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The New iMac: Why Wait Till Next Year?

By Cliff Edwards


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Built-in wireless and Bluetooth support, plus easy setup

The Bad Not as powerful as Windows PCs; only memory can be upgraded

The Bottom Line Innovative software and upgraded hardware make it a treasure

When Apple (AAPL) earlier this year announced it would begin using Intel (INTC) chips in its 2006 Macs, dumping the IBM (IBM) PowerPC architecture, I wondered whether it might be a case of cutting off its nose off to spite its face. It seemed likely to me that sales of its current iMac line would fall off a cliff as people waited for new x86 systems.

That is, until I got the chance to test a $1,799 iMac with a 20-inch display and the Tiger operating system under the hood. Simply put, the latest iMac and its accompanying software put fun back into computing. Everything from videoconferencing to downloading podcasts was so easy that it made me want to weep for joy. And the 2-inch-thick, all-white chassis and brushed aluminum stand looks more like a work of art than your typical PC.

In terms of hardware specs, the current 20-inch model sports a 2-GHz PowerPC processor, up from 1.8 GHz previously. No doubt some of you will immediately pounce on the fact that AMD (AMD) and Intel systems offer significantly faster clock speeds, but since the PowerPC and x86 architectures are significantly different, it's hard to make a fair comparison. I found the iMac handled most tasks quite efficiently. And in cases where the software is optimized for a specific task, it produced near-instant results.

WIDGET WONDERS. With what I suspect are big digital-download ambitions -- after all, CEO Steve Jobs calls this the year of high-definition -- Apple builds in AirPort 802.11g wireless and Bluetooth 2.0 for a wireless keyboard and mouse. I would recommend both over the wired versions that unnecessarily clutter the elegant all-in-one design with cords. The 8X all-format SuperDrive optical drive is also an upgrade, and graphics are improved with a 128-MB ATI Radeon 9600 card. Speakers are integrated, and despite being hidden, the sound is quite good.

The downside to the all-in-one design is that you can't sub out the graphic card for a zippier model better suited to high-powered games, nor can you upgrade the processor. Apple supplies a palatable 512 MB of memory, which you can boost to as much as 2 GB by opening the case -- a fairly easy process.

So what makes the iMac so cool? The software clearly sells the hardware here. One of my favorite things with Tiger is the improved use of "Widgets." They're little applications that sit on your desktop or open at the click of a mouse to give you specific information. Apple's Web site offers 1,100 (and counting) Widgets for users to download, everything from my daily dose of the Foxtrot comic strip to satellite maps of the world.

PARTY LINE. Apple even makes a show out of its Widgets. Click to open one, and it pops up with a ripple that makes it truly seem like it's coming from underneath whatever image is on the screen. You can fill your entire screen with them, move them around, or make them disappear at another touch of the button.

Another fun and useful feature is iChat AV 3. With the additional purchase of a $149 iSight camera, you can do multi-way videoconferencing, connecting simply by inviting people from your America Online (TWX) or Jabber buddy list. Thanks to a new video-compression scheme called H.264, I was able to connect with two other people and get a relatively stable, clear picture even with a wireless connection, which often can be much more tenuous than wired Ethernet.

Like Skype on the PC, you also can initiate voice-over-IP telephony. One of the nice added values in Apple's case, though, is the ability to chat with up to nine other people and a graphics bar that indicates who's doing the talking. If those same people are on your buddy list, you can even see their picture, or the digital avatar attached to the name.

WORD WOES. Tiger has lots of other nice features that make the OS a standout, including Spotlight -- the ability to do superfast searches through all your computer files, including e-mail, for pictures or documents.

In terms of gripes, the iMac sure is skimpy on the office-productivity side of the equation. You get a 30-day trial version of Apple's iWork presentation and word-processing suite, and you have to pay $79 for a full version. If you want to use Microsoft's (MSFT) Office 2004 for Mac software, you'll have to shell out between $150 to $500 after a 30-day "test drive," depending on which version you want.

To be fair, most PC makers are offering Office only as an option, too, but you still typically get at least WordPerfect or Microsoft Works for free.

Still, I see little reason why anyone should wait till next year to go Mac. Where else can you sit down at your computer and have hours of fun even when you're not playing games?

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley

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