Analysis: Is XtremMac too cool to be true?

News analysis: Experts said Xtrem's plan to overclock the Power Mac G4 might work in principle but questioned its viability in the marketplace

It's cool, it's fast, and it's Swedish. But is it a hoax? The recent announcement by Stockholm's Xtrem that it is developing a Mac OS system based on a 1,200MHz G4 processor has inspired heated debate in the Mac community over the feasibility of such a machine.

On its Web site and in paid postings on the PR NewsWire service, Xtrem said its XtremMac 1200, due by the end of the year, will leapfrog the current 500MHz roadblock impeding performance boosts to Apple's Power Mac G4 line.

While Mac veterans said the overclocking techniques Xtrem proposes might conceivably work, many observers expressed scepticism about the feasibility of the company's product road map.

Xtrem cofounder Mats Wallberg, who is also chief executive of Tech Data Sweden, offered ZDNet News new insight into the nature of that product plan and how the company intends to get around Apple's restrictive hardware-licensing policies.

Wallberg said Xtrem will not manufacture its own motherboards but will buy Power Macintosh G4s and convert them to supercooled XtremMacs, using technology he referred to as the "Active Cooling Platform".

According to Wallberg, Xtrem has no current plans to convert users' current G4s.

He likened the process to that employed by KryoTech, where an AMD Athlon processor is cooled, allowing it to run much faster than intended. Unlike KryoTech's procedure, Wallberg explained that all the internals of the XtremMac would be cooled to allow higher speeds: "The more you cool, the faster you can run it." Wallberg declined to elaborate on technical details.

Apple spokeswoman Nathalie Welch said that Apple had no official comment on Xtrem's plans and is "investigating the matter informally".

Jeffy Milstead, technical editor with San Francisco based Macworld magazine, said cooling and overclocking the G4 in the manner described by Xtrem is conceivable, but he cited several problems that would have to be addressed before the machine could produced.

According to Milstead, every G4 chip is different and may not lend itself to overclocking as well as another, ostensibly identical processor. In addition, maintaining a consistently low temperature would be difficult, and materials cooled to such a level would become brittle and easily breakable.

Citing the KryoTech precedent, San Francisco Chronicle technology reporter Henry Norr agreed that the Xtrem's technology is "nothing new" to the world of processor performance but dismissed the XtremMac as a "niche product".

But Xtrem's Wallberg maintained that the XtremMac will work with the current crop of G4 processors as well as future models.

Other observers said the legal hurdles facing Xtrem would be even more formidable than the technical concerns, especially given Apple's banishment of third-party Mac OS systems in the fall of 1997 after an abortive attempt to foster Mac cloning. Wallberg said that he had not contacted Apple yet to arrange licensing, but predicted that the XtremMac would ship without an OS, requiring the end users to purchase a shrink-wrapped package separately.

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