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iMac and iMac Special Edition

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Apple's latest iMacs could inspire some differing opinions. Some may celebrate the idea that with the new 600MHz iMac, Apple provides almost the same machine it released earlier in 2001 (Reviews, June 2001), but with more RAM, a bundled copy of Mac OS X, and a more traditional color scheme--all for $200 less than the previous 600MHz model. These same people will likely cheer for the new top-of-the-line iMac, the $1,499 Special Edition (SE), which runs at 700MHz and, like the 600MHz model, includes 256MB of RAM.

Others, however, may wonder

if Apple isn't coasting just a bit with this release. They might suggest that the iMac--now three years old and counting--is ready for changes somewhat more substantial than a faster G3 processor, a greater RAM allotment, and a roomier hard drive. They might also question whether a 100MHz-faster processor and a 20GB-larger hard drive really make this Special Edition "special."

We believe that the truth of the matter lies somewhere between these divergent viewpoints.

Few Changes

If you've used an iMac built during the past year, you'll find no surprises in the new models. Each of these iMacs includes two USB ports, two FireWire ports, a VGA port for mirroring video on an external monitor (at the same three resolutions available to the iMac), a 10/100BaseT Ethernet port, a slot-loading 8*4*24 CD-RW drive, a 56K modem, an internal microphone, an audio-input and -output port, two internal speakers, an Apple Pro Keyboard, and an Apple Pro Mouse. Both iMacs include a welcome 256MB of RAM and an ATI Rage 128 Ultra graphics board with 16MB of VRAM, and either model is available in snow (white) or graphite (dark gray).

The reasonably beefy software bundle has changed little since the last iMac iteration. Apple's iTunes (and a rich collection of more than 11 hours of spoken-word and music MP3 files), iMovie 2, and AppleWorks 6 are preinstalled, as are FaxSTF 6, Quicken 2001 Deluxe, and three games from Pangea--Nanosaur, Bugdom, and the Flintstones-era driving game Cro-Mag Rally. On our 600MHz model, the bundled copy of Mac OS X was included on the Software Restore CD; the 700MHz iMac offers it on a separate disc. According to Apple, the system software that ships on all the new iMacs will be included on one Software Restore CD. We'd prefer that this weren't the case, as it prevents users from choosing where and how to install OS X.

The limitations of this Software Restore CD scheme become apparent when you attempt to restore a single application from the CD. In short, it can't be done. Regrettably, except for the Pangea games--which can be restored from a separate Applications disc--you can't reinstall copies of the bundled applications individually. Rather, you must restore all the hard drive's contents--erasing the hard drive (or partition if you've partitioned the drive) in the process.

Although the Software Restore CDs allow Apple to more easily protect its software from unauthorized distribution, they're far too limiting and cumbersome for users. In the future, Apple might address this shortcoming by including an installer that would allow users to reinstall only selected applications--without jeopardizing the contents of their hard drives. In the meantime, those who purchase one of these iMacs might be wise to put the CD-RW drive to good use and burn backup copies of each application and its support files.

Fair Gains

For the most part, the two iMacs performed as we expected. The new 600MHz model slightly outpaced the 600MHz Flower Power iMac SE, due to updated drivers in the version of OS 9.1 bundled with the new system. The new, 700MHz iMac SE produced the best scores--though none of its scores are really earth-shattering. In our Speedmark tests, for example, the 700MHz model bested the new 600MHz iMac by only six percent. The new iMac SE also squeezed out an extra five frames per second in our Quake III test. And in our iTunes MP3-encoding test, the iMac SE crossed the finish line nine seconds earlier than the 600MHz iMac. But considering this iMac's 100MHz-faster processor, we'd hoped to see greater gains.

We had also hoped Apple would include faster CD-RW drives in these iMacs. Although the included drives are adequate, their 8* write speed is rather slow--modern CD-RW drives often boast write speeds of 24*. We pray that the next iMac release will include faster media drives.

Mac OS X

Although Macworld Lab doesn't currently support an official suite of OS X tests, we were eager to get a feel for how these new iMacs performed with Apple's next-generation operating system. Although both were a bit sluggish with OS X 10.0.4, they fared far better with OS X 10.1. (Systems built before OS X 10.1's release ship with earlier versions of OS X installed, yet these machines come with an OS X 10.1 installation CD.) On the new 600MHz iMac, AppleWorks launched in a single bounce, and Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1 appeared after a mere two bounces. Even the Microsoft Word X Test Drive application, a version not yet completely optimized, was reasonably snappy. It launched in just three bounces and felt responsive--a great relief to us. Given OS X's ability to utilize the AltiVec functions of the G4 processor, we had wondered if a G3 processor could do OS X justice. With OS X 10.1 and these iMacs, our fears have been laid to rest.

Macworld's Buying Advice

These iMacs are perfectly capable computers that perform well enough for all but the most demanding users. Both iMacs turned in respectable scores in our Speedmark, Quake III, and iTunes tests, and they seemed to handle Mac OS X 10.1 with aplomb. The software bundle covers the basics and offers some compelling multimedia applications. The 256MB of included RAM is welcome, the CD-RW drive--though no speed demon--is useful, and while Apple has offered more-attractive iMac color schemes in the past, we can't say that we're sorry to see the last of Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian.

While the 700MHz iMac Special Edition is the fastest iMac ever produced, we expected more from it than slightly better performance and a higher-capacity hard drive. For that additional $200, you might expect a G4 processor or an Nvidia graphics board. We hope that the next iteration of the iMac Special Edition (and all iMacs, for that matter) will be truly worthy of the word special.m

Speedmark 2.1 scores are relative to those of an iMac 350MHz (1999), which is assigned a score of 100. Quake scores are in frames per second. iTunes and iMovie scores are in minutes:seconds. We tested each system with its preinstalled OS, the standard shipping RAM configuration of 256MB, a default system disk cache, and virtual memory enabled. We set displays to 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution and 24-bit color. We tested MP3 encoding with an audio-CD track that was 9 minutes and 25 seconds long and converted it using a default setting of 160 Kbps in iTunes 1.1. We tested Quake at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels, with graphics set to Normal.--Macworld Lab testing by Ulyssis Bravo and James Galbraith
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