Hands on with the eMac

To me, Apple's hardware line seems to be divided up into three niches: consumer (the eMac and iBook), the prosumer (the iMac, at least the new 17-inch model) and the professional (Power Mac towers and the PowerBook). This, of course, doesn't count such goodies as the iPod and the Xserve. And, of course, Apple doesn't divide its product line in this way. (Heck, I think of the 12-inch iBook as Apple's subnotebook, and the company certainly doesn't go for that designation.)

However you divvy up Apple's product line, the eMac is a consumer machine -- and a very nice one at that. It's the best Mac for the price conscious and for education environments because it offers decent performance, a nice design, and ruggedness at a good price.

First announced in April for the educational market, then released to the general public in June "due to strong consumer demand," the eMac is probably what the new generation of iMac was supposed to look like before Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive cooked up the flat panel design. Though the eMac is now offered in a variety of configurations, I test drove the original offering, which has a 17-inch CRT display (16-inch diagonal with up to 1280 x 960 pixels in 24-bit color), a 700MHz Power G4 chip, and a CD-RW drive for US$1,099.

Though it's certainly not as good-looking as the flat panel iMac, the eMac's all-in-one, snow colored design is attractive. And, as the logical successor to the original iMac, the eMac has slimmed down. It's 8 mm less deep than the original, 15-inch iMac.

It's also more rugged. As a former teacher, many educators that I know have been concerned that the flat panel iMac, though gorgeous and offering incredible bang for the buck, wouldn't last long in a classroom. After all, mix young kids and/or teenagers with that swiveling neck, and ... well, it's trouble waiting to happen.

The eMac's screen comes with five screen resolutions: 640-x-480 pixels at a refresh rate of 138Hz; 800-x-600 pixels at a refresh rate of 112Hz; 1024 x 768 pixels at 89Hz; 1152-x-864 pixels at 80Hz; and 1280-x-960 pixels at 72Hz. Setting the screen to a higher resolution offers more workspace, but the larger the resolution the smaller text and icons appear. But, hey, that's why the variety of resolutions is so nice. In any resolution, the monitor offers a crisp picture.

If you want to spring for an optional $19 adapter, you can also connect to an external VGA display. However, you'll only be able to mirror your built-in screen, not expand your desktop.

The 700MHz G4 is a big boost from the G3 chip in the original iMac line -- on some tasks. Despite the "need for speed" that most Mac users feel, if you spend most of your time doing word processing, sending e-mail and surfing the Web, you're not going to notice that big of a difference on a G3 and G4 machine. However, the G4 makes a noticeable impact if you're working with iTunes, iMovie and other applications that take advantage of the G4.

The eMac has two speakers on its front. They sound decent, but audiophiles will certainly want to get some external speakers that include a subwoofer. Harman Multimedia's SoundSticks or new Creature speakers are excellent choices. I also like the fact that Apple is offering speaker grilles that can be removed or inserted. They'll definitely need to be inserted in school environments.

On the down side, the eMac ships with only 128MB of SDRAM. That's barely enough to run Mac OS X.

The documentation that comes with the eMac is pretty scant, which could be a problem for newbies and "switchers." The warranty includes one year parts and labor and 90 days' toll-free technical support. A three-year AppleCare extension will set you back $149.

You'll also want to note that the eMac weighs about 50 pounds, but doesn't come with side handles, so it's a bit difficult to move around. And the power switch, located on the side behind the row of connectivity ports, isn't easy to find.

Besides the model I tested, there are also a $1,199 model with a combo drive (DVD/CD-RW), and a $1,483 version that packs a combo drive, 512MB of RAM and an eMac Tilt & Swivel Stand (you can buy the stand for other models for $59). All three offer 40GB hard drives, five USB ports, two FireWire ports, built-in 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, a 56K V.90 modem, AirPort support (you'll have to buy the card separately), integrated 16-watt digital amplifier and stereo speakers, an audio-in port, headphone jack and microphone.

And all come with a Nvidia GeForce2 MX AGP 2X graphics with 32MB of Double Data Rate (DDR) video memory. That's a decent graphics card, but not as powerful at the ones in the 17-inch iMac or, naturally, the pro systems.

They also have a nice suite of bundled products, that include iMovie, iTunes, iPhoto, AppleWorks, Mail, Quicken Deluxe 2002, QuickTime, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mac OS X Mail, WorldBook Mac OS X Edition, PCalc, OttoMatic, Deimos Rising, and Acrobat Reader.

Overall, the eMac is a great deal. As Apple says, it's the most affordable G4 Mac ever. And, whatever configuration, you get, it will be well worth the price. All eMac models are available immediately from the Apple Store, at Apple's retail stores and through Apple Authorized Resellers at a suggested retail price of $1,099.

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