In The News - MacUser
MacUser / February 1997
Sound and Vision
The 20th Anniversary Macintosh
by Andrew Gore
Apple sculpts its swank new vision for the future of the Macintosh
Code-named Spartacus (at press time, Apple had not decided what the actual name of the machine would be), the 20th-anniversary Macintosh is the descendent of a long line of conceptual prototypes that some inside Apple nicknamed designer Macs. Unlike most shipping Mac systems, designer Macs are first and foremost an expression of the industrial-design engineer's craft.
So it comes as no surprise that the Spartacus makes one heck of a strong visual impression. From the color-coordinated bronze and brown panels to its Bang & Olufsen-inspired slightly curved chassis, the Spartacus looks more like something that belongs in a modern-art museum, or on a Star Trek set, than in a computer store. Using technology borrowed from both the PowerBook and the Power Mac lines, Apple has managed to create a Macintosh with a razor-thin profile, dramatic curves, and vast surfaces.
One of the key components to achieving this look is the 12.1-inch active-matrix display, offering 800-x-600-pixel resolution and 24-bit color. Because the Spartacus does not need to concern itself with conserving power, the screen's backlighting is cranked up far beyond what a PowerBook display normally produces, making the screen the brightest, sharpest flat-panel display we've tested. Another component that helps preserve the Spartacus' trim figure is the CD-ROM drive, which is mounted so that the top of the drive faces the user, instead of the front as on most Mac systems. The overall effect is as if Apple had taken the guts of a PowerBook; folded them flat; and then mounted them in a flat, rigid case.
The Spartacus' look isn't just borne of clever integration of existing technologies. It is also the result of no-expense-spared craftsmanship. An example is the curved metal base that operates as both stand and gimbals for the machine's chassis. In order to get a stand that was thin as well as strong enough to hold the weight of the machine, Apple had to have it molded in a factory that specializes in high-tech metal fabrication.
Even the keyboard offers a little extra flare and a clever tweak. Based on a PowerBook design, the keyboard offers leather palm rests with a trackpad in the center. However, unlike a PowerBook's, the trackpad is removable and can be placed on either side of the keyboard, like a mouse. A small compartment under the keyboard holds a leather pad that fits in the slot vacated by the trackpad.
One of the dominant features of the Spartacus is the two fabric speaker grilles that run the length of the machine. These grilles mask one of the most sophisticated sound systems ever put into a computer system.
Designed by Bose, the two speakers, which offer maximum output of 3 watts per channel, are supplemented by a 7-watt subwoofer about the size of a small dog. Even the subwoofer, which also doubles as the Spartacus' power supply, sports a curvy design, especially around the air dams on the top and base of the unit.
The speaker system is based on Bose's Acoustimass technology and produces tremendously fat sound. Don't be fooled by the relatively low output wattage -- in our tests, the speakers were more than powerful enough to fill a large loft with sound.
Software in the Spartacus automatically balances sound levels for optimum effect and can also, in combination with Apple's SoundSprocket technology, be used to set the listening angle, creating a rich stereo envelope around the user. The gestalt of all this sound technology is a computer-based stereo that can go toe-to-toe with a moderately priced audiophile system.
If a cool chassis and hot sound is all the Spartacus had to offer, buyers could save a bundle and just buy a Bang & Olufsen CD system. However, the Spartacus' clever, functional design is more than skin-deep.
The Spartacus is based on a later generation of the Alchemy logic board, the same one used in the Power Mac 6400. It is capable of using all the expansion options currently available for Apple's entry-level PCI Macs, including the video-in and Ethernet cards (the Spartacus will not come equipped with onboard Ethernet or an AV card). However, the Spartacus logic board does differ in two key ways from the Alchemy board: It offers 2 MB of video RAM, as opposed to 1 MB, and it has a 50-MHz, instead of a 40-MHz, processor bus. The difference in VRAM is what makes it possible for the Spartacus to offer 24-bit color at 800 x 600 pixels (because it uses a flat-panel display, screen resolution is fixed). The difference in bus speed allows the Spartacus to run the same processor as the 6400 but with a lower clock-rate multiplier, thus noticeably increasing overall speed (for more on the effect of bus speed on system speed, see "Breaking the Speed Barrier" in this issue's News section).
The system we tested used a 200-MHz PowerPC 603e with a 256K Level 2 cache, although Apple said that it will likely incorporate a faster processor by the time the Spartacus ships, in June. Even with the slower CPU, the Spartacus' performance was very snappy, no doubt due to the faster bus and the L2 cache. It also included a 2-GB Enhanced IDE hard drive.
Although this all sounds nice, the really cool thing about the Spartacus' internal structure is how accessible everything is. You remove the machine's back panel by depressing two small catches at the bottom and lifting up. Once the panel is off, everything is right in front of you: RAM slots (standard 32 MB of RAM, expandable to 128 MB), an AV slot for a video-in card, a communications slot for Ethernet (the Spartacus will include a 33.6-kbps GeoPort modem pod), and a 7-inch PCI-card slot. To add either Ethernet or a PCI card, users will need to swap the flat back panel with one that has a small hump, to make room for the cards. Both back panels will come with the machine.
Also included in the basic package are built-in TV and FM tuners; the Spartacus will also include 3-D-hardware acceleration onboard, making it a home entertainment center that just happens to have a Mac inside.
The Bottom Line
At approximately $7,500, (275.000 BEF) the Spartacus is not going to be for everyone. That's just as well, because Apple plans to build only 12,000 of these machines and will likely offer them only in the U.S., the U.K., Japan, France(& Belgium), and Germany. People looking to buy the Spartacus will need to either go to one of the select few dealers authorized to carry it (according to Apple, only longtime Apple-only dealers and certain key vertical-market VARs will get to offer the Spartacus) or order it from a special Web site.
When people finally get their hand-built, limited-edition Mac, it will come with concierge service -- Apple will send someone to the buyer's home or office to set up the machine, install any add-ons and software, and give them an introduction. As to how those lucky few will feel about their new computer: If the reactions the Spartacus got around our office are any indication, it will quickly become their most treasured possession.
As to what the Spartacus means for rank-and-file Mac users, a lot will depend on how well Apple and its clone vendors learn the lessons it has to teach. If future Macs start to offer better sound, more-serviceable designs, more-creative chassis, and a unique flair that can't be had on any Intel-based PC, then the Spartacus could prove to be the most important Mac Apple ever ships.
Andrew Gore is the editor of MacUser.
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