2.0GHz and 1.8GHz iMac G5s

Some people call product-line updates that feature processor-speed increases “speed bumps.” Nowadays, though, it might make more sense to use the term “feature bumps.”

The latest iMac G5s are a case in point. Yes, their G5 processors are faster, but not to a degree you’re likely to notice without a stopwatch (or by consulting our benchmarks ). The real value of this update lies in a series of welcome improvements to other system components, starting with more memory and the addition of AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth cards (these cards are no longer mere options).

In appearance, the new iMacs are indistinguishable from their immediate predecessors. The choice among configurations hasn’t changed dramatically, either. The entry-level version has a 1.8GHz G5 processor (up from 1.6GHz), a 17-inch display, and a Combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM), and still costs $1,299. The midrange model—with the same 17-inch display but a faster, 2GHz processor (up from 1.8GHz) and a DVD-burning SuperDrive—stays at $1,499. Only the high-end configuration—with a 20-inch display, a 2GHz processor, and a SuperDrive—saw a price change: it now costs $1,799, down from $1,899.

More of Almost Everything

Within this framework of continuity, however, you’ll find plenty of changes that will improve your experience and maybe even save you money.

Double the Memory All three configurations now come with 512MB of RAM, up from 256MB; in other words, you no longer need to spend extra money just to give OS X the memory it really needs. And Apple was kind enough to put all 512MB on one DIMM, so if you want to add even more, there’s still a free slot.

Bigger Hard Drives The hard drives in the entry-level and midrange configurations have also doubled in capacity, from 80GB to 160GB, while the high-end model now has 250GB of storage, up from 160GB. As in the older models, these models’ Serial ATA drives spin at 7,200 rpm.

Wireless Built In AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth are now standard in all three configurations; previously, they were $79 and $50 options, respectively. The Bluetooth module implements the latest standard, Bluetooth 2.0+Enhanced Data Rate (EDR), which few, if any, other manufacturers have adopted. But once the new Bluetooth begins to appear in new phones and other gizmos, it should mean faster data transfers, longer battery life for portable devices, and smoother operation when multiple devices are connected simultaneously (for more on Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, see “Inside Bluetooth 2.0,” ).

Double-Layer SuperDrives Like the new Power Mac G5 models, new iMacs with SuperDrives can burn as much as 8.5GB of video or other data onto a double-layer DVD+R disc, compared with a maximum of 4.7GB onto conventional (single-layer) recordable DVDs. Put another way, one double-layer disc can hold about 3.5 hours’ worth of MPEG-2 video, compared with a single-layer disc’s 2 hours.

Improved Graphics Cards In all three iMac configurations, the ATI Radeon 9600 graphics processor with 128MB of video memory—the same card that’s now standard in the $1,999 and $2,499 Power Macs—has replaced the card used in last year’s iMacs, the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra. We didn’t notice the difference in routine use, but gamers will certainly appreciate it: in our Unreal Tournament frames-per-second test, the new iMacs handled significantly more frames per second than the old models.

Faster Networking All three iMacs now support Gigabit Ethernet, as well as the 10- and 100-megabit-per-second wired protocols supported by the older models. Most routers and switches for home users—including Apple’s AirPort Express and AirPort Extreme Base Station—still don’t support gigabit operations, but if you’ve got one that does, you’ll be able to move files around your local network much faster than before.

Not Perfect Yet

Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t fixed the few design drawbacks we found when we first looked at the iMac G5 last year. It’s still not as easy to adjust the display as it was with the dome-base iMac G4—in particular, there’s no way to adjust the display’s height. And even though Apple has given the Power Mac line convenient front-panel connectors for headphones and USB and FireWire peripherals, it still hasn’t brought this innovation to the iMac. Digital camera users would also appreciate a built-in reader for flash-memory cards—a feature now common among Windows PCs designed for the consumer market.

It may be worth noting that, according to anecdotal evidence, the iMac G5 in its original incarnation appears to have suffered more than its expected share of hardware problems—online forums, including Apple’s discussion area, include quite a few reports of failures; many of them describe bulging or even leaking capacitors on the logic boards. Apple says it isn’t seeing “anything out of the ordinary.” If this is true, let’s hope the new models turn out to be more reliable than past models.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

No single change in the latest iMac G5s is earthshaking, but together they add significant value to a series that was already quite appealing. Choosing the configuration that’s right for you is relatively simple, because the only major differences in the lineup now are screen size and optical drive. If you’re on a tight budget, and if you have no interest in burning DVDs (for distribution of video or for backing up data), the $1,299 model remains a real bargain. But for people who can afford a little more, the high-end configuration, with its vast screen, roomy hard drive, double-layer SuperDrive, and reduced price, is again the pick of the litter.

[ Henry Norr is a former editor of MacWeek and a former technology columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle . ]

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