Is Apple's I Mac For You?

Its simplicity, which makes it ideal for first-time buyers, is also its drawback

In some ways, Apple Computer's new iMac, the most interesting personal computer to hit the market in some years, is a bit of a throwback. Like the original 1984 Macintosh, the $1,299 iMac, which went on sale Aug. 15, is an all-in-one design with no provision for expansion. And like the original Mac, it marks a clean and exciting break with the past.

The iMac comes at a time when some excitement is welcome. Desktops running Windows on some variant of the Pentium processor keep getting cheaper, faster, and more boringly alike. Even Apple's G3 desktops have failed to rise above the bland.

SNAPPY START. Is this fast new computer with a built-in monitor in a curvy translucent teal-and-white case the right choice for you? First off, going with any Apple product means choosing MacOS over the vastly more popular Windows. About a year ago, when Apple's future was uncertain and software developers were abandoning the Mac in droves, I would have had grave reservations about this. But Apple has survived its near-death experience. Microsoft has shipped the excellent Office 98 for the Mac. And while software options are far more limited than for Windows, they are adequate, especially for home and educational use. (Business software, especially for accounting and database management, is scarcer.)

The main virtue of the iMac is its simplicity. You really can get the machine out of the box and running in about five minutes. You can be connected to the Internet in another five if all goes well, although that's often not the case. Apple couldn't do much about the vagaries of dial-up connections to the Net, and trying to hook up to some Internet services could leave you with a maddening conflict between the iMac software and the service. If you are content to use EarthLink as your service, the preinstalled software on the iMac works just fine. That means first-time buyers, for whom the iMac is ideal, won't have to struggle to get it working with an existing Internet account.

People who don't know much about computers, and don't want to learn, will also find the iMac appealing. It's a shame that the iMac won't really be available in quantity until sometime this fall, because its compact design and built-in networking make it ideal for dorms.

Unfortunately, the very simplicity that makes iMac appealing to some buyers is a drawback for others. If you don't have a lot of data or software on floppy disks and don't need to use them to share information with others, you may never miss the floppy drive that Apple chose to leave off. But if you need removable storage, you'll have to spend $150 for an add-on unit--and put up with an external drive and cable that makes a bit of a mess of the iMac's elegance.

Apple's choice of the new universal serial bus (USB) as iMac's only way of attaching accessories allows owners to use the flood of devices designed for Windows 98--provided that the necessary Mac software is available. But current Mac printers will only work with the iMac through adapters, and existing external disk drives and scanners that use a regular Mac's SCSI interface won't work at all.

The biggest drawback of the iMac's design is the lack of expandability. The only thing you can add inside the case is memory. While the iMac could benefit from an extra 32 megabytes of RAM, the difficulty of installation means that this job is best left to a pro. There's no provision for a digital videodisk drive, though one could be designed as a substitute for the built-in CD-ROM. USB, meanwhile, is not fast enough for external hard drives or CD recorders. The 233-megahertz G3 processor is certainly fast enough to use with video editing software, but there's no way to link your camcorder to the iMac.

One of the Mac's major attractions has always been its strength in image editing, desktop publishing, and Web page design, which are increasingly popular home and student activities. The iMac has the hardware for the job, but that dinky 15-in. monitor makes page layouts a pain, and the all-in-one design rules out an upgrade.

Depending on what you expect from a computer, these drawbacks may or may not be problems. If you are a longtime Mac user with lots of accessories and lots of software on floppies, you'll be happier with one of Apple's more expensive but more versatile G3 desktop systems. If you want the cheapest possible computer, go for one of the many sub-$1,000 Windows machines. But if you want an easy-to-use machine with style and if you're not bothered by the iMac's limitations, this distinctive machine could be a very happy choice.