iMac G4 review: Bold system avoids the sophomore slump
Apple's newest all-in-one is nothing short of a triumph.
By Jason Snell
At a Glance
Fast G4 processor
Not as fast as Power Mac G4 with same processor speed
All ports on back of base
No composite video out or support for unmirrored displays
As the best-selling Mac of all time, the original iMac set a standard for Apple that’s tough to top. To stand a chance, the design of any follow-up iMac would have to be just as bold, as remarkably different as the original. Apple has succeeded–its new pivoting two-piece flat-panel iMac is a triumph in terms of design, computing power, and value.
With a thin LCD attached to a circular base by a pivoting metal neck, the new iMac is a computer with a unique look. Its large size is striking–that 10.6-inch-diameter circular base is larger than it appears in photos. It’s more the size of a bisected volleyball than a cantaloupe, and is remarkably heavy (the whole computer weighs 21.3 pounds–most of that in the base). In contrast, the display is light and thin–it almost hovers above the base, and you can position it with just a slight push. The base’s weight helps ensure that no amount of monitor positioning will tip the iMac over.
The 15-inch display’s viewable area is roughly equivalent to the viewable area of a 17-inch CRT display, and its native resolution is 1,024 by 768 pixels. For all but the most palette-intensive applications, that’s a perfectly acceptable amount of screen real estate. The display is a delight to use–it’s bright and clear and has a wide viewing angle.
The Dome Base
The iMac’s dome-shaped base is the core of the computer, cramming a remarkable amount of equipment into a relatively small space. Apple didn’t skimp on ports, either; among those on the back of the base are three USB ports, two FireWire ports, and a power plug that attaches to an outlet without any intervening power brick, which is convenient.
Although Apple trumpets the iMac as the ultimate computer for the “digital hub,” frequently attaching and detaching cables from the iMac gets a little frustrating. Rather than putting ports on the side or front of the iMac, Apple has hidden them on the back for aesthetic reasons. The result is a pristine white base when viewed from the front, but one that you may be rotating regularly in order to plug and unplug your various USB and FireWire devices.
Also on the iMac’s base is a video-out port, the same one found on the dual-USB iBooks. For the $19 price of an adapter, you can attach a VGA monitor to the iMac–but it can only mirror the iMac’s display. Unfortunately, unlike the iBook, there’s no way for the iMac to output composite video for direct connection to a TV set or VCR.
The iMac’s base also contains a SuperDrive, which burns CDs at 8x and DVDs at 2x, while reading CDs at 24x. Those burn speeds aren’t as fast as those of Apple’s CD-RW drive, which writes CD-R discs at 24x–but by giving up that speed, you get the ability to burn DVD-Video discs and back up your data onto 4.7GB DVD-R discs.
Unlike those on previous iMac models–and similar to those on newer Power Mac G4s–this drive comes with a powered media tray that ejects only when you press the eject key on the keyboard. The tray-based mechanism was responsive to our key presses, but it does stick out far enough to get in the way of the display if it’s lowered too far, or the keyboard if it’s using its built-in riser.
Neck and Neck
Connecting the base and the display is the iMac’s neck, a pivoting stainless-steel tube that’s so strong, Apple recommends you use it to lift and carry the iMac. The neck lets you raise or lower the monitor across a 7-inch range, swivel it 180 degrees, and pivot it to point from 5 degrees downward to 30 degrees upward. Longtime computer users might scoff at those numbers and question just how often people really need to reposition their displays.
But once we started repositioning the display, we couldn’t stop. Over the course of many hours working with this computer, we found ourselves positioning it to match our movements. Rather than sitting still to get a good view of the display, we were able to move it to match our preferences. And when you want to show something on your screen to others, it’s great to be able to rotate the screen to face them, rather than asking them to sit down in your chair to take a gander.
Beyond the radical design update, this new iMac has another key feature its predecessor lacked: a G4 processor. Macworld Lab’s test results show that the new iMac is clearly faster than its top-of-the-line predecessor, the 700MHz G3-based iMac. The new iMac was 18 percent faster in our Speedmark tests, which measure overall system performance. And in processor-intensive Photoshop and iTunes tests, the new iMac was 67 percent and 68 percent faster, respectively, than the 700MHz G3 iMac. In our Quake test, which highlights the speed of the iMac’s processor as well as its powerful new Nvidia GeForce2 MX video processor, the new iMac was 40 percent faster.
However, despite the major speed boost, it’s important to remember that the iMac is still not equivalent to a Power Mac G4. Equipped with a faster system bus, the entry-level 800MHz Power Mac G4 was faster than the iMac in all our tests.
OS X Native
Generally, using the iMac was a pleasure. It was speedy and responsive in most cases, although the Mac OS X version of iMovie was more sluggish than we’d expect from a G4-based machine.
The iMac’s included software is a solid collection, and all the programs run natively in Mac OS X–which makes sense because the iMac boots by default into Apple’s new operating system. Programs such as the game Otto Matic, the World Book Encyclopedia, iPhoto (which we had to install ourselves from a separate CD-ROM), and iDVD worked without a hitch.
It’s fair to point out that, as the very first edition of a new product design–and one using a brand-new operating system, to boot–this iMac may have several small quirks that we failed to uncover in our testing. That’s the price users have always paid for being on the cutting edge of new technology. Still, our time with this iMac was almost universally pleasurable.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Apple’s new iMac is a high-style device that seems to be bound for art galleries and design museums. But more important than its form is its function: it’s fast enough for demanding Mac users and has a large-enough display that’s clear and easy on the eyes.
All this power and style comes at a price–the $1,799 iMac is a far cry from a sub-$1,000 consumer Mac for the masses. But given its performance, display, and attractive design, this new iMac will definitely appeal to Mac users who don’t need the expansion options that a full-fledged Power Mac G4 offers.