Visiting the iMac in Cupertino

The Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian color schemes in Apple's new iMac line have spawned heated criticism -- and wisecracks about LSD-inspired product design -- among many Mac users who flocked to the company's Web site to see photos of the new models. But outside of Apple and Macworld Expo Tokyo, few have actually seen the iMacs in person. Now we can count ourselves among the privileged after a visit to Cupertino to see the new machines.

When you enter the lobby at 1 Infinite Loop, you're greeted by a huge banner promoting the Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian iMacs. But the receptionist still sat behind a previous-generation Indigo machine. The new models were locked away in a small briefing room on the side of the building.

First things first: It's probably wise to withhold judgment on the new models until you've seen them "in the flesh." Flower Power, which has drawn the bulk of the insults, looks garish in the photos, but the colors appear much more subtle and muted when you see them live. Viewing the photos, it's easy to see why some people are using descriptions like "retro" and "psychedelic," but the designs appear more elegant and contemporary in person.

The new enclosures use a proprietary fabrication process in which the patterns are built into the translucent plastic, said iMac product manager Jai Chulani. Although it appears similar to injection molding, Chulani said it's a new process "that no one has ever done before with this size plastic." He pointed to one subtle detail: On the iMac's edges, where you would expect the patterns to wrap along the bend in the plastic, they don't. Instead, the patterns are angled within the plastic so they appear undistorted even in curved areas.

Outside of Apple employees, the company did not conduct focus groups to test the new color schemes, said product manager Greg Joswiak. In a focus group, potential customers examine a product and discuss its flaws and merits under the guidance of a trained marketing research specialist. But Joswiak contended that focus groups put people in "contrived situations," and are thus ineffective predictors of a product's success. Focus groups can also be potential leaks of information about future products, though that point did not come up in the discussion.

Graphite and Indigo, which Apple has retained in the new iMacs, were the most popular colors in the previous line, Joswiak said. Apple used Indigo in the 350MHz, 400MHz and 450MHz iMacs and Graphite in the 500MHz model. The new line features a 400MHz configuration in Indigo; a 500MHz configuration in Indigo, Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian; and a 600MHz iMac Special Edition in Graphite, Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian.

It's all DV

Aside from the new color schemes, the new iMacs feature FireWire, VGA and AirPort connections across the board, with CD-RW drives in the 500MHz and 600MHz models. (The VGA connection lets you mirror the display to an external monitor, but does not support dual-monitor display.) One result is that the "iMac DV" moniker is no more because all three models, including the entry-level $899 400MHz system with a CD-ROM drive, have digital-video capabilities. This also meant adding $100 to the low-end system price; the $799 iMac introduced last July lacked FireWire.

Adding CD-RW drives to the iMacs meant taking away DVD, Apple said. Although hybrid DVD-ROM/CD-RW drives are available, Chulani said volumes are too limited at present for the drives to be cost effective. And the company found that with sales of DVD players taking off, users given a choice would rather have CD-RW so they can burn their own audio CDs.

Some users have complained about the 64MB RAM allotment in the 400MHz and 500MHz models. Apple's response was that given a choice about what components to include, it opted for technologies like FireWire and CD-RW that could not be easily added later. Upgrading the iMac's RAM is easy, and the company expects that many resellers will offer the machines with 128MB as an extra bonus. The 64MB iMacs should be able to run Mac OS 9.1 with no problems, Apple said, and will also run on the final release of Mac OS X as long as you're not launching Classic applications. For full operation of Mac OS X, you'll need 128MB of RAM.

The iMacs are officially shipping, and Apple expects some to appear on retail shelves as early as this weekend. We checked out Elite Computers & Software, the Cupertino Apple Specialist that's often among the first recipients of new Mac products, but the new models had not arrived.

This story, "Visiting the iMac in Cupertino" was originally published by PCWorld.

  
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