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iMac and iMac Special Edition

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Since its debut in 1998, the iMac has become something of a celebrity, influencing the industrial design of everything from cell phones to PCs. Yet for all the design hype, Apple's goal with the original iMac was simple: to offer an Internet-ready, all-in-one machine that anyone could set up and use.

The latest additions to the line, the 500MHz iMac and 600MHz iMac Special Edition, carry on that tradition in grand form but with a new focus: music. Previous iMac releases targeted digital video and Internet readiness, shipping with DVD-ROM drives and iMovie, for example. The new models' inclusion of CD-RW drives and iTunes signals that these machines are all about the audio experience -- down to the color schemes that Apple says were inspired by music. Their only real drawback is the paltry amount of included RAM.

Made for Music

If you've been itching to get in on the digital-music revolution, all you need is an iMac and some 75-cent CD-Rs (to get you started, two are included). Both new iMacs come loaded with iTunes 1.0, Apple's software for playing and encoding MP3s and burning audio CDs.

The CD-RW drive is slower than top-end drives, writing CD-Rs at 8x and CD-RWs at 4x (newer external drives can write CD-Rs at up to 16x and CD-RWs at 10x). Still, it can write a disc in less time than it takes to play it -- about 10 minutes to burn 650MB. And because the CD-RW drives read at slower speeds than the DVD-ROM drives on these iMacs' predecessors, the new machines took longer to install Quake. However, most users will find these write speeds perfectly acceptable.

Speed aside, these new iMacs live up to Apple's "Rip. Mix. Burn." advertisements quite well. Ripping individual tracks in iTunes couldn't be easier. When you first insert a blank audio CD into an iMac with an Internet connection, iTunes automatically queries Gracenote CDDB -- an online database of CD artists, albums, and tracks -- and imports that information for you. When you turn CD tracks into MP3s, iTunes labels your new files and lists them in your music library.

Burning is equally easy. You drop your newly ripped tracks into a playlist, insert a blank CD, and click on the Burn CD icon. iTunes burns only audio CDs, however; to burn a data CD, you'll have to use Apple's free Disc Burner software. (For multisession, cross-platform, or video CDs, you need Adaptec Toast; Disc Burner burns only single-session CDs.)

Unlike the new line of Power Mac G4s, which rely on USB or FireWire for bringing in audio, these machines come with analog audio input and output minijacks and feature up to 16-bit stereo and a 44.1kHz sampling rate -- the standard for CD-quality sound. This is great if you want to use an audio source other than CDs or the Internet, such as a microphone or an LP deck.

iMovie Ready

For all their audio capabilities, these iMacs have sacrificed none of the DV-editing strengths of the previous models. They come with iMovie 2, two FireWire ports, and a 20GB drive (on the 500MHz model) or 40GB drive (on the 600MHz model) -- plenty of space to store your DV files. And both machines include an ATI Rage 128 Ultra graphics card with 16MB of SDRAM, for lightning-fast rendering during game play and video work. Although it can't match the GeForce3 (to be included in future Power Mac G4s), this is a great graphics card for consumer machines.

Appearances Aren't Everything

Apple, not content to encase these new models in mere solid colors, says the Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian motifs reflect the way music would look. That may be, but we're glad they also come in the familiar indigo (iMac) and graphite (iMac Special Edition).

Along with an optical Apple Pro Mouse and full-size Apple Pro Keyboard, these models come with a useful mix of software: Adobe Acrobat Reader; Apple's AppleWorks 6, Disc Burner, and iMovie 2; Palm Desktop; Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook Express; Netscape Communicator; and Quicken 2001.

Under the hood, the G3 iMacs fall short of their G4 siblings (see "Sound Bargains"). In every benchmark category, the 466MHz G4 Power Mac walloped the 500MHz and 600MHz G3 iMacs. In particular, the SoundJam and Quake test results show off the power of AltiVec-enabled applications when they're run on a G4 processor.

One limitation of the latest iMacs is their skimpy allotment of RAM. They ship with OS 9.1, but if you want to install OS X on the 500MHz model, you'll have to double its 64MB of RAM. The 600MHz Special Edition comes with 128MB of RAM, but even that seems more appropriate to a base model than to a high-end iMac.

And like previous iMacs, these models have only two RAM slots. This means that if you buy an additional 64MB of memory, both slots will be full.

New to these iMacs is the size of the backside cache: 256K, half the 512K of earlier editions and the current 400MHz model. Apple claims that since the cache runs at the same speed as the processor, rather than at a 5:2 ratio, the chips are roughly equivalent, and our experience bears this out. The new 500MHz model suffers more from the lower amount of RAM than from the smaller L2 cache.

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