The iMac Challenge

In the twisted world of television commercials and magazine advertisements, home computers have become so simple to use that they practically leap out of their boxes, set themselves up, and deliver Internet access to you on a silver tray. Of course, back here in the real world, no computer–not even the iMac–comes close to being that simple to set up and use . . . yet.

But everyone's trying. These days, Apple may be shouting loudest, but plenty of PC manufacturers–Gateway 2000 among the most prevalent–are making similar claims.

So, behind all the hyperbole, how does the iMac stack up? We assume–since you're reading this magazine–that you'd more than likely recommend a Mac to a friend or family member seeking your advice. But why? Is the iMac really easier to assemble and use? Faster to get on the Internet? A better deal?

To answer these puzzling questions–and to better understand how easy it is to integrate a computer into the home–we purchased a new, $1,200 iMac and a similarly configured and priced Gateway 2000 Essential 366MHz C. (For the complete specifications of both systems, see the sidebar "All the Pieces.")

We invited nine people on the verge of purchasing a home computer to get these new machines up and running all by themselves (see the sidebar "Meet the Panel"). All of our participants unpacked the boxes; set up the iMac and PC; and performed such routine tasks as connecting to the Internet, launching programs, and adjusting the computers' controls. (For more details, see the sidebar "Computer Obstacle Course.")

Each panelist's success with both the PC and the iMac depended largely on the panelist's previous computer experience. But the most surprising findings were the unexpected but problematic oddities that more-experienced users take for granted and easily work around. Computer commands that Microsoft and Apple assume are intuitive are actually not very straightforward. For example, when we asked the panelists to go to the Mac's Finder , a few members started hunting around for the computer's find option. In the end, both Apple and Microsoft could stand to learn a little from the other, and both interfaces still have a long way to go before they're as easy to use as one would hope.

Ready, Set, Go

For seasoned computer buffs, assembling a computer is probably less difficult than programming the family VCR. And setting up a computer in Macworld Lab is an even easier task. Our state-of-the-art facility comes equipped with ample outlets, proper lighting, and plentiful cords and connectors. But chances are, your home doesn't have the same arrangements. So to create the most realistic experience for our testing, we designed a cozy home environment, complete with heavy living-room furniture and awkwardly placed wall outlets, at the Embassy Suites hotel in Burlingame, California. Be- fore each person arrived, our lab analysts dutifully restored each computer to its original state, disassembling the components; rebagging the parts, documentation, and cables; and carefully putting all the items back in the boxes exactly as they were when the boxes were first opened. And with each new panelist, we found that these so-called easy computers were more puzzling than the advertisements imply.

Getting Connected

No surprise here: the iMac, with its all-in-one design, took the least amount of time to set up. On average, our panelists took under six minutes to pull the iMac from the box; plug in the power cable, keyboard, mouse, and modem; and turn on the computer.

The Gateway 2000 PC, which comes as a bundle of three separate packages (the minitower, a monitor, and speakers), includes a wealth of color-coded cables and step-by-step instructions. Our panelists spent an average of over 20 minutes unpacking and setting up the PC, which isn't actually bad when you consider how long it used to take to set up any computer. And remember, this is a onetime headache–once the computer is set up, you won't have to hassle with any more cords, adapters, and the like.

Some of our panelists–especially those who first tested the iMac and then moved to the PC–were confounded by the sheer number of parts and cables they needed to hook together to assemble the PC.

"Good Lord! This is a nightmare," said David as he opened the box that also contained the PC's CD-ROMs and manuals. Upon seeing the three PC boxes, Doug–who also started with the iMac–said, "I'm already depressed . . . three boxes instead of one."

A couple of panelists attempted to turn on the PC before they'd made all the connections. Eliza failed to plug in the monitor. "I mixed all the cords up," she said when she realized her error. "There are too many of them."

First impressions of the iMac were far more positive. Jonelle declared the iMac "one cute little thing" and suggested that the all-in-one package was "all you'd want." And as soon as Letha pulled the iMac from the box, she exclaimed, "Oh, I like it already!"

ADVANTAGE: iMAC
Internet Connection

Even though the i in Apple's iMac stands for "Internet," we discovered that our panelists got online faster with Gateway 2000's PC. Thanks to Gateway.net, the company's own Internet service provider (whose account software is included on the computer's hard disk), our panelists simply clicked on the Internet icon to explore the World Wide Web. In less than 15 minutes, each panelist signed up for an account and got onto the Web.

In contrast, our panelists took over 24 minutes to get online with the iMac's default Internet service provider, EarthLink. The long-winded tour guide in the Internet Setup Assistant delayed getting online.

ADVANTAGE: PC
Some Assembly Required

The easy setup of the iMac made a big impression on our panelists. Almost all agreed that the iMac's quick assembly is great for new users. And although most of our panelists were initially daunted by the number of parts that came with the PC, everyone found the color-coded cables helpful and thought the flowchart instructions were coherent and easy to follow.

In the end, the iMac's all-in-one design will spare you the confusion and hysteria of staring at a roomful of boxes, parts, and cables. On the other hand, the PC, with its colored cables, was no more difficult to assemble than an average home stereo system (or Apple's Power Mac G3, for that matter). Once you have the electronics set up in your house, you'll probably never have to think about assembly again.

ADVANTAGE: iMAC

We asked our panelists to use each computer's help and file-finding features to figure out how to change the volume; play an audio CD; launch a word-processing application; create a new folder; and create, save, and move a new document.

Getting Help

One of the Mac's advantages is that the desktop always looks the same regardless of who you bought your computer from. Unfortunately, that's not the case with some Windows-based computers. If you buy a computer from Dell, for example, the desktop may look different than that of a computer made by another manufacturer, such as Gateway 2000.

Our users bumped into this problem when they double-clicked on the Help icon on the Gateway's desktop. Instead of finding the information about Windows they expected, they stumbled upon tips for contacting Gateway 2000. Most panelists were stumped when they couldn't find the Windows-specific information they were seeking, and they asked us for pointers to find the actual Windows help system.

To the Mac's credit, the panelists immediately found and accessed the help feature from the iMac's menu bar or by pressing the help key on the keyboard. "I'm just amazed at how computers know how to do all this," admitted Letha. Since the Mac's Help menu is always visible on the Mac menu bar, it is much easier for new users to find their way through a sometimes daunting interface.

ADVANTAGE: iMAC
Playing Tunes

Both the Mac's and the PC's volume control can be accessed by double-clicking on the speaker icon on the Control Strip or menu bar, but since the symbols on icons weren't obvious to our new users, most found what they needed by using each computer's help feature. And many panelists said that they'd prefer to use the controls on the front of the external speakers instead of fussing with the software. Unfortunately, the iMac's self-contained case doesn't have external volume controls.

Opening the PC's CD-ROM drive and playing music was a snap for all our evaluators. But the iMac's ambiguous-looking drive was not as popular–neither Kevin nor Doug spotted the drive immediately. And all of our panelists were hesitant about pulling open the drive, since most were accustomed to a fully extended tray like you'd find on a PC or your home stereo. And listening to tunes on an iMac wasn't much fun for Howard and Jonelle, since they inadvertently turned off the computer in an effort to pop out the CD-ROM drive tray.

ADVANTAGE: PC
Working with Documents

Luckily it's not too difficult to create word-processing documents on either computer. If our participants could not locate Micro-soft Word 97 on the PC or Apple- Works on the Mac, they dutifully used the Find command to track down the respective program.

Those jurors who had used either Windows or the Mac OS before instinctively went to the Start menu to launch Word 97 or dug through the iMac's hard drive to locate AppleWorks. And although our panelists found both applications in a short amount of time–approximately four minutes–most of them were delayed in Word 97 due to Microsoft's animated paper clip. Until they closed the talking-paper-clip window in the bottom right corner of the screen, they couldn't type in the document. Julianne expressed her frustration by repeatedly clicking on the talking paper clip, saying, "Go away! Go away! Go away!" while her son, Cameron, pleaded, "He's cool! I don't want him to go away!" Eliza was less charitable: "This guy drives me crazy. He's annoying."

Although everyone created a new folder fairly quickly on the Mac, many of the panelists struggled with this task on the PC. However, once we pointed out the right-click mouse feature on the PC, our panelists were awed by the handiness of the pop-up contextual menus with the New Folder option.

ADVANTAGE: iMAC

Now, some may say that comparing an iMac to a PC is like comparing an apple to an orange, but when it comes to hardware, both computers met the same requirements. Apple's iMac and Gateway 2000's PC both cost $1,200 and include comparable modems, monitors, and amounts of memory. And yet, of our nine panelists, five thought the low-cost PC was a better value.

Why? Because, as David remarked, "It feels like you're getting more stuff." Granted, this seems to be at odds with the feelings that "more stuff" made setting up the computer more difficult. However, our panelists cited reasons beyond the visceral for casting their value vote to the PC.

Room to Grow

Doug worried about the iMac's lack of expandability. The Gateway PC–with its three PCI slots–assured Doug that he can install new audio or video cards if he needs to. The iMac, with its closed-case design and lack of expansion slots, can never do that.

ADVANTAGE: PC
Compatibility

Regardless of how much you love the Mac, there's one pressing concern for people who work in a corporate environment: compatibility. Kevin, like others in the workforce, is concerned about bringing a Mac into his home since most offices are equipped with PCs. Even though there is an abundance of software programs that bridge the compatibility gap between Windows and the Mac OS, it's too much trouble for some users. Howard expressed concern with the iMac's missing floppy drive, since he would probably be transporting data from work to home.

ADVANTAGE: PC
Style

Love it or hate it, the iMac makes a bold, visual statement. Such cannot be said for the predictably beige PC from Gateway 2000. For some of our panelists, however, the iMac's design worked against it.

Because of its traditional design and packaging, the PC appeared to be more of a "real" computer than the iMac and therefore more valuable. Jonelle, who considers herself a "Mac person" surprised herself by saying that the iMac felt "more like a toy than a machine."

And while Cameron thought the iMac looked "cool," his mother, Julianne, was less impressed, saying that the iMac's look was "juvenile" and that she'd never consider placing one in an office. Because of its colorful two-tone appearance, Kevin thought of the iMac as a "computer lite," with the design emphasizing that it was "your first computer."

Letha admired the iMac's "simplicity," while David appreciated the iMac's compact size. He thought the iMac was a better value because "there's not much to screw around with." An apparently tidy soul, he also commented that the single-unit iMac would require less dusting than the PC and its components.

ADVANTAGE: TIE
Beneath the Surface

In the end, however, less measurable phenomena are what really matter when judging the overall experience of using any computer. What was difficult about each, and why? Which one felt faster? Which has a better monitor and better sound?

Both Apple and Microsoft have emphasized how intuitive their respective operating systems are to use. Our panelists, on the other hand, felt that both interfaces have their unclear elements. We've already mentioned the confusion surrounding the Gateway 2000 help system and the difficulty of creating a new folder on the Windows desktop. But some panelists had problems with the Macintosh OS as well. Doug, for example, was unfamiliar with Mac OS 8.5 and scoured the Apple menu for the Find command, not realizing that it had been renamed Sherlock.

ADVANTAGE: TIE
Need for Speed

Without knowing the megahertz rating of each computer, most of our panelists decided that the iMac felt faster to them. On paper, however, the iMac's 266MHz G3 processor is less impressive than the 366MHz Intel Celeron chip running inside the Gateway 2000. Since our participants ran only a few applications, most panelists judged the speed of the computers by the amount of time that elapsed between turning on the computer and accessing the desktop and on how responsive the computer was during normal tasks.

Interestingly, our lab tests show that the iMac and Gateway PC take the same amount of time to launch the operating system. For more Macworld Lab test results, see the benchmark, "Does the iMac Stack Up?" And for speed results for the new 333MHz iMac, see Reviews, elsewhere in this issue.

ADVANTAGE: TIE
The Big Screen

Looks can be deceiving: although the PC and iMac's monitors have the same viewable area, the screens appeared to be different sizes. Since the PC's monitor is a separate component, David, Howard, and Jonelle thought the PC's screen was larger than the iMac's. Letha and Doug thought the iMac's monitor looked better, whereas the other panelists reported no difference between the quality of the two displays.

ADVANTAGE: TIE
Now Hear This

As you'd expect, the PC's external Altec-Lansing speakers produce a much richer, fuller sound than the tiny speakers built into the iMac.

ADVANTAGE: PC
Take Control

In the never-ending battle between the notorious rounded iMac mouse and the plain-vanilla traditional PC one, our panelists preferred the PC's input device, hands down. Kevin felt that the iMac's mouse was awkward–although he assumed "you'd get used to it"–and he further commented that the iMac's keyboard was a little small. Eliza nicely summed up her impressions of Apple's input devices while unpacking the iMac: "What a funky-looking mouse." After using the iMac mouse for a while, Eliza confirmed what she originally suspected: the mouse is too small, with an awkward shape, and it's too easy to lose track of which end is up. On the other hand, Letha, new to the entire world of computing, was simply enchanted by it all.

ADVANTAGE: PC
Putting the Pieces Together

When it comes to finding the best computer for your home, you're the best judge. Our panel of first-time users provided insightful interpretations of their experiences working with both the iMac and a Gateway 2000 PC. To fill out the picture, Macworld Lab conducted performance tests, evaluated the bundled software, and took a gander at each company's tech-support and Internet-fee policies. Here's what we found.

Overall, the iMac is without question the easier computer to assemble, thanks to its all-in-one design and straightforward instructions. Although Gateway's PC was certainly cord-laden and although our panelists initially found this plethora of cables and components overwhelming, don't place undue importance on cables. Whether you have a PC or a new Power Mac G3, the minor annoyance of coping with cables is primarily an issue only when you first assemble a computer. Once the systems were set up, our panelists found Gateway's path onto the Internet slightly straighter than Apple's. Gateway's default Internet service provider, Gateway.net, is free for the first year on computers costing $1,299 and more (our 366MHz test system fell short of this mark by $100). Even though the small print points out that you have to pay $75 for the software to set up your Gateway.net account, you still pay less in a year than you do to use Apple's default ISP, EarthLink, which is free for the first month and $19.95 per month thereafter for unlimited access, with a wealth of toll-free phone numbers. With reduced rates for six-month plans, you can find even better deals.

In addition to recording the independent observations of the panelists, Macworld Lab compared the experience of using each system on a daily basis. Superficially, Windows and the Mac OS provide essentially the same level of intuitiveness and power. However, Windows' roots as a DOS shell are still too easily exposed. Start mucking about within Windows and you'll quickly get entangled in confusing code.

Today's Mac OS, on the other hand, is part of the ongoing evolution of this intuitive operating system–it effectively insulates you from encountering any arcane programming. Sure, troubleshooting any computer can be frustrating, but more often than not, solving a problem on a Windows-based computer will trap you in the inner workings of the operating system.

When it comes to technical support, Gateway 2000 offers the better deal: one year of free support for hardware, and 90 days of technical support for all bundled software, including Windows 98. After the free periods have expired, you can choose to call one of two lines–one that charges $25 per incident or one that charges $1.95 per minute. Both services are available day or night, any day of the week.

Unfortunately, Apple's technical-support services are less flexible. Although Apple successfully includes several help tutorials on the iMac's desktop, Apple gives you free support for only 90 days, and non-Apple software isn't covered. After 90 days, you can choose from three support options: $35 per incident, a 3-incident option for $69, or a 15-incident option for $340. Apple's iMac technical support line is available 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, Central time.

The Last Word

So in the end, how did the iMac fare? After it trounced the PC on setup, the rest of our tests left the two on fairly even ground. Neither computer's faults can be considered deal breakers, and neither computer dominates in any critical area. Our panelists thought the PC edged out the iMac in the Internet hookup department, but in reality, getting connected on either machine is an acceptably straightforward affair and something you have to do only once.

The panelists also gave the PC the vote for expandability. Fair enough, but keep in mind that most home users won't want to crack open the case once their computer makes it into the living room. Instead, they'll opt to use USB ports when it's time to add a peripheral such as a Zip drive. And compatibility? Since most major applications are compatible across platforms, opening files on either machine is generally no big deal. At the end of the day, then, they're both solid, capable home computers.

But we can't complete this comparison without considering one thing that won't show up on any spec sheet or price list: the overall elegance of each computer. We looked for the same type of deep care and craftsmanship you sense when driving a Porsche or operating a Bang & Olufsen stereo–their technological capabilities have been refined to the point where they transcend the sum of their parts to become something greater. In the end, that same passionate attention to detail exists in any Macintosh, including the affordable iMac. And that, more than its distinctive design or omnipresent ad campaign, is what ultimately makes the iMac stand out.

Contributing Editor CHRISTOPHER BREEN pens Macworld's monthly Game Room column and is a co-author of a forthcoming book about the iMac. Editor MICHAEL PENWARDEN has evaluated hundreds of PCs and Macs during his career. July 1999 page: 69 Meet the Panel

We gathered together nine individuals who were contemplating buying a new computer to use in their home. Our jurors were a diverse bunch–of all ages, backgrounds, and attitudes about computers. A few panelists use a computer in the office, while others have hardly touched a keyboard or a mouse. In the end, however, each person was interested in the same thing–getting connected at home. Chances are, these panelists probably sound like someone you know, or maybe they even fit your personal profile. Whether for budgeting the family finances, surfing the Web, telecommuting, or playing arcade games in the living room, everyone agreed that an easy-to-use computer is an essential addition to any home.

CAMERON AND JULIANNE

Our youngest participant, Cameron, is a 9-year-old aspiring baseball player who uses a Mac at school and a PC at home. His 28-year-old mother, Julianne, is also a student and home decorator who uses the home PC.

DAVID

David, a 29-year-old journalist who started with PCs in school and a 512K Mac at home, now uses a PC at work (running Windows 3.1) and recently purchased a new PowerBook for his home.

DOUG

Doug, 45, is a musician who employs both Macs and PCs for MIDI sequencing and sound editing.

ELIZA

Eliza, 26, works for a PC-equipped nonprofit organization but used a Power Mac in her previous job.

HOWARD AND JONELLE

Howard, a 56-year-old legal anthropologist, and Jonelle, a 55-year-old bookkeeper, have a Mac at home and PCs at work.

KEVIN

Kevin, a 37-year-old attorney, claims that besides word processing an occasional letter, he has virtually no computer experience.

LETHA

Our 33-year-old chiropractor, Letha, doesn't own a home computer and rarely uses the PC at work.

All the Pieces

APPLE iMAC

Price (including shipping) $1,199
Processor 266MHz G3
Memory (RAM) 32MB
Hard drive 6GB
CD-ROM drive 32 x
Monitor 15-inch
Modem 56-Kbps

GATEWAY 2000 ESSENTIAL 366c

Price (including shipping) $1,215
Processor 366MHz Intel Celeron
Memory (RAM) 32MB
Hard drive 8.4GB
CD-ROM drive 32 x
Monitor 15-inch
Modem 56-Kbps
Computer Obstacle Course

Each of the nine panelists braved our computer obstacle course to evaluate Apple's iMac and Gateway's PC based on how easy it was to perform the following five tasks.

The panel was given a list of detailed instructions to test how simple it is to get started with these computers. Both a Macworld editor and a lab analyst observed and timed the panelists as they worked with each computer. After each completed task, the panelists rated their experience.

TASK 1: Plug it in.

Unpack the computer boxes, untangle the cords, consult the manufacturer's instructions (if necessary), and turn on the computer.

The iMac was up and running in less than six minutes, thanks to its all-in-one design. The PC's average setup time was just over 20 minutes.


TASK 2: Hook it up.

Follow the computer's electronic instructions for registering for an Internet account and getting connected to the World Wide Web.

Thanks to Gateway's own Internet service provider, our panelists were online in about 15 minutes. With the iMac, our users took more time (an average of 25 minutes) to get e-mail accounts, since they listened to EarthLink's talking assistant.

TASK 3: Get help.

Use the computer's help and find features to learn more about performing basic functions, locating applications, and customizing your desktop.

Our panelists found the answers in Apple's Help menu in about five minutes; it took them only about seven minutes on the PC.

TASK 4: Turn it up.

Locate each computer's sound controls. Adjust the volume by using the electronic control panel or the speaker knobs. Lastly, play an audio CD in the CD-ROM drive.

In our tests, our users adjusted the sound in about two minutes.

TASK 5: Write it up.

Locate the word-processing application, create a new document, and save the document to a newly created folder on the desktop.

Our panelists found AppleWorks and created a document, clocking in at about seven minutes each. The same task using Microsoft Word 97 on the PC took our panelists less than 12 minutes on average.

Does the iMac Stack Up?

APPLE

iMAC 266MHz

Times in seconds. Shorter bars are better for all tests, except for Quake scores.

GATEWAY 2000

ESSENTIAL 366c

BEHIND OUR TESTS

For the file-duplication and Zip copy tests, we used a 25MB Adobe Photoshop file. In our print test, we printed a ten-page text document to an Epson Stylus Color 740; we used each system's bundled word-processing application (AppleWorks for the iMac; Microsoft Word 97 for the Gateway 2000 Essential) and connected the printer via USB (Universal Serial Bus). Frame rates were recorded with id Software's Quake using hardware acceleration.

–MACWORLD LAB TESTING SUPERVISED BY GIL LOYOLA

Does the iMac Stack Up?

Behind Our Tests

For the file-duplication and Zip copy test, we used a 25MB Adobe Photoshop file. In our print test, we printed a ten-page text document to an Epson Stylus Color 740; we used each system's bundled word-processing application (AppleWorks for the iMac; Microsoft Word 97 for the Gateway 2000 Essential) and connected the printer via USB (Universal Serial Bus). Frame rates were recorded with id Sofware's Quake using hardware acceleration.

Macworld lab testing supervised by Gil Loyola
recommended for you

Letters

Read more »

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments