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iMac G5 Is a Striking Addition

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Cross an iPod and an eMac and what do you get? The new iMac G5, the third generation of Apple’s trendsetting desktop design for the home and school.

The latest iMacs are the slimmest and slickest yet, but, stylistically, they’re the most conservative. Gone are the bulging curves and florid colors that made the original 1998 design such a sensation; gone, too, are the igloo-shaped base and the amazing flexible neck that supported the first flat-panel version.

This time around, Apple has gone minimalist, to the point that the new machine appears at first glance not to be a computer at all, but just another flat-panel display, distinguished only by the snow-white color of its plastic bezel. The drives and chips that filled the old iMac’s dome are now built into the back of the display, spread out behind 17- or 20-inch LCD panels.

Apple is hardly the first computer manufacturer to adopt this approach—NEC, Gateway, and others first tried it years ago. But their designs sacrificed the trim lines and easy adjustability that make flat-panel displays so appealing—to one degree or another, they all looked like flat-panel displays. To cool their tightly packed innards, most of them had noisy fans, and they all carried premium price tags.

Apple’s design team solved nearly all of these problems. The iMac G5 is only a couple of inches thick—not quite as svelte as the latest LCD monitors, but close enough to pass for one. At least on the front of the machine, the only indication that it might be something more is that the bottom section of the bezel is four inches high, creating a large expanse of white plastic. (On the back, there are a couple of giveaways: a big iMac label and, along the left side, 10 neatly stacked ports, as well as the power button.) Even though the machine includes three fans—the PowerPC G5 processor inside isn’t exactly known for running cool—they’re rarely audible during normal use. And considering the cost of stand-alone flat-panel monitors that are equivalent in size and quality, the new iMacs are genuine bargains.

More Horsepower, Lower Prices

The new entry-level iMac has a 17-inch screen; a 1.6GHz G5 processor; 256MB of memory; an 80GB, 7,200-rpm Serial ATA (read: fast) hard drive; and, built into the upper-right side of the system, a slot-loading DVD-ROM/CD-RW Combo drive—all for $1,299.

For another $200, you can move up to the midrange model, which is similarly configured except that it has a slightly faster processor (1.8GHz) and its optical drive is a SuperDrive—that is, in addition to watching movies on DVD-ROM and playing or burning CDs, you can burn your own DVD discs (in DVD-R format).

Finally, the top-of-the-line iMac G5, featuring the same 1.8GHz processor and SuperDrive as the midrange model, has a 160GB hard drive and a huge 20-inch display. This model goes for $1,899.

If you’re wondering whether Silicon Valley continues to deliver more bang for the buck every year, just compare these systems to their predecessors, the last of the iMac G4s. At the low end, you’ll need as many bucks as before, but you’ll get a lot more bang today: $1,299 used to buy only a 15-inch screen and a mere 1GHz G4 processor. In the middle and at the top of the line, Apple hasn’t just beefed up its offerings—its aggressively cut prices: At $1,499 and $1,899, the top two configurations cost $300 less than the G4 models they replace.

Don’t Forget the Memory

Of course, you’ll want to budget for additional memory. All three new configurations, like their predecessors, come with just 256MB of RAM. To take full advantage of OS X and the iLife applications that come with it—iTunes, iPhoto, GarageBand, iMovie, and, with SuperDrive configurations, iDVD—we recommend adding at least another 256MB, and preferably more. If you order from Apple’s online store, you can upgrade to 512MB for $75, to 1GB for $225, or to the new iMacs’ maximum, 2GB, for $1,125. (If you’re willing to open the iMac and install memory yourself—a task that’s extremely easy with Apple’s new design—you can save considerably by buying your RAM from third-party discounters.)

We’re always frustrated when Apple fails to provide adequate memory in its entry-level systems, mainly because there are always users who don’t know to add more, and they end up grousing—with some justification—that their systems are sluggish. The good news in this case is that the iMacs have two DIMM slots, and the factory-installed 256MB fill only one of them. So you can boost your system to as much as 1.25GB—plenty for most people—without having to unload memory you’ve already paid for.

Equipped with sufficient RAM, the new iMacs’ G5 processors deliver impressive performance. In our Speedmark 3.3 tests, the new entry-level iMac, with a 1.6GHz G5 processor, scored 24 percent higher than its top-of-the-line predecessor, a 1.25GHz G4; the 1.8GHz G5 processor bested the same G4 system by nearly 35 percent.

On some common tasks, the improvement is even more dramatic: encoding a 45-minute audio CD track into MP3 format took 3 minutes and 20 seconds on the old 1.25MHz iMac G4, but the same task took only 2 minutes and 6 seconds and 1 minute and 53 seconds, respectively, on the new 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz G5s.

Hooking Up

Twin speakers are built into the bottom of the iMacs, pointing down at your desk for extra resonance. We found the sound surprisingly good—certainly better than built-in computer speakers usually deliver—but it’s not as good as external Apple Pro speakers hooked up to the iMac G4; audiophiles or anyone who likes a strong bass sound may want to add speakers.

The ports on the back of the iMac include an ample array of connectivity options: three USB 2.0 ports (not to mention the two USB 1.1 ports in the keyboard); two FireWire 400 connectors; an audio line-in connector; an output jack that delivers analog sound when headphones are plugged in or digital audio (in S/PDIF, the Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format, used for transferring stereo digital audio signals between various devices and stereo components) when an optical cable is connected; a 10/100Base-T Ethernet jack; a 56K V.92 modem; and a video-out port that, with the addition of an Apple VGA or a Composite and/or S-Video adapter ($19 each), can drive an external monitor in mirror mode.

Internally, the only expansion options are AirPort Extreme ($79; installable at any time) and Bluetooth wireless cards ($50; available only in build-to-order configurations). Among other advantages, there’s an aesthetic argument for going wireless with the new iMacs: the more cables you plug into the ports on the back—even if you route them through the hole in the systems’ aluminum stand, where the power cable goes—the more you mar the new design’s sleekness.

In fact, port placement is our one real gripe about these new machines: we wish Apple had followed the example it set with the Power Mac G5 and put headphone, USB 2.0, and FireWire jacks in front, where they’re readily accessible.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

The new iMacs don’t deliver the same floating-in-thin-air, adjust-it-any-way-you-want experience that Apple rightly made so much of when it introduced the iMac G4 models. But in every other respect—elegance, performance, and price—the G5 generation represents a big step forward. All three new models are appealing, but for those who can afford it, and particularly those who plan to work with video, our choice is the 20-inch model: its extra screen space, hard-drive capacity, and SuperDrive make it well worth its $1,899 price.

Speedmark 3.3 scores are relative to those of a 1GHz eMac G4, which is assigned a score of 100. Cinema 4D XL, Compressor, iMovie, iTunes, and Photoshop scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.3.5 with 512MB of RAM. We exported a 1-minute-and-40-second movie to QuickTime: Email using iMovie. We tested MP3 encoding with an audio-CD track that was 45 minutes long, converting it from the hard drive using iTunes’ High Quality setting. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 75 percent and History was set to Minimum. We used Unreal Tournament’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. We used Compressor’s Fast Encode preset. For more information on Speedmark 3.3, visit—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith

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