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Sturdy eMac G4s still attractive

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Outside the world of K-12 education, the eMac doesn’t get much attention, now that the Mac mini has provided an even less expensive—and more glamorous—option for Mac bargain hunters. Apple didn’t even bother to put out a press release announcing the most recent eMac update.

But almost four years after the company decorated its Macworld Conference & Expo booth with banners reading “Hasta la vista, CRT,” the CRT-based all-in-one still holds a place in the Mac lineup. Ironically, the very attributes—the bulk and weight of lead-lined picture tubes—that caused most customers to abandon CRTs as soon as LCD flat panels became affordable define the niche where the eMac has survived. Measuring 15.8 inches high and wide and 17.1 inches deep, and weighing 50 pounds, the eMac remains the machine of choice for school administrators, lab managers, and others who worry that a sleeker system might just “walk away,” and, perhaps, for parents concerned that an energetic toddler could knock over an iMac or drop an iBook.

Spring tune-up

The latest update brings no fundamental changes to the design the eMac has retained since its introduction in 2002: it still features a 17-inch display built into an all-white plastic case derived from the groundbreaking design of the first-generation iMac. The price structure that’s been in place for more than a year hasn’t changed, either: there are still two configurations, a $799 one with a Combo drive and a $999 one with a SuperDrive.

The update, however, brings changes to many of the eMacs’ component subsystems:

•  Faster processors. The chips that drive the machines are still G4s, but they now run at 1.42GHz, up slightly from last year’s 1.25GHz clock speed.

•  More memory in one configuration. The $999 eMac now comes with 512MB of RAM, twice as much as before. Unfortunately, the $799 model still has only 256MB, an amount that’s really not sufficient for providing a good user experience, especially with software such as Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4) and iLife ‘05 loaded on the machine. In both configurations one DIMM slot remains free for users who want to add more memory, up to the eMacs’ maximum of 1GB.

•  Doubled storage capacity. Hard-drive sizes have doubled compared with the previous eMac generation: the entry-level configuration now comes with an 80GB hard drive, while the more expensive version has a 160GB drive.

•  Updated graphics. While both configurations previously came with an ATI Radeon 9200 graphics chip with 32MB of video memory, both now include the newer Radeon 9600—the same chip now used in the latest iMac G5s and several Power Mac G5 configurations. This chip has 64MB of dedicated memory. The change helped produce an improvement of more than 50 percent in the frame rate we recorded in Unreal Tournament 2004. That, of course, is not the application school administrators are buying hardware for, but the scores are indicative of better support for demanding graphics programs.

•  Double-layer DVD burning. Like the SuperDrive in other recent desktop Macs, the one that comes in the $999 eMac is capable of burning up to 8.5GB of data on a double-layer recordable DVD.

Altogether, no one would call the eMacs speedsters by today’s standards, in part because the internal bus that connects their processors to the system memory operates at just 167MHz, while comparable bus speeds in other desktop Macs run anywhere from 600MHz to 1.35GHz. Still, the update produces a surprisingly large boost in the eMacs’ scores on our Speedmark 4 benchmark test, and they’re actually not all that far behind the iMac G5’s scores.

Price concerns

Although Apple has made AirPort Extreme and, in many cases, Bluetooth standard in other Mac models without increasing prices, these wireless features still cost extra in the eMacs. An AirPort Extreme card is $79, Bluetooth is $50, or you can get both for $99. You can add the AirPort card at any time; Bluetooth and the $99 package deal are available only as build-to-order options.

Apple’s pricing choice may make sense, because many of the eMac’s target customers may not need wireless networking. (A 56-Kbps V.92 modem and 10/100 Ethernet are built in.)

But the lack of wireless support along with Apple’s choice to keep the entry-level eMac’s memory at just 256MB may make you wonder whether the eMac’s price has kept up with the times. After all, the 1.42GHz Mac mini, which has specs similar to those of the low-end eMac, costs only $599; and good-quality, stand-alone 17-inch CRT monitors retail for less than $150. In that light, it’s not easy to see why the entry-level eMac still costs $799.

Of course, education buyers are often able to negotiate discounts. A lower list price, however, would make the eMac more affordable for low-income individuals, families, and students who prefer a sturdy all-in-one system to the Mac mini’s modular design.

Macworld’s buying advice

In choosing between the two eMac configurations, the only real consideration is whether you want a DVD burner. If not, you can start with the $799 model, match or beat the $999 version’s extra disk capacity and memory, and still save at least $100.

[ Henry Norr is a former editor of MacWeek and a former technology columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.]

eMac G4/1.42GHz
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