Hands on with the new iMac

Two weeks ago, I put aside my Power Mac G4 tower and have used nothing but the new flat panel iMac (the 800 MHz/ SuperDrive). I have to say that Steve Jobs may be right: this could be the best Mac Apple has ever made, at least on a "bang for the buck" basis.

The flat panel iMac is everything the Cube should have been -- and more. In fact, I'm seriously considering trading in my Power Mac G4 for one of Apple's new flat panel iMacs. It's truly an incredible machine. And though it's technically a consumer system, the high-end model sports plenty of pro level features.

The US$1,799 model I'm using comes standard with an 800MHz G4 processor; SuperDrive for burning CDs and DVDs; 256MB of RAM; Nvidia GeForce2 MX graphics with 32MB of DDR memory (which triples the 3D performance over previous models); and Apple Pro Speakers. The only thing I've added (besides an AirPort card) is a $59 iSub subwoofer to beef up the Pro speakers.

Of all the nice things about the iMac (and there are plenty of them), perhaps the most groundbreaking is the "neck" that connects the 15-inch flat panel display to the base of the system.

The stainless steel neck enables easy positioning of the display. The screen can swivel 180 degrees, tilt from -5 degrees to 30 degrees, and be raised or lowered more than seven degrees. The neck uses a four-bar linkage system and a counterbalancing spring, giving the screen an appearance of weightlessness, yet provides enough resistance to ensure that the display stays exactly where you position it.

The display itself offers 25 percent more screen real estate than the typical 15-inch CRT. Based on TFT (Thin Film Transistor) active-matrix technology, the display features three screen resolutions up to 1024 by 768 pixels and supports 24-bit true color at all resolutions for displaying millions of colors.

Apple says one of the secrets of the pristine image quality is the base's digital connection to the display. While video information in a computer is always presented digitally, most displays are based on an analog VGA connection that requires a conversion of video data to an analog format and results in a loss of quality.

Even with most flat panel displays, the connection is still analog VGA, so the data has to be converted again -- from analog back to digital. Each time a conversion takes place, data is lost and display quality takes a hit. The new flat panel iMac offers pristine video quality by using an all-digital connection from the graphics processor to the display, ensuring a distortion-free image and no color loss, even at the highest resolution.

What's more, a mini-VGA to VGA adapter is available as an option. It will let you connect your iMac to a VGA monitor or projector. And an optional scan converter lets you connect it to a TV. Of course, doing this sort of ruins the aesthetics of the snow-white beauty.

The display also features a crystal-clear "halo" that surrounds and protects it. You grasp the halo with your fingers to move the display around. This means that you don't have to worry about getting fingerprints on the screen itself. The display's housing also contains a small microphone and AirPort antenna.

The base of the new iMac looks like half of a huge snowball. The base is less than 11-inches in diameter and is made of tough polycarbonate. It's meant to be touched and moved. Moving the iMac is pretty simple since the whole thing weighs around 21 pounds. Which means there's a good reason the iMac's base offers a Kensington locking port. If it's easy for you to move, it's also easy for a thief to move.

So how did Apple cram so much stuff into such a small area? The unique shape of the base means there are no wasted corners. Start with a custom-designed circular logic board and put a full-height optical drive (tray loading, not slot loading, as in the previous iMac line) above it, and top it off with a 3.5-inch hard disk drive and the power supply -- and, voila, there you are. The split design tucks neatly into the top of the base, even leaving room for a fan at the very top of the enclosure.

Even with all that inside the half-dome base, there's still room for an Nvidia GeForce 2MX graphics accelerator and power supply. There's no external AC adapter or "power brick"; you just plug the power cord into a small port in back of the Mac.

One of the most incredible things about the new iMac, as with the Cube, is its relative lack of sound. Though the Cube had no fan, the iMac does. However, it's a "smart" fan that's aided by a convection cooling system.

The base is well vented -- this allows Apple to offer a convection cooling system with a fan that spins only as much as needed. Cool air is drawn into the system through vents around the perimeter of the base, guided around and through all of the internal components and exhausted through vents at the top. The "smart" fan operates at different speeds depending on the internal temperature of the base. As the temperature falls, the fan spins more slowly and more quietly.

Apple says that under normal circumstances, the fan is barely audible and that, even with the hard drive chugging, the fan creates less than 25 decibels measured at a distance of three feet. That's less noise than a whisper in a normal room, which is 30 decibels at a distance of 15 feet.

Though the base is small, it has connections for Ethernet, modem, FireWire and USB. They're located on the back of the base, along with the speaker jack, headphone jack and power switch. Some folks complain that this makes it awkward to plug in peripherals or power on/off the iMac. But this placement was necessary for the design appeal that Apple wanted. Besides, all these connections (except the power switch) are located on the back of the professional Power Macs, and no one seems to mind.

But wait. There's still more room in the base. You can install an AirPort card with the greatest of ease. Beneath the base is an aluminum access cover, which is held in place by four "captive" screws. Take off the base and they stay attached; they can't roll or fall away. What's more, they're rounded so you won't snag 'em on your clothes or scratch your furniture. Removing the cover shows the AirPort card slot (as well as a slot for memory installation). Images are printed under the slots, making it easy to show where the cards fit.

Mac OS X -- now the default operating system on all new Macs -- runs effortlessly on the new system.

iMac owners could suffer from graphics envy if they look too closely at Apple's revamped Power Mac line, which comes with NVIDIA GeForce4 graphics in standard configurations. I'm not a hardcore gamer, but in playing around with the games American McGee's Alice and Giants on both the new iMac and a dual processor G4 with the aforementioned Geforce 4 graphics card, I couldn't tell too much difference.

Two other things that have a negative effect on the new iMac's overall performance is bus speed and a lack of level 3 cache. It has a 100MHz bus instead of the 133MHz bus present in all other Macs except the iBook. As for the level 3 cache and, along the same lines, "regular" Ethernet instead of the speedier Gigabit Ethernet, well, this is a consumer model, not professional system.

However, overall performance for most daily tasks is more than acceptable. As I use word processing apps, surf the Net, e-mail and instant message, I can't tell a great difference in the iMac and my Power Mac G4. So for most home, education and small business use, the high end iMac offers what is probably the best bang for the buck of any computing system on any platform.

And when you consider the incredible software bundle that the iMac ships with (AppleWorks, iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, iDVD, World Book Encyclopedia and much more) that value only increases. If the specs sound okay and you don't need the ability to add a second internal hard drive, second monitor or PCI cards, you'll love the good lucks and power that the new iMac offers.

I'm not quite ready to declare it the ultimate digital hub, but it's darn close. However, I'd love to see a "prosumer" model that takes the high-end 800MHz up another notch or two. My ultimate iMac would have a 17-inch monitor, 1GHz G4 processor and GeForce MX 4 graphics processor. Offer me that for around US $2,000 and I'll have a G4 tower up for sale.

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