TV-PGOctober 22, 2003: Apple sticks G4s into iBooks and drops eMac prices, but the hype is still iTunes, iTunes, iTunes. Meanwhile, some lucky preorderers are already receiving their copies of the not-out-'til-Friday release of Panther, and worrying numbers from Virginia Tech reveal that the G5-based supercomputer might not be quite all it's cracked up to be...
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News Buried On Page Six (10/22/03)

Mac, shmac; as we mentioned before, Apple's big push right now is all about the music, and if you doubted that even for a minute, can we direct your attention to Apple's home page? At broadcast time, it still featured a big ol' graphic trumpeting the availability of iTunes for Windows, while underneath, wee little tiles less than an eighth the size quietly mumble today's big news: that iBooks now boast G4 processors, while new lower prices make eMacs more affordable than ever. So two brand new and fairly important Mac announcements get pushed to the bottom of the screen while a screenshot of a Windows application that's been out for almost a week chews up the primo real estate. Even the countdown to Panther's release, the single most knicker-twisting factor in Mac fans' lives right now, is relegated to bottom-of-the-page status. "Hell froze over," indeed.

Just to clarify, we're not complaining, or anything like that; clearly Apple should be pushing iTunes for Windows as hard as possible right now, since anything that brings Wintel users to Apple's site represents a ton of potential mind share, and mind share properly exploited turns into market share. We're just marveling at the wonder of it all; iTunes for Windows rates the full-on Stevenote experience, while a fairly momentous Mac-related development like the iBook's move to G4 chips just barely rates a press release. (No, really, it is momentous: this marks the retirement of the long-working G3 from Apple's product line completely, and firmly establishes the G4 as a decidedly consumer-grade chip. PowerBook G5, anyone?) These are some wild and wacky times, to be sure.

Anyway, if Apple isn't going to play it up, we sure will. The iBook G4 comes in three configurations in what Apple now calls its "hallmark" Snow enclosure (so much for that "completely new form-factor" rumor), packing G4s running at 800 MHz, 933 MHz, and a full 1 GHz. Along with the G4s come the expected updates to the underlying technologies-- USB 2.0, AirPort Extreme compatibility, internal Bluetooth support-- and bigger hard drives, faster graphics, and a base 256 MB of RAM. On the marginally-down side, the new iBooks will now set you back at least $1,099. That's a nice price for a G4-based portable, sure, but it is a hundred bucks more than what the previous entry-level iBook cost-- and it misses the magical sub-$1,000 price point, which might nix some sales to the public at large on purely psychological grounds. Existing Mac fans, at least, might be able to rationalize it away by noting that Panther comes preinstalled, so hey, that's a $129 value right there! (As a community, we're so good at that sort of thing, aren't we?)

And let's not forget that we've got eMac price drops, too-- well, sort of. According to another Apple press release, Apple now offers just two configurations, both with G4s running at 1 GHz; Apple basically dropped the previous 800 MHz-with-CD-ROM config completely and shuffled the 1 GHz combo drive and SuperDrive models each down a step or so in the price structure. In other words, the bottom-dollar price for an eMac is still $799, but now you get essentially what used to be the $999 model for that price (albeit with a 40 GB drive instead of the previous 60 GB one). For $1,099 you get what used to cost $1,299-- and yes, both models come with Panther preinstalled. Our only disappointment is that Apple didn't keep the 800 MHz model and reprice it at $599 for the Curious Windoid set; $799 might still seem like a lot to risk when investigating a full-on platform switch.

So here's the big question: once Panther is actually shipping come Friday night, will it finally unseat that XP desktop from Apple's home page? Or is it that screenshot there to stay, with only news on the order of "President-Elect Jobs Heads For White House" powerful enough to chisel it off its perch? Only time will tell. Well, time and a lot of votes.

[Addendum: Apparently about three hours after we broadcast, added a big ol' iBook G4 splash into 50/50 rotation with the iTunes for Windows graphic. Coincidence?]

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Karma Wheel Smackdown (10/22/03)

So remember yesterday when we rattled off some possible methods of acquiring a boxed copy of Panther prior to its official release this Friday at 8 PM? Well, in addition to bribing, blackmailing, threatening, physically assaulting, hypnotizing, drugging, killing and then replacing with a lifelike android, or proposing marriage to a reseller who already has a shipment in the back, it turns out there was an easier way: preorder the thing and then just be one seriously lucky English son-of-a-gun. Who knew?

Yes, MacNN reports that a U.K. Apple customer named Ben Stanley actually received his preordered copy last night. Three days early, out of the blue, just like that-- for no particular reason whatsoever. Suppose Steve's vendetta against the British has wound to a close? Ben had even posted a series of photos of the packaging just to prove his luck to the world, but Apple has since asked him to remove the pix until Panther is officially released. (You can still look at two pictures of his cat, though. And at broadcast time, this box photo still hadn't been removed from his .Mac account.)

Ben, it's worth pointing out, apparently leads one ridiculously charmed life, since his .Mac web pages indicate that not only did he get his copy of Panther three days ahead of everyone else, but he also owns an obscene number of LCD computer displays (including three Apple Studio Displays of various generations all on one desk), a Smart car, and a freakin' Segway. Since what goes around comes around, all of that strongly implies that the guy spent a previous life feeding starving babies in third-world countries while simultaneously advancing the search for a cure for cancer and fending off alien invaders bent on the destruction of the earth.

As for our karma, well, our Apple Store preorder still just says "Open," indicating that our shot of greeting Panther at the door any sooner than Friday evening is slim at best. Indeed, at this point it's even possible that we'll get our order late, which would suggest that we apparently spent our last lives on this planet tying bacon to small children and giggling as we watched them run shrieking from vicious dogs. But hey, we can live with that-- as long as that order gets here by Monday, that is. Any later and we'll have to hire a psychic to find where the bodies are buried.

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Slacking Something Fierce (10/22/03)

And suddenly, disaster struck! Well, okay, maybe not "disaster," per se, but the latest buzz about "Big Mac," Virginia Tech's supercomputer built from 1,100 Power Mac G5s, is that it might not be nearly the powerhouse that early testing hinted it would be. You may recall that not even a week ago, one of the geeks responsible for ranking the world's top supercomputers revealed that in "early benchmarks," Big Mac was "getting about 80% of the theoretical peak"-- a ratio that, if it held through final testing, might have ranked the cluster second only to Japan's Earth Simulator for raw, unadulterated supercomputing power. The only problem is, now we're hearing that the aforementioned 80% ratio has since rolled over, kicked its little legs up in the air, let out a pathetic little cough, and then burst into flame.

Faithful viewer Karl Kornel forwarded us a New York Times article about the Big Mac project which includes this worrying line: "the Apple-based supercomputer... was able to compute at 7.41 trillion operations a second, a speed surpassed by only three other ultra-fast computers." 7.41 teraflops? Not that that's anything to sneeze at, of course, but Big Mac's theoretical peak is 17.6 teraflops, which means that the 80% ratio has since turned into 42%-- just a slight difference. And before you start thinking that it's just a matter of whom you ask, the Times quotes Jack Dongarra-- the same guy who originally told WIRED about the 80% ratio. 42% is the lowest performance ratio in the current top ten. So what's with the slacking?

The reason why this is so upsetting is less about wasted potential and more about plain ol' bragging rights, pure and simple. Right now the fastest cluster on the charts is a "Lawrence Livermore system consisting of 2304 Intel Xeon processors," which cranks out 7.63 teraflops; sure, it's got 104 more processors than Big Mac and it cost two to three times as much money, but if it beats out Big Mac by even a fraction of a teraflop, the G5 will forfeit a hefty percentage of its inherent nerd points. Despite the fact that their beloved Xeon will still have fallen behind the G5's performance-per-dollar rating by a factor of two or more, Intel groupies will be snickering at us. Insufferable bastards.

It ain't over yet, however; according to the Times, officials at Virginia Tech said that "they were still finalizing their results and that the final speed number might be significantly higher." Here's hoping, because when the official numbers hit the street next month, we really don't want to have to work through the shame of championing a cluster that's dragging its proverbial butt along at a mere 42% of its Jobs-given potential. Quick, somebody hire that thing a motivational speaker!

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