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Newsletter Issue #315

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

Although it may not seem readily apparent, we’ve been making ongoing changes to the show over the past six months, since we exited that other network. One of the main considerations is the balance of sound quality versus bit rate. We don’t want to make the live broadcast inaccessible to those of you with dial-up connections, but having great sound quality is also important. It’s all a compromise, and we’ve been boosting the bit rate slightly, without any complaints, at least so far.

We’d love to present full stereo at 128K, and we’re prepared to go that route as soon as at least 90% of you are on broadband, but that may not happen for a while. For now, one secret of decent audio quality without ditching modem support is mono. So you won’t be hearing the hosts on one channel and the subject of the interview on the other, at least for now.

On our December 8th show, Apple Computer’s Laura Metz came onboard to talk about the new features of the latest model of the iMac G5, which is the subject of our review this issue. We were also joined by Joe Kissell, author of a number of books, including “Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger.” He covered the improvements in the program and some of the shortcomings. In addition, Jon Gotow, from St. Clair Software, author of Default Folder X and Julian Miller, from Script Software, talked about their various shareware offerings.

For December 15th, we’ll feature Gregory “Dr. Smoke” Swain, author of a new e-book on Mac troubleshooting and Paul Kent, a spokesperson for the Macworld Expo. In addition, we’ll pay another visit to “The David Biedny Zone,” where our outspoken guest will provide his unique insights about Aperture, Apple’s new image editing software, and other subjects.

And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, video tuner/recorders, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.

THE NIGHT OWL REVIEW: IS THE IMAC G5 THE BEST PERSONAL COMPUTER ON THE PLANET?

Night Owl Rating: One OwlOne OwlOne OwlOne OwlOne Owl

The other day, Mrs. Steinberg (Barbara) and I decided to catch a matinee, but we wanted to check out the trailers first. So I removed the diminutive iPod-inspired remote control from the right side of Apple’s newest iteration of the iMac G5. I pressed the remote’s menu button, watching the computer quickly spring to life. Another press and Front Row’s menu appeared on the screen, not in a rush, but with a smooth, fluid motion. A few clicks, and I was presented with a directory of available movies, and in just a few seconds the first trailer began to fill the iMac’s beautiful 20-inch display.

Later that evening, I used the iMac to monitor the playback of the recorded segments of the latest episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE and, the next day, to write one of my daily commentaries. During one of his weekend visits to share a meal with his family, my son, Grayson, calmly sat down before the iMac to catch up on messages from his editors at Arizona State University’s daily newspaper. I observed during all this that we both adapted to the new system as a duck takes to water.

As others have suggested, the new iMac, the latest descendant of the original all-in-one Macintosh, may indeed by the best personal computer on the market! It possesses nearly all the ingredients most home and business users need in a slick, white plastic case. Whether you buy the 17-inch or 20-inch versions, it comes with an acceptably powerful G5 processor, gigabit Ethernet, dual-layer Superdrive, plus such extras as a built-in iSight camera, remote control, wireless hardware and even Apple’s new multibutton Mighty Mouse.

The normally dull setup process gains a little excitement with the newly added ability to customize your user account with a personal portrait. What normally takes just a few minutes extended to an hour for me, because I opted to use the Migration Assistant to copy the data from my 17-inch PowerBook.

On the surface, the new model, which Apple’s support area simply labels iMac G5 (iSight), seems near identical to the previous edition, except for the tiny rectangle and light and above the display area to indicate the presence of the built-in camera. The case is somewhat thinner, but you wouldn’t notice unless you put them side-by-side. But there are lots of changes under-the-hood. Although processor speed is only slightly faster, topping out at 2.1GHz on the 20-inch version, Apple is using faster DDR2 memory and PCI-Express graphics to eke out further performance enhancements.

The new hardware architecture, alas, loses the easy repair capability of the prior versions. You can quickly pop in a single RAM upgrade module, but the rest of the service process is best left to the repair shop, if required. The standard 512MB of memory is included on the logic board, and you can add up to an additional 2GB of memory. However, unless you really need a RAM-intensive application, such as Photoshop, you’ll find the built-in memory quite sufficient for most uses.

As usual, there’s a fairly extensive lineup of free software, most of it consumer-oriented. In addition to Tiger’s standard offerings and Front Row, there’s iLife ’05 and a new digital lifestyle toy, Photo Booth. As the name implies, Photo Booth lets you take personal photos, and add special effects, both silly and otherwise. The rest of the software bundle includes the aging AppleWorks, Quicken 2006, and two passable games, Nanosaur 2 and Marble Blast Gold. However, there’s nothing to prevent you from taking your new iMac to the office, where it will acquit itself well. Just install Microsoft Office and a few other business applications, and you’re good to go. Regardless of the iMac’s function, the built-in gigabit Ethernet is perfect for transferring large graphic or video files, and is something most of the Windows-based consumer desktops lack.

Despite the extras, Apple has kept the price relatively affordable. The 17-inch version remains at $1,299, and the 20-inch model receives a $100 price reduction from the prior model, to $1,699. Surprisingly, the folks who have long criticized Apple for having boutique-priced computers have finally kept their mouths shut, realizing that you can’t get anything similarly equipped in a PC box at the same price points.

There’s not much to criticize. Apple is taking baby steps, so far, in building a media center PC, so the iMac G5 is lacking some components, such as a TV tuner and recorder. For now such needs can be filled by, for example, EyeTV from Elgato Systems. At the same time, I have little doubt that Apple might indeed be planning for such a feature, but whether it’ll show up at Macworld San Francisco next month is anyone’s guess.

For the most part, Front Row functions beautifully, though others have pointed out that it doesn’t support all the features of the programs it runs, such as those of iPhoto, nor can you bookmark a TV show you’ve downloaded from iTunes. At the same time, Front Row is at version 1, which means a software fix could remedy such shortcomings.

In the scheme of things, you can’t find a better all-purpose personal computer. My main regret is that the iMac is just a temporary visitor to my home office. It has to be returned to Apple in a few days and it will be missed.

Note: Starting this issue, we have a real rating system employing, naturally, owls, from one to five depending on the worth of the product being reviewed.

THE TECH NIGHT OWL: A FEW FAVORITES FOR HOLIDAY GIFTS

Since I’ve already mentioned a luxury appliance, a plasma TV, in the last issue, I’ll focus on more affordable gear this time. At the very top of most everyone’s shopping list is an iPod of one sort or another. My favorite model is the 60GB iPod with video which, at $399, is a real bargain; that is, if you have a huge music library, or want to indulge in the TV playback capability.

If your music needs are more modest, or you prefer to take your iPod with you on the morning or evening jog, the iPod nano is just the ticket. I can see the value of the iPod shuffle if you’re on a budget, but the nano is still a much better value overall if you have the spare cash.

Finding one of these babies, however, may be the hard part in the waning days of the holiday shopping season. Stocks are apparently being depleted as fast as they arrive. At the same time, all the major consumer electronic chains have them, including Radio Shack, and you’re apt to find iPods on display at your nearest Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club. So, if you’re willing to spend a little extra time searching for the model and color you really want, you’ll probably be successful. In the end, of course, there’s always The Apple Store, if one is in your city. They almost always seem to be well stocked.

If you already have the iPod of your dreams, there are always accessories. I’ve long been partial to the rapidly growing lineup from Griffin Technology. I knew company founder Paul Griffin when he was still selling video sync adapters over a decade ago. He made a smart decision, and that was to jump on the burgeoning iPod add-on market early on. From FM adapters to battery backups, there’s a lot of practicality in Griffin’s products, which you’ll find right near the iPod displays at thousands of outlets.

You’ll also find a healthy variety of iPod stuff from Belkin, DLO and other companies. You’ll want to look out for the “Made for iPod” label, which assures that the product is compatible, and you’ll also want to check the fine print to make sure that the product will mate with your particular iPod. That’s definitely not a given.

Moving from the iPod universe, if you haven’t checked out satellite radio, this may be the time to jump on the bandwagon. XM Radio is using price cuts and rebates to push receivers. Sirius is touting the impending arrival of shock jock Howard Stern. My only regret is, as I’ve stated before, you can’t get a single receiver that works with both services.

If your mobile phone is long in the tooth, you might want to look at this year’s holiday offerings. Both Alltel and Verizon Wireless have, at long last, discovered the joys of the Motorola RAZR, and that’s a real plus, because these two companies have superior reputations for service quality and customer support. Market leader Cingular (soon to be renamed AT&T) may get the coolest gear first, but I’m still on the fence as to whether it has a handle on its various service shortcomings.

And if you’re a serious gamer, you’d be better off investing in a real game console, rather than a PC box with gaming pretentious. The Microsoft Xbox 360 is supposed to be the hot ticket. If you aren’t anxious to buy anything with a Microsoft label on it, of course, there’s always a Sony PlayStation.

THE FINAL WORD

The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis