In 1998, I was a member of Apple’s “Customer Quality Feedback” program where I not just beta tested new apps and operating systems, but hardware. I received several samples of Macs that you may know about, plus one that never made it to the production stage, although it was rumored. When the decision was made to kill that project, they asked me to send it back so it would be recycled. There’s no point in mentioning what it was, even though I’m quite sure Apple’s NDA for CQF no longer applies. It was nothing you’d miss.
Well, among the products that did make it into production was a peculiar plastic-clad gumdrop shaped all-in-one computer known as the iMac. Yes, the original Bondi Blue iMac that was released in August of that year. Indeed, I was offered the opportunity to keep the unit — if it would survive a firmware update. Well it didn’t, and I don’t know if that was part of the plan, so I sent it back.
As the owner of a Power Mac, I didn’t take the iMac all that seriously. It was distinctive enough, and I had the chance to interview Jonathan Ive briefly about the good points. Despite the striking looks, it did not appear that Apple invested much in the internal hardware. It was very much based on note-book innards, consisting of a 233MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 32MB of RAM, a 4GB hard drive, and a 13.8-inch display with a resolution of 1024×768 that was powered by an ATI Rage IIc with 2MB of RAM.
While it was possible to upgrade RAM and swap out a hard drive, it wasn’t terribly user friendly. You literally had to take it almost completely apart, opening the case to pull the chassis. The actual upgrades weren’t difficult to perform, but it was awkward to remove the wiring harnesses and pull out the assembly. I did it more than a few times, not enjoying the process at all. But the iMac was not the most difficult Mac to upgrade. I remember fiddling with putty knives on the first generation Mac minis. These days, you cannot even upgrade RAM on most Macs. The 27-inch iMac and Mac Pro are rare exceptions.
At $1,299, it was cheap enough as Macs went, and designed strictly for home and educational users. But Apple also made what some regarded as curious design choices at the time, though they did point the way for the entire industry. There was no floppy drive — and Apple took lots of criticism for that decision, although you could get an external USB-based device if you needed one, as I did. It had an Ethernet port and a 56K modem, but Apple ditched some of the other peripheral ports in favor of USB. While USB had already appeared on PCs, Apple’s decision to embrace the technology in a mass market computer was sufficient to encourage peripheral makers to deliver more products with USB ports. For a while there was a thriving business of adapters that would allow you to connect whatever you had to USB.
It didn’t take long for all Macs to lose floppy drives and gain USB. Apple sold loads of iMacs, and even took legal action against some PC makers whose designs got a little too close for comfort — and evidently won.
Now the iMac went through several design revisions over the years, finally settling on big, thin and light. As CPU horsepower expanded, it began to move beyond it’s entry-level pretensions. As an all-in-one, the iMac was, essentially, a direct descendant of the original 1984 compact Mac.
With the late 2009 iMac, Apple made the decision to elevate the product to mainstream status. This was the medium-priced Mac that was tailor made for both business and home use. Outfitted with the fastest optional processors, the largest hard drives and the maximum amount of RAM, you had a powerhouse computer that served the needs of many content creators. Indeed the costly Mac Pro was, technically, a professional workstation rather than just a personal computer and thus catered to a smaller audience. The rest of us used iMacs, Mac minis or a portable.
In my case, I sold off a 2008 Mac Pro and a 30-inch display to acquire a fairly loaded 27-inch late 2009 iMac. Indeed, I had several hundred dollars change from the transaction.
OS X El Capitan runs fine on that iMac. There’s no support for Handoff or Metal graphics because it lacks Bluetooth LE and the graphics hardware isn’t up to the task. But if you add an SSD, as I did with a 1TB drive from Other World Computing, you’ll end up to a perfectly useful work machine with plenty of life left in it.
Apple continues to show the love with the iMac. With little more publicity than a press release, a second generation 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display, and a 21.5-inch iMac with a 4K display, made their debut this week. The most significant improvement is a display that supports the DCI-P3 wide color gamut. With a fairly generous amount of customizations, you can equip either to serve as powerful content creation machines. They are even well-suited to editing 4K video. Finding an all-in-one PC with a display that displays 14 million pixels without an Apple label remains an unrealized dream.
Compared to the original $1,299 iMac, today’s entry-level model, starting at $1,099 with a conventional display and hard drive, is hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the original. The iMac has come a long way from its humble beginnings that emphasized form over substance. You see iMacs liberally spread on TV shows and movies — and that’s just this generation’s product. Clearly Apple is investing large sums of money and design resources to make it better, yet keeping the prices at current levels. I just wonder what the next revision will be like.