• The Night Owl Review: 20-inch iMac Update

    May 2nd, 2006

    Night Owl Rating: ★★★★★

    It’s really hard for me to be objective about the iMac. My experience with them goes back nearly eight years, to the original introduction of the bondi blue model in the summer of 1998. Yes, it’s been that long, and I’ve remained fascinated as the product has matured.

    The pear-shaped original was attractive, trend-setting, and it helped get Apple back on the map after years and years of decline. But even at the very beginning, I felt the ideal all-in-one personal computer consisted of nothing more than a simple display, with all of the parts somehow squeezed into the case. There have been, in fact, a few PC boxes that attempted to address such a perfectly logical form factor, but you ended up with a huge appendage in back. Most were under-powered, and were not big sellers. That Apple managed to eventually build an iMac in which they could somehow stuff a hot-running G5 into a slightly thicker and deeper case is a tribute to brilliant engineering, and the sales clearly benefited. Although the previous design gave you more options with which to move the display, the word awkward comes to mind.

    I didn’t know, late last year, that the iMac would gain an Intel Core Duo processor so quickly, though I suspect the slight modifications in form factor were preparations, of one sort or another, for this changeover. The rumor sites and tech analysts were focused on the Mac mini and the iBook, so it was nice to be surprised for a change. After spending 30 days with one, I am pleased with the improvements, and the downsides are hardly significant, unless you absolutely must get the maximum amount of performance from an application that hasn’t traveled down the Universal road yet.

    Although it has consumer-oriented features, such as the built-in iSight camera and Front Row remote, the Intel-based iMac is actually a perfect office computer. Apple even enhanced the level of perfection when it introduced Boot Camp, and let you run Windows XP at full speed by the mere act of a reboot. With other developing alternate operating system options, such as Parallels Workstation, it’s a great way to migrate to the Mac OS, yet still keep Windows at hand as a safety net.

    If you are using native software, and a decent amount is bundled with the iMac, you’ll experience stellar speed. It may seldom approach Apple’s estimate that the Intel-based model is two to three times faster than its predecessor, but Mac OS X Tiger sings. The sense of occasional glacial performance, even on the fastest Macs, is rarely in evidence, and this bodes well for the success of the transition.

    Unless you have been exposed to both recent versions of the iMac, it’s hard to realize just how seamless this processor switchover has actually been. From the outside, you will probably not be able to detect any differences. There is the tiny lens for the iSight camera at the top of the unit, and the remote control is held by a magnet at the right side. The manual looks pretty much the same, and when you hook it up and boot it for the first time, the familiar Mac startup chime delivers a robust sound.

    What you will see is that the startup process moves along much more rapidly than before, and you’ll be at the Setup Assistant before you know it. As with previous models, you can easily transfer your data from other Macs with built-in FireWire ports. The files are all intact, including your personal settings, so you can get back to work in short order. The only limitation of the process is that it doesn’t work with Macs that didn’t come with FireWire, or predate Mac OS X. That might present a greater problem, but Apple could and should pull it off for those of you will still have very old Macs that you need to upgrade.

    Once its in full bloom, the $1,699 iMac’s 20-inch display is bright, and sharp, and you’ll can get online in minutes. But remember, as with all new Macs these days, there’s no built-in modem, and you’ll have to buy an external USB-based version for dial-up connections or faxing. Apple clearly believes we’ll all have broadband soon, and that we’ll send faxes via a multifunction device or an email fax service.

    Apple’s own line of Universal applications are well designed. Safari opens with barely a single jump in the Dock. GarageBand no longer seems to take forever to get going. The Rosetta emulation technology is as seamless as can be, even if PowerPC applications are confined to half their native speed. When it comes to Microsoft Word and other components of Office, this is no big deal. It’s really fast enough. You will even find Adobe Photoshop running acceptably, but if you plan on handling large photos, the lack of speed will really hit home and you’ll wish Adobe’s developers can hurry up and beat their self-imposed deadline of the second quarter of 2007 for the Universal version.

    It doesn’t take long to accept an iMac, even the 17-inch $1,299 model, as an efficient computing appliance in your home or office. Now in a day where personal computers are sold for as little as $399 at discount stores, an iMac may seem expensive. But after you customize those cheap boxes to offer similar features, the price difference essentially vanishes, and once you cope with the day-to-day security and reliability matters that seem to eternally afflict a Windows-based PC, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to switch to the Mac.

    Indeed I had grown very used to the iMac during its brief stay in my office. But good things have to end, and Apple needed it back on May 1st. It will be missed.

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