by Tonya Engst, TidBITS Editor
Apple's newest Macintoshes are fast machines with new video and sound capabilities. To review, the new Centris 660AV, formerly known as the Cyclone, uses a Centris 610 case; likewise, the new Quadra 840, once known as the Tempest, lives in a Quadra 800 case. As usual, Apple's naming scheme comes from marketing folks who think it's funny that people try to memorize this stuff (especially considering that the latest rumors have Apple ditching the Centris name entirely and calling all of the old Centris machines Quadras). At least AV seems to stand for audio-visual. Introductions aside, what's the deal with these Macs and should you buy one?
If you don't care about audio-visual applications, you might buy an AV Mac for the 68040 chip, faster NuBus 90 architecture, and SCSI DMA (Direct Memory Access). If you care about sound, video, or telephony, then the AV Macs may be the place to be, since they sport a DSP chip (similar to the one used in the now-obsolete NeXT machines) to keep these capabilities humming along. A few of quirks worth noting: AV Macs don't support A/UX, they only support 32-bit addressing, and the serial port has an extra pin. Although the port works with the usual 8-pin cables, the new ninth pin carries power to a pod (more on pods below), and lets you turn on your Mac by calling it on the phone.
In the Macintosh AV room -- If it all works as described, you can use the new DAV (Digital Audio Visual) port to bring in video from VCRs and video cameras. You can play the video on the screen in the provided Video Monitor program, convert it to a QuickTime movie, convert video frames to PICT images, play around in the included VideoFusion Fusion Recorder, and output video to VCR tape or an attached TV screen.
The DSP chip works with Apple's new and still-unfolding GeoPort architecture to provide the capabilities of a modem, fax board, speakerphone, answering machine, or even an Ethernet- or ISDN-based videophone. The videophone gives 15 frames per second in a small window, so we're not talking about putting someone onscreen as in Star Trek. Each AV machine comes with an adapter box, known as a pod, that attaches the Mac to the phone system. This is so Apple can make different pods for phone systems in different countries, not to mention ISDN and digital PBX, which should all be available sooner or later.
The AV Macs also include PlainTalk - formerly know by the code name Casper - software that works with the DSP chip to turn speech into computer commands and text into speech, of sorts. I've heard a PlainTalk version of a paragraph from TidBITS, and although it sounded like a computer, I understood every word. Evidently, there are a few different voices to pick from. Currently the speech-recognition works for adult, English-speaking, North American voices, but more options should come soon.
The AVs come wired so you can speak to them, as in, "Computer, Control Panel. Computer, Memory." You can create complex voice macros using QuicKeys or AppleScript (a special version of QuicKeys ships with the computer). To help the Mac pay attention to you, you preface every command with a keyword (like Computer in the example above) and the AVs come with a special microphone. Note that the microphone and PlainTalk ship with Macs sold in the U.S. and Canada, but everyone else has to buy them separately. I wonder if this will change when PlainTalk can recognize more voice types.
Sound Manager 3.0 comes as part of the System Enabler, so you can play with sounds, distorting or enhancing them, and you don't have to buy any third-party software to at least have some basic fun.
Conclusions -- The AV Macs seem like a grand experiment. What features will prove popular? Which ones will be ignored? At this time, it's unclear if developers will write software and continue to write and support software that takes advantage of these Macs, or if developers will focus on the larger PowerPC market.
These Macs could be sensational fun. Not that the capabilities can't be created on other Macs with the right hardware and software, but that Apple has put a lot of possibilities together in one package, so you get a blazingly fast Mac along with software to play with. Not only can you create and view movies, but you talk and listen to the Mac. I wouldn't buy a Video Spigot board and all the trappings, because I don't know enough about video to justify the purchase, but if I had an AV Mac, I'd explore all of its capabilities. Whether the new abilities are up to reliable business uses, intelligent educational applications, or great works of art remains to be seen, but if they don't measure up, Apple is bound to improve them next time around.