iMac, Take Two

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Since Apple introduced it in 1998, the iMac has changed relatively little. Over the years, updates would bring a new color scheme, a boost in processor speed and installed memory, or maybe a change in optical drive options. But the new iMac unveiled by Apple Monday is, for the first time in nearly four years, a completely new version of the consumer-friendly computer, both inside and out.

Featuring a 15-inch flat-panel monitor attached to a white, domed computer via a flexible stainless steel neck, the all-new iMac isn't much bigger than a desk lamp. But Apple has managed to pack a lot of features into that space, including the three things the company says were most requested by iMac users: an LCD monitor, a G4 processor, and an optional DVD-burning SuperDrive. By doing so, Apple has made a desktop computer targeted at consumers that offers features Mac users have come to expect in higher-end models--a fact that CEO Steve Jobs was more than happy to point out Monday.

"These are the core technologies in the new iMac, and all are pro features," Jobs said during Monday's Macworld Expo keynote.

But more important than producing a consumer machine with pro capabilities, Apple has designed a computer that fits in with its digital hub strategy. The company believes more people are using devices such as MP3 players, digital cameras, and camcorders. But they need a central hub to get the most out of those devices. With its multiple ports and pre-installed applications, the new iMac is designed to be that hub--or so Apple contends.

"This is the ultimate digital hub," Jobs said of the iMac.

Say Goodbye to the iMac

Monday's debut of the new iMac marks the beginning of the end of the line for the original iMac. (As of Tuesday afternoon, Apple was still selling the G3-sporting models for $799 and $999 at its online store.) All the iMac did in the three and a half years after its launch was usher in a new era in computer design, make it easier for everyday users to explore the Internet, and play a crucial role in reviving Apple's fortunes in the late 1990s. Since the iMac's 1998 debut, Apple has sold 6 million of the multi-colored computers.

But it's been clear for a while that the original incarnation of the iMac didn't fit into Apple's long-term plans. Mac users have clamored for Apple to replace the G3 processor that powered the iMac with a G4 CPU; a similar swap in Apple's PowerBooks helped spark sales in that product line last year. Also, Apple has long been planning to drop CRT monitors from its offerings. Last May, Jobs vowed that Apple would be the first computer maker to have all LCD displays.

It Wants to Be Flat

To incorporate a flat-panel monitor into the iMac required a completely new design for the desktop. Apple considered a design that would have featured an LCD with most of the components directly behind the monitor. But such a design wouldn't have allowed for a SuperDrive. And it would have defeated the purpose of a flat-panel display, by making the machine big and bulky.

"Rather than glom all these things together and ruin them all, why not let each thing be true to itself?" said Jobs, explaining the rationale behind the iMac's new design.

The new iMac design, as seen from the front.

So Apple went with a 15-inch LCD screen with a resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels. The flat panel seems to float over the computer, thanks to the chrome-pipe neck, which is flexible enough to tilt and maneuver the screen with just a fingertip but durable enough to lift the extremely dense iMac base (the system weighs in at just under 22 pounds) out of its box.

The logic board, processor, and other components are housed in the iMac's pristine white base. Looking like a volleyball that's been sawed in half, the base is 10.5 inches in diameter. At its peak, it's about as tall as a CD jewel box. The optical drive--your choice of a CD-RW, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, or a SuperDrive--can be found on the front of the base, just below the silver Apple logo. The power button is on the base's left side, near the back. The ports (as well as a security slot) are on the back--a speaker jack, a headphone port, a power plug (which runs directly into the wall--no heavy power brick required), an Ethernet jack, a modem port, a VGA video output, similar to the one in the new iBook, two FireWire ports, and three USB ports. Plug in Apple's Pro Keyboard into one of those USB slots, and you get a fourth USB port--ideal for all those digital devices Apple reckons you'll be using. The FireWire ports share a single bus; two of the USB ports share a bus, while the other shares its bandwidth with the iMac's internal 56K modem.

The iMac's ports (left to right): Analog audio out, digital speaker out, FireWire (2), Ethernet, power, 56K modem, USB (3), video out. To the far right is the iMac's power button.

Like its predecessor, the latest iMac is expandable--but only to a point. Flip over the computer, and you'll find an access cover at the bottom of the base held in by four screws. Under the access cover is a single user-upgradable slot for additional memory--the iMac supports up to 1GB of RAM--and an AirPort card. Silhouettes show where the Dual Inline Memory Module (DIMM) and AirPort card go, so that you can install them without having to refer to a manual. (If you want to max out the iMac's RAM, you'll need to order it with 512MB installed on the internal, factory-accessible RAM slot, and then add your own 512MB module on the outside slot to bring the machine up to a full gig of RAM.)

Inside the iMac's base is a custom-designed circular motherboard, featuring a bus speed of 100MHz. Also aboard is a cooling fan, made necessary by the iMac's dense engineering and the heat of the high-speed G4 processor. However, Apple says the fan's as quiet as a whisper during normal use. In addition, the fan's intelligent enough to only crank up to full speed when it's really warm inside.

iMac: The Next Generation

The iMac has come a long way since its 1998 debut, when it featured a then-peppy 233MHz G3 processor, 32MB of memory and a 4GB hard drive. The new iMac--which features the same $1,299 starting price of the original--now runs on a 700MHz G4 chip. And that's just the low-end configuration.

The $1,299 700MHz model comes with 128MB of RAM, 40GB of storage, and a CD-RW drive. Bump the RAM up to 256MB, swap in a combo drive, and add Apple Pro Speakers and the price tag rises to $1,499. The high-end iMac features an 800MHz G4 processor, 256 MB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, Pro Speakers, and a SuperDrive; it costs $1,799. All three configurations come with an Nvidia GeForce2 MX graphics processor, a 256K on-chip level 2 cache, and 100MHz system bus.

The $1,799 model should be available by the end of this month. Apple expects to ship the $1,499 700MHz model in February, with the $1,299 700MHz version set to arrive in March.

None of the new iMac configurations breaks the $1,000 price point, a complaint Apple seemed to anticipate Monday. Jobs was quick to note that a G4 Power Mac and flat-panel display with similar specs to the $1,299 700MHz iMac would have cost around $3,500 last year.

iMac Outreach

For three years, the iMac has been Apple's primary tool for reaching out to first-time PC buyers and Windows users contemplating a platform switch. That hasn't changed with the latest revision. A 12-page promotional brochure Apple published to coincide with the iMac launch includes two pages dedicated to dispelling myths about the Mac and Windows platforms.

But it's clear Apple also has designs on convincing long-time Mac users to consider an iMac. Besides adding the flat-panel display and beefed-up processor to appeal to pro users, Apple is also shipping the new iMac with Mac OS X as the default operating system (users will still be able to switch the default to OS 9, if they choose); from now on, all Macs will ship with OS X as their default OS. The software included on the iMac, including Quicken, the World Book Encyclopedia, and a preview of FaxSTF, all runs natively in Mac OS X as well.

When Jobs launched the new iBook, he trumpeted it as a major product for education, and cited an initial order of thousands of iBooks for a school district in Virginia as proof. For the launch of the new iMac, Jobs made a similar argument, announcing that biotech pioneer Genentech had ordered 1,000 new iMacs and suggesting that as proof that the new iMac is powerful enough to gain admission into places you might never have expected to see an iMac before.

"You're not only going to see [iMacs] in homes, but in small businesses and large businesses and universities as well," Jobs said.

The superdrive at the base of the new iMac
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