Friday, December 31, 2004

New headless Mac at Macworld?

You've probably already heard by now the rumours of a new headless low end Mac to be announced at Macworld 2005 in January. The rumours were first started by Think Secret on Tuesday, and since then several other rumour sites and even much of the mainstream media has joined in the chant. Most agree such a product is likely for Macworld. If true, this would answer the wishes of many a potential switcher: an entry-level headless Mac, priced low enough to almost be an iPod accessory. Think Secret suggests US$499, although the $599 or higher predictions by others seem more realistic.

I would suspect (based partially on Think Secret's article) such a product to have specs such as this in the base model:

1.25 GHz G4 7447A, CPU soldered to motherboard
256 MB DDR333 RAM, expandable to 2 GB
167 MHz bus
Radeon 9200 32 MB (no full CoreImage support)
DVI and VGA support, GPU soldered to motherboard
40 GB hard drive
DVD/CD-RW combo drive (slot-load)
Firewire 400 and USB 2
100 Mbps Ethernet
V.92 modem
Airport Extreme ready
Bluetooth ready

In essence, it would be a current eMac without the CRT display. This would be a major development, as many people want a low priced Mac, without the added cost of the CRT, which for most is unwanted and takes up too much space anyway.

Is 1.25 GHz enough? Yes, for this kind of product. Let me explain.

Since I had not suspected such a product might be released, I went ahead and purchased a Cube, and added a 1.7 GHz 7447A CPU upgrade. This machine is reasonably fast for basic use, and would be 36% faster in terms of clock speed compared to such a G4 1.25 GHz 7447A headless iPodMac... err... Mac. Indeed, the Cube 1.7 feels significantly faster than the 1.25 7455 G4 iMacs I have tried in the past, despite their 167 MHz bus. Most OS slowdowns that I've noticed with a 1 GHz 7455 machine (with 1 MB L3) are gone with my 1.7 GHz Cube. They are not completely gone on the 1.25 GHz iMacs, but overall, those machines are indeed fast enough for most people, for basic use such as surfing and word processing. A 1.5 GHz or faster G4 would be preferred, because the speed difference is still sometimes noticeable in basic use, but the 1.25 GHz 7447A is definitely a nice start for the headless Mac. This is in stark contrast to something like a G4 800, which would feel slow to too many people. Still, one would hope that the speeds can ramp up quickly, both for the headless G4 Mac, and for the G5 Macs too of course.

What does this mean for this eMac? If the low end headless Mac does appear, it's possible the eMac could go to a G5. A G5 1.6 eMac would be a reasonable product, and could be reasonably priced. Either that or it would disappear altogether. I don't expect the headless Mac to go G5 just yet, for reasons of G5 supply and product segmentation, and this would also be a good argument for the expectation of the eMac to disappear, too. Furthermore, the eMac's CRT is becoming less and less desirable even at the low end, and for many people the built-in CRT in the all-in-one eMac design is simply a liability.

Let me go on record to say that I too believe this rumour could be true. Or at least I hope this rumour is true. Even if this makes my updated Cube less valuable, this is a good thing for the Mac platform, and is something that many people have been asking for, for years.

In an ironic twist, the same day Think Secret posted this rumour, PC Magazine's John Dvorak published Grim Macintosh Market Share Forebodes Crisis, which talks about "...Apple's inability to make the Mac a commodity computer" and details why Apple is thus doomed. All I have say is that for the most part, Apple does what it needs to do when it needs to do it. It's no surprise that Apple is one of the few consistently profitable personal computer manufacturers today.

I'm sure that 2005 will bring lots of new and cool products from Apple, and we'll see soon enough if the headless Mac is one of them.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

ATI to introduce new PCI Express video cards at Macworld 2005?

On the ATI homepage there is a link to an ATI at Macworld page for the Macworld Conference & Expo in January 2005.

In that page ATI states:
The future of 3D gaming on the Mac will be unveiled at the Macintosh Gaming Theater. Meet “Ruby,” ATI’s critically acclaimed Digital Superstar , introduced in 2004 in the animated demo “DoubleCross.” Ruby has recently reappeared in the fast-moving “Dangerous Curves” demo, and you’ll get a chance to get up-close-and-personal with her as she is running real-time on Mac OS X. Powered by the latest ATI graphics, you’ll see many techniques previously only seen in the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Join ATI’s 3D Application Research Group for an overview of the techniques developed for Ruby and a glimpse into the future of Mac gaming.

It sounds like ATI may be releasing new video cards and GPUs at Macworld. If so, it's quite possible they may be based on the PCI Express (PCIe) interface (not to be confused with PCI-X), since ATI's recent PC video cards are built around this interface. If any newly announced cards are indeed PCIe, then Apple will also have announced new Power Macs, since Apple's current Power Mac line does not support PCIe.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Canadian levy on iPod illegal, says Federal Court of Appeal

The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled that the levies applied to the iPod, iPod photo, and iPod mini by the Copyright Board of Canada are illegal. The ruling states that the Copyright Board of Canada stepped beyond its legal authority when it imposed these levies.

Apple Canada's prices currently include a $25 levy on the iPod and iPod photo, and a $15 levy on the iPod mini. We should expect prices on Apple's popular iPod lines to decrease accordingly in the new year.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Cube in da house! ...And G4 Power Mac CPU upgrades.

I just picked up an Apple Power Mac Cube. Ever since it was released in 2000, I've always wanted one of these, but up until recently they were quite expensive (even though it was discontinued in 2001). In fact, one of the main reasons it failed so quickly was because of its high cost. However, despite being almost 5 years old, it still remains the most beautiful computer ever created, and I'm very happy to have one in my possession.

With 1 GB of RAM and a 7200 rpm 120 GB hard drive, this G4 450 Cube does suprisingly well in OS X. Still, a G4 450 can only do so much. Faster CPUs are desirable. Fortunately with the right hardware, Freescale's G4s can be installed in older machines, including the Cube.

Immediately after I picked up my Cube, both Sonnet and Giga Designs announced new 1.7 GHz G4 7447A G4 upgrades for the Cube and other G4 Power Macs. Giga Designs is also offering dual 1.7 GHz Power Mac upgrades, albeit not for the Cube.

Rumours also have it that announcements from PowerLogix are imminent. Expected are dual Cube 1.2-1.4 GHz G4 upgrades with custom voltage regulators, in the range of US$599. Other G4 upgrade products are also expected.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

IBM's & IBM ships 1 millionth G5 970FX CPU

In Beijing yesterday, IBM launched, to promote its POWER/PowerPC architecture.

In their press release today they describe as a "community meant to promote advances in Power Architecture technology and make those advances available to a wider community, accelerating open standards for this customizable technology" and go on to describe some of the companies involved and current projects.

Of direct interest to Apple users is also the mention that IBM has now shipped over 1 million of its 90 nm G5 PowerPC 970FX CPUs, which is used in current iMacs, Power Macs, and Xserves. The original G5 Power Macs shipped with the 130 nm G5 PowerPC 970.

Special Apple Canada pushing the G5 Power mac to Canadian businesses

Apple Canada is continuing its G5 promotional website,, that it started last year.

Last year they gave away stopwatches. This year they are giving away an Apple keychain to anyone who registers and test drives a G5, and they are also having a draw for a G5 Power Mac with 20" Cinema Display. Also, this year they have a Productivity Calculator for businesses to assess the feasibility of adding G5 machines.

In addition, Apple is offering 0% 24 month leases to eligible businesses. The terms are as follows:
24-Month, 0%, Fair Market Value Lease

Through December 31, 2004, when your business enters into a qualifying 24-month lease agreement, you will pay 0% interest through Apple Financial Services.

Promotion Details:

Eligible equipment includes iMac, iBook, PowerBook, Power Mac G5, Xserve, Xserve RAID, and Apple Displays.

Soft costs (software, services, etc) are limited to 10% of total lease amount. If soft costs exceed 10%, they must be covered under a separate lease agreement.

24 equal monthly payments on a minimum transaction of $5,000.

For qualifying commercial accounts only.

For most businesses, this should represent the most interesting aspect of the promotion, and will stimulate more interest than the Power Mac draw and the keychain giveaway. The keychain is pretty nice though. ;)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Canadian iTunes Music Store is now up

The Canadian iTunes Music Store is now online. Steve Jobs missed his stated November deadline just by a day, but given that the price of songs is 99 cents Canadian, I think we can forgive him. :) That makes Canada the cheapest iTunes Music Store localization in the world.

To access the store, iTunes is required. You can download the latest version of iTunes from

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

AAPL to hit 100 bucks?

On news that Piper Jaffray had pushed the target price of AAPL to US$100 (based on a survey of 200 iPod users), the stock climbed to new heights yesterday. Hitting over $62 and closing at $61.35, AAPL's value grew 11% in just one day.

It's curious that the iPod can cause such a stir, but it seems the iPod is seen as the saviour of Apple. Of course, sales of the iPod continue to skyrocket as Apple revolutionizes the music industry, but the iPod is also seen as the stimulus to Mac sales. The perceived halo effect is alive and well.

However, one wonders how long the ride will last. Apple has a bright future, but it does seem that everyone is ignoring the many issues Apple has been facing, such as chip constraints, repair costs (eg. iBook logic board program), etc. One can only hope that Apple can keep the momentum going.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Canadian iTunes Music Store imminent

Steve Jobs stated last month that Canada would get its own iTunes Music Store in November. As of yesterday, the US and European stores no longer allow access to Canadian users. The last time something like this happened to Canadian users was just before the new European stores went live.

We can expect to see a Canadian iTunes Music Store in the next few days, just in time for Christmas. Apple will be selling a lot of iTMS gift certificates in Canada in the coming weeks I'm sure.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Dual G5 2.4 GHz PCI Express nForce4 blade announced

Continuous Computing Corporation has announced a dual G5 blade server which uses Apple's U3H Northbridge (aka IBM CPC925) controller. This server is called the LINUXbladePPC20A.

The design supports dual G5 PowerPC 970FX 2.4 GHz CPUs, a 1 GHz HyperTransport bus, PCI Express, and up to 8 GB DDR400 ECC memory, all in a blade server form factor with a total maximum power utilization of under 200 Watts.

This represents the first G5 board available which supports the new PCI Express interface, and it uses the nVidia nForce4 chipset popular on the PC side. Apple does not yet support PCI Express, but one might suspect they will adopt it in 2005.

It's also nice to see that the cramped blade design can handle 970FX CPUs of up to 2.4 GHz. Apple has built 2.3 GHz Xserves for Virginia Tech, but they are a custom configuration not (yet) available to the general public, and they are used with specialized cooling equipment.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Apple Store coming to Toronto

It seems that Apple is finally acknowledging the rumours that they are opening an Apple Store in the Toronto region in 2005:
Apple Canada is announcing today that an Apple Branded Retail Store location will be opening in Toronto, mid year 2005.

Apple currently has ninety-six retail stores in the US, two in Japan, and one opening in London, England this weekend. The stores have been incredibly popular, attracting more than fifty million visitors since the first store was opened in May of 2001.

They provide great hands-on experience for customers, and we welcome the store to Canada as a great complement to our existing distribution channels.

To see what the Apple Store concept is all about, please go to:

Where and when are unknown at this time
Most rumours have suggested that such a store will be in a suburb of Toronto, which would make sense since downtown Toronto already has several very good Mac-oriented stores. However, other rumours suggest the Toronto Eaton Centre, which is the main downtown mall and a popular tourist destination.

In addition, the Canadian iTunes Music Store is slated to open this month. Song prices are as yet unknown.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner updates coming

Expect to see new versions of OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner released at Macworld in January. No details are available yet on the new versions, however.

Monday, November 15, 2004

More rumours about the next-gen G5 970GX

I wrote before of the rumoured Antares 970MP dual-core next generation G5. Think Secret revisits the topic, this time focusing on the single-core 970GX version of the chip. Rumoured specs for the chip are a clockspeed of 3 GHz, and 1 MB L2 cache, double that of the current 970FX. In essence, this is the single-core version of the 970MP (which makes one wonder if this could represent the dual-core 970MP chip with a failure of one of the two cores). This doubling of the L2 cache and the increased clockspeed in a single-core chip represents a logical evolution of the 970 design, and would make for a nice upgrade for Apple's machines.

IBM has also released a PDF which mentions the eServer JS20++ (page 18), which has not yet been released. If by their nomenclature, the JS20 represents the version with the 1.6 GHz 970, and the JS20+ represents the version with the 2.2 GHz 970FX, it would not be a leap to think that the JS20++ would use the new 970GX chip. As a side note, this document also confirms that IBM utilizes the U3 Northbridge designed by Apple.

In addition, Think Secret mentions 1.6-1.8 GHz low power chips for PowerBooks, although it's not clear if these would be versions of the 970GX, tweaked 970FX chips, or something else. The mentioned clock speeds seem reasonable, especially considering IBM's previous hints of a low power 1.9 GHz G5 with a max power utilization of 30 Watts, for laptops. Plus, 1.6-1.8 GHz G5s would make for the perfect update to the current G4 line, which uses 1.33-1.5 GHz G4s.

Finally, while IBM's latest 90 nm chip yields have not been stellar, they have been quickly improving, and IBM claims they should get a 40% improvement in chip output this quarter. (It is not clear if that improvement is purely due to increased yields or includes additional wafers.) However, Apple states that 2.5 GHz 970FX Power Macs will continue to be in limited supply this quarter, so it may be quite some time before we see the PowerBook G5 or Power Mac 970GX (or 970MP). Macworld 2005 is in January, but it may be as long as WWDC in June before we see any such generational updates.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Pixar transitioning to OS X

As has been reported several times around the net, Pixar has been transitioning many of their workstations to OS X. One MacNN forum member describes the transition process.

He states that Pixar was on Sun/SGI workstations for quite some time, and then switched to Linux for a time, before they settled on OS X. According to him, OS X's unix base and its excellent support for media production work was a big draw. The HD support provided by Pixlet didn't hurt either of course.

The latest movie from Pixar, The Incredibles, credits Intel because of the large Xeon renderfarm they use. At the time of that purchase, the only Xserves available were G4 based, and too slow for the price in comparison to the competition. One wonders if the next renderfarm they purchase will be G5 Xserve based, especially since Steve Jobs owns 53% of Pixar.

Apple files patent application for wireless iPod

In US Patent Application 20040224638, Apple describes a wireless iPod:
...the media player system pertains to a wireless media player system that includes a hand held media player capable of transmitting information over a wireless connection and one or more media devices capable of receiving information over the wireless connection.

If such a device comes to fruition, it could fill a large hole in Apple's iTunes offerings. Airport Express allows any home stereo with an audio input to stream music wirelessly directly from a computer with iTunes installed. However, it currently requires the user to interact with the computer in order to work. For example, just to skip a song, one must be at the computer.

Two potential solutions to this problem include:

1) An AirTunes remote control that can send and receive information to the computer that is streaming music to the Airport Express unit. The remote would need to be able to display which songs are on that computer in order to be relatively functional.
2) A wireless iPod that can house its own music and stream it directly to the Airport Express unit. This solution would not require a computer at all.

Of note is the fact that this patent application was filed well over a year ago, long before Airport Express was even announced. Also of note is the mention of devices for wireless video. It's clear that Airport Express is just the initial step in Apple's much larger plan to dominate our living rooms.

The 130 nm G5 is alive and well

In a previous article I wrote that Apple/IBM had retired the 130 nm G5 970, and was shipping new machines based on the 90 nm G5 970FX.

However, according to a recent poll, Apple is still shipping new Power Macs (PowerMac7,3) with the older 130 nm PowerPC 970 (0039020) chips, alongside machines with the new 90 nm PowerPC 970FX (003c0300) chips. The dual 2.5 GHz Power Macs do ship only with the 970FX, but that's because there is no such thing as a 2.5 GHz 970.

This suggests that IBM has not yet been able to produce enough 970FX chips cheaply, to support all the Power Macs and the new iMac G5 machines. Along with Apple's admission that 2.5 GHz 970FX machines will continue to be constrained throughout this quarter, this does not bode well for 3 GHz machines any time soon.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The True Story of Audion

The people at Panic, the creators of that excellent FTP program Transmit, outline the history of another one of their popular programs called Audion. Audion is a music player which competed directly against iTunes, but in the face of overwhelming competition from Apple's player, Panic recently chose to put Audion into retirement.

This is one of the most interesting reads about Mac software development I've come across in recent years. If you have a few minutes to spare, have a look.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Panasonic UJ-835 slot-load 8X slimline DVD burner available

Earlier we had reported that the new Panasonic UJ-830 laptop DVD burner was available, but incorrectly suggested that it would find itself in new Macs. While it is true it can be used in laptops, it is not a slot-load drive as was reported. It is a tray load slimline drive, and Apple no longer uses tray load slimline drives at all. The iMac G5, the iBook, and the PowerBook all now use slot-load slimline optical drives.

Panasonic/Matsushita has now officially announced the slot-load version of this drive, and following the same naming conventions they have used in the past for their slimline slot-load drives, they call it the UJ-835. Other than the loading mechanism, the drive has the same specifications as the UJ-830:
Slot-Loading DVD Super-Multi Drive (OEM) for notebook PC's (12.7mm height)

- 3X Speed DVD-RAM Writing
- 8X Speed DVD-R Writing
- 4X Speed DVD-RW Writing
- 24X Speed CD-R Writing
- 10X Speed CD-RW Writing
- 8X Speed +R Writing
- 4X Speed +RW Writing
- 24X Speed CD-ROM Reading
- 8X Speed DVD-ROM Reading
- Buffer Under Run Protection
Expect to see this drive in the next iteration of the iMac G5 desktops, and also likely in the next revision of the PowerBooks and iBooks as well. Although a nice bonus for laptops, it is more important to see 8X DVD-R burning for the iMac G5. The 4X DVD-R burner in the current iMac is slow by desktop standards, and 8X DVD-R media is now becoming affordable. The one feature the iMac G5 will still lack, however, is the ability to burn dual-layer discs. The Panasonic slimline DVD burners do not support this feature. This is not a huge issue in practical terms for most people however, as good quality dual-layer media will be very expensive for quite some time to come. It is also possible that Apple will ship the drive with a firmware that removes DVD-RAM support, as Apple has done this in the past for unknown reasons.

For additional information on the various DVD recordable formats, please check out my DVD Recordable FAQ.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Flash based iPod for Apple?

Rumours abound that suggest Apple will be making a flash based iPod in the coming months to capture the low end music player market.

Unfortunately, that makes little sense. Steve Jobs has repeatedly said that low capacity flash based players are fairly useless, and that's a reasonable assessment. High capacity (2+ GB) flash based players would be more useful and are technically feasible, but they would probably be at least as expensive as the 4 GB iPod mini. If new lower capacity iPod minis were to appear in the near future, it is likely they would be hard drive based as well, just like the current one. However, what's more likely is that a new 6 GB iPod mini would become the new $249 model, and the 4 GB version would simply drop in price, to $199.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Showdown: iPod Photo vs. iBook

Unless you've been living under a rock, no doubt you've heard about the new iPod Photo, which costs $600 for the 60 GB version. This little unit has the ability to play images and slideshows, both on its own colour screen and on external TVs. You can also store images on it, downloaded from memory cards via a third-party flash reader costing $100. However, contrary to popular belief, you cannot actually view those images. Thus, the iPod Photo represents a less than stellar photo accessory, and is best described as an excellent music player, with some extra photo features thrown in for good measure.

Now, has recently started selling the 1.2 GHz 12" iBook with a $150 rebate, effectively pricing the unit at just $850, only $250 more than the iPod Photo (or even less than $250 more if you factor the flash card readers into the equation). This wonderful photo accessory has a huge 12" colour screen, and supports direct flash card downloads (with a $15 add-on), photo viewing, photo editing, photo management, and even photo archiving onto CD-Rs. And the iBook plays music too, and can surf the internet wirelessly. The only drawback is that the iBook has just half the hard drive capacity of the full-sized iPod Photo.

It should be obvious by now that the above comparison is facetious, but it's always good to keep things in perspective. The iPod Photo is nice, and will sell well this Christmas season. However, I think my next iPod purchase is going to be an iPod mini (when it hits 6 GB in 2005), especially if Apple cannot improve the photo support of the so-called iPod Photo.

Monday, October 25, 2004

IBM G5 supercomputer hits 14.55 Tflops/s

The October 25th edition of the interim Top 500 Supercomputer list includes a new entry, IBM's Blade Center JS20 G5-based cluster. This machine hits 14550 Gflops/s, utilizing 2520 CPUs at 2.195 GHz. That represents an efficiency of 65.8%, which is higher than Virginia Tech's 60.5% efficiency.

The IBM cluster lands in 5th place on the list, and pushes the VT system down a notch to 7th. That puts two G5 supercomputers in the top ten for the next list, which will be unveiled in a few weeks.

Update October 26, 2004:

IBM is now listed at 20.45 Tflops/s, with 3564 2.2 GHz G5 processors (65.5% efficiency). That puts them in 3rd place, behind Japan's Earth Simulator.

Virginia Tech: Apple doesn't plan to release 2.3 GHz Xserves

Virginia Tech has formally announced that it has achieved 12250 Gflops/s. However, it also made the statement that "These systems were custom built by Apple for Virginia Tech utilizing dual 2.3GHz G5 processors. This configuration was developed specifically for Virginia Tech, and Apple currently has no plans to offer 2.3GHz processors in the Xserve G5 product line."

Despite their statement I would not be surprised to see these 2.3 GHz machines released in early 2005.

In addition, VT states the upgrade cost them an additional $600000, including an additional 50 nodes (which did not appear to be utilized for the benchmark).

Friday, October 15, 2004

IBM now selling 2.2 GHz G5 blades

IBM has started selling its BladeCenter JS20 blade servers at up to 2.2 GHz, utilizing the G5 970 series CPUs. These 2.2 GHz blades are what are used in Spain's new 4564 processor JS20 supercomputer in Barcelona. Up until now, IBM only sold 1.6 GHz JS20 blade servers.

It is good to see that IBM now feels that constraints on G5 970FX supplies have eased enough that the release of 2.2 GHz CPUs to the general public in volume is feasible. Xserves with 2.3 GHz 970FX CPUs, which are currently found only in the VT supercomputer, will no doubt also be widely available in the next few months. Apple has said, however, that 2.5 GHz supplies (for Power Macs) will continue to be constrained for the remainder of this calendar year.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

VT again adds machines, and again boost score

Quick update: As of today, Virginia Tech is now at 1100 machines (2200 CPUs), with a score of 12050 Gflops/s (59.5% efficiency). With every benchmark update, not only has VT added machines, but they have also slightly increased efficiency.

Apple 2004 Q4 financials posted

Apple yesterday posted it's 2004 fourth quarter results.

They handily beat market expectations, with a profit of $106 million (26 cents per share) on $2.35 billion revenue, which is more than double the profits of the same quarter last year. They shipped 836000 Macs, which includes a huge increase in laptop sales. The iBook is up 74% over last year, and the PowerBook is up 21%. Overall unit sales showed only a 6% increase, due to constraints in G5 CPU supplies, which slowed Power Mac sales and left a 2 month gap where no iMacs were sold at all. Apple predicts that CPU supplies will improve in Q1 2005, but that the 2.5 GHz G5 will continue to be constrained. It seems clear we will not see a 3 GHz G5 any time soon.

The big news, however, is the iPod (and mini). Apple sold a whopping 2016000 iPods in a single quarter, up 500% from last year. That amount represents over a third of all iPods sold to date. Truly impressive. Apple also saw a correspondingly large increase in iTunes Music Store sales.

Apple forecasts revenue of close to $2.9 billion in the coming quarter, with earnings of approximately 40 cents per share. And it seems that Merrill-Lynch believes them. They have raised the target stock price of AAPL to US$49. Just last year, AAPL was under US$20.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Virginia Tech adds machines, boosts score

Quick update: As of today, Virginia Tech is now at 1080 machines (2160 CPUs), and solidly in fifth place with a score of 11770 (59% efficiency). (VT was previously at 10930, with 1024 machines.)

Saturday, October 09, 2004

VT G5 Xserve supercomputer benchmarks now available

A few months ago, Virginia Tech completed the assembly of their new G5 Xserve based supercomputer, using 2.3 GHz Xserves which are unavailable to the general public.

Virginia Tech has now submitted its new Linpack benchmark scores to the interim Top 500 list:

IBM now leads the list with its BlueGene cluster of 16384 0.7 GHz PowerPC 440 CPUs. Japan's Earth Simulator, long in the lead, now is in second place. It appears that third and fourth place on this interim list are the same Itanium 2 based machine just with different amounts of CPUs. If this is the case, the lower score will be removed for the final list, and fourth place would thus belong to ASCI Q. Another BlueGene cluster (with a smaller number of CPUs, at lower clock speed) gets fifth place.

In sixth place is Virginia Tech's Xserve G5 cluster, and the list confirms its use of 2.3 GHz G5s. The system also uses less CPUs than the previous system, at 2048 2.3 GHz CPUs compared to the previous 2200 2.0 GHz G5s. Despite the fewer CPUs, the new system has a higher theoretical peak score, and with it VT has managed to hit 10930 Gflops/s (58.0% efficiency vs. peak), just edging past their previous score of 10280 (58.4% vs. peak), which ranked third at the time. If VT adds more nodes to its current Xserve system, or tweaks their bench a bit more, it is possible they could reach 11000 Gflops/s or higher. However, VT would need a 7% boost in overall speed to move up one place into the top five, since BlueGene DD1 is already at 11680 Gflops/s.

It is also interesting to note that as it stands currently, the three of the top six are PowerPC based systems, including 2 BlueGene clusters, and VT's G5 system. The other three systems include one (Earth Simulator) that uses custom chips from NEC, one that uses Alpha chips, and one that uses Intel's Itanium 2 chips.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Ars Technica reviews Power Mac dual G5 2.5 GHz

Ars Technica has published a review of Apple's new dual G5 2.5 GHz Power Mac. Included are pictures of the CPU and cooling system assembly, removed from the G5 Power Mac case.

Also expect to see a dual G5 Power Mac review from AnandTech, later this week.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Freescale reveals details about dual core G4 e600

I earlier posted an article describing the new dual core G4 class e600 chip from Freescale. Freescale has now added some details in a press release. Some of the details are listed below:

e600 MPC8641D Dual Core (Pin-compatible single core version also available)
1.5+ GHz
Two 1 MB L2 caches
Dual AltiVec units
15-25 Watts typical
Integrated memory bus, up to 667 MHz
1 Gbps Ethernet
90 nm

This MPC8641D brings the possibility of a dual core PowerBook with reasonable power characteristics, although one wonders if Apple will choose to use a single core chip, either a G5 970FX derivative or else a single core variant of the MPC8641D.

In addition, Freescale will release the G4 MPC7448, which is pin-for-pin compatible with the MPC7447A, but which includes double the L2 cache. The MPC7448 is also based off the e600 core, but does not include an integrated memory controller.

The MPC7448 would be the logical chip upgrade for the iBook. It's also possible that Apple would use this chip in the next iteration of the PowerBook before it goes to a new architecture.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

COLSA Xserve G5 supercluster completed

Several new supercomputers have been announced this year built using Apple G5 Xserve, and one of the largest, built by COLSA Corporation, has recently been completed.

Called MACH5, it incorporates 1566 dual processor G5 Xserves for a total of 3132 processors, over 40% larger than VT's supercluster which reached third place in the world last year.

COLSA states it assessed several different architectures, but ultimately chose the Apple Xserve G5 system not only because of its low cost and high performance, but also because of its comparatively low power requirements.

It will be interesting to see where COLSA's MACH5 places in the next Top 500 list of supercomputers (assuming COLSA submits Linpack performance benchmarks to the list). VT's System X is virtually assured a place in the top ten, but MACH5 uses a slower type of interconnect than System X does and thus will likely have lower Linpack performance, despite its higher number of processors.

Friday, September 10, 2004

iMac G5 Developer Note available

Apple has now published the Developer Note for the new G5 iMac.

There are a few interesting things in the note that weren't known previously:

1) The iMac G5 supports dual-channel memory:
Additional DIMMs can be installed. The combined memory of all of the DIMMs installed is configured as a contiguous array of memory. The throughput of the 400 MHz memory bus is dependent on the DIMMs installed. If only one DIMM is installed, the memory bus is 64-bit. If two non-identical DIMMs are installed, there are two 64–bit memory buses. If two identical DIMMs are installed, the memory bus is 128-bit. Identical DIMM pairs have the same size and composition and provide the fastest and most efficient throughput.
This means that if you install two identical DIMMS, you get twice the theoretical throughput. It also means the system bus speed may become the bottleneck.

2) The iMac G5 may support DDR333:
The RAM expansion slots accept 184-pin DDR SDRAM DIMMs that are 2.5 volt, unbuffered, 8-byte, nonparity, and DDR400-compliant (PC3200). The iMac G5 only supports DIMMs up to 1.25” in height...

DDR266 (PC2200) or slower DIMMs do not work in the iMac G5 computer.
If the iMac G5 does support DDR333, then it would support dual-channel DDR333. Theoretically, in this configuration memory bandwidth would still be faster than system bus bandwidth, at least in ideal conditions. Theory aside, support for dual-channel DDR333 would make DDR333 memory in an iMac G5 a reasonable compromise for those on a budget and who already have DDR333 memory.

3) The iMac G5 uses a 90 nm system controller:
The processor bus is an up to 600 MHz bus connecting the processor to the U3L IC. The bus has 32-bit wide data running in both directions. The processor has 42-bit wide addresses.

The iMac G5 system controller is built with 90-nanometer SOI technology.
One wonders if this was one reason for the new iMac's delay.

Steve Jobs back at work

c|net reports that Steve Jobs is already back at Apple, albeit part time for now. He should be back full-time by the end of September.

It sounds like his pancreatic neuroendocrine tumour was indeed low risk. That's great if true.

We wish him well.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

iMac G5 best seller at Apple Store

Even though the iMac G5 is not even shipping yet, it is now the number one best seller at the Apple Store, beating out even the iPod and iPod mini. In fact, no other computer is on Apple's top ten list.

This is very good news for Apple. One can only hope that the sales continue to be good in a few months, after the initial pent up demand is satisfied. I suspect that in the revision B G5 iMac, Apple will update the CPU, and more importantly the GPU, to try to ensure continued strong sales.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Freescale to unveil new G4 MPC7448 in September

Freescale will be unveiling the details about its new G4 MPC7448 CPU at SNDF 2004 Europe at the end of this month. This chip is the evolution of Freescale's tried-and-true G4 744x line. It appears to be a lower power version, possibly due to a die shrink.

Note that this chip announcement is in addition to the planned October announcement of Freescale's next-generation chip line, the e600. Unlike the G4 744x, the e600 will offer support for dual cores and an integrated memory controller.

While not as advanced as the e600, the G4 MPC7448 will still likely be very important to Apple. Apple has already stated that there will be no G5 PowerBook in 2004 and it is possible that Apple will release another G4 PowerBook this year based off the MPC7448. This chip will likely have a much faster time to market than the e600, and will have low power requirements perfect for a new Apple laptop update.

VT supercomputer uses 2.3 GHz Xserves

According to USA Today, Virginia Tech's new supercomputer cluster is composed of G5 Xserves running at 2.3 GHz.

The 2.3 GHz speed does seem curious though, for a few reasons:

First, no such 2.3 GHz Xserve is sold to the general public, but it is technically feasible. The Power Macs do use a 2.5 GHz G5 (although fairly hot), and IBM has already announced an IBM G5 supercomputer with 2.2 GHz G5 970FX chips, using its IBM eServer JS20 blade server system.

Second, although Apple already sells 2.0 and 2.5 GHz machines, they sell nothing in between. That's a pretty big gap to leave empty. This does make one wonder if Apple was hoarding 2.3 GHz chips for a specific purpose (like making supercomputers), or perhaps that Apple was simply underclocking 2.3 GHz capable chips for use as 2.0 GHz chips in Xserves (at a time when yields of high speed G5 chips were too low to support high volume 2.3 GHz sales).

Third, this might suggest an imminent release of 2.3 GHz G5 Xserves to the public. The G5 Xserve was first announced in January, and although only recently has Apple caught up with orders, it has already been 9 months since the announcement. One would expect a speedbump to the Xserve soon, possibly at or before MacWorld in January 2005, and 2.3 GHz would be the perfect speed for that announcement from both from the technical and marketing points of view.

Finally, back when the G5 2.0 GHz Xserves were first announced, Apple Canada had an advertisement which indicated the Xserves were at 2.3 GHz:

The ad was later corrected, but it does seem (especially if the USA Today article is correct) that Apple may have originally planned to release 2.3 GHz Xserves right from the outset, but had to change its plans even after some of the Xserve advertising material had already been completed.

iMac G5 user upgradable parts

Apple has released a new document about the upgradability of the new iMac G5:

Think you need a new part? You can replace many of your iMac G5's parts yourself.

The iMac G5 is designed to make it easy for you to install replacement parts if you need to. The parts you can install yourself are:

AirPort Extreme Card
Memory - DDR 400 MHz (PC3200) SDRAM
Hard drive
Optical drive
Power supply
LCD display
Modem card
Mid-plane assembly (contains the main logic board, the G5 processor, fans, NVIDIA graphics processor, and so forth).

This is very interesting and good news. Essentially, the entire new iMac G5 is user replaceable. The new iMac's design is a far cry from that of the previous iMacs, which were essentially black box designs with very limited user upgradability.

This potentially addresses the issue of the iMac G5's less than stellar GPU. For some users, the GPU is the unit's Achilles heel and the various Mac enthusiast sites are full of comments lamenting Apple's decision not to offer higher speed GPU options. The possibility of a future GPU upgrade can help future-proof the machine (as would a CPU upgrade). However, it sounds like a GPU (or CPU) upgrade may require the replacement of the entire mid-plane assembly in the iMac G5. If true then one wonders if these components will be widely available, and even if available, how expensive they would be.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Apple introduces G5 iMac 1.8 GHz

Apple VP Phil Schiller today introduced the new G5 iMac, at Apple Expo. Steve Jobs was unable to attend, because he is still recovering from his recent abdominal surgery for a neuroendocrine tumour of the pancreas.

The new G5 iMac is a variation on theme of the new Cinema Displays, with a similar hinge design and the ability to be wall-mounted, but with all the guts of a computer (including the power supply, optical drive and hard drive) behind the display. The new G5 iMac continues to use a white case, signifying that it is a consumer machine. (The pro machines are brushed aluminum.) A welcome addition is the presence of built-in speakers, underneath the screen. Also, an interesting feature is the Cube-like air flow design utilizing the speaker grille at the bottom of the unit in conjunction with a vent near the top rear allowing heat to escape. Heat rises after all. This should help to keep the machine quiet.

In my first article at Everything Apple, I described my thoughts on the specs of a future iMac G5, to come out today. Let's see how well my prediction panned out:

G5 970FX 1.8 GHz, with 512 KB L2 cache - Correct
3:1 multiplier, for a 600 MHz bus - Correct
256 MB Single-channel DDR333 memory, with 2-3 memory slots - Apple spec'd 256 MB DDR400, with 2 slots total.
80 GB 7200 rpm hard drive, upgradable to 160 GB - Apple's 20" model comes with 160 MB, upgradable to 250. The other models have 80 GB, upgradable to 160 or 250.
8X SuperDrive (DVD-R/W, CD-R/W) - It's a slot-load drive with 4X DVD-R, although it's possible it may go 8X if a slot-load variant of the Matsushita UJ-830 is eventually used.
nVidia GeForce FX 5600 Ultra 64 MB DDR - Apple only provides a 5200 across the line, whereas I expected a 5200 only in the lower end machines.
Airport Extreme ready - Correct
Bluetooth ready - Correct
Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 ports - Correct
VGA/S-video/composite video output - Correct
Analogue audio input and output - Apple includes both, but also a digital audio output.

But most importantly, despite the vastly upgraded CPU and bus speeds, I suspect the price of the new iMac will be LESS than what it is now. - Correct

The features are for the most part acceptable, and Apple bettered a few of my predictions. However, the inclusion of only a (non-upgradable) GeForce FX 5200 in the "high end" G5 iMac is a disappointment. Furthermore, while the pricing is a big improvement over previous iMacs, one wonders how it will fare to the bargain basement PCs available these days. Still, the price drop is welcome (and a long time coming). It's nice to see that Apple is trying to pay heed to market share concerns.

Lastly, I didn't think I'd say this, but despite the nice overall design of the G5 iMac, I'm sorry to see to original sunflower G4 iMac design go. If Apple is determined only to offer all-in-one computers for their consumer lines, then ergonomics should be the most important feature. Out of the box, the new design seems to have a much more ergonomic design than almost every other all-in-one design out there, except for the very flexible design of the previous G4 iMac. On the other hand, the VESA mountability of the new G5 iMac does open up a whole host of new possibilities, including in ergonomics. However, this time the third parties get to put on their design caps too, not just Apple.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

IBM sheds light on G5 970FX power usage

IBM has posted a new article, "IBM PowerPC 970FX power envelope and power management", which details some of the power usage specifications of the G5 970FX.

First, it lists the G5 2.5 GHz 970FX at 100 Watts. This agrees with the maximum power that was predicted in a previous Everything Apple article, and confirms that maximum power value is approximately twice the value of IBM's stated "typical" power value.

Second, it states that there is a limitation in the current G5 design which prevents functionality below 1.0 V. Conversely, it does seem to confirm the chip will function at 1.0 V at reasonable speeds. IBM has previously suggested that a G5 970FX at 30 Watts would make for a reasonable laptop CPU, with speeds up to 1.8-1.9 GHz.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL video cards causing Power Mac delays

People are receiving letters now that their Power Mac orders are delayed, but not because of G5 contraints. There are delays with the NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL graphics card. The interesting part is that Apple is offering to ship the machines with the ATI Radeon 9600 XT, and then will ship the NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL a few weeks later. There is no indication yet whether or not the Radeon 9600 has to be returned.

The email from Apple is as follows:
Dear Apple Customer,

Thank you for ordering the new Power Mac G5 with NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL Graphics card. Due to an unexpected delay, we cannot meet your estimated August 31st ship date.

Your satisfaction is important to us and we’d like to get your order to you as quickly as possible. In order to do so, we will configure and ship your G5 with an ATI Radeon 9600 XT w/128MB SDRAM card by September 3rd so that you can begin to enjoy your new PowerMac. Additionally, we will send an NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL Graphics Card Stand-Alone Kit by September 17th. There will be no additional cost to you.

If this solution is acceptable to you, no further action is necessary.

If you plan to use your new system with an Apple 30” Cinema HD Display that only works with the NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL Graphics card or you would like your system to ship with the NVidia card installed, please reply to so that we can process your order accordingly. If you choose this option, we expect to ship your G5 order by September 13th. Please rest assured that we fulfill all orders in the order they are received.

There is no need to contact us if the solution specified above is acceptable.

Contacting us is easy:

By email: Forward this note to and check the option below.

____ Please ship my system with the NVidia GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL Graphics card installed by September 13th. My order number is xxxxxxxx.

____ Please cancel my order. My order number is xxxxxxxx.

By telephone: Please call 800-676-2775, extension 55850, Monday through Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. central time and Saturday and Sunday between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. central time.

The Apple Store Team

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Dual-core G4 in October

Freescale will introduce its dual-core G4-based e600 chip (PDF) on October 5th at the 2004 Fall Processor Forum.

The dual-core support in this 2+ GHz G4-class chip is interesting, but just as interesting is its integrated memory controller, which is a long time coming. The current G4 (MPC7447A) does not have the ability to communicate with memory at DDR speeds. Thus, any machine using DDR with a current G4 has effectively half the memory bandwidth when communicating with the CPU. The new dual-core e600 (and possibly single-core variants) will go a long way to alleviate the memory bandwidth constraints plaguing current G4 designs.

One may ask if this chip can compete with the G5. In many ways, yes, most definitely. Freescale is not known for being at the forefront of process technology or raw performance, but it is very well respected when it comes to low power embedded designs. Freescale's e600 will undoubtedly offer a very good speed to wattage ratio, and it will most likely compete favourably with IBM's 970FX in comparative MHz-for-MHz performance, at least when it comes to integer and Altivec code.

However, it's hard to see where a dual-core e600 will fit into Apple's lineup, at least in the near term. The new iMacs and Power Macs are using IBM's G5 970FX, and it's likely that the PowerBook will get this chip as well, in 2005. That leaves the eMac and iBook. Of these two machines, the most likely machine to use a next-generation G4-class chip would be the iBook, but dual-core is not necessary. Thus, it will be interesting to see what Freescale has to offer in single-core G4-class designs in the near future. At this point it is not clear if Freescale will be able to bring a single-core e600 variant to market quickly, or if it will continue to scale its current G4 design (which does not have true DDR support) to higher speeds. Possibly both, with the single-core e600 coming later. In the meantime, the iBook still has room to scale, since the G4 7447A is already available up to 1.5 GHz, and the current top-end iBook is at 1.2 GHz.

Update August 20, 2004:

The Register last year published an article that suggests Freescale could produce this chip with a power spec of 25 Watts at 1.5 GHz, utilizing a 90 nm process. That seems rather optimistic, but if true, then it would mean that a dual 1.5 GHz (or possibly even a dual 1.8 GHz) G4 PowerBook is feasible. However, this assumes that the 25 Watt spec is true, that Apple wants another 32-bit PowerBook, and that Apple is willing to bet on Freescale's 90 nm shrink (despite Freescale's history of delayed process shrinks compared to the competition), when IBM has already solved its 90 nm problems and could ship a laptop oriented single-core G5 970FX chip (perhaps up to 1.9 GHz) in fairly short order comparatively.

We shall see in 2005.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

New iSight available

The iSight has undergone some minor modifications and now comes with a magnetic mount, compatible with the new Cinema displays. The new SKU is M8817LL/B. The previous model was M9330LL/A.

Otherwise, besides the new magnetic mount and some changes to the plastic attachments, the iSight appears identical.

It's unfortunate that the new H.264 based iChat AV is not yet available. That is coming with Tiger, and will improve image quality dramatically, and will allow multi-user conferencing.

Monday, August 16, 2004

The 130 nm G5 970 is (still) dead

I previously wrote that the 130 nm G5 970 has now been retired. Further evidence to support this is that the current G5 2.0 also shares a motherboard with the G5 2.5, and the machine is recognized as a different one than the original G5 2.0.

If one types "ioreg | egrep Power" in the Terminal, one will see that the current G5 2.0 is called "PowerMac7,3". The previous G5 2.0 was called "PowerMac7,2". Apple's published G5 block diagram also shows a common motherboard for the new G5 2.0 and the G5 2.5.

I'm not aware of all the differences between the previous and current motherboard revisions, but one notable difference is that the HyperTransport speed has now been increased to 4.8 Gbps (vs. 3.2 Gbps in the original Power Mac G5).

Friday, August 13, 2004

Think Secret releases iMac G5 specifications

In my first Everything Apple article I wrote about the iMac G5, to be announced at the end of this month in Paris. In the article I predicted a top of the line machine with something like these specs:
G5 970FX 1.8 GHz, with 512 KB L2 cache
3:1 multiplier, for a 600 MHz bus
256 MB Single-channel DDR333 memory, with 2-3 memory slots
80 GB 7200 rpm hard drive, upgradable to 160 GB
8X SuperDrive (DVD-R/W, CD-R/W)
nVidia GeForce FX 5600 Ultra 64 MB DDR
Airport Extreme ready
Bluetooth ready
Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 ports
VGA/S-video/composite video output
Analogue audio input and output

Think Secret has now published an article detailing the specs of the new machines, and confirming the Paris announcement. The top end machine looks very similar to my top end prediction, although Think Secret's machine has a GeForce FX 5200 instead of the 5600 I predicted.

What's worrisome is the initial speculation about the price. The top end machine might be $2200 (or $2300 with the 160 GB option). If true, that would still be very expensive. I had expected a price drop, and hoped it would be in the range of about 15% or possibly more for some units. If there is no price drop, then Apple's iMac line will continue to sell poorly.

Also, there is mention of an "educational" iMac with a 1.6 GHz G5, 17" LCD, 40 GB hard drive, GeForce4 MX graphics, and no optical drive. These specs are quite mediocre, but are tolerable for institutions. At least, it would be tolerable if the price is not $1300 as initial speculation suggests. It seems to me a more appropriate price would be closer to the magical $999 price point. Some have wondered about the lack of an optical drive in this low end machine, but I believe this is a smart move, since institutions often prefer to have machines with such a configuration, for various reasons. (OS updates and software installation can simply be performed over the network.) The GeForce4 MX is also somewhat worrisome, since it cannot support Apple's new Core Video and Core Image technologies coming in OS X 10.4 Tiger next year. On the other hand, if these machines are to see very restricted usage in institutional environments, the lack of Core Image and Core Video support may not be very important.

However, as it stands now, all of this is still conjecture and rumour. We shall see the truth in just a few more weeks.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The 130 nm G5 970 is dead

I wrote in a previous article that the newest rev. B G5 2.0 GHz Power Mac was no longer using the older 130 nm G5 970 chip.

This has been confirmed. Typing "ioreg -l | grep cpu-version" in the Terminal yields an identical CPU ID in the new G5 2.0 as the G5 2.5, and both are different from the rev. A and apparently also different from the earliest rev. B G5 2.0 machines. Thus, all new rev. B machines (including likely the 1.8 GHz machines) seem to be utilizing the 90 nm 970FX chip.

Given that the new iMac G5 will also use this chip, there remains no machines in Apple's lineup that use the old 130 nm G5 970 chip. In other words, we have already moved completely to a new chip generation now, a year after the original G5 was introduced.

G5 970 RIP.

[Update August 18, 2004]

There seems to be some confusion about the CPU IDs mentioned in this article. To clarify, if you type "ioreg -l | grep cpu-version" on a new rev. B dual 2.0 you will get one of two numbers:

003c0300 - PowerPC G5 970FX (90 nm)
00390202 - PowerPC G5 970 (130 nm)

In other words, both of these chip types are found in rev. B dual G5 2.0 Power Macs. Even if you have the older (hotter) chip, don't worry. The speeds of the two chips are identical, and fortunately, reports are that the older chip still makes for a very quiet Power Mac as well, despite being a higher power chip.

Also, please note my later article about the rev. B G5 motherboard.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

iTunes Music Store hits 1 million

Apple today announced they have hit the 1 million mark in their iTunes Music Store US catalogue. This includes songs from over 600 labels, including the 5 major record labels.

Friday, August 06, 2004

New version of AppleWorks coming: AppleWorks X has listed a new book by Nolan Hester, titled Appleworks X for MAC OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide. This seems to be a new book, with a different title and different ISBN number from the previous book, AppleWorks 6 for Macintosh: Visual QuickStart Guide, published 4 years earlier.

Now what about Keynote 2?

Xcode 1.5 and iPhoto 4.0.3 now out

iPhoto 4.0.2 was recently released, and then promptly pulled. iPhoto 4.0.3 was released shortly afterwards. For the Mac OS X developers in the crowd, Apple has also released Xcode 1.5.

What is new in iPhoto 4.0.3

This update addresses several issues with using multiple text rules in Smart Albums and it also eliminates some problems with creating iPhoto books in the German and Dutch languages. Additionally, 4.0.3 keeps users informed about new version of iPhoto that have become available.

New in Xcode 1.5:

Dead-code stripping
Remote debugging
gcc 3.3 improvments for speed and -fast robustness
Code completion for Java and AppleScript
Subversion source-code control system support
Native build system support for AppleScript
Enhanced debugger with memory and globals browsers, as well as the ability to display file static variables
Faster editor performance
Ant templates
Documentation bookmarks
Speed improvements

2.5 GHz dual G5s trickling in

The first 2.5 GHz machines were delivered this week, much to the delight of Mac forums everywhere. ;) However, it seems that many people still have August 20 ship dates, so there does still seem to be limited 970FX supply. Interestingly, there is some evidence that new G5 2.0 (not 2.5) GHz Power Macs may indeed be using 970FX chips as well (instead of the 970). I will keep everyone posted as new information on this surfaces.

If the new Power Macs are truly shipping with 970FX chips, one wonders what this means for the iMac G5. Can IBM keep up with simultaneous demand for 2.0 GHz 970FX Xserves (low volume), 2.0 GHz 970FX iMacs (high volume), and 2.0 GHz 970FX Power Macs (high volume)? Will Apple limit the iMac G5 to 1.8 GHz? Or could Apple ship a 2.2 GHz G5 20" iMac?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Virginia Tech's new System X pictures online

Virginia Tech has put up a gallery of its new completed G5 Xserve based System X supercomputer.

As mentioned in a previous article, the system is already being benchmarked. A link to the continually updated top 500 list is also provided in that article.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Steve Jobs undergoes surgery to remove a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumour

Steve Jobs underwent surgery to have a pancreatic tumour removed this weekend. In an email to employees, he wrote:
I have some personal news that I need to share with you, and I wanted you to hear it directly from me. This weekend I underwent a successful surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from my pancreas. I had a very rare form of pancreatic cancer called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor, which represents about 1% of the total cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed each year, and can be cured by surgical removal if diagnosed in time (mine was). I will not require any chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

The far more common form of pancreatic cancer is called adenocarcinoma, which is currently not curable and usually carries a life expectancy of around one year after diagnosis. I mention this because when one hears "pancreatic cancer" (or Googles it), one immediately encounters this far more common and deadly form, which, thank god, is not what I had.

I will be recuperating during the month of August, and expect to return to work in September. While I'm out, I've asked Tim Cook to be responsible for Apple's day to day operations, so we shouldn't miss a beat. I'm sure I'll be calling some of you way too much in August, and I look forward to seeing you in September.


PS: I'm sending this from my hospital bed using my 17-inch PowerBook and an Airport Express.
"Neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas" is somewhat of a generic term and while some of these tumours can sometimes be quite aggressive, most fortunately are relatively low grade and slow growing. (A few of you might have heard the term "carcinoid" used for some of these latter low grade tumours.) Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours are distinct from the more common ductal adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, which has an extremely poor prognosis even after surgery.

He has not stated the exact details of his situation, but it does sound like his prognosis is good. The lesion was was felt to be removed completely (likely either by a Whipple procedure, or a distal pancreatectomy, depending on the location of the tumour), and he won't need chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

We wish him well.

PS: I love that post script. That Steve... Always the salesman. ;) Oh and I'm sending this from my couch using my 15-inch PowerBook and wireless 802.11b. :)

Friday, July 30, 2004

2.5 GHz dual G5 shipping... barely

Some people today have received retractions to yesterday's G5 delay emails, and a few today have even received notifications of shipping dual 2.5 GHz G5 Power Macs. However, judging by the numerous posts around the internet, the units shipped are limited and represent a small fraction of all orders.

At least we can expect to see some dual 2.5 reviews beginning next week.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

2.5 GHz G5 Delays

Scores of people who ordered the 2.5 GHz G5 as early as the day of its announcement received emails today from Apple stating that their machines won't ship until or before August 20. The machines were supposed to ship tomorrow.

This seems to be a recurring theme for Apple: Pre-announce a wonderful new product, give a shipping date, and then fail to meet that date (save for a few units here are there).

However, not everyone has received an email notification of a shipping delay. Hopefully at least some of the units do ship tomorrow, and the August 20 date is the worst case scenario for the rest of units on the waiting list.

6 GB Hitachi MicroDrive in Q4 2004

The DigiTimes has an interview with Pete Andreyev, VP and GM of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, for the Asia-Pacific region.

He states that in the fourth quarter of 2004, they will introduce a 6 GB version of the Hitachi MicroDrive, which is a 50% increase from the 4 GB size of the previous largest MicroDrive. This drive is the one found in the iPod mini.

We can be sure that Apple will be one of the main customers for this drive. We may see new 6 GB iPod minis in early 2005, if not by the 2004 Christmas holiday season.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

ATI releases Mobility Radeon 9800

ATI Technologies announced today the release of the Mobility Radeon 9800.

Despite the name, the Mobility Radeon 9800 is in fact a cut down AGP version of the X800 series chips, with added power saving features. Performance is said to be a marked jump over the Mobility Radeon 9700. Unfortunately, power utilization is also markedly increased, at least at full tilt. Hopefully during standard 2D application usage however, power utilization does not show the same increase.

Assuming the power dissipation of this GPU is acceptable, we can expect the 9800 to make an appearance in the next PowerBooks, which likely will use the G5 as well. Thus, one can predict that the next 15" and 17" PowerBooks will look something like this:

G5 970FX 1.8 GHz
450-600 MHz bus
AGP Mobility Radeon 9800 with 128 MB (and 256 MB option)
DDR333 single-channel

This will make for quite an update to the PowerBook line in 2005, especially since the 64-bit OS X 10.4 Tiger will likely be released within a few months of the G5 PowerBook release, too.

iTunes mobile = iPhone?

Scott asks: "I've heard comments on both sides of the argument, but what do you think? Does this make it more or less likely for apple to release the fabled iphone?"

I don't think Apple will release an iPhone any time soon, mainly because there are so many good phones on the market these days already. Products like the iPod filled a hole in the MP3 player market. Up until the iPod, everything was just mediocre. The same is not true for the (GSM) mobile phone market. Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, etc. all make excellent top end phones already, and these companies have an excellent range of phones too, from everything from the top end to the ultra low end.

BTW, Forbes provides more details on the Motorola/Apple iTunes mobile partnership. Of most importance is that although the Apple software will be bundled with future Motorola phones, it will not be exclusive to Motorola. Apple is free to licence it to other phone makers. Conversely, Motorola is not bound to Apple's software either. Motorola will be able to bundle music software from others as well.

One may ask what is the point of all this. I think the main purpose of this deal from Apple's point of view is to further solidify the lock Apple has on the legal download market. There are a lot of iPods out there, and the numbers are growing astronomically. However, there is no such thing as a very low end iPod. There are a lot of low end MP3 players, but none of them play Apple's iTMS files. On the other hand, mobile phones are ubiquitous, and the technology has now advanced to the point where it's feasible to have a cross-platform software applet like iTunes installed on these phones. Furthermore, people actually always carry their mobile phones with them. The same is not true for low end MP3 players. In other words, mobile phones with iTunes have the chance to largely displace the low end MP3 player market. Instead of dealing with this low end market with its own hardware, Apple gets to dominate here too through software.

As I said before, mobile phones are ubiquitous... and soon mobile phones with iTunes might just be ubiquitous, too.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Apple & Motorola announce iTunes for mobile phones

In a surprise announcement today, Motorola and Apple unveiled the iTunes mobile music player, which Motorola will include on its mobile phones. This announcement represents the first product besides the iPod that will be able to play copy protected iTunes Music Store songs.

Interestingly, this announcement coincides with the preview of Motorola's new V3 Razor phone, which has some very Apple-like design features, like a Titanium body and an ultra slim profile. It's unfortunate that this phone won't be able to play very many songs due to its small memory size, but one might suspect that copy protected ring tones, etc. will also be available for (paid) download from the iTunes Music Store.

I wonder if Apple will also licence the player to Nokia and Sony Ericsson. If not then Nokia is left out in the cold. As for Sony, I wonder how interested they would be in it anyway, since they have really tried to pushed their ATRAC format, although I'm not sure Ericsson would want to back ATRAC (for good reason).

RealNetworks and iPod work in Harmony

RealNetworks' Harmony software will allow songs from its own store to work on Apple's iPod and iPod mini. A pre-release version of Harmony will be available for download this week.

The method seems like a kludge however. The Harmony software keeps track of what audio player the user has, and then converts the native song format to the appropriate format for the player. RealNetworks already uses AAC, so that isn't an issue for the iPod, but the songs have their own form of copy protection that the iPod does not understand. It seems that if the Harmony software detects an iPod, it will change the copy protection to a reverse engineered version of Apple's FairPlay, which the iPod can read.

RealNetworks use higher bitrate AAC files than Apple does, and thus RealNetworks does have an advantage over Apple in this regard. However, iTunes is rated to be the superior software.

Since Apple has not licenced FairPlay to RealNetworks, expect to see some strong legal statements from Apple in the very near future. Earlier this year, RealNetworks had offered to pay for FairPlay licencing, but Apple refused.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

"The all-new iMac"

Apple has no iMac to sell at the moment, but you can give Apple your email address and they'll email you as soon as more information is available on the new iMac G5.

This iMac email notification page is linked from their main iMac page. I guess it's better to link to this than to the Apple Store, which only has this to say:
Apple has stopped taking orders for the current iMac as we begin the transition from the current iMac line to an all-new iMac line which will be announced and available in September. We had planned to have our next generation iMac ready by the time the inventory of current iMacs runs out, but our planning was obviously less than perfect. We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers.
It's likely we'll hear more about the iMac G5 on August 31.

1500 lineup for iPod mini in Tokyo

The introduction of the iPod mini worldwide was today, and 1500 of those crazy Japanese lined up in front of the Ginza Apple Store to get theirs. One man even braved the streets from 8:30 the night before, a wait of more than 12 hours. When the store finally opened the lineup was several hundred metres long.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Antares PowerPC G5 970MP dual-core?

Think Secret has posted an article outlining a rumoured IBM "Antares" processor. It is reported to be a dual-core version of the 970FX, with 1 MB L2 cache per core (versus 512 KB on the 970FX), as well as Altivec. The rumoured time frame for its rollout is sometime in 2005, with a clock speed of 3 GHz.

The original discussion is here, and the description of the rumoured chip is as follows:
The IBM PowerPC 970MP RISC Microprocessor is a dual-core, 64-bit implementation of the IBM PowerPC ® family of reduced instruction set computer (RISC) microprocessors that are based on the PowerPC
Architecture. This dual microprocessor, also called the PowerPC 970MP, includes a Vector/SIMD facility which supports high-bandwidth data processing and compute-intensive operations. The 970MP is also designed to support multiple system organizations, including desktop and low-end server applications, up through 4-way SMP configurations.
Note: The IBM PowerPC 970MP incorporates two complete microprocessors on a single chip, along with some common logic to connect these microprocessors to a system.
No mention is made of an integrated memory controller. An integrated memory controller is something many have been predicting for the next generation G5, but for a desktop it may not really be necessary. It may be more desirable for laptops however, to reduce overall power consumption.

And so it begins again for Virginia Tech

Benchmarking has begun on the new and improved 2200 CPU G5 Xserve based System X supercomputer at the Terascale Computing Facility at Virginia Tech. From their webpage:
System X Upgrade In Progress:

* Assembly - Completed!
* System Stablization - In Process
* Benchmarking - In Process
We can follow the progress of the benchmarking in this PDF (Table 3: Highly Parallel Computing), which is frequently updated by Dr. Jack Dongarra, one of the authors of the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites list. Public tours of the Terascale Computing Facility also begin today.

For those of you interested in the history of System X, there is a good article about it by Virginia Tech here (in which ironically they credit Dell for planting the idea in their heads), and a video by Apple here.

Virtual PC 7 details?

Scott asks, "Any news to what VP7 might include besides G5 support?"

Microsoft has not released full details about the upcoming 7th version of Virtual PC. However, besides the G5 compatibility, it reportedly will also feature increase overall speed compared to Virtual PC 6, as well as improved usability.

One rumour site claims that VPC7 will also include full native 3D graphic card support, but I will be very surprised if this turns out to be true. We'll see in a few months, but I definitely wouldn't count on it.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

IBM measures power use of the Power Mac G5

IBM does provide some new G5 power data in a recent research article, titled Power Measurement on the Apple Power Mac G5.

Using a series of different benchmarks with a dual G5 970 2.0 Power Mac, the article provides various power usage ratings at different levels of CPU utilization. We see a maximum power dissipation of 79 Watts, with the MS_hot benchmark, which "executes exclusively out of the L1 cache, performing a tight loop of square root instructions".

As I mentioned in a previous article, the published typical power utilization of the G5 970 1.8 GHz (130 nm) is 51 Watts, and the maximum power has been estimated by some at 90+ Watts. (IBM doesn't usually publish maximum power ratings for the G5 for public consumption.) Given that the G5 970 2.0 GHz has a maximum power of 66 Watts, one might estimate the maximum power at well over 100 Watts. However, this IBM research article disputes those estimates, and measures the maximum power dissipation of the G5 970 2.0 at 79 Watts.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. The benchmark likely does not maximize power utilization completely, but it is possible the estimates of 100+ Watts for the G5 970 2.0 and 90+ Watts for the G5 970 1.8 may be too high. However, even if we were to assume the effective maximum power of the G5 970 1.8 is say 85 Watts (which is higher than the measured 79 Watts for the faster 2.0 GHz CPU), then we might guess that the effective maximum power of the G5 970FX 2.5 is also close to 85 Watts (since the typical power of the 970FX 2.5 is almost identical to the 970 1.8).

Extrapolating, one might guess that the G5 970FX 3.0 at the same voltage (as the 970FX 2.5) might come in at just over 100 Watts. And even if the voltage for the 3.0 needed to be boosted, it still could come in at the 110 Watt range, which although hot, is still quite acceptable for a desktop CPU.

Virtual PC 7 available in October

As previously mentioned, Windows XP Service Pack 2 has been delayed until at least August. Today, Microsoft confirmed the consequent delay of Virtual PC 7. The Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit states that if SP2 does ship in August, Virtual PC 7 with Windows XP SP2 will be available in October. However, other versions of Virtual PC 7 (with Windows 2000, or without Windows) will not be available until several months later.

Virtual PC 7 is necessary for those running G5 machines. Virtual PC 6 is incompatible with the Power Mac G5, and will also be incompatible with the upcoming iMac G5.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Virginia Tech calls original Power Mac Supercomputer Proof of Concept

In an earlier article about G5 supercomputers, I mentioned that the original Virginia Tech supercomputer, System X, had to be removed from the Top 500 list because it had been dismantled, to make way for a G5 Xserve based system.

It turns out that in addition to the issues of power consumption and hardware monitoring, the main issue was indeed the lack of ECC memory. Virginia Tech itself states:
On September 23, 2003 we turned it all on and began the arduous process of stabilizing and benchmarking this machine. After many more sleepless nights and countless grams of caffeine we finally reached our 10 teraflop goal.

Well with the concept proven we now had to make sure we had a system capable of conducting scientific computation. We needed to upgrade the system to something with error correcting code (ECC) RAM. The Power Macs did not support it and the XServes were coming. So in January we tore the system down and started prepping for the XServes. And now they're here and we have our final system. The best is yet to come.
It seems rather odd that VT would build a 2200 CPU cluster merely as proof of concept and to hit 10 Tflops/s (and make the top ten list). One may wonder if they built it thinking it may have been suitable for certain short-term usage even without ECC, but then later realized the lack of ECC memory was more problematic than they predicted.

My guess however is that Apple had told them that the G5 Xserves were coming, and Virginia Tech indeed built the first System X mainly for benchmarking, expecting the G5 Xserves to appear just a few months later. Furthermore, the project's leader, Dr. Srinidhi Varadarajan, had stated early on that they would be moving to an ECC-capable system later. We just didn't realize how soon that would be. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech (and Apple), the new machines were delayed 6 months because of IBM's problems with their 90 nm process shrink.

However, it's all history now, since the new System X is finally up and running.

The Birth of the iPod Revealed

Wired News has published an article about the development of the original iPod.

It quotes Ben Knauss, a former senior manager at PortalPlayer Inc., the company which developed the first iPod prototypes. According to Knauss, once Apple bought into PortalPlayer's idea, Steve Jobs was intimately involved every step of the way, and largely shaped the look-and-feel of the unit.

Interestingly, the original iPods were built specifically with no digital rights management in mind, because they thought it would hurt sales from the iTunes Music Store.

Ironically, Knauss quit PortalPlayer before the iPod was released, because he thought it wouldn't fly, and now works on contract with Microsoft.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Details about the Duke University iPod deal

Details have emerged about Duke University's pilot project to distribute iPods to its students.

1650 first-year students will receive a 20 GB 4G iPod. Each iPod will be preloaded with school materials, and there will be downloads available on an ongoing basis of lectures, music, and audio books, among other things.

The cost to the university is $500000, but that includes not just the iPods, but also support costs, faculty grants, and analysis of the project. It is unclear as to how much of that $500000 represents hardware costs. (The usual educational price for the 20 GB iPod is $269, and thus the full non-discounted price for 1650 of them would be $443850. However, we can be sure that Duke didn't pay this price.)

Monday, July 19, 2004

Freescale to introduce dual-core PowerPC in October

Freescale Semiconductor (formerly Motorola Semiconductor) will be introducing a dual-core PowerPC chip in October, at the In-Stat/MDR Fall Processor Forum in October. Freescale's First Dual-Core PowerPC Processor will be presented by Toby Foster, System Architect at Freescale.

No specifics are given, but such a chip might be the e600, a next generation 2+ GHz chip based off the G4 core. This chip is known to have a multicore option.

It's unlikely that such a dual-core chip would be used in Macs however. The iMac and eventually the PowerBook will be going with the G5 970FX, the former in a couple of months, and the latter in 2005. There's also the iBook and eMac, but if they don't go G5 and end up using the e600, it would likely be a single-core version.

New iPods released today

Apple officially announced the new 4th generation iPods today.

Key points include the adoption of the iPod mini's interface, increased battery life, changes in the menu, and lower pricing. Pricing is now US$299 for the 20 GB iPod, and $399 for the 40 GB, down $100 each (although the dock is no longer included with the 20 GB model, and neither includes a carrying case now). It's also very slightly thinner, at 0.69" (vs. 0.73") and 0.57" (vs. 0.62") for the 40 GB and 20 GB models respectively. The iPod mini remains unchanged, but will be available worldwide this week.

What we didn't get was the 60 GB model iPod, despite Toshiba's statement last month that Apple has signed on as a customer for their 60 GB 1.8" drives. Some might guess that the rumoured brouhaha over Toshiba's premature announcement might have something to do with the missing 60 GB model, but it's more likely that Toshiba simply has not yet supplied Apple with sufficient numbers of 60 GB drives. Expect to see the 60 GB iPod in the next few months, probably filling that $499 price slot that used to be filled by the previous generation 40 GB iPod.

In addition, HP announced today that it will begin selling the HP-branded iPod in September, and it will use the updated 4G iPod design.

[Update 3:44 pm]

Apple VP Greg Joswiak states in this Reuters article:
"We have no plans in regard to announcing 60-gigabyte models... We are trying to create a much more compelling lineup with two models for 20 and 40 gigabytes at extremely compelling prices."
The wording is interesting. He doesn't come right out and say that there won't be a 60 GB iPod, which suggests the claims by Toshiba that Apple will be using their 60 GB drives are accurate.

Also announced was that Duke University plans to give an iPod to each of its 1800 incoming first-year students. The iPods will be preloaded with various school related material.

One wonders how much the Duke iPod program is going to cost the university. Undoubtedly most of the students will be happy with their new toys, but I'm sure that some of the departments who didn't get as much funding as they might have liked and some of those paying the students' tuitions might not be as impressed.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

iPod, Therefore i Am

The new iPod & Steve Jobs on the cover of Newsweek.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

New iPods coming next week.

It has been nearly a year since the iPod has been updated (if one excludes its little brother, the iPod mini), but we'll see the announcement of the line's refresh next week, and on the cover of Newsweek no less.

The new iPod will have increased storage capacities, with the flagship model apparently using Toshiba's 60 GB 1.8" drive. However, more importantly, the new iPod will adopt the interface of the popular iPod mini. While the 3G iPod's interface is good, the iPod mini's interface is even better. It's simple and elegant, and I'm glad to see that the mini's big brother will finally get it.

Also, next week will see the iPod mini going worldwide. With new iPods and worldwide iPod minis, one can only guess how high iPod sales and iTunes Music Store download numbers will be this quarter.

Friday, July 16, 2004

IBM talks about G5 yields

IBM had a very good quarter overall, with nearly $2 billion in profits (which is equivalent to Apple's entire revenue for the quarter). In IBM's Q2 2004 earnings presentation, there was also an interesting tidbit about the G5 970FX. Below is a quote from Mark Loughridge, Senior VP and CFO at IBM:
In our 300 mm facility we are doubling output quarter to quarter, first quarter to second quarter, and we have the potential to redouble again in the 3rd quarter. So this is the original ramp that we had planned for, albeit at a one to two quarter lag. Now I also want to point out that we do hundred and hundreds of different chips in our microelectronics division, and we're meeting customer commitments to all of our customers except for one chip. So that's one chip out of hundreds. I need to reiterate: There's only one, maybe two, companies in the world doing this technology, and it really is truly leading edge, where circuit dimensions are measured in single digit atoms. It's the highest performing processor in the world at these power levels. You've seen the performance of our POWER5 chip, real screamers, and our customers are getting performance levels that put them at the forefront of their industries as well. So as I look to the future, in the second half, we see our performance continuing at this ramp and a lot of improvements and confidence in our second half for this technology business. And it's really based on that that we reiterated that we're confident we'll make money in this unit for the year.
There is a lot of PR speak in that quote, but his statements (again) confirm what we knew all along, that IBM delayed Apple for nearly half a year, because of poor chip yields at 90 nm. Also, partially because of this they'll still losing money in their technology group.

Still, there is a silver lining to this. They expect their technology group to become profitable in 2004. Yields are improving and chip output may soon be four times as high as it was initially. (I'm assuming he's mainly talking about 90 nm chips here, since 130 nm yields were already good and satisfying customer demand.) It's also likely that IBM will be able to keep up with G5 970FX chip demand for Apple's Power Mac and iMac lines for the second half of 2004, and it bodes well for a 3 GHz chip release in early 2005.

Apple's 3 GHz will happen, but just 6 months late.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

8X slot-load laptop DVD burner now available.

Panasonic has released a new version of their laptop specific drive, called the UJ-830 Super MULTI Drive (PDF). It's a slimline slot-load laptop optical drive. The specs are:

12.7 mm height

3X DVD-RAM write
8X DVD-R write
4X DVD-RW write
8X +R write
4X +RW write
24X CD-R write
10X CD-RW write

8X DVD-ROM read
24X CD-ROM read

Apple has a long history of using the Panasonic/Matsushita slot-load DVD-R burners in its laptops, and this one should be no exception. I expect to see this drive in the next PowerBook (likely along with a G5) in early 2005. Hopefully, in addition to DVD+/-R/W, Apple will keep DVD-RAM support in the drive's firmware, since OS X has built-in HFS+ read/write support for DVD-RAM. Such support would allow us to use a DVD-RAM disc as if it were a 4.3 GB floppy disc. Also, the 8X DVD-R support will be very welcome. That's just 8 minutes to burn a DVD, on a laptop.

For more information on the various DVD recordable formats, please check out my DVD Recordable FAQ.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

It's Official: G5 in new iMac

Yes folks, it's official. The new iMac in September will sport a G5.

Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's CFO, said in the Q3 conference call that the primary holdup for the new iMac is a shortage of G5s.

Now on to the rest of the numbers...

This quarter, Apple had $2.014 billion in revenue, with $61 million profit (which includes a one-time $6 million restructuring charge). That's 16 cents per share, slightly beating the analysts' expectation of 15 cents. Apple sold 860000 iPods and 876000 Macs, which represents a year over year increase of 183% and 19% respectively.

The approximate breakdown of Macs sold is:

243000 eMacs/iMacs (including 60000 iMacs)
173000 PowerMacs (including 13000 Xserves)

240000 iBooks
220000 PowerBooks

This is pretty impressive. As expected, the iPod is doing very well, and I would expect them to do even better in Q4 (assuming Apple can meet demand) since the iPod mini is going worldwide in a couple of weeks, and also because we may get a new iPod release soon. However, in addition to great iPod sales in Q3 there were also substantial improvements in Mac sales, including very nice sales of the Xserves (and more than I expected) despite their problems with G5 970FX chip supplies from IBM.

They also separated out iMacs from the eMacs, and the numbers confirm what many of suspected all along, that the G4 iMac is black sheep of the consumer desktop family in terms of sales. For both our sake and Apple's sake, I hope the G5 iMac in September will wow us again into opening our wallets.

G5 Supercomputers Galore, in 2004

VT: Success or failure?

The Virginia Tech supercomputer experiment generated a lot of excitement when it was announced... and it has generated a lot of controversy too. There's no question that with pizza-fueled student labour and 1100 dual Power Mac desktops (not servers), VT got a great Linpack benchmarketing score for the buck. For a mere US$7 million, they got a machine that scored in the top 3 in the world supercomputer rankings and the first educational cluster to top 10 Tflops/s. And they did it with a new platform (Macs) and with a new OS (OS X.2 Jaguar) (and with high-performance Infiniband interconnects that didn't even had OS X drivers until then). That's a remarkable achievement.

However, it has been plagued by problems. First of all, it doesn't seem that System X (aka Big Mac) has actually been used for anything other than benchmarking and basic testing. There had been rumours of ongoing instability issues, which one wonders might be related to the lack of both ECC memory and real hardware monitoring. And of course, the Power Mac based cluster no longer exists. It has long since been dismantled and sold off as high-priced refurbished equipment at various retailers. Indeed, the cluster had to be removed from the latest top 500 supercomputer list for this reason.

VT Redux

Well, as of just a few days ago, the VT cluster is back. It has already been assembled, this time with dual G5 Xserves. Again they're at 2.0 GHz, and again there are 1100 of them. This cluster solves several key problems, with its support for ECC memory and hardware monitoring. It also offers significant power improvements and of course space savings. It is undergoing testing now, and benchmarking (again) will hopefully start next week, which gives them plenty of time to get on the new supercomputer list coming in a few months. If you're in the neighourhood, they're even going to start offering tours of the facility in a couple of weeks.

COLSA does one (or 466) better

With a healthy dose of cash from the US Army, COLSA is building a G5 supercomputer using 1566 dual 2.0 GHz Xserves, which is 42% larger than the VT cluster. Like the VT cluster, The G5 Xserve's biggest draws were the price performance ratio along with the fact that it's a unix-based system. Some may note that the Linpack benchmark speeds may not be all that great because it's using the built-in Gigabit Ethernet as the backbone, not Infiniband cards. However, it's going to be used for computational fluid dynamics and stuff like that, which they say is less dependent on network speed.

UCLA gets in on the action

For about a million bux, UCLA's Plasma Physics Group is reported to be getting a nice "little" cluster of 256 dual G5 Xserves. Unlike COLSA and VT however, these guys do have some experience with Xserve clusters, since they've worked with NASA to create clusters based on the G4 Xserve. Before anyone asks why anyone would use a G4 Xserve for a cluster in the era of fast Xeons, CFD and other code may be amenable to Altivec acceleration, so despite its lousy FP performance, the G4 often is quite nice for this type of work. Similarly, Genentech seemed to love its G4 clusters for bioinformatics work, precisely because of Altivec. In fact, Apple now has a G5 Xserve based Workgroup Cluster specifically geared to bioinformatics types, along with pre-installed Altivec-accelerated bioinformatics applications.

The University of Maine, too

The University of Maine is also creating a 256 dual G5 Xserve cluster, also with funding ($680000) from the US Army. It seems the US military has just as much money to throw around these days as ever, if not more. Assembly of this system has already begun, and you can follow its progress in their gallery.

Xserve sales unprecedented

This has been a remarkable year for the server group at Apple. The G5 Xserve is hugely popular, being aggressively priced, well-packaged, and apparently quite easy to use. Apple does not publish separate Xserve sales numbers, but it has long been rumoured that the G4 Xserve's unit sales ranged only the few thousand range per quarter. These few G5 supercomputers might just equal those types of sales numbers, and that's not including the large numbers of other Xserves that are being sold to small labs and small businesses. (It's rumoured that large clusters represent the minority of Xserve sales.) Too bad it has taken so long. The G5 Xserve was announced in January, but because of IBM's 90 nm growing pains, it has taken until June/July for the G5 Xserve to ship in volume. This is right at the transition from one quarter to another, which will impact on the G5 sales numbers to be announced today. Still it looks like IBM and Apple are over the hump, and the coming quarter looks very positive for the Xserve. I would not be surprised to see shipments of 5-digit units in this quarter. As for the future, Xserve sales will probably just get better in 2005. That's when OS X 10.4 Tiger comes out, which will allow true 64-bit support (with memory addressing over 4 GB per process). Plus, by then, people will have been able to see functioning G5 supercomputers in action, doing real work.

Oh, and one more thing...

While it's not a Mac supercomputer, it's still a G5 based one. IBM has been commissioned to build a 2282 dual G5 blade server based system for Spain, using 2.2 GHz 970FX chips which don't exist on the Mac side. I wonder how long it will take for 2.2 GHz G5s to make their way into Power Macs and/or Xserves. If IBM can put 2.2 GHz chips into blades, then Apple should have no problem putting them into Xserves.