Saturday, August 19, 2006

A missing Mac?

As I catch up on Steve Jobs' keynote for WWDC 2006 (where they announced the new quad Intel Mac Pros) it occurs to me that there's a missing slot in Apple's product line that makes things tricky for X-Plane users.

At this point I wouldn't say that Apple is expensive (they're not cheap, but the internal components aren't cheap either). The problem is finding what you want.

The MacBook and Mac Mini are reasonably affordable, reasonably fast (now that they're Intel-based) and do most things that users want. But both have Intel graphics chips, which make them hopelessly underpowered in the graphics department for X-Plane.

The MacBook Pro and Mac Pro come with great graphics chips and are great high-end products, but clocking in at over $2,000 they're outside the ballpark of what most people will pay for a home computer.

The iMac is probably the best bet for a home flight-sim user. At $1300 it's not too expensive, but it comes with a great graphics chip, is a fast overall computer, and flies the sim real well. The flat screen looks good and it's a nice clean machine to have on your desktop.

What Apple hasn't made (and I suspect never will) is an $800-$1000 desktop with fast graphics and no monitor (a mini pro if you will) and a graphics card in a slot (so it can be upgraded). Such a box would be the best choice for a Mac for flight simulation, but since it doesn't exist the iMac's the next best thing.

To end with a minor rant: the new Mac Pro comes with the nVidia GeForce 7300 GT as one of the options. This isn't a bad card - today's cards are now so fast that even the "low end" ones are fast. (Compare to the 5200FX, which was unusably slow from day one.) But a low-end nVidia card in a $2500 Mac? The previous-generation 6600 GT outperforms it in fill rate and memory bandwidth. This isn't the first time Apple's shipped a big machine with an option for an inappropriately slow graphics card. (I suppose I'm seeing the world from the perspective of a gamer.)


Dhruv said...

If Apple's previous pricing scheme is anything to be based on, the machine you're after (as am I - being a G4 tower owner) would be more along the $13-1400 range, sans monitor (around the same price as a comparable iMac, but with some more beef). Frankly, if Apple made a new minitower (say 3 slot, 2 bay, 1 optical drive with an upgradable PCIe video card), I'd be on it like white on rice :D

Now you just have to get Steve Jobs thinking the way we do :P

Reuben said...

If you were buying a Mac pro, I would definitely recommend you go just that little bit further and get the X1900 with it. If you're buying an expensive computer like that, you're making an investment, and it's nice to have a card you can use for a long time yet. Getting a 7300 (even 3 of them together is still cheaper than the X1900!) would just let the whole system down when it comes to X-Plane, in my opinion.

Mike Ash said...

I just got a shiny new Mac Pro yesterday, and it really flies. I got the default video card, partly to save money and partly because getting the ATi card was going to add a month to my shipping time. The way I see it, this thing is so massively upgradeable in the video department that it doesn't matter if I get the cheap card now; upgrades will only get cheaper as time goes by.

I haven't had much of a chance to play with X-Plane yet, but I tried it out a bit and it performs very nicely. It's certainly much better than my PowerBook, although that's so obvious that I'm almost embarrassed to say it. I'm sure a better card would do even better, but it's perfectly smooth in the countryside with 4x antialiasing, extreme texture res, and higher than average object/road density. (I haven't tried cities.)

With the low-end Mac Pro coming in at over $2,100, it is sad that there isn't a more economical option, but the default Mac Pro video card should be just fine for casual X-Planers such as myself.

Benjamin Supnik said...

Well two ways to look at it...
- Compareed to the machine, the 7300 will probably be the limiting factor for flight sim. But indeed it is upgradable. (The 7300 isn't a's comparable to a medium-level 6600, which we were all raving about a few months's just the bar moves so fast!)
- For an audio user or photoshop user, the 7300's just peachy - why add more power usage, heat, and spend money? Not everyone is an X-Plane user (but they should be).

I suppose the iMac is the low-end option for those who don't want a Mc Pro. The trick is to stop thinking of the Mac Pro as a desktop - it's more of a workstation. It's for the user who is doing digital video, tons of audio, massive photoshop files. If you just want to check email and surf the web, downgrade to the iMac, which is still a very nice machine! (Did I mention the x86 iMacs fly X-Plane very nicely? :-)

Anonymous said...

Even the generic windows PCs run Xplane very well. My PC is a home build system that's about 3 years old now. It's a HT 3Ghz P4 with 1Gb RAM and a 8xAGP 6600GT. It's still a fairly quick machine by todays standards.

Benjamin Supnik said...

Anonymous - I'm glad you are still happy with your system - we put a lot of work into keeping X-Plane quick and responsive eve on hardware that's not that modern. But we got Randy (our marketing guy) a new PC, components are all the modern things you'd expect like DDR memory and PCIe 16x and it just screams. In some ways this makes it harder for us - the range from the min system requirements to our fastest users keeps getting wider!

scottp said...

Has anyone actually used X-Plane on a Mac with the integrated graphics? I have a 2GHz MacBook, and while it gags on the extreme settings, it performs quite admirably overall.

That said, I'd like to upgrade (give my wife my current machine) sometime next year), but let's not scare off casual or new users who don't want or need all the fancy eye candy by saying that machines with the integrated Intel GPU are completely unusable.

Phew! I'm winded after typing that sentence. But I feel so much better with that off my chest.

Benjamin Supnik said...

I have not used any Intel-based graphics on a Mac before at all. (I don't get to sample that many machines.) The most comprehensive comments I've seen were Cormac's test of a single-core Mac Mini with the GMA chipset...he was pretty detailed and objective about what the machine could or couldn't do.

I suppose one of the problems is that this is all so subjective. Some users seem perfectly happy with the default settings and a few miles vis at 20 fps, and some feel like the sim is useless unless all settings can be maxed out.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to get a mac pro, pretty much for x-plane only. Is the second option, the ati with 512 video memory a more acceptable card?

Benjamin Supnik said...

I don't know what the three options are for the Mac Pro these days...when I last looked, the GeForce 7300 GT and the ATI X1900 were both good cards..the X1900 is definitely a stronger card, the 7300 being "low end" but the whole 7000 line is so fast that the 7300 is reasonable. It's a question of how much money you want to spend on a Mac graphics card I suppose.

(The Mac Pro is already a very expensive machine...very good for what it's meant for, but probably overkill for most tasks. Austin and I like them because with 4 processors and 4 drive bays they'll spit out global scenery generation, a task that can take days, very efficiently. But for a home machine, I think it's a bit overkill, and the price tag says so.)

Anonymous said...

Then what is a machine that can be maxxed out on all the options on X-Plane and not be overkill. I have a Mac G5 single 1.8mhz with 3 Gigs of memory and an ati (cant recall) with 256 of video memory. I hate getting the too much rendering message.