The Sad Saga of the 500 MHz Power Mac G4

In August 1999, Apple announced the first Power Mac G4:1

The Power Mac G4 is powered by the revolutionary new PowerPC G4 chip architected by Apple, Motorola and IBM, and is the first personal computer in history to deliver supercomputer-level performance of over one billion floating-point operations per second. The Power Mac G4s run professional applications like Adobe’s Photoshop up to twice as fast as 600MHz Pentium III-based PCs.

The G4 chip incorporates a new execution unit named the Velocity Engine — the heart of a supercomputer miniaturized onto a sliver of silicon. In a set of Intel’s own tests published on their web site, the 500MHz G4 chip was 2.94 times as fast as the 600MHz Pentium III processor.

“The Power Mac G4 is not only the fastest Mac ever, it’s the fastest personal computer ever,” said Apple’s interim CEO Steve Jobs. “The revolutionary G4 processor with its remarkable Velocity Engine is the first ‘supercomputer on a chip,’ delivering over one gigaflop of sustained performance.”

The new lineup was clad in a more mature version of the Blue and White G3’s case, but on the inside, things were a bit confusing.

Power Mac G4

At the low end was the Power Mac G4 (PCI Graphics) clocked at 400 MHz. It was joined by the Power Mac G4 (AGP Graphics), with 450 and 500 MHz configurations.

In the November 1999 edition of Macworld, Andrew Gore explained the differences between the models:

In the initial Power Mac G4 lineup, are two different configurations, one an intermediate step between the faster G4s and the blue-and-white Power Mac G3, and the other a high-end configuration featuring impressive new technologies.

In order to get one model in the G4 lineup down under $2,000-and to get it out to customers as soon as possible Apple placed a 400MHz G4 processor onto a slightly modified version of the blue-and-white G3’s logic board and put the board in the new Power .Mac G4 case. In almost all other respects, the low-end Power Mac G4 is exactly the same as the G3 Power Macs. One notable exception: none of the Power Mac G4 models feature an ADB port.

The article was joined by this helpful table of specs:

G4 specs, as of fall 1999

Toward the end of the piece, Gore wrote:

If you’re itching to rush out and buy one of the high-end Power Mac G4s, hold your horses. While Apple says the low-end 400 MHz system is shipping now, at press time the company was predicting shipment of the 450 MHz G4 model sometime in September and the 5OO MHz unit in October.

He urged the reader to hold out for an AGP model, which was faster and more forward-looking than the PCI machines, which were basically the old G3 with a faster processor:

Unless you absolutely can’t afford the pricier models or can’t wait another minute, we suggest you bide your time and wait for the high-end G4 configurations to appear. Although the G4 processor does account for a lot of the performance improvements in the new models, the niceties of the new logic-board design will also have major impacts on speed. And if you opt for the low-end model, you won’t be able to play with cool new capabilities like using an AirPort card, internal FireWire devices, two separate USB ports, or the new Apple Cinema Display.

This press release, dated October 13, 1999, explains what was going on with Apple’s supply of PowerPC G4s:

Apple today announced that it has reconfigured the processor speeds in its Power Mac G4 line to match PowerPC G4 chip availability from Motorola. The new Power Mac G4 configurations will now include processors running at 350 MHz, 400 MHz and 450 MHz, and will be priced at $1,599, $2,499 and $3,499, respectively. The move is in response to Motorola’s delays in reaching volume production of its 500 MHz G4 processor chip, which is now scheduled for availability early next year.

These new configurations will enable us to meet the tremendous demand for our new Power Mac G4 line, said Steve Jobs, Apple s interim CEO. Fortunately, the machines remain very, very fast easily outperforming Pentium III-based PCs.

Apple also announced today that IBM will begin manufacturing G4 processor chips in the first half of calendar 2000 for use in Apple products.

It’s not very often in Apple’s history that one comes across a product update that results in a slower product, but clearly it wasn’t the plan. Notably, Apple didn’t lower the price of the towers to reflect their new, slower speeds. The move took on the name “speed dump,” as Mac users weren’t happy with the changes.

In December Apple updated the lineup, getting rid of the PCI model, replacing it with a 350 MHz Power Mac that included all the upgrades present in the AGP models.

Thankfully the 350 MHz Power Mac G4 didn’t lead a long life, as in February 2000, Apple updated the lineup once again:

Apple today announced it has increased the performance of its industry-leading Power Mac G4 line with faster processors running at 400-, 450-, and 500 MHz. Pricing remains unchanged, starting at US$1,599.
The Power Mac G4, which features the PowerPC G4 processor with its remarkable Velocity Engine, runs professional applications like Adobe Photoshop over 50 percent faster than 800 MHz Pentium III-based PCs.

A full six months after its original introduction, Apple was finally shipping a 500 MHz Power Mac G4. In the grand scheme of things, this was a mere hiccup in what was otherwise a golden era for Mac hardware advancements, and a lesson in controlling your own technology stack that Apple wouldn’t forget.

  1. If you want to read more about the entire Power Mac G4 family, check out this article over on MacStories.