On Monday, Apple unveiled its upcoming Mac OS X "Panther" operating system and the 64-bit PowerPC G5 systems on which it will run, ushering in what will no doubt be a new era of debates over the relative merits of PCs and Macintoshes. Apple's new designs are quite impressive: It's Panther OS, due in late 2003, offers features Windows users already enjoy, such as Fast User Switching and file encryption, while the PowerPC G5, based on IBM's 64-bit POWER4 server architecture and due in August, finally gives the company a system that can, in some ways, compete again with the fastest PCs. After offering paltry performance improvements for the past two years or so, Apple's move to the G5 processor gives the company a competitive product for creative professionals, scientists, and video editors.

"With Mac OS X, Apple is far outpacing any other operating system developer in the industry, leap-frogging the competition while they're hoping to deliver years in the future what we already have today," said Apple senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing Philip Schiller, in what is an obvious dig at Microsoft.

Mac OS X "Panther," which will likely be called Mac OS X 10.3 when it ships later this year, visually resembles previous Mac OS X versions but offer better integration with Apple's iDisk and .Mac services, file encryption, a new method of cleaning up desktop clutter called Exposé, an integrated fax service, an improved Mail application, new development tools, and various other features. Contrary to Schiller's comments, much of Panther seems lifted straight from the XP playbook: Aside from the previously mentioned fast user switching and file encryption features, Panther will also ship with other XP-like niceties, such as an Explorer-style Finder, an audio- and video-enabled chat program, and a WYSIWYG font manager. Panther looks decent, but is not overly exciting. Less exciting still is the cost: Another $129 after an identical fee for the "Jaguar" release, which shipped last fall.

The PowerMac G5 will ship in 1.6, 1.8 and dual 2 GHz versions, which might not sound too impressive when compared to the 3.06 GHz and faster speeds of modern PCs. But Apple's hardware is 64-bit, not 32-bit like Intel's, and it offers a competitive architecture with a fast front-side bus, support for up to 8 GB of RAM, and a full complement of modern ports, slots, and graphical capabilities. Because it will be months before Apple ships the G5, it's unclear how well the machines will stack up against PCs in the real world. Based on the poor performance of existing PowerMac G4 systems, the new G5s should be competitive. However, the costs remain high: A 2 GHz G5 will set users back over $3000, not including a display.

A bigger question concerns Apple's other hardware, especially its notebooks, which run on aging PowerPC G3 and G4 hardware. The company hasn't announced plans, yet, for moving its consumer hardware, like the iMac, or its notebooks to the G5 platform, though it will likely do so over time.