Review: Gateway Profile 4 vs. Apple iMac

Gateway launched the battle of the all-in-ones in late August, with the debut of a new TV commercial making fun of Apple Computer's iMac. Gateway executives should definitely give their ad agency a bonus. Someone carefully reviewed all the footage created by Apple's ad agency or Pixar Studios in developing a crafty lampoon of the flat-panel iMac. But I have to complain of false advertising on the part of both companies. Despite TV ads showing the Profile 4 doing back flips over the iMac or the iMac dancing about in imitation of an onlooker, my models are motionless. I prodded and poked, but they certainly don't move around. Anyone have the e-mail address for filing complaints with the Federal Trade Commission? Just kidding, of course.

Still, Gateway's ads raise an interesting question about which computer is better for consumers. Both computers incorporate 15-inch or 17-inch LCD monitors into stylish designs that are compact and fit easily into places where space is a premium. Both look good, too, making them great pieces of eye candy for offices or that prominent place in the home, apartment or dorm room. I'll cut right to the chase and pick the winner: neither. More on that later.

I tested the high-end models, which each sells for around $2,000. The iMac came with a 17-inch widescreen flat-panel display, 800MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256MB of SDRAM, 32MB nVidia GeForce4 MX graphics accelerator, DVD recording drive, 80GB hard drive, three USB 1.1 ports on system and another two on the keyboard, two 6-pin FireWire ports, 10/100 networking, 56k modem, Apple Pro speakers and Mac OS X 10.2. I asked Apple to bump the memory to 512MB, which matched the Profile 4. Apple normally sells the extra 256MB of RAM for $150. Because the iMac's display moves on a pivoting arm attached to the dome base, the size changes. Height ranges from 13.03 inches to 20 inches, width from 16.7 inches to 17.7 inches and depth from 10.6 inches to 16.7 inches. The 17-inch model weighs 22.8 pounds. Dimensions and weight--21.2 pounds--are less on the 15-inch iMac than the 17-inch model that I tested.

The high-end Profile, the 4XL, typically comes with a 17-inch flat-panel display, 2.66GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of Double-Data Rate (DDR) SDRAM, 32MB nVidia GeForce MX400 graphics accelerator, CD-RW/DVD combo drive, 120GB hard drive, six USB 2.0 ports, two 4-pin FireWire ports, 10/100 networking, 56k modem, integrated speakers and Windows XP Home. Gateway shipped my model with the 2.8GHz processor, which would add $160 to the price (For testing purposes, this made the pricing comparable between the two computers). But the performance difference between the 2.66GHz and 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processors is negligible. The 17-inch Profile 4 measures 16.59 inches wide by 18.2 inches high by 7.87 inches deep and weighs 23.1 pounds.

Apples and oranges

At first glance, both computers pack a lot of punch into a small size. Both systems are built for the digital media enthusiast in mind, although Profile 4 also is geared toward businesses or homes where space is a premium. Both computers performed well. For doing everyday digital media applications, the iMac trailed the Profile 4 in almost every way, but in most cases not as much as might be expected given the difference in the processors' clock speeds. For example, the iMac ripped the second CD of the Sopranos "Peppers and Eggs" soundtrack in about six minutes using Apple's iTunes. The Profile 4 ripped the same CD in about five minutes using MusicMatch 7.2.

But in long-term casual testing, the Profile 4 easily outclassed the iMac in terms of speed and, particularly, running multiple applications at the same time. In fact, I would consider the 17-inch iMac a poor performer running multiple applications--at least compared to Profile 4. I had noticed similar performance problems with the 15-inch iMac I tested in March. Running multiple applications sucked down performance. During that earlier test, I found that running too many applications at the same time made working in Word v. X almost unbearable. Letters would hesitate as I typed or be missed in the typing process. I observed similar problems on the 17-inch iMac. At one point, I discussed the problem with Apple product managers, which suspected the Olympus software I use for my DM-1 digital recorder might be the culprit. But I didn't use that software in my March test and found the performance problems persisted without running the Olympus software.

Out of fairness to Apple, I considered that one badly written application could be the culprit. So I used the same software applications on the PowerBook G4 800. Performance lagged some there, but not in any way that hurt working with applications. That suggests software isn't the issue and that the problem could have something to do with the design of the iMac's motherboard or, more likely, the choice of PowerPC G4 processor. While the PowerBook G4 800 and 17-inch iMac use processors that are the same clock speed, they differ dramatically. Most importantly: The PowerBook comes with a 1MB L3 cache that is missing on the iMac.

By contrast, the Profile 4 exhibited none of these performance problems, easily running a heavy load of applications that would have slowed the iMac to a crawl. Apple likes to argue that megahertz, or in this case gigahertz, doesn't matter. I would disagree, particularly weighing other factors such as faster memory and front-side bus in Profile 4's favor.

Still, Profile 4 has its own problems, some of which are deeply disappointing. Apple's longstanding practice has been to ship digital flat-panel monitors with Macs; this is true for iMac. Many flat-panel monitors use analog components, which rely on a digital-to-analog conversion process that makes the image less crisp than it could be and causes ghosting and other visual irregularities. Gateway appears to have used analog components on the Profile 4. The display is not anywhere as crisp as I would expect from a $2,000 computer. On the other hand, the monitor is easily viewable from the side as straight on. Colors remained consistent too, regardless of viewing angle. I could not say the same for the iMac's display; the default blue desktop wallpaper looked green when viewed from the side. Still, the iMac's display is remarkably better than the Profile 4's--in fact, many high-end flat-panel monitors I've tested. Apple's consistency delivering quality goods shows in the choice of monitor.

Other differences between the two computers--strengths and weaknesses alike--could be decisive decision factors for potential buyers. For example, people with peripherals that use either serial, parallel or USB 2.0 connectors could be disappointed by the iMac's USB 1.1 and FireWire ports. The Profile 4, on the other hand, covers the range of older and newer ports for connecting peripherals. Still, all those connectors add bulk and complexity to the Profile 4. Apple could never have delivered iMac with such an attractive design had the company provided all the legacy ports.

Another Apple advantage: Two iMac models with DVD recording drives, which are great for burning home movies to disk. This could be a compelling feature for anyone using a digital camcorder. Mac OS X also supports drag-and-drop file saving to DVD-Rs, a feature missing in Windows XP. But Apple bet on DVD-R/RW, a format that competes with DVD+R/RW. The latter format--backed by Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Sony, among others--is the more likely to emerge the winner of the DVD recording standards wars. DVD burning is a great feature that may eventually come to Profile 4. Gateway skipped DVD recording drives the first round because the desktop components were too large. But smaller drives recently made available for notebooks would fit in the Profile 4's slim enclosure.

Another iMac advantage is the pivoting arm that swings the flat-panel monitor. The mechanism allows the user to move the display to a comfortable position. But in terms of other ergonomics, Profile shined over the iMac. Two of the USB ports and the FireWire ports are located on the side and a headphone jack on the front. To reach all these ports on the iMac, the user must reach around the back of the unit.

The iMac's speakers produce much better sound than those built into the Profile 4. Another plus: Apple offers a a subwoofer, Harmon Kardon's iSub, which adds rich bass to the speakers' delightful range. Gateway doesn't offer a subwoofer, which wouldn't do much for the tinny sounding speakers, anyway. Still, the Profile 4's sound card delivers great sound out of external speakers. I tested the Gateway PC with Altec Lansing's 200-watt 621 speakers, which produced great sound.

Another iMac nicety: Built-in support for 802.11b wireless networking. The feature can be enabled with a $99 upgrade. Profile 4 oddly has a PC Card slot, the kind found on notebooks. An 802.11b PC Card would cost around $80 and enable similar wireless networking capabilities to the Profile 4.

Quagmire of choices

Apple, possibly feeling the pinch from Gateway's aggressive pricing, has slashed iMac prices. Just a few months ago, Apple had the iMacs priced at $1,999, $1,799, $1,599 and $1,399, depending on model. Since, Apple slashed prices on all three 15-inch display models, which now sell for $1,699, $1,499 and $1,199. Gateway consumer Profile 4 models go for $999, $1,239, $1,499 and $1,999. Four business models, each with Windows XP Professional, are available: $1,499, $1,629, $1,799 and $1,929. Strangely, these models come with only a CD-ROM drive.

Picking between the iMac and Profile 4 is more difficult once the potential buyer considers lower-priced models, a situation complicated by Apple's recent price cuts. Much depends on what you want to do with the computer. This assumes both systems are starting on equal footing, where a Mac vs. PC debate isn't a consideration. While iMac is an important tool in Apple's crusade to woo PC users to switch to the Mac, most people on Windows should stay there. Windows XP is a great operating system. If you have lots of money invested in Windows applications, don't waste your hard-earned cash on a Mac. In the debate of which is better, XP or Mac OS X, the deck is stacked in favor of Windows. That's not to say Mac OS X 10.2 isn't great. I like the operating system much better than Windows XP.

So if Mac vs. PC isn't a factor, the choice comes down to how the system will be used. The $999 Profile 4 is 200 bucks less than the low-end iMac, which on the surface looks like a good deal. But the entry-level Gateway's 1.7GHz Celeron processor won't deliver better performance, if any, than the entry-level iMac. The 15-inch display, 128MB RAM, and 40GB hard drive makes the basic configuration the same for both computers. But the iMac packs a CD-RW drive compared to a CD-ROM drive on the entry-level Profile 4. Now, a savvy shopper might demand Gateway swap out that archaic CD-ROM drive for a CD burner. On Oct. 15, Gateway issued a press release that said the company had moved to CD-RW drives on its "standard lineup." You've got to wonder what Gateway means by "standard lineup" and whether that applies to Profile 4. If so, the $999 model would be quite the bargain compared to the entry-level iMac, even with its advantage of a digital display.

The business Profile 4s, the four models with Windows XP Professional, all come with CD-ROM drives. CD-RW drives would make them more competitive, but even there the optical drives fall short of Apple's computers. But that isn't the only buying consideration. The $1,499 consumer Profile, the 4x, comes with the same basic memory and hard drive configuration as the $1,499 iMac, but comes with a CD-RW drive rather than the competitor's CD-RW/DVD drive. Still, the Profile 4x's 17 inch monitor compared to the iMac's 15-inch display could be a big selling point for some buyers.

This apples to oranges comparison applies to the high-end iMacs too. The $1,699 iMac's DVD recording drive is a compelling feature for the home movie enthusiast. The $1,629 Profile 4L DX comes only with a CD-ROM drive. Memory and hard drive configurations are identical between the computers. But the 4L DX also packs Windows XP Professional and Office XP Small Business Edition, which would be very appealing to some businesses. As for the $1,999 models, you have my basic take on them already.

And the winner isn't...

Strangely, both computers have more in common with notebooks than they do with larger desktops, which is one of the major reasons why neither is a great value. The iMac, for example, uses notebook memory. The Profile 4 uses 4-pin FireWire ports and comes with a PC Card slot--both features found on notebooks. The Profile also packs the aforementioned PC Card slot. But the larger resemblance is that both computers are essentially fixed, all-in-one, not-easily-upgraded systems build around a flat-panel monitor. Well, so is a notebook.

And many notebook displays are much better than the ones you get on either of these computers. Notebook SXGA+ and UXGA displays offer much higher resolution, such as 1280 x 1024 or 1600 x 1200, and finer detail, too. Notebooks are easily portable, much more than either of Apple's or Gateway's all-in-one. Notebooks in the price range of the iMac and Profile 4 I tested and particularly the midrange models deliver kick-ass features.

One example: Sony Vaio PCG-GRX500 notebook with 16.1-inch UXGA display with resolution up to 1600 x 1200, 1.6GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, 32MB ATI Radeon 7500 graphics accelerator, 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD combo drive, one 4-pin FireWire and 3 USB ports, 56k modem, 10/100 networking and Windows XP Home for $1,520 direct from Sony. The GRX500 weighs 8 pounds. This notebook is very competitive with the $1,499 iMac and two Profile 4s, but it's much more portable. Another example, in the same price range: Dell Inspiron 8200 with 15-inch SXGA+ display, 1.7GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, 32MB nVidia GeForce2 Go graphics accelerator, 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD combo drive, USB and FireWire ports, 56k modem, 10/100 networking and Windows XP Home for $1,477.

Moving up into the price range of the high-end Profile 4 and iMac is the Toshiba Satellite 1955-S801 notebook, which was discounted after the company introduced the 1955-S803. PC Mall sells the 1955-S801, which comes with 16-inch SXGA+ display, 2.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, 32MB nVidia GeForce4 440 Go graphics accelerator, 40GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD combo drive, one 4-pin FireWire and 3 USB ports, 56k modem, 10/100 networking and Windows XP Home, for $1,999.

Of course, these comparisons assume the buyer is not looking only at a Mac. Apple has intentionally priced its portables so that similar features are not available for the same price as the iMac. Frankly, for many Mac buyers on a budget, the iMac is a great deal because of the monitor. A Power Mac would cost much more. But for those making a choice between an iMac or Profile 4 might consider a notebook if an all-in-one system is the preference. But a regular desktop would be cheaper still and offer more power for the buck. Gateway recently concluded a Pentium 4 PC with 15-inch flat-panel monitor special for $699. Expect more deals like this as the holidays approach.

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