For schools, Apple offers special iMac G5, eMac

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Apple has a habit of quietly releasing special Macintosh models for schools and colleges. There were, for example, the Power Mac 5000 line and the G3 All-in-One Mac for education (both of which resembled early and somewhat pedestrian precursors to the original iMac).

But with the release of the new iMac G5, some educational technology departments might want to look at Apple's online education store, where they'll discover pricing and an additional iMac G5 available only to educational institutions. (And no, it's not available for individual purchase by faculty, staff or students.)

The specs on the education iMac model are knocked down significantly from the base consumer model. It ships with the same 17-in. screen, the same basic processor and motherboard configuration -- 1.6-GHz G5, 512KB backside cache and 533-MHz front-side bus -- and the same base amount of RAM, 256MB. But it also includes a significantly lower-powered video card (the Nvidia GeForce4 MX with 32MB of virtual RAM, as opposed to the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra with 64MB) and a 40GB hard drive, half the standard 80GB hard drive. Even more noteworthy, it ships with no optical drive.

The price: $1,099, or $100 less than the base model sold to individual educational customers.

Apple also offers similarly stripped-down eMac models to educational institutions. For the eMac, Apple offers two models, both of which vary from the standard consumer model in their lack of an internal modem. One ships with a CD-ROM drive; the other ships with no optical drive at all. The difference in pricing between these and the standard models is $100 and $150 below the educational pricing on the standard eMac, respectively.

While these special educational models offer some price savings, the question to ask when considering them is whether the savings come at too great a price. In most classroom, office or lab environments, the lack of a modem will have no negative effect. And the inability to view DVDs or to write data to a CD or DVD is unlikely to be a significant problem in a number of environments, particularly for K-8 education. This is especially true if network storage space is available for storing and transferring files.

In some high school or college situations, however, class assignments might require students to place data on a CD or DVD, although general data storage and transfer needs can still be met by using network storage.

As for iMac, however, there is a substantial difference in the configuration of the computers (for a price savings of little more than 10%). However, many computer labs and classrooms won't be using software where the video card performance will have a major impact -- the obvious exception being college-level classes focusing on image rendering and animation. Certainly, the lowered specs won't limit the more typical use of office or Internet applications. The smaller hard drive isn't likely to be significant for most environments, either, although some high school and college classes that work with larger media files might have more pronounced storage needs.

The big question is whether the lack of an optical drive will affect the use of the computer. That depends on factors specific to a school or college. For users, it obviously limits their ability to install software from a CD, copy files or music from home or from easily run CD-dependent applications. While the ability to install software or copy outside files onto a computer does affect the user experience, it also provides a level of security to the computer and the operating system. It helps keep the computer in its original configuration by preventing users from installing software, something administrators should consider doing anyway by through the use of limited-access user accounts or managed preferences.

The lack of an optical drive limits the ability of a malicious user to boot the computer from a CD and either reset the administrator and root passwords or boot to a custom-configured operating system and bypass the permission structures on the hard drive. While it doesn't prevent users from booting to other external drives, such as a hard drive or even an iPod, you can still protect the computer against such tactics by setting an Open Firmware password.

CD-dependent applications are another story. Many elementary and middle school software titles are CD-dependent. There are ways around this, however. Using Disk Utility, you can create a byte-for-byte copy or restore of the CD onto a server's hard drive partition and then make that partition into a share point. That gives access to the CD to any computer without an optical drive. Or you could use CD-sharing towers, which have been available as stand-alone devices for educational use for many years.

The next part of the equation is software deployment or troubleshooting. The simplest solution is to connect an external firewire hard drive for troubleshooting or to copy files to the computer. Target disk mode using the firewire ports is another option. For simple file copies or installations, you can use network storage. For Mac OS X installs or complete deployments, NetBoot/NetInstall provides an excellent alternative to using the install CDs.

NetInstall's ability to deploy complete disk images over a network (as opposed to simply installing Mac OS X) means it can be used to deploy custom workstation images, a significant advantage for any workstation, optical drive or not.

So, while these models may not be appropriate to home users (for whom they aren't available anyway), they can be feasible as a way to trim the required expenditure for system upgrades in classrooms and computer labs.

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This story, "For schools, Apple offers special iMac G5, eMac" was originally published by Computerworld.

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