reasonable notebook power and heat level," says Peter Glaskowsky, editor of the trade publication Microprocessor Report.

NO NOTICEABLE DIFFERENCE. Both these problems could be solved another way, though: Use slower versions of the G5 chips that consume less power and produce less heat. A G5 running at 1.2 gigahertz will consume less than half the power of a top-speed chip in the lineup. Most users wouldn't even notice the speed difference.

And that's the second rationale behind Jobs's strategy. Not only would the average user not notice the difference between a 1.2 vs. 1.8 gigahertz G5, they probably wouldn't notice the difference between their top-speed G4 machine and even the fastest G5. Software designed to take advantage of the G5 remains largely on the drawing boards, with the lone exception of high-end graphics applications for design and media creation. So the ad-agency artist will notice the difference, but it won't mean much to Joe and Jane Public for some time to come.

No surprise, then, that Steve Jobs elected to launch only G5s targeted at the advertising and design crowd. That way he won't repeat the mistake of disappointing the faithful, as Apple did with its premature release of the flagship OS X operating system -- many Apple lovers had expected a smoother transition to Unix.

So stay cool, Macheads, and be patient. Steve is doing the right thing on this one by waiting for the technology and the software library to catch up before going mass market with the G5. Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online, is alternating with Charles Haddad on Byte of the Apple

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