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With the introduction of the G3, and the iMac for home users, Apple has retaken the top slot of the computer market Return of the Mac

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technical: computing

Although popular with designers and architects, Apple computers have suffered over the last few years from being over-priced and under- supported. This will come as no surprise to many. But what will is the change in fortunes experienced by Apple in the last year.

The launch of the iMac put Apple back in the driving seat of home computing with the largest proportion of new computer sales of any manufacturer. Behind this fact are some interesting figures. Nearly 25 per cent of these sales were to new computer users, a third were to replace old Macs and the rest taken up by migration from the pc or additional Mac purchases. This is a clear indication that Apple has got it right when it comes to the domestic market.

Professional users, however, need a great deal more power and flexibility than your average home user, and Apple hadn't really addressed the high- end market in as structured a fashion. Apple Expo in San Francisco last month saw all that change. Steve Jobs, Apple's interim chief executive, used his opening keynote to unveil Apple's new workstation-level G3-based machine. Based on a 400MHz G3 processor, the new model operates around 30 per cent faster than a single 450MHz Pentium II-based machine. This was borne out in benchmark tests as well as in real-world application tests.

Apple has recognised that processor speed on its own is not the most important factor in overall performance by building in excellent graphics technology and storage options. The new boxes feature ati 128-bit graphics- processing technology with 16mb of vram. This chip set has been designed to maximise performance for both 2d and 3d operations providing designers with an excellent 'out-of-the-box' solution. Storage has also been addressed with three full-size bays allowing up to 100Gb of hard-drive storage to be housed in the casing. Add to this a standard zip and floppy drive and you have a very flexible machine capable of dealing with highly complex 2d and 3d tasks.

One major criticism of the previous G3 models was their lack of expandability. The new model, with four 64bit pci slots, will hold up to 1GB of ram. While the four slots still don't match the six found in the 9500/600 series, Apple has added a number of features to the mother board reducing the need for add-in cards. One major change is in the i/o ports. Gone are adb, Serial and scsi external connectors, and in comes usb and Firewire. The iMac introduced usb as a standard for connecting peripherals and this has been carried through in to the high-end machines. With significant performance and flexibility advantages over the old technologies, usb did suffer from a lack of support by third-party manufacturers. This is no longer the case and a walk around the show floor convinced me that usb is here in a big way.

For higher bandwidth needs, Firewire has replaced scsi for the connection of external devices. Again it provides a much faster and more flexible solution than scsi, doing away with the need for termination and device id numbers. Over 100 devices can be connected to any one Firewire port and each one of these is hot swappable - ie you don't have to power down and restart each time you connect something. This is also true of usb devices, as the drivers for peripherals are loaded dynamically.

Firewire disc drives were on show and should be available in the next month. The drives are very compact and don't require any external power supply, as the Firewire standard includes power via the bus. This means you can plug your hard drive into a machine while it's running, copy files on to it, unplug it, stick it in your pocket and than plug it into a different machine to transfer data. With 6 and 9GB drives expected early this year, size is no longer an issue. Firewire is also ideal for digital video transfer, with many new camcorders already having a Firewire port on them.

All this may sound great, but the machines also look fantastic. Designed by Englishman Jonathan Ive, the man responsible for the iMac, the case is made of the same transparent plastic as its smaller cousin, with handles on the top making it really easy to move about, and a secret door that provides access to the motherboard. The new G3 is the easiest machine in the world to upgrade. The motherboard is mounted on the door that opens with a simple catch, which can be locked to prevent unauthorised access.

Apple is back in a big way. The pictures of the new machine speak for themselves and, with Apple's fifth profitable quarter under its belt, those who wrote this company off have egg on their faces. With a commitment to working with Opengl as a graphics standard also announced at the show, the future for both Apple and its high-end users seems bright. Although the likes of AutoDesk dumped the Mac years ago, several developers of high-end design applications are now talking to Apple about possible future products. Watch this space.

For information on the new products and pricing contact Freephone Apple or visit www.apple.com.

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