Review: Apple’s new iMac

From the sewing machine-sized luggable Compaq of yore, to the diminutive original Mac and those that followed, all-in-one computers aim to minimize clutter by bringing everything (computer, DVD drive and monitor) together in one neat package.

Apple’s newest iMac models, ranging in price from $1200 to $2,300, are less about breakthrough and more about refinement, and once again set a new standard with an all-in-one design that’s aesthetically pleasant enough to display in the family room rather than relegate to a spare room or home office.

The loaner iMac Apple sent me to test was the 20″ model (1680 by 1050 pixels), with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 320GB hard disk, 2GB of RAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, bundled applications for Web browsing, e-mail, contact and calendar management and a host of media-centric programs.

Such fine design and bundled goodies cost two or three times the price of inexpensive Windows-based PCs or even Apple’s own Mac mini, the tiny white slab of a computer.

There is nothing junky about the new iMac, which trades its former white plastic casing and plastic screen for sleek aluminum and hardened, glossy glass.

It’s that latter element, the screen, which has already prompted a love it/hate reaction to the new iMac. I prefer glossy screens to matte and the new iMac is no exception. Turned off, the black screen reflects my visage with the clarity of a windowpane or dark mirror. Turned on, and my reflection vanishes, helped in part because I’ve stationed the iMac against the same wall as a window. Turned around, the iMac’s screen does pick up the window reflection, most noticeably around the wide black rectangle framing the screen.

The second dramatic change to the line, the keyboard, also runs the risk of turning off some potential buyers while turning on others. Candy bar-thin, the keyboard’s Chicklet-style keys respond to the same ultra-light touch as my MacBook’s keyboard. That part I like.


What I don’t like is how wide the new keyboard is on account of the right side cursor and page keys and 22-key numeric keypad. All of those extra keys mean positioning the wired scrolling Mighty Mouse half a foot away — a reach that causes a distinct stress in my right arm and shoulder.

Lefties won’t mind at all, but other right-handers like me may. To be fair, most any keyboard with a numeric keypad forces the same far-reaching mouse placement. Much nicer is Apple’s newly announced Wireless Keyboard (shipping in a few weeks), which eliminates the extra keys and cable, thereby closing the aching gap between hand and mouse.

Love or hate the keyboard and mouse, either or both can be swapped out for third-party alternatives such as those offered by Logitech, Belkin or Microsoft. 

INNER BEAUTY

Buyers will find lots to love on the inside. Running the show is Apple’s OS X “Tiger” operating system, which starts up fast, launches programs quickly and allows switching between them with nary a pause. The iMac can be put to sleep with the touch of the iMac’s rear power button – then reawakened almost instantly, ready to serve, with another touch to the keyboard or mouse.
Apple’s Mail program handles most any kind of account type you can throw at it.

The major exception is Hotmail, which isn’t supported. However an add-on called “httpmail plugin,” which can be found on MacUpdate.com, fixes this hiccup, and offers excellent junk mail protection. Address Book and iCal handle contacts and scheduling duties, and a program named iSync keeps those key pieces of information in sync with a variety of PDAs and smart devices, including Nokia and Palm smart phones I tested, as well as my iPhone.

The Safari Web browser is speedy, though not always compatible with all Web sites — including the WordPress software I use to run this blog, which means downloading the free alternative, Firefox, for working with those site which Safari won’t play nice.

Though Mac users pride themselves on being free from nasty viruses and spyware attacks, the reality has more to do with the fact that Apple’s worldwide market share of around 5 percent is too small an audience for hackers to bother with. It’s much better to focus on Windows-based PCs, which is why users of those boxes must be sure to install and maintain anti-virus and anti-vandal programs.

All the same, it would be nice to see Apple bundle even trial anti-spyware and protection programs like those offered by Intego, because it’s not a question of will the Mac be hit by nasty attacks, but rather when. The more visible the company becomes, the more attractive it will be to tear down the false blanket of security under which Mac users lie.

CREATIVE SWEETS

While Apple’s mail, contacts and calendar program will see any casual user or serious work-at-home user through a normal work day, it’s the after-hours goodies bundled with the iMac that make the platform such a creative-thinking partner and standout entertainer.

Included with the iMac are Apple’s latest versions of its consumer-friendly digital photo management and movie-, music-, DVD-, and Web site-making tools. They all work well together and with other programs such as Mail, making it easy to, say, select a photo in iPhoto and e-mail it as an attachment or save a home movie created with iMovie in a format that plays on an iPod or iPhone.

Those working with huge amounts of data like video will appreciate the Firewire 800 port on the back of the iMac, for plugging in digital camcorders and additional Firewire storage devices.

A built-in iSight webcam offers face-to-face chats with fellow iChatters and Windows-based AIM users also equipped with webcams, and the program Photo Booth lets you take embarrassingly hilarious snapshots of yourself thanks to a host of carnival-mirror type special effects.

The ubiquitous iTunes manages music and downloaded movie purchases and infrared remote support lets you point and click your way through DVD movies, pictures, home video and music, all from the comfort of your sofa.

As for playing my favorite kind of game, first person shooters, the 20” model I tested came with the higher end 256 MB video card that’s better suited for the genre than the video card included with the lowest price iMac, which has only half the memory. That said, the iMac won’t win any gaming performance speed contests when compared to the maxed-out Alienware desktop I play on, built specifically to let gamers be all that they can be on the playing field.

The iMac’s single and most notable minus was the display’s lower pixels-per-inch ratio, which makes text on the screen look less crisp than it does on my MacBook. In a conference call with a few members of the iMac team, one attendee stated that the MacBook’s pixels-per-inch count is in the upper hundreds, while the count for the iMac I tested is below a hundred pixels-per-inch. While most users probably won’t notice the difference, I’m ultra-sensitive about sharp text, so I’d have a hard time getting used to it.

The other thing users coming over from Windows machines may miss is the lack of any kind of memory card reader slot, for plugging in digital camera and camcorder memory cards.

My final gripe is with the latest version of iPhoto, which still forces you to let it organize your photos according to its own strict and convoluted method of organizing things without giving you the option to simply manage your pictures based on folders you’ve already set up in the Pictures folder, the way you want them.

All told, the new iMac is better than the models it replaces, though if there’s anything that prevents a buy-now recommendation it’s that Apple has said nothing about whether it will give new iMac buyers a free upgrade to the Leopard operating system upgrade due in October. If you want a new iMac – or any new Mac, at this point – wait until October when all models will come with Leopard installed. Or if Apple announces free upgrades for those who buy now, whichever comes first.


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