Improving an excellent machine was the happy challenge facing Apple Computer (AAPL) designers as they worked up new versions of the iMac G5 desktop. Against the odds, they have succeeded. Though the changes in the new 17-inch ($1,299) and 20-inch ($1,699) iMacs are relatively small, they help keep it atop the heap as the best consumer desktop around.
At first glance, you have to look very closely to tell the new iMac from the models introduced a year ago. The white-framed flat-panel display still seems to float above its brushed aluminum base. The display unit, which contains all the electronics, has shrunk to about 1.5 inches thick. A black square above the center of the display marks the presence of a built-in iSight video camera.
ALL IN A ROW. Standard Wi-Fi wireless networking and Bluetooth short-range wireless mean that it's possible to run an iMac with the power cord as its only physical connection to the world. However, if you want to plug in your iPod or a camera, the USB and FireWire ports run along the bottom of the back of the display on the right side, while the power button is on the left. This is a more convenient arrangement than having everything in a vertical row, as the earlier iMac G5s did.
The iMac's operating software, Mac OS X 10.4, better known as Tiger, remains the best and easiest-to-use personal computer operating system, an honor it will retain at least until the next version of Windows ships next fall -- and very likely beyond.
For Windows users, the Mac interface, while different, is familiar and intuitive enough that learning it poses no great challenges. The main stumbling block will be the need to replace existing software with Mac versions, which are available for nearly all common programs except many games (see BW, 11/10/05, "Apple's Growing Army of Converts").
SHOOT YOURSELF. Apple makes up for this by building in a remarkable software bundle that includes the iPhoto picture organizer, iMovie video editing, and GarageBand music creation. New with the latest iMac are Photo Booth, a strangely addictive program that lets you use the iSight camera to take pictures of yourself as if you're in an old-fashion arcade photo booth (the iMac screen turns bright white as you press the shutter button to serve as a sort of flash), and Front Row.
Front Row superficially resembles Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Media Center software, but while Media Center includes a lot of under-the-hood functionality for the handling of media, especially video, Front Row is simply an alternative user interface that lets you control the iMac with the included remote control. The usability of Front Row is excellent, providing easy access to videos, photos, and music. It's a convenient way to watch videos, such as Desperate Housewives or Lost purchased from the iTunes Music Store, though there is no way to make a purchase from within Front Row.
I WANT MY MAC TV. The obvious missing piece here is Media Center's ability to take in live TV and function as a digital video recorder. This feature is flawed in Media Center because of the awkwardness of having to connect to a cable or satellite set-top box and the inability to handle most high-definition content. But those problems will be solved when the cable industry finally complies with a Federal Communications Commission mandate to supply hardware called a CableCARD that will allow a Media Center PC to function as its own set top box.
CableCARD would turn the Media Center and devices like it into a formidable contender for a central place in the digital living room, but Apple officials refuse to speculate on when or if TV capability will be added to the iMac and Front Row.
Without TV capability, Front Row is a bit of a gimmick, but as you would expect from Apple, a well-done one. The iMac even includes a hidden magnetic mounting so you can hang the tiny remote on the side of the display when not in use.
SPEED LIMIT. The only serious flaw in the new iMac is that the Power PC-based G5 processor is showing its age.
Apple and manufacturer IBM (IBM) have pushed the G5 as far as it can go, and a lot of operations are slower on an iMac than on a comparable Windows PC. Apple has addressed this problem in its professional Power Mac workstations by including multiple processors, but cost and heat considerations preclude doing this in the iMac. Relief won't come until sometime next year, when Apple introduces a new iMac that runs on an Intel (INTC) processor (see BW, 9/5/05, "Intel's Chips: Juice for Apple?").
Still, the iMac is fast enough for the most common tasks. This is a computer for home and office use, not heavy-duty video editing or media creation. Provided you don't need Windows for critical applications, you won't find anything better -- or nearly as good.