When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he looked at the jumble of names and numbers that made up the product line and blanched. Jobs immediately made order of chaos by paring Apple's offerings down to a few distinct products. After all, it's easier to sell folks something when they can actually remember what you sell.
The idea of keeping it simple appears to have gone out the window with the latest round of iMacs. When the iMac debuted two years ago, it came in one color, with one processor speed and one price tag. The product line has now swelled to four configurations and five colors (see "The Not-So-Usual Suspects"). You could buy eight brand-new iMacs and never get the same one twice.
The latest versions of the iMac don't have a huge boost as far as cold hardware specifications are concerned. The colors and prices really make the machines stand out.
Take the least-loaded of the new iMacs. It has the same 350MHz G3 processor and the 64MB of RAM included in its predecessor. But it features a new color, indigo, and a low price of $799. Think of it as a machine that offers easy Internet access while providing more pop than dumbed-down Internet appliances.
The $999 iMac DV model -- available in ruby and indigo -- now comes with a 400MHz G3 processor. Unlike with past iMac DV models, you won't find a DVD drive, just a slot-loading CD-ROM model.
The confusion begins with the inelegantly named iMac DV+. Available in ruby, indigo, and sage, the $1,299 iMac DV+ runs on a 450MHz G3 processor. It sports a 20GB hard drive -- twice as big as the original iMac's -- and adds a DVD drive.
Finally, there's the iMac DV Special Edition, a $1,499 machine that comes in graphite and snow. Unlike the original iMac DV Special Edition, which came with the same processor as the other models, this version features a 500MHz G3 processor. All the iMac DV models ship with iMovie 2.0.
There's something to be said for variety, but not if it requires you to consult a cheat sheet to make sure you're buying the computer with the DVD drive but without the graphite casing.
The new iMacs certainly win Apple some style points while keeping an aging product line fresh. As for simplicity, be happy with what comes inside the machine, because the names and specs on the outside are becoming more muddled than ever.