iMac renewed

Introduction

The iMac has been a phenomenal success for Apple, due to its incredible ease of set-up and gentle learning curve. Mere days after purchase, iMac owners – even those complete novice computer users who have never held a mouse before – can be up and running on the Internet, digital movie making, Web-site creating and spreadsheet solving. New iMac owners can email their family and friends to tell them that they’re online with an iTools Web site, an hour or so after leaving the shop or mere minutes after delivery. Another reason for the iMac’s success is its looks – both in pure aesthetics and smart design. The iMac looks like no other computer – certainly unlike any faceless Windows PC. The iMac looked like something you’d actually want to show-off in your home; nobody wants an old-office-like beige boxy thing in their living room. The trend-setting iMac was cool, and Apple made it more so by releasing new colours a couple of times a year. Many analysts are calling the iMac a bit long in the tooth, but it’s still the case that this consumer PC is the best and easiest way to start a lifetime of personal computing. Yes, in shape it hasn’t altered much since its dramatic arrival in 1998. But its always-innovative features have steadily improved with each new stage in its evolution. The original iMac (released September 1998) was Bondi Blue only. It ran a 233MHz G3 PowerPC processor, came with 32MB of RAM and a 4GB hard drive. Today’s new iMacs reach 600MHz, all have high-speed FireWire ports and up to ten-times the size hard drives, and come stacked with top-quality software. Depending on model, there are four choices of case colour – some sober, some decidedly not. The principal complaints about the ageing iMac brand were screen size, lack of built-in CD-burning drive and reliance on G3 rather than G4 processors. Apple has addressed one of these issues in its new range of iMacs. The other two I’m willing to argue in Apple’s favour. But I am concerned about one vital aspect of the company’s consumer strategy that makes a debut with this line-up. Screen size
The all-in-one iMac is still built around a sharp 15-inch screen. Some commentators and industry pundits have decried this as too small. Many consumer Windows PCs now come with 17-inch displays – although these are separate monitors, not convenient built-in screens. Obviously, bigger displays are better – especially for those who are hard of sight, and need to maximize their screen resolutions. But for many – if not most – iMac users, the practical and aesthetic advantages of a more compact display outweigh the ability to fit more on the screen. The iMac is not a big-screen PC – that’s one of its virtues, not a vice. Mac pros may feel constrained; consumers will not. The iMac’s 15-inch screen is fine for most of the tasks that consumers require – even as far as iMovie video editing goes. An iMac’s screen can handle a 1,024-x-768-pixel resolution, which is about what you get off a 17-inch display. Icons and text will appear larger at that resolution on a 17-inch, but you won’t actually gain a lot between 15 and 17 screen inches. The iMac screen is certainly big enough for email, Web browsing and managing your iTunes music collections. If you want to do a lot of image manipulation or use applications with more palettes than an Impressionists painting party, then a larger screen (19-inch +) is advised. If word processing, spreadsheets and general Internet use are your daily staples, the iMac should suit you fine. People who require a bigger screen should consider a G4 Cube or a more expandable Power Mac G4, to which you can attach a 17-, 19-, or 21-inch (or larger) display. Remember, though, that a decent 19-inch monitor will cost you another £300-£400 (inc. VAT). You cannot add a very large monitor to an iMac and increase the base resolution above 1,024-x-768 pixels, as it supports video mirroring only – the image on the external monitor is identical to that shown on the built-in display. See page 80 for more on the Cube’s positioning as the bigger-screen consumer Mac. CD-burning
Aside from the 17-inch screens, an increasing number of Windows consumer PCs now come with drives that allow you to burn CDs (although often as optional extras). It’s always been possible to burn CDs via an iMac – you just needed to add an external CD-R drive, which cost from £199. Apple has now added internal CD-RW drives to the mid-range and top-end iMacs. The entry-level iMac doesn’t have a CD-RW, sticking with a 24-speed CD-ROM drive. These CD-RWs are no slouches (8-speed write, 4-speed rewrite, 24-speed read), but if you want a faster recorder, you can get hold of a 16x10x40 external CD-RW for £350. The bonus you get over Windows PCs is the software. Apple’s Disc Burner utility lets you drag-&-drop files to a blank CD in exactly the same way you’d drop files on another hard disk or Zip disk. It really couldn’t be simpler. iTunes, which is included with all iMacs, is a simple way of burning audio discs. G3 vs G4
Apple uses PowerPC processors from Motorola rather than Pentiums from Intel or Intel-architecture chips from AMD and others. Don’t confuse processor megahertz speeds across PowerPC and Pentium platforms. When testing Photoshop actions, Apple claims that the G4 chips it uses are at least twice as fast as identical MHz-rated Pentium 4s. The iMacs use the G3 processor, which is much like the newer G4 but without something called the Velocity Engine that speeds up certain multimedia functions and is tuned to work with multiprocessing systems. Some industry watchers believe that Apple should switch the iMacs to the more sophisticated G4. I disagree. For 90 per cent of usage, even the lowest-speed G3 chip in an iMac is way fast enough for most consumers. Many applications are not optimized to take advantage of the G4’s Velocity Engine, so a G3 isn’t a limitation at all. If you need the extra oomph that a G4 offers, it’s likely you also need a larger screen, more powerful video card and PCI slots. Get a Power Mac G4 or G4 Cube if you’re a hardcore user. For consumers and even non-graphics Mac pros, the G3 is fine, and keeps costs down. The one customer that Apple would have attracted with a G4 iMac is the iMac upgrader, but I guess Apple would prefer that person to upgrade to a Cube. The iMac is Apple’s Mac for new customers and for pre-G3 upgraders. All in all, then, Apple has fixed one key area that was affecting the volume of iMac sales: CD burning. Thankfully, Apple didn’t add CD-RW drives to all the new iMacs. That would have brought unit costs up, and been a blow for two groups of potential iMac purchasers. First, people who don’t want to burn CDs aren’t forced to pay more for something they don’t need. Second, people who want to burn CDs as fast as technologically possible can forget the internal CD-RW drive and plug-in the latest external drive. Cost not compromise
However, this level of flexibility doesn’t extend far enough. Previously, the cheapest iMac cost £649 (inc. VAT). This entry-level iMac didn’t have FireWire ports, but that was fine for a lot of people who weren’t interested in editing digital home movies and wanted their iMac mainly for Web browsing and email. Today’s entry-level iMac does come with FireWire ports and wireless AirPort capability, and so costs £150 more. Apple is forcing people to pay for features that they might never use, as well as retreating from fighting it out with Windows PC makers on price. The £649 iMac was a real bargain. The new £799 iMac is still a superb system, but the extra features take it to a price that removes Apple from a giant chunk of its potential market. People for whom an iMac would have been perfect will be suckered by price into using a cheaper, substandard Windows PC. Apple argues that all its new Macs are now perfectly situated to become a “hub” in today’s “digital lifestyle”. The company doesn’t see itself as realistically competing with the very low-end of the computing market. Macs are top-brand goods – like Sony TVs and Bang & Olufsen Hi-Fi – that don’t compromise on features, design and style. Even Apple’s entry-level products are the very high end of the low-end market. iMac vs budget Windows PC
Apple will certainly lose some buyers, who’d rather pay £700 for a cheap Windows PC than £799-£1,199 for the superior iMac. If you’re reading this article, thinking exactly that, I’m going to persuade you to stump up the extra for the Mac. The iMac is the better personal computer, and here’s why. Easier
If you haven’t used a computer before, the Mac is a lot easier to learn than Windows. Why spend hours getting to grips with Windows when the Mac is more intuitive – Mac OS X will widen this ease-of-use gap even further (although maybe not till summer, see page 29). Macs are also lower maintenance. A recent survey indicated that Macs require from two to ten times less maintenance than similar Windows machines. And Macs last a lot longer than Windows PCs, which demand upgrading every couple of years. Macintosh owners keep hold of their Macs for at least four-to-five years before moving on to the latest models. Even then, their old Mac is still fighting fit, and assigned to the kids’ room or second study. Software
Every Mac comes stacked with software that beats anything that you’d have to pay extra for on Windows. Apple’s iTools services are a wonderful example of this Mac added value. iTools give you an easy, free route to having your own Web page up in hours, for example. It gets you an email address and 20MB of free space on Apple’s servers. Making your own Web site is child’s play with Apple’s attractive Web-page templates. There’s also iMovie software for sophisticated yet easy video editing, and iTunes software for managing your digital music files (from downloading MP3s to burning audio CDs). The word processor in AppleWorks 6 isn’t as good as Microsoft Word, but will be absolutely fine for nearly all novices. This business suite also includes a spreadsheet, database, graphics software (drawing and painting) and presentations tool. Speed
Even the 400MHz G3 is as fast as many of the Intel chips found in consumer Windows PCs. Anyway, both are much too fast for most of the things that entry-level computer users actually do on their computers. For Web browsing, it’s the speed of your modem that counts, not your processor. You certainly couldn’t tell the difference between either when word processing or even creating low-level graphics. Design
Macs are built better than most Windows PCs (that’s why they last longer), and are designed to be easier to operate and set-up in the home. Style
Consumer PCs are usually dull minitower boxes that will make your home suddenly look like a badly funded office… a badly funded office in Eastern Europe. The iMac, on the other hand, comes in a variety of trendy colours and crazy patterns. And the iMac is a handy all-in-one computer that can you easily move around the house when required. The Windows PC minitower is a mess of cables, and the separate monitor takes up a lot of room (and more cables) next to the PC. Bundles
Shops like Tiny and Time Computer offer bundle deals that include a printer and scanner. I spied one in a PC magazine for just £860 – not that much more than the iMac. But don’t be taken in. These deals seem too good to be true because they usually are. The printer and scanner on offer from Time, for example, were at least three years behind the times. You’re nearly always better off buying a computer and its peripherals separately. Euro groan
A blow to US-Euro relations is caused by cache differences in the US mid-range iMac and its European equivalent. In the US, the mid-range iMac boasts 256K on-chip level-2 cache (speedy memory that makes the Mac faster) at full processor speed (500MHz). In Europe, that same machine has twice the amount of backside level-2 cache (512K) but at the slower 200MHz. We didn’t have units of the US model to test against the European mid-ranger so we can’t yet say whether this makes one marginally faster than the other. But in previous tests, we did find that cache plays a part in the overall speed of a system. The 400MHz iMac (512K backside level-2 cache at 160MHz) and 600MHz iMac (256K on-chip level-2 cache at full processor speed) are both the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The European 500MHz iMac is definitely worse off when it comes to video graphics. In the US, it ships with a 16MB ATI RAGE 128 Ultra video card. In Europe, it has the lesser-powered 8MB ATI RAGE 128 Pro (the same card as in the entry-level iMac). The European Special Edition iMac (600MHz) ships with the Ultra card, as it does in the US. This will affect frame rates in games such as Quake III, and could result in slower scrolling. Most iMac owners wouldn’t notice the difference unless it was pointed out in a side-by-side comparison – but Apple can’t yet supply us with a reason why this discrepancy has arisen. Entry level iMac
The entry-level iMac is available in Indigo only – and that’s no bad thing in my opinion. I still find Indigo the finest of all the iMac colours from the original Bondi Blue to the now-defunct Snow. This 400MHz model contains just 64MB of RAM, which should be enough for most users; although 128MB would have been nicer. Its 10GB Ultra ATA hard disk is capacious compared to disk sizes a few years ago, but could quickly fill up now that even the entry-level machine has FireWire ports that allow for digital video-editing. If you want to store lots of your iMovies on your hard drive, then the 500MHz iMac’s 20GB hard drive would suit you better. Or you can always add an external FireWire hard drive later – a 30GB ProDisc costs £245 (inc. VAT). Apple has also improved this iMac model by making it support its AirPort wireless-networking technology. Now, like every other new Mac, it lets you browse the Web, send email and connect to other Macs without being attached by cable to your phone line or ethernet hub. As I mentioned previously, the 400MHz iMac does not come with a CD-RW drive. If you want to add a USB or FireWire external one later, this will cost you about £199 – the difference in price between the 400MHz and 500MHz models. So, buying the 500MHz model now gets you the built-in, slot-loading CD-RW drive, a faster G3 chip and twice the hard-disk space for the price of the external CD-RW. Mid-range iMac
As I pointed out, the European 500MHz iMac is slightly different to the US model. That’s a minus point for Apple. But, otherwise, this is where the iMac range really takes off. The faster G3 processor is indeed a nippy number, and the slot-loading CD-RW drive a real bonus. Again, the amount of RAM is a bit stingy – but it’s easy enough to add more when you need it. I’d recommend at least 128MB of memory – the extra 64MB will cost you about £60, inc. VAT. This mid-range iMac is available in Indigo, Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power – and I am going to leave that choice completely up to you. If Flower Power gets you flared up, then that’s fine by me. If Blue Dalmatian makes you woof, better still. The 20GB hard disk is roomy, but the 8MB ATI Rage 128 Pro is not as fast as the iMac Special Edition’s 16MB Ultra video card. The £999 (inc. VAT) price tag isn’t as cheap as the old iMac DV (£799), but you do get the CD-RW, a 100MHz-faster G3 and twice the hard-disk space. iMac Special Edition
The top-of-the-range iMac Special Edition is available in Graphite, Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power. Personally, I’d have liked an Indigo iMac SE, but that’s not on the cards. Graphite is still a very cool look – the opposite of the ‘My Little Pony’ Flower Power pattern. Its 600MHz G3 is a real racer, and its 128MB of RAM generous. The 40GB hard disk is massive – even the most avid iMovie user wouldn’t run out of space for quite some time. The slot-loading CD-RW drive is superb, and the 16MB ATI Rage 128 Ultra is a fast video card. The Special Edition does cost £1,199 (inc. VAT), but it comes so loaded that this is quite acceptable.
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