Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

Desktop systems based on IBM’s PowerPC 970 and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s Athlon 64 processors place 64-bit computing within the reach of mainstream users without closing the door to 32-bit applications. This is important because for now—and for the foreseeable future—it’s a 32-bit world.

eWEEK Labs recently tested Apple Computer Inc.’s Power Mac G5, driven by dual PowerPC 970s, and Polywell Computers Inc.’s Athlon 64-based Poly 900NF3-FX1. Both systems delivered high performance running 32-bit code in our tests, but they still await the breadth of software support required to make the most of their 64-bit capabilities.

The Power Mac G5 is Apple’s top-of-the-line desktop system. Platform enhancements such as one 1GHz front-side bus per processor—compared with 167MHz on the G4—deliver plenty of benefits on 32-bit code. The G5, therefore, is a clear choice for companies looking to replace or augment high-end Macintosh systems.

Polywell also sells a workstation system built around dual Opteron processors that starts at $3,499. Workstations from Hewlett-Packard Co. based on Intel Corp.’s 64-bit Itanium chips start at $3,882 for single-processor configurations and $5,623 for dual-processor configurations. The workstations lack the performance with 32-bit code that the AMD-based systems boast.

The case for the initial crop of Athlon 64-based systems, such as the Polywell machine we tested, is more complicated. Although AMD’s server-targeted, 64-bit Opteron processor has begun to pick up support from major server hardware OEMs, the Athlon 64 has so far shown up only in enthusiast-oriented systems. The Polywell system we tested, for example, came with a plexiglass window in its case cover and a purple cathode tube to light the machine’s interior—not exactly designed for the enterprise.

Even putting aesthetics aside, many companies will opt to hold out for acceptance of the Athlon 64 by larger system vendors before bringing these machines into the IT fold.

The Polywell system we tested shipped with a 2.2GHz Athlon 64-FX51 processor, 2GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM, two 10,000-rpm Serial ATA hard drives configured in a RAID array and an Nvidia Corp. GeorceFX 5950 Ultra graphics card. As configured, the unit costs $2,799.

The Power Mac system we tested was built with dual PowerPC 970 processors running at 2GHz, 2GB of DDR RAM, a 160GB Serial ATA hard drive and an ATI Technologies Inc. Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card. As tested, the system sells for $4,498.

Apple also ships a version of the Power Mac with a single, 1.6GHz G5 chip, which is priced starting at $1,799.

The G5, which comes in a nice-looking case that is easy to open, has a FireWire 800 port, a USB (Universal Serial Bus) 2.0 port and a headphone jack on the front. There are two more USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port and a FireWire 400 port in the back. Inside the case, the G5’s components are well-organized and easily accessible.

We were impressed with the fan setup in the G5: Nine temperature-controlled fans keep the G5 cool while keeping noise to a minimum.

The Polywell system comes with two FireWire ports—one in the front, one in the back—and two USB 2.0 ports on the front and four others on the back. There are also headphone and microphone ports on the front.

The G5 we tested came with Bluetooth and 802.11g radios built in, and Apple’s software for working with these wireless radios is probably the easiest to use of any we’ve seen.

Whither Apps?

The current version of Mac OS X, “Panther,” has been configured to take advantage of the 64-bit capabilities of the PowerPC 970, such as the ability to use as much as 8GB of RAM.

Apple has detailed a number of code optimizations that developers can use to compile software so that it leverages the PowerPC 970. The most aggressive optimizations will result in binaries that won’t run on G3 and G4 systems, and it remains to be seen how software vendors will choose to balance G5 performance with backward compatibility.

Apple recently began shipping G5-optimized versions of its own Final Cut Pro 4, Shake 3 and DVD Studio Pro 2 multimedia applications.

If companies are to seek out the Athlon 64, they’ll need 64-bit software to prompt them, and support for these applications depends on the operating system.

While 32-bit Windows and its applications run well on the Athlon 64, 64-bit versions of Windows and of at least some applications are required to get the full benefit of the Athlon 64. The 64-bit version of Windows XP with support for Athlon 64 is expected in the first half of next year.

On the Linux side, the 64-bit support story is further along. Linux distributors Red Hat Inc., SuSE Linux AG and MandrakeSoft S.A. offer support for the Athlon 64 architecture, and we’re aware of unofficial support for the platform on the Debian, Fedora and Gentoo Linux distributions, as well as on FreeBSD.

The biggest stumbling block for users running 64-bit versions of Windows and Linux on new AMD systems will be driver support, something that Apple can more easily manage because it controls both the hardware and software sides of the G5.

Linux-based and open-source software is typically more amenable to multiplearchitecture support than is Windows software, and, at this point, there appears to be a broader range of software ported to 64-bit for Linux than for Windows.

The G5, with its BSD foundation, enjoys a similar software portability advantage. A great deal of open-source software for Unix-like platforms is available through the Fink project (

With Fink, we could search for open-source applications, download their code, and compile and install them. This worked particularly well on the G5, which made quick work of code compiling.

See eWEEK’s special report: “The 64-Bit Desktop”

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_