First Look: The $899 iMac: An educator's perspective

Apple’s release of the iMac Education Configuration —basically a 17-inch dual-core iMac—completes Apple’s migration to an all-LCD product line, and represents one more step toward completing its transition to Intel-based computers. What does this mean for educators and IT administrators who are considering such computers for schools? There are many positives, but a few issues to weigh as schools deploy these new computers.

The new iMac is smaller, lighter, and more energy efficient than its eMac predecessor. That’s good for everyone. The iMac takes up less than half the space of the eMac, leaving more room for other materials like books, notebooks, and peripherals. Some schools may be concerned about the iMac’s form factor: At first glance, the iMac looks like it could fall over at the slightest touch. However, the iMac’s design has proven to be solid. My kids, both under six years of age, tip, rotate, and handle our flat-panel iMac daily, and it is no worse for wear.

With the transition to Intel architecture, however, schools will have to carefully review their software titles. Most current OS X-ready applications that have not yet been released in Universal Binary format should run fine in Rosetta, but many schools that are still relying on their old Classic versions of applications (those that require OS 9) will need to upgrade to OS X versions of these apps, as Classic applications don’t run on Intel-based machines. In addition, schools should be aware that AppleWorks, though not a Universal Binary, will run on the Intel iMac, but it is no longer pre-installed. This is a significant change for education customers as Apple no longer includes a productivity suite with the hardware.

AppleWorks licenses, when purchased in volume (10-99) begin at $29 each. Similarly, Microsoft Office is not in Universal Binary format, and will add $55 per license (minimum 5 licenses) to the price tag plus an additional $26.75 for the media set—and it lacks database, drawing, and painting tools. Apple’s own iWork suite ($29 per license, minimum of 10 licenses, plus an additional $15 for the installation DVD ) contains very good programs, but iWork also lacks database, drawing, and painting tools as well as a spreadsheet. Schools can take advantage of free open-source alternatives like OpenOffice.org or NeoOffice provided students, teachers, and IT administrators are comfortable with the risks inherent in open-source software. While commercial products suffer from bugs and performance issues from time to time, open-source programs generally lack commercial product support and are updated frequently, which could add work to your IT administrator’s plate.

The iMac’s built-in iSight camera is a very useful tool. The ability to simply snap a head shot from Photo Booth or use iMovie to record a video podcast without the need to connect an external camera will simplify these kinds of classroom assignments.

The fact that an Intel-based iMac can now run Windows, whether via Apple’s free Boot Camp software or third-party software like Parallels Desktop (   ), is a positive development. Many schools maintain multi-platform environments, and the ability of the iMac and all other Intel-based Macs to run Windows (or Linux) creates a multi-platform potential, while at the same time maintaining a single hardware vendor, and simplifying purchasing and hardware support.

Overall, the iMac in Education is a good offering for schools. The thinking that went into its configuration illustrates that Apple is still aware of the needs of schools and has stepped up to the plate in providing computers that are durable, easy to use, and run cross-platform applications. One can only hope that Apple will provide the same advantages on the new MacBook.

iMac checklist: What to consider

Considering upgrading from eMacs to iMacs? Here are some things every school IT administrator should consider:

  • Are your teachers and students relying on Classic applications? If so, are upgraded or similar titles available for OS X?
  • Do you have licensing or budget allotted to ensure that the iMac has a productivity suite?
  • What kind of applications will be used on the iMacs? Will the pre-installed RAM (2x256MB, no empty slots) suffice? Does the configuration allow you the flexibility you need?
  • Do your users frequently plug and unplug peripheral devices like digital cameras and video cameras?
  • Are you working in a networked environment that includes network-based home directories? If not, will the smaller (80 GB) hard drive provide adequate storage space for your situation?
  • Do you need any of the features removed from the education iMac? Bluetooth? SuperDrive? The Apple Remote control?
  • Will the iMac be used heavily for video/graphic intensive applications? If so, remember that the education iMac lacks dedicated video RAM. The commercial configurations do have dedicated video RAM.
  • [ Jeff Mao is the Coordinator of Educational Technology for the Maine Department of Education. ]

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