Breaking down the Apple announcements

I’ve spent the past 24 hours letting Tuesday’s round of Apple announcements sink in. Coverage from the mainstream media has been pretty two-dimensional, and overly iMac focused. Besides which, I think the past 12 months of nonstop iPod and iPhone news from Apple has gotten us all out of the habit of reacting to pure Mac news from Apple.

But Tuesday provided us with more Mac news than you could shake a very large stick at. So let’s break it down.

The new iMac

The new, faster iMac looks a lot like the old one, especially when viewed from a distance. It’s the shape we’ve known since 2004, but now it’s clad in silver aluminum and black glass instead of being shiny white plastic. (Fans of the Oakland Raiders, buy this iMac immediately.) And while I hesitate to invoke the spirit of the great Sir Mix-a-Lot, I really like the new iMac’s backside: matte black, adorned with a shiny black Apple.

But enough about looks. The product line has gotten a speed boost, most impressively to a top-of-the-line 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. And the graphics processor has been upgraded to the the next-generation Radeon HD chipset. What struck me most about this upgrade, though, was just how powerful an iMac you can now buy. Toss in the built-to-order 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme processor, the top-of-the-iMac-line ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro with 256 MB of GDDR 3 memory, and the onboard FireWire 800 (which is on the entire product line), and this is a system that’s got professional-level power.

Yes, a video editor or 3-D renderer might demur. But most of the rest of us habitual pro Mac desktop buyers have to give the iMac some serious consideration. Steve Jobs came out and said it: Apple now considers the iMac line the home for “consumers [and] prosumers, but a lot of our pro customers as well.” As someone with a Power Mac G5 and an Apple Cinema Display sitting in my office at home, I’m sorely tempted to keep the monitor, but attach it to one of these new iMacs. And I’ve never, ever bought an iMac for my home before.

However, there are a couple aspects of the new iMac that will give some iMac buyers pause. One of them is the new keyboard, which essentially takes the feel of the MacBook’s built-in keyboard and transfers it to a desk-bound version. (See below for more on that one.)

The other interesting, and potentially controversial wrinkle with these new iMacs: they’ve traded the iMac’s old glare-reduction display for one that’s got a glossy coat. I’ve come to love the glossy screen on my MacBook, but with a laptop it’s a bit easier to reposition if you find yourself distracted by reflections off your screen. I think the iMac’s screen looks gorgeous, but glare is a pretty serious risk, especially on darker content. (When bright stuff is on the screen, it’s not a problem. But when things dip to black, you suddenly find yourself staring at… your reflection in the screen.)

Are these new iMacs earth-shattering, groundbreaking things? No. But they are part of the continued technological progress of the iMac product line, freshened up with a pretty new skin.

Keyboards

The iMac’s new keyboard looks great, but people who are used to keys with large amounts of movement (and accompanying noise) will be disconcerted by this new device. Quite honestly, I’m still not sold on it, and I’m a MacBook user.

It goes to show you the power of context: I’m used to a laptop feel on my laptop, but not when that same feel is under my fingers at my desk, on my keyboard tray. I’ve typed this entire article on the iMac keyboard, and while I’m adapting, I’m not ready to embrace the thing. Then again, I suppose I could get used to it over time: I’m not a keyboard snob in any sense of the word.

(Those of you who feel the need to argue of the merits of the Apple Pro Keyboard versus the original Apple Extended Keyboard versus the Matias Tactile Pro, don’t try this new keyboard unless you’ve taken your medication.)

Apple’s new Bluetooth keyboard, on the other hand, is the MacBook’s keyboard translated into standalone form. No home keys, no keypad, just the base set of keys (including half-height arrow keys) you find on the MacBook keyboard. Unlike my colleague Rob Griffiths, I have no problem with this. I think a super-tiny Bluetooth keyboard is a great idea. (Now when I can I pair it with my iPhone?) But I do admit that Apple should probably offer users a bit more keyboard choice, including a full-featured Bluetooth keyboard. (And Rob, I’ve got a “classic” Apple Pro Bluetooth Keyboard in a desk drawer here. You can have it.)

iLife ’08

After 20 months of waiting, it’s exciting to finally have a new version of iLife to kick around. As is de rigueur for iLife these days, the primary focus (in the Steve Jobs presentation, if not in the product itself) is on iPhoto. I can’t deny that it’s the most important program in the entire iLife suite. And iPhoto has definitely needed improvement over the years.

After incrementally improving the program’s speed over the past few years, now Apple has turned its attention to managing the large numbers of photos that users have collected since the heyday of digital photography began. Out go the so-very-analog Film Rolls, and in come Events. Although Apple’s marketing focuses on Events as a way to collect photos from, well, events , they’re actually good for grouping just about anything you can think of.

It appears that the existence of Aperture has really rubbed off on iPhoto, too. iPhoto’s editing tools keep getting more powerful, letting users get better results without having to learn Photoshop. And the new .Mac Web Gallery feature might finally make .Mac worth the money.

But for me, the big news in this release is iMovie. The first two versions of iMovie were groundbreaking, brilliant, and speedy. Then something bad happened: someone at Apple mandated that iMovie be rewritten entirely in the Cocoa development environment. The “upgrade” from iMovie 2 to iMovie 3 was a disaster that, in my opinion, the program never fully recovered from. A formerly stable, speedy product turned into a creeping, unstable, oft-crashing mess. I have largely refrained from editing my home movies for the past two years because my iMovie experience has been so terrible.

With iMovie ’08, I might just have to get back to the editing grind. This new version of iMovie is the true iMovie III, a third go-round at an easy video-editing concept. Since I haven’t used it myself, I can’t endorse it yet, but the concept certainly seems to be pretty sound. Since it’s essentially a 1.0 product, I’m sure there will be some bugs to work out. Let’s hope Apple addresses them quickly, rather than forcing us to wait for iLife ’09 (or iLife ’10?) for a solution.

In other iLife news, if you’ve invested a lot of energy and enthusiasm in burning DVDs, you might want to consider selling that stock and buying something else. Jobs dissed the DVD big time on Tuesday, suggesting that Internet video sharing (and presumably the lingering HD-DVD format war) have made DVDs a dying technology. Now, unless your grandma has a spiffy new computer and a broadband Internet connection, you may disagree with Mr. Jobs. It’s hard to argue with a gorgeous video streamed from .Mac onto a new iMac, but I think people will be sending DVDs to friends and relatives for a few years yet. Maybe it’s too early to consign iDVD to the ash-heap of history.

(But I admit, I’m now considering relocating all my home movies onto my Apple TV, so they can be viewed more easily than their current locked-up state on several iDVD platters.)

iWork ’08

And nearly three years later, the last shoe finally dropped. Now Apple has, with Mail, Keynote, Pages, and Numbers, an Apple-designed equivalent for Microsoft Office. When I asked Apple Vice President Rob Schoeben on Wednesday about who would use iWork ’08 versus Microsoft Office, he said something that explains a lot about Apple’s attitude toward the office software market.

“I think that everyone who intentionally buys a Mac will be interested in this, because it’s fundamentally born of the same DNA as the Mac itself, OS X, [and] iLife,” he said. “[Mac users] bought into the idea that things should look right and be well designed and really easy to use… If you need to constantly roundtrip with other people who are using an Excel spreadsheet, you want Excel. But if you’re going to create something yourself, if 90 to 95 percent compatibility is fine, if you don’t really care about pivot tables and macros and things like that, you’ll prefer this.”

It’s an interesting perspective: If you need to use Office because everyone you work with uses Office and you pass documents back and forth, use Office. But if you’re mostly on your own and can rely on the export and import features of iWork, you can trade Office in for a $79 package that does office software in “the Mac way.”

What this means for the future of Microsoft Office on the Mac, I can’t say. I can’t imagine cross-platform workgroups abandoning Office for iWork — they’ll abandon Office for Google Apps instead! But if you’re an all-Mac shop, the promise of using Numbers and maybe even the word-processing features of Pages is pretty intriguing.

To extrapolate this, you just have to take a look at iWork’s oldest part, Keynote. I’m not sure how you use it, but I use Keynote for almost every presentation I give. I love it. But I do have to keep PowerPoint around, because twice a year I need to create a portion of a larger corporate presentation that is created mostly by Windows users. Keynote’s not an option for them, and though I could investigate using Keynote and then exporting my files to PowerPoint format, it’s easier for me to keep a copy of Office around.

But Keynote’s definitely gotten a foothold in my life. And if I had to choose Keynote (and some painful Keynote to PowerPoint conversions) or PowerPoint, one or the other, I’d choose Keynote in a heartbeat.

If Mac users embrace Numbers and Pages the same way, this could get pretty interesting.

Mac mini

Then there’s the Mac mini, which didn’t even get mentioned until the Q&A session at the end of the Apple Special Event. I love the Mac mini, and am not particularly happy about the rumors that it’s about to be told it’s going to be a made man and sent to a dark, empty room, if you get my Scorcese reference. As someone who has a server living in my closet, I find the Mac mini to be a fantastically versatile little guy. Like that French-cuisine-cooking rat in that movie that Steve Jobs’s other company made.

So I’m happy to report that the Mac mini survives to fight another day, sped up with a Core 2 Duo processor. It’s a shame that it never gets mentioned in Apple events anymore — Steve Jobs didn’t even mention it, instead allowing Tim Cook to talk about the upgrade — but I still love the Mac mini. Keep on fighting the good fight, little Mac.

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