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iMac G5s solid, despite Front Row quirks

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Because Apple develops software specifically for its hardware, it’s in a great position to create integrated products. So it’s not surprising that the company’s latest iMac G5s are an ambitious attempt to create an all-in-one personal computer that’s also a home entertainment center. The result is one part success (the personal computer part) and one part questionable implementation (the home entertainment part).

Entertainment hub

When it comes to this iMac generation’s notable features, one included item—the small white infrared remote control—represents the key to an exciting new function. It’s meant to be used with Front Row, Apple’s new software for transforming the iMac from a device you control from a few inches away into one that you command from ten feet away, likely while reclining on a sofa or chair. This six-button remote attaches to the iMac’s right side via a small magnet embedded into the iMac’s case. (Accordingly, Apple warns against brushing magnetic media, such as an iPod, against the magnet.)

When you press the remote’s menu button, your Mac interface fades into the background and is replaced by a large, simple interface (reminiscent of the iPod or a TiVo digital video recorder) that you navigate via the remote’s directional buttons. Although the remote is tiny—about the width of an iPod shuffle—it felt quite comfortable in my hand. But getting used to the different button layout, which is similar to that of the iPod shuffle, took this iPod user some time. It was easy to read the Front Row menus, even from a chair that was several feet away.

Mac users have been able to add a small remote control (such as Keyspan’s $50 Express Remote) to their Macs for some time. The catch was that there wasn’t a good remote-driven user interface that let you easily access your media without having to using a keyboard or mouse when an interface roadblock presented itself. Unfortunately, no other company managed to come up with such a program, but at last Apple has come to the rescue. That’s why Front Row is such a welcome addition to the Mac.

Front Row is not without its flaws. It’s a first attempt, and one with numerous omissions and quirks that Apple will need to address. For example, although Front Row’s Music menu gives you the iPod-style option to shuffle songs—namely, those in your entire iTunes library—there’s no way to shuffle them by artist or album. (Which makes me wonder: Why would Apple replicate the iPod interface without including some of that device’s most useful settings?)

Similarly, the Photos menu is at once exhilarating and infuriating. Finally, you can sit on your couch and browse through your iPhoto library, including slide shows. But Front Row maddeningly honors only certain slide-show settings: when I used Front Row to display a slide show, it would play the music I had assigned within iPhoto but wouldn’t honor my Ken Burns Effect, picture effect, slide show length, or transition settings.

The Movies menu presented other frustrations. I and other Macworld editors repeatedly had trouble with the Movie Trailers service, which sporadically couldn’t connect to Apple’s movie trailers server. When we did connect, several times we found that Front Row wasn’t buffering enough video before playing, causing starts and stops (as well as the display of unfriendly “can’t connect to server” errors on screen) that made some trailers unwatchable.

Front Row lets you play not only movies and TV shows you download via iTunes, but also just about any other video that QuickTime can play and ones you’ve stored in your Movies folder. (If you organize your movies in subfolders within the Movies folder, they’ll even show up as submenus in Front Row.) As you select a movie file, a small preview (complete with a snazzy reflected-glass effect) plays in a box to the right of the menu.

However, playing back videos wasn’t as pleasant an experience as organizing them: holding down the remote’s forward button scanned forward through videos fairly slowly, making it unbearable to fast-forward deep into a lengthy video clip. To make matters worse, none of the video I viewed in Front Row could be bookmarked—when I returned to a downloaded Desperate Housewives episode that I’d left half-viewed, Front Row plopped me down at the beginning of the episode. I also noticed that several times after fast-forwarding, audio and video were out of sync. If you’re used to the video tricks you’ll find on a TiVo or similar digital video recorder, you won’t be satisfied with Front Row.

The good news is, because Front Row is just software, it’s upgradeable. And Apple told me that it will indeed release updates to Front Row, just as it does with other Apple programs. So although this first version of Front Row has plenty of rough edges, I’m hoping that Apple will be able to smooth many of them out in the next few months via software updates.

Camera included

In a move that has implications both frivolous and practical, Apple has embedded an video camera in the white plastic bezel of the new iMac. The camera’s lens is located dead center and just above the LCD screen. To the left of the lens is a tiny hole that contains the iMac’s built-in microphone; behind the plastic and to the right of the lens is a green light that turns on whenever the camera is active. (Unlike the stand-alone iSight, you can’t adjust the position of the lens or close the camera’s lens manually. Apple says that the camera is hard-wired to the green light, so it’s impossible for the camera to capture images when the light isn’t on. However, despite Apple’s reassurance, some people might not feel secure having a camera lens on them at all times.)

A camera as part of an iMac is like a camera as part of a cell phone. Like most phone cameras, the iSight isn’t going to compete with a regular digital camera—its 640-by-480-pixel resolution is the equivalent of three-tenths of a megapixel. But what it lacks in resolution, it makes up for in sheer fun. Apple’s included Photo Booth software probably won’t win any awards for innovation, but it’s the perfect companion to the iSight, letting you (or your kids, for example) snap silly pictures and e-mail them to friends, or quickly take pictures to use as iChat or OS X user icons.

More practically, the embedded iSight in the iMac means that more users are likely to take advantage of iChat AV’s built-in video-conferencing features. Users who might have been reluctant to part with $149 for Apple’s iSight camera just to experiment with video chats will now be able to see their friends and relatives at no extra cost. It’s a great idea, one that I hope spreads to more Mac models in the future.

Hardware improvements

Of course, behind all the flashy new home entertainment and video-chat features is also a new Mac. For the most part, it looks like its predecessor. This iMac is slightly slimmer, with a curve behind the display, and it’s also a few pounds lighter. The ports on the back have been rearranged, too; they’re now horizontal rather than vertical, and the power button has been relocated to the left side of the rear face.

There are many changes inside the case; in fact, this is an almost entirely reengineered iMac. The iMac’s video card is now connected via the new, speedy PCI Express bus, although the new ATI Radeon X600 Pro is largely the same as the prior, AGP-based Radeon 9600. The iMac’s RAM is also now of the faster DDR2 variety.

Do-it-yourself upgraders and Mac technicians will find that, in stark contrast to the previous iMac G5 generation, this generation’s innards are not easily accessible. The only easily upgradeable element is the RAM. In addition to the iMac’s stock 512MB of RAM, there’s a single slot for 533MHz DDR2 memory located behind a door on the underside of the display. That slot can accept 512MB, 1GB, or 2GB RAM modules, giving the iMac a new maximum RAM of 2.5GB.

The 17-inch iMac , which previously was available in both 1.8GHz and 2GHz editions, is now only available in a single, 1.9GHz configuration. The good news is that the iMac’s 1.9GHz processor, aided by the upgrades to the rest of the computer’s subsystems, is just as fast as the old 2GHz model (see the benchmark table).

The 20-inch model’s processor speed has been bumped up from 2GHz to 2.1GHz, with a corresponding performance boost—it’s now the fastest iMac ever, in terms of both processor clock speed and sheer performance.

In addition to the stock Apple Pro Keyboard included with most recent desktop Macs, the new iMac models come with Apple’s new two-button Mighty Mouse (   ), which was previously available only as a $49 add-on.

Unfortunately, one hardware limitation of previous iMacs remains: the iMac can drive only its own display and mirror only the contents of that display to another display ( firmware hacks notwithstanding ), and it can do this only via a VGA connection. The lack of support for extending a Mac desktop to a second display (as well as support for digital displays via the DVI connection standard) means that Mac users who prefer to work with multiple monitors will need to look to another model.

iMac G5s (iSight) Tested

Speedmark 4 Adobe Photoshop CS2 Cinema 4D XL 9.1 Compressor 2.0 iMovie HD iTunes 6.0.1 Unreal Tournament 2004
17-inch iMac G5/1.9GHz (iSight) 178 1:23 2:53 12:49 0:32 1:42 35.4
20-inch iMac G5/2.1GHz (iSight) 190 1:15 2:36 11:41 0:31 1:25 40.7
20-inch iMac G5/2GHz 178 1:24 2:44 12:50 0:33 1:39 32.2
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better

Best results in red. Reference system in italics .

Speedmark 4 scores are relative to those of a 1.25GHz Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, and iTunes scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.2 with 512MB of RAM, with processor performance set to Highest in the Energy Saver preference pane. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’s High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. To compare Speedmark 4 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Apple Hardware Guide .—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

Macworld’s buying advice

The new iMac G5s, like their predecessors, are excellent computers for home and business use alike. Unless you simply must have multiple displays, multiple processors, gigantic amounts of internal storage, or add-on cards, these iMacs are plenty capable. And the built-in iSight camera will open up possibilities of Internet-based video-conferencing to tons of users who wouldn’t have given it a chance otherwise.

When most people talk about this iMac generation, they’ll talk about the infrared remote control and the Front Row software that it controls. As excited as I am that Apple has designed a remote-driven media interface for the Mac, Front Row still has quite a few kinks that the company must work out. In the meantime, early users of Front Row are bound to be as frustrated by the program’s limitations as they are excited by its potential.

[ Jason Snell is Macworld ’s editorial director. ]

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