In an extended Apple Notes column we take an exclusive look at the 30-inch Cinema display from a musician and audio engineer's perspective, and evaluate the performance of the new dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 with our usual series of performance tests.
Forget the fact that it's actually just a computer screen. There's just one word that sums up Apple's new 30-inch Cinema display: wow. The company revamped their line-up of Cinema displays back at this year's Worldwide Developer's Conference with a new, sleeker aluminium-styled enclosure, and while the 20- and 23-inch models have been readily available for a few months now, the king of the new range, the 30-inch model, has now also started hitting Apple's distribution channels.
As you unpack the 30-inch Cinema display, one very obvious fact becomes apparent: it's big. So big, in fact, that it's not even worth cracking jokes about size, and so big that everyone who sees the display will remind you just how big it is. Specifically, the 30-inch model measures 27.2 inches (68.8cm) by 21.3 inches (54.3cm) and has a depth of 8.46 inches (21.5 cm), including the stand. The display panel itself is actually only about two inches deep. And although it's a fairly substantial unit to pick up, this 30-inch screen is far easier to move around than an old 17-inch CRT display, weighing in at just 27.5 pounds (12.47kg).
Offering a resolution of 2560x1600 pixels, the 30-inch display is also a significant step up from the 1920x1200 resolution offered by most 23-inch displays available. It's also perhaps the most aesthetically impressive display Apple have ever produced, and shares a clear design philosophy with the new iMac G5. The iMac and Cinema display models are supplied on a similar stand that allows the display to be tilted up or down between -5 and 25 degrees (where 0 is perpendicular to the desk), although the display looks good when viewed from a variety of angles. Alternatively, the stand can be removed completely so that you can mount the display almost anywhere you like, with the optional VESA mounting kit.
One interesting thing to note about the new line-up of Cinema displays is that they don't require fans internally for cooling, which obviously makes them pretty much silent when compared with other displays that do have fans, and ideal for use in music and audio studios. The lack of fans is partly made possible by the fact that the power supply is kept outside of the monitor enclosure, although the displays do get noticeably warm to touch. Still, this didn't appear to be a problem, even when leaving the monitor switched on for extended periods of time.
For this new range, Apple have moved the controls for brightness and power to the lower part of the right edge. This is alright, but in the unlikely event you wanted to put two Cinema displays side-by-side, it could become awkward to reach the controls on the left-hand display. Not a big complaint, obviously, since you can always control the monitor from the computer. (On a related point, it would be nice if the monitor's power button could switch on the whole system, rather than just being able to power it down, put it to sleep or wake everything up again.) In addition to a built-in two-port USB 2.0 hub, the new displays also include a two-port Firewire 400 hub.
In order to drive the 30-inch Cinema display you'll need a Power Mac G5, and you'll also need to purchase a new graphics card from Apple, specifically the Nvidia Geforce 6800 Ultra or GT models (see the 'What The DVI?' box for more information). This could pose a problem for some users, since the cooling assembly on the card has an increased width over the majority of graphics cards supplied with a Power Mac G5 as standard. In fact, it requires the space (and back-plates) of both the AGP slot and the first PCI slot. If all the PCI slots in your Power Mac are currently full and you want to use the 30-inch Cinema display, an expansion chassis is definitely in your future.
For testing, I installed the Nvidia Geforce 6800 Ultra in a dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 (bought after the Power Mac G5's original introduction at the end of 2003), which had 2GB RAM and the factory-installed 250GB SATA drive. I filled the remaining accessible PCI-X slots with a Pro Tools HD Core card and an HD Accel card so I could see what Pro Tools looked like on a 30-inch display, and also to see if there were any obvious problems with using the three cards, including the graphics card, in this way.
As a side note, you need to be running at least Mac OS 10.3.5 to use the newer graphics card, and it's therefore imperative to make sure your Mac is up-to-date via Software Update before swapping out the graphics card. Although the Nvidia card is supplied with a driver CD, this is unnecessary if you're running Mac OS 10.3.6 (or higher), since all the software required is now part of a standard OS X installation.
A resolution of 2560x1600 pixels is all well and good, of course, except for the question of what exactly you're going to use all 4,096,000 of them to display...
Unlike the previous generation of Cinema displays, the new 20-, 23- and 30-inch models featuring an aluminium enclosure no longer use Apple's ADC interface for connection to your Mac. ADC (Apple Display Connector) was an interface introduced in later ranges of Cinema displays to provide a single cable and connector between the computer and monitor for power, video and USB. It was convenient, but it meant that a converter was needed to use the display with any computer other than a Power Mac (including Power Books and any non-Apple system), or as a second display with a Power Mac.
In place of the ADC connection on the new Cinema displays is a single cable that splays out into individual DVI, USB, Firewire and power connections on the other end, providing better compatibility with a wider range of systems. On the downside, now Power Mac users have the opposite problem: you'll need to purchase an ADC-to-DVI adaptor if you want to use two of the newer Cinema displays with your system.
While the DVI connections on all Cinema displays look identical, the 20- and 23-inch models use what's known as Single-Link DVI, compared to the 30-inch display, which uses Dual-Link DVI instead. Single-Link DVI is the most common type of DVI connection, supported by the majority of graphics hardware currently in circulation, including the graphics cards supplied with all DVI-based Macs, past and present, and is so called because it uses only 12 of the 24 pins available on a DVI connector. Single-Link DVI supports a maximum bandwidth of 165MHz to give a resolution of 1920x1080 at 60Hz (or 1280x1024 at 85Hz), even though most displays and graphics cards can usually push this to 1920x1200 — the resolution of the 23-inch Cinema display, incidentally.
To drive the 2560x1600 resolution of the 30-inch Cinema display, Single-Link DVI obviously wouldn't work, so the 30-inch display uses Dual-Link DVI instead, and needs a graphics card that supports Dual-Link DVI to drive it. Dual-Link DVI carries, as the name suggests, two 165MHz signals for double the bandwidth, making use of all 24 pins on the DVI connector.
How does an application such as Logic or Pro Tools, for example, actually make use of such a large display? How many mixer channels can you expect to see? How many tracks on the Arrange or Edit window can you have on screen simultaneously? You can get a basic idea from the illustrations in this article, but I can also be a little more specific about this issue.
Taking Logic Pro 7 as our first example, the Arrange window can display 74 tracks, assuming you stick with the initial default layout of the Arrange window and track height. With the smallest track height you'll be able to see a staggering 148 tracks, and while the tracks might be considered too small to be practical at this height, it might help you make a useful Screenset to get an overview of the arrangement. Alternatively, setting the track height to the largest setting gives you just six tracks. In the Environment window you can see 42 audio channels horizontally and four vertically, given a reasonable number of Inserts and Sends, which means you could see a total of 168 audio channels (4x42).
Moving on to Pro Tools, the Edit window can display quite a substantial number of tracks, and I also had the Bars and Beats, Timecode, Tempo, Meter and Markers Rulers displayed. With the track height set to Mini you can get 73 tracks — or 38 Small, 15 Medium, seven Large, four Jumbo, or two Extreme tracks. On the Mixer window I could see either 63 (61 with the Show/Hide Channels and Mix Groups column available) narrow channels or 35 (34) wide channels.
Figuring out how to best make use of an application at such a large resolution can be more challenging than you think. Current music software is usually designed with multiple windows where each window is given a specific task: an editing window, a mixing window, and so on. This type of user interface design lends itself well, of course, to multiple monitor systems where you can put a different window on each monitor; but often this approach won't work so well on a large display where you have to arrange multiple windows to make one big work area. Indeed, if you take a look at any one window maximised to fill the 30-inch display (Logic 's Arrange or Pro Tools ' Edit windows, say) you'll notice that most of the controls get huddled into the top-left corner of the screen to fit snugly with the kind of resolutions used by the larger majority.
While it could be argued that most users won't be buying 30-inch displays just yet, it does give software developers an interesting challenge: how do you create an interface that works at all resolutions? One interesting and, in my opinion, successful example of this type of user interface design can be seen in another Apple product, the video compositing software Shake. In this application there's only one main window that's divided into four sections (or should that be panes?) which can be resized to show more or less of the timeline, video viewer, parameters, and so on.
If you run Shake on a larger display, you simply have more space to work with each area of the program, and while running the software on a larger display is more comfortable, the application is equally functional at lower resolutions. One neat trick, admittedly borrowed from X Windows servers on Unix, is the ability to expand the screen with just one section of the main window, such as the video viewer, for example. In this way, even on smaller displays you can always make the most of the pixels you have by filling the whole screen with one part of the application when that's the one you really need to be focused on.
It's worth noting that the user-interface design of most of the music and audio applications we rely on every day hasn't changed much since the early '90s, and it will be interesting, especially with Apple providing these larger displays to creative professionals, to see how application developers change tack to make the most of the hardware available to them.
In conclusion, the 30-inch Cinema display is an impressive product. Aesthetically it's beautiful to look at, and visually it's bright and sharp. Although you might think it's potentially too big initially, especially when you find yourself putting a window 'out of the way' in the lower part of the screen, it's actually a perfect, workable size. From a cost point of view, at £2549 the 30-inch display doesn't seem overpriced compared to what smaller Cinema displays cost a few years ago, although some users may wonder whether two 23-inch ones for close to the same money (the 23-inch retails for £1549 and doesn't require a new graphics card) may be a better buy.
The Nvidia graphics card required for the 30-inch display costs an additional £449 for the 6800 Ultra or £349 for the 6800 GT. However, you can buy the 6800 Ultra with a new Power Mac for £379, or £339 with the dual-2.5GHz model; or the 6800 GT for £279 or £269.
As with previous performance tests in Apple Notes, the following guidelines were used. The audio hardware was the Mac's built-in hardware, using the analogue connections with a buffer size of 512 samples, which equates to approximately 12ms latency running at 44.1kHz. The User CPU usage readings were taken as an average from OS X's Activity Monitor application, found in the Applications / Utilities folder. With the Platinumverb tests, the default settings were used. With the Space Designer test, the 'Large Hall 2.6sec' preset was used. For the EXS24 test, the 16-bit HA_ES instrument from the EXS24 edition of the Vienna Symphonic Library was used.
In the February and March 2004 Apple Notes, I wrote about the performance of the then top-of-the-line dual-2GHz Power Mac G5, looking at how many reverb instances and sampler voices could be achieved (see the 'About The Tests' box for information), and over the past year we've looked at similar tests on other Mac systems. This month I managed to borrow a friend's dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 (my thanks to Geoff Zanelli), so I thought I'd run the same batch of performance tests to see what's possible with the highest-performing Mac Apple has ever released.
Since I've used Logic 6.4.x throughout the last year, I decided to stick with Logic Pro 6.4.3 for the main testing, as using Logic Pro 7 instead would skew the results if it was more or less efficient than previous versions. However, I did install Logic Pro 7 after the tests, just to see whether it is indeed more, less or the same in terms of efficiency. We'll look at this after discussing the main results. The Power Mac G5 in question was the factory-specified dual-2.5GHz model, but with 4GB RAM installed and two 250GB internal SATA drives. It had been updated to the latest software versions available at the time of writing, including Mac OS 10.3.6.
Starting with the exciting 'how many Platinumverbs ' tests, the dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 managed 140 instances, reporting approximately 93 percent User CPU usage in the CPU panel of Activity Monitor, which marks a small improvement over the 120 instances attainable with the dual-2GHz a year ago. Staying with reverb, the next test was with Space Designer. While the dual-2GHz could run 29 instances with 82 percent usage, the dual-2.5GHz model achieved 30 instances without breaking into a sweat (75 percent User CPU). I was able to run up to 32 instances fairly comfortably (on 83 percent usage), although this result was effectively voided by the occasional Core Audio Overload message.
The EXS24 sampler voices test was, perhaps, more revealing. Using 16-bit storage mode and no filters enabled, I was able to play 752 voices concurrently (11 instances playing 64 voices, plus one instance playing 48 voices) with 87 percent User CPU usage, compared to the 704 voices attained by the dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 last year. Not bad. However, when switching to 32-bit storage, again with no filter, I was able to play back 3648 voices (57 instances at 64 voices) with 87 percent usage, compared to 3264 voices on the dual-2GHz model. So the dual-2.5GHz really shows a benefit for EXS24 users, although the improvement is very much in keeping with what you would expect the performance boost to be just by looking at the numbers — 2GHz to 2.5GHz.
With the filter enabled, the number of voices dropped fairly sharply, as you would expect. With 16-bit storage and filters active, the dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 played back 240 voices (three instances at 64 voices and one instance at 48 voices) with 84 percent User CPU usage; with 32-bit storage and filters active the same system was capable of 364 voices (five instances at 64 voices and one instance at 44 voices) at 92 percent usage. This is compared to 192 and 256 voices for 16- and 32-bit storage respectively on the dual-2GHz Power Mac G5.
As I mentioned at the start of this section, after recording these results I looked briefly at how Logic 6.x compared with Logic 7 and found that there wasn't any significant difference in terms of audio performance on a Power Mac G5.