17-inch iMac G5 (iSight); 20-inch iMac G5 (iSight)

Introduction

Because Apple develops software specifically for its hardware, it's in a great position to create integrated products. So it's not surprising that the company's latest iMac G5s are an ambitious attempt to create an all-in-one personal computer that's also a home-entertainment centre. The result is one part success (the personal computer part) and one part questionable implementation (the home entertainment part).

Entertainment hub
When it comes to this iMac generation's notable features, one included item - the small, white infrared remote control - represents the key to an exciting new function. It's meant to be used with Front Row, Apple's new software for transforming the iMac from a device you control from a few inches away into one you command from ten feet away, likely while reclining on a sofa or chair. This six-button remote attaches to the iMac's right side via a small magnet embedded into the iMac's case. (Accordingly, Apple warns against brushing magnetic media, such as an iPod, against the magnet.)

When you press the remote's menu button, your Mac interface fades into the background and is replaced by a large, simple interface (reminiscent of the iPod) that is navigated via the remote's directional buttons. It was easy to read the Front Row menus, even from a chair that was several feet away. Although the remote is tiny - about the width of an iPod shuffle - it feels quite comfortable.

Mac users have been able to add a small remote control (such as Keyspan's £39 Express Remote) to their Macs for some time. The catch was that there wasn't a good remote-driven interface that let you easily access your media without having to use a keyboard or mouse when an interface roadblock presented itself. Unfortunately, no other company managed to come up with such a program, but at last Apple has come to the rescue. That's why Front Row is such a welcome addition to the Mac.

Front Row is not without its flaws. It's a first attempt, and one with numerous omissions and quirks that Apple will need to address. For example, although Front Row's Music menu gives you the iPod-style option to shuffle songs - namely, those in your entire iTunes library - there's no way to shuffle them by artist or album. Which makes me wonder why Apple would replicate the iPod interface without including some of that device's most useful settings.

Similarly, the Photos menu is at once exhilarating and infuriating. Finally, you can sit on your couch and browse through your iPhoto library, including slideshows. But Front Row maddeningly honours only certain slideshow settings: when I used Front Row to display a slideshow, it would play the music I had assigned within iPhoto but wouldn't honour my Ken Burns Effect, picture effect, slideshow length, or transition settings.

The Movies menu presented other frustrations. I repeatedly had trouble with the Movie Trailers service, which sporadically couldn't connect to Apple's movie trailers server. When it did connect, several times I found that Front Row wasn't buffering enough video before playing, causing starts and stops (as well as the display of unfriendly “can't connect to server” errors on screen) that made some trailers unwatchable.

Front Row lets you play not only videos downloaded via iTunes, but also just about any other video that QuickTime can play and ones you've stored in your Movies folder. (If you organise your movies in subfolders within the Movies folder, they'll even show up as submenus in Front Row.) As you select a movie file, a small preview (complete with a snazzy reflected-glass effect) plays in a box to the right of the menu.

However, playing back videos wasn't as pleasant an experience as organising them. Holding down the remote's forward button scanned forward through videos fairly slowly, making it unbearable to fast-forward deep into a lengthy video clip. To make matters worse, none of the video I viewed in Front Row could be bookmarked - when I returned to a downloaded short that I'd left half-viewed, Front Row plopped me down at the beginning. I also noticed that several times after fast forwarding, audio and video were out of sync. If you're used to the video tricks you'll find on Sky+ or a similar digital video recorder, you won't be satisfied with Front Row.

There is some good news, though. Because Front Row is just software, it's upgradeable and Apple told me it will release updates to Front Row, just as it does with other Apple programs. So although this first version of Front Row has plenty of rough edges, I'm hoping that Apple will be able to smooth many of them out in the next few months.

Camera included
In a move that has implications both frivolous and practical, Apple has embedded a video camera in the white plastic bezel of the new iMac. The camera's lens is located dead centre and just above the LCD screen. To the left of the lens is a tiny hole that contains the iMac's built-in microphone; behind the plastic and to the right of the lens is a green light that turns on whenever the camera is active. (Unlike the standalone iSight, you can't adjust the position of the lens or close the camera's lens manually. Apple says the camera is hard-wired to the green light, so it's impossible for the camera to capture images when the light isn't on. However, despite Apple's reassurance, some people might not feel secure having a camera lens on them at all times.)

A camera as part of an iMac is like a camera as part of a mobile phone. Like most phone cameras, the iSight isn't going to compete with a normal digital camera - its 640 x 480-pixel resolution is the equivalent of three-tenths of a megapixel. But what it lacks in resolution, it makes up for in sheer fun. Apple's included Photo Booth is the perfect companion to the iSight, letting you or your kids snap silly pictures and email them to friends, or quickly take pictures to use as iChat or OS X user icons.

More practically, the embedded iSight in the iMac means that more users are likely to take advantage of iChat AV's built-in video-conferencing features. Those who might have been reluctant to part with £99 for Apple's iSight camera just to experiment with video chats will now be able to see their friends and relatives at no extra cost. It's a great idea, and one that I hope spreads to more Mac models.

Hardware improvements
Of course, behind all the flashy new home-entertainment and video-chat features is also a new Mac. For the most part, it looks like its predecessor, but this iMac is slightly slimmer, with a curve behind the display, and it's also a few pounds lighter. The ports on the back have been rearranged, too; they're now horizontal rather than vertical, and the power button has been relocated to the left side of the rear face.

There are many changes inside the case; in fact, this is an almost entirely reengineered iMac. The iMac's video card is now connected via the new, speedy PCIe bus, although the new ATI Radeon X600 Pro is largely the same as the old AGP-based Radeon 9600. The iMac's RAM is also now of the faster DDR2 variety.

Do-it-yourself upgraders and Mac technicians will find that, in stark contrast to the previous iMac G5 generation, this generation's innards are not very accessible. The only easily upgradeable element is the RAM. In addition to the iMac's stock 512MB of RAM, there's a single slot for 533MHz DDR2 memory located behind a door on the underside of the display. That slot can accept 512MB, 1GB, or 2GB RAM modules, giving the iMac a new maximum RAM of 2.5GB.

The 17-inch iMac, which was previously available in both 1.8GHz and 2GHz editions, now comes in one 1.9GHz configuration. The good news is that the iMac's 1.9GHz processor, aided by the upgrades to the rest of the computer's subsystems, is just as fast as the old 2GHz model.

The 20-inch model's processor speed has been bumped up from 2GHz to 2.1GHz, with a corresponding performance boost - it's now the fastest iMac ever, in terms of both processor clock speed and sheer performance.

In addition to the stock Apple Pro Keyboard included with most recent desktop Macs, the new iMac models come with the new two-button Mighty Mouse, which was previously available only as a £35 add-on.

Unfortunately, one hardware limitation of previous iMacs remains: the iMac can drive only its own display and mirror the contents of that display to another display, and it can do this only via a VGA connection. The lack of support for extending a Mac desktop to a second display (as well as support for digital displays via the DVI connection standard) means that Mac users who prefer to work with multiple monitors will need to look to another model.

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