My week with the iMac

If you buy the hype, the new iMac G5 is more than just a computer. Thanks to the addition of the Apple Remote and Front Row, it’s a stand-alone multimedia center that can play music and commercial DVDs in lush 5.1 surround sound (as long as you’ve got the right speakers, cable, and adapter), and project your iPhoto albums as slick slide shows.

But is there substance beneath that hype? To find out whether I could replace my television set, TiVo, home theater receiver, and 5.1 audio system (all controllable from the comfort of my couch) with a remote-controlled Mac-centric media center, I tricked out an iMac G5 with a select group of third-party peripherals and committed myself to using nothing but the iMac for all my media consumption for a week.

Details of my experiment follow, but I can safely say that while the iMac could serve as a dandy little second system, or as a starter setup for students or first-time apartment dwellers, my home AV gear won’t be appearing on eBay anytime soon.

Naked came the iMac

Of course, the new iMac G5 isn’t radically new. Out of the box, every Mac sold today could be the centerpiece of your multimedia life. This iMac’s advantage is that it packs more of the components you need—a large monitor, a remote control, and stereo speakers—into one package. Plus, its audio-output port can accommodate both analog stereo and digital 5.1 audio—handy for connecting to an external speaker system—and its three USB 2.0 ports and two FireWire 400 ports let it connect to plenty of peripherals.

That said, for the purposes of my little experiment, the 17-inch iMac just would not do. Its screen is big enough for work, but for watching movies and slide shows from across a room, you need something bigger. So I opted for Apple’s stock 2.1GHz iMac G5 with a 20-inch display (   ).

After I had unpacked the iMac and loaded it with pictures, music, and a few movies, I spent some time with it, to see how well it performed without peripherals. For the most part, it performed well. It couldn’t do TV, of course, but DVDs and photo slide shows looked very nice. While its on-board audio didn’t exactly rattle the rafters, the sound was far less tinny than I expected and perfectly adequate for movies and most tracks in my iTunes library, as long as I wasn’t feeling too picky.

Front Row was another matter altogether. At first, I thought it was great eye candy. But as I used it, its limitations became more apparent. Sure, Front Row will let you navigate through your iTunes library and control a DVD you’ve popped into the SuperDrive. But on more than one occasion, the application responded so slowly to the remote that I found myself frantically pressing the remote’s Menu button multiple times, thinking that the first try hadn’t registered. And although the interface controls are iPod-like, moving from one menu to another was cumbersome. All in all, while Front Row is functional, it feels incomplete.

So when it comes to multimedia, the new iMac, unadorned, is not that different from the previous generation of iMacs—and its remote control and software underwhelmed me. But what would happen if I really tricked out the iMac, so it could show and record radio and TV shows, play commercial DVDs, and let me control everything from across the room?

Sound experience

My iMac makeover started with the audio system. As I say, the built-in speakers sound surprisingly good, considering that they’re buried inside the computer’s slim case. But while they’re fine for watching old episodes of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show , they just don’t have the power you want when you’re watching blockbuster movies that are longer on special effects than on plot.

Logitech’s Z-5450 Digital 5.1 Speaker System

To beef up the iMac’s sound, I chose Logitech’s $500 Z-5450 Digital 5.1 Speaker System . These speakers sound great (despite their small size); the rear speakers connect wirelessly to the control unit (you do have to plug each into an electrical outlet); and the system supports three digital inputs (two Toslink and one coaxial).

Once I had unpacked the speakers, I grabbed a spare Toslink cable, only to then utter a mew of disappointment when I realized that (unlike my Power Mac G5) the iMac had no Toslink connector. Worse, Apple doesn’t even include a Toslink-to-minijack adapter in the box. Fortunately, I found that I had a spare Griffin Technology XpressCable ($20), which includes two such connectors.

Griffin Technology’s XpressCable

I plugged the speakers into the control unit and tethered the control unit to the iMac with the Toslink cable and adapter. The Output portion of the iMac’s Sound preference pane then proudly displayed Digital Out as its chosen option. I pressed the Optical button on the Logitech remote control until the control unit showed Input Optical 1. Then I inserted the first disc of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King into the iMac’s SuperDrive, waited for DVD Player to pop up, selected Play Movie, and fell back in wonder when glorious 5.1 sound filled the room.

Then, fearing I was disturbing the family, I tried to turn the volume down with the Apple Remote. No go. This remote (and the volume keys on the Apple keyboard) can’t control the volume of the iMac’s digital audio output. For the time being, that meant I needed two remotes to enjoy my DVD movies: the Apple Remote, for navigating DVD menus via Front Row, and the Logitech remote, for controlling the speakers.

While the speakers certainly gave the necessary oomph to my DVDs, they just couldn’t match the sound of my tried-and-true B&W home stereo speakers when it came to music playback. Although you can adjust the levels of each speaker (adding and subtracting bass by changing the subwoofer setting), the small satellite speakers and subwoofer don’t offer the same rich audio experience as a pair of well-balanced stereo speakers that contain full-size speaker cones.

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