Review: Apple's 17-Inch iMac

Apple has a knack for churning out computers many people wish they could buy. The flat-panel iMac is no exception. The all-in-one computer is an eye-popping spectacle of tasteful but trendy computer design.


But sticker shock sometimes singes the interests of would-be Mac buyers. The entry-level iMac, for example, appears overly priced at $1,199 compared to, say, a Gateway 300S Plus PC for $699 after $100 mail-in rebate.


Both computers come with a 15-inch flat-panel monitor, 128MB of RAM, 40GB hard drive and CD-RW drive. But beyond these surface considerations, the iMac's value compared to the 300S Plus or many other Windows XP PCs is much greater than even its pretty exterior suggests.

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As the cliché goes, looks can be deceiving--and in more ways than you might think. So there's no uncertainty about the point: Maybe that $500 savings is less than it seems.


Dazzling display


I reviewed the original flat-panel iMac in March and found the computer to offer exceptional features for anyone working with digital music, videos or photos. Apple had done an excellent job in terms of design, ergonomics and features. The company has extended the iMac's appeal with a larger, widescreen display and a major overhaul to the Mac operating system.


I started my 17-inch iMac testing in late summer as part of a head-to-head comparison with Gateway's Profile 4 PC. Apple sent the $1,999 high-end iMac, which typically comes 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 and to add an AirPort 802.11b wireless networking card, which would add about $250 to the system's cost.


The iMac's display is incorporated into the design and moves on a pivoting arm attached to the dome base. Because the arm pivots, the size of the computer 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, or about one-and-a-half pounds more than the original iMac, which comes with a 15-inch monitor.


The pivoting arm is a marvel of engineering, particularly since it must support the heft and width of that 17-inch monitor. No other computer on the market today lets the user so easily re-position the monitor for easier viewing or sharing information, Web pages or games. My daughter would turn the screen away from me when checking out eBay auctions for Sonic the Hedgehog plush toys she didn't want me to know about. Of course, turning the display away was a signal for snoopy-old dad.


This attention to how a monitor should be used is one of the iMac's standout features. In fact, the LCD panel on the 17-inch--and, for that matter, the original 15-inch--iMac is the best I've seen on any computer. The brightness of the display, crispness of text and richness of color are remarkably superior than what you might get with, say, the 15-inch or 17-inch monitor sold with a Gateway 300 or 500 PC.


Apple ships only digital LCD monitors with its computers, which, because they don't have to go through analog-to-digital conversion, are clearer than the analog monitors sold with the Gateway 300. Apple could probably save a bundle using inferior components, but that also would eliminate one of iMac's key differentiators with flat-panel-equipped PCs. As important, the wide-screen display is a real nice touch for the minority of nuts who like me would rather watch DVD movies on a computer than a TV.


Here's a message Apple might want to give Gateway: The monitor is the gateway to the computer. Hewlett-Packard could learn that lesson too. The new HP Media Center PC, which features Windows XP Media Center Edition, comes with an analog video card. Considering HP and Microsoft position the PC for digital media aficionados and showcase it with a flat-panel display, the analog video card is a bad move, particularly on the $2000 883n model. Ghosting and other visual irregularities are common when using analog on LCD monitors.


Details that matter


This difference in the monitor is an important commentary on how Macs are different from PCs and why many Mac users are so fanatically faithful to Apple: Attention to detail. Apple's attention to good computer design is more than skin deep. Little extras, like spring-loading bolts that affix the iMac's removable-base plate or the addition of 802.11b wireless networking components demonstrate fine attention to important little details. Those bolts are hard to lose, and adding wireless networking to the iMac is easy.


Other fine touches abound, such as the feel of the cables or the computer's overall workmanship. This "feel" of the cables is more than just about touch. The iMac's cables tangle less than those that came with any other Windows PC I have tested; it has to do with the cabling material and how much friction it has with similar surfaces.


Like earlier iMacs, the new model is fairly quiet. The keyboard has great touch and feel and is very responsive; the same goes for the infrared mouse. But I will fault Apple for not providing a two-button mouse, which would be a big productivity booster. Mac OS X 10.2 supports right-click context menus, but one-button mouse users must use a keyboard combination to summon the menus. Are you listening to this criticism, Apple?


The new iMac delivers great sound through the small globe-shaped speakers--and thumping bass, too, with Harmon Kardon's iSub subwoofer attached. With the August release of Mac OS X 10.2, Apple added a separate software volume control for iSub, which resolved hissing and popping problems. Certainly, these are not big, surround-sound speakers at 9-watts each boosted by an 18-watt digital amplifier. But matched with iSub, the speakers deliver surprisingly rich sound, particularly when watching DVDs. (Hey, if you want surround-sound, move to the living room and your big-screen TV.)


The attention to detail seeps into the operating system, too, and Apple's six digital lifestyle applications: iMovie 2 for video editing; iTunes 3 for music ripping, burning and listening; iPhoto, for managing, sharing or printing digital images; for desktop and online calendaring; and iSync, synchronization software for the iPod music player, Palm handhelds on Bluetooth-enabled cell phones such as the Sony Ericsson T68i.


There are good reasons why Apple positions iMac as a "hub" for connecting digital devices, such as cameras, camcorders or music players. The six applications and operating system improvements introduced with Mac OS X 10.2 make working with these devices much easier than on the PC. Most PC manufacturers include with their computers a skimpy selection of digital media applications. The exception is Sony.


Sony has gone a long way to developing a robust set of digital applications that rival Apple's. For example, the Japanese computer maker recently added new "Click to DVD" software that quickly and easily burns movies to DVDs. The software offers comparable features to Apple's iDVD 2 and is about as easy to use. But thanks in part to how well iDVD 2 works on Mac OS X 10.2, I would give the edge to Apple--for now.


Losing this edge in digital applications, in fact, could be a big problem for Apple. Sonic Solution's MyDVD 4 also offers ease and features comparable to iDVD 2--including use of full-motion menus for producing slick Hollywood-style DVDs. But most PC makers don't include the better third-party digital media applications with new computers. For now, only Sony offers a range of digital applications that compete with Apple's.


But Microsoft operating system advances arm some PC makers with intriguing digital weapons to take on Apple. In fact, so confident is Microsoft with its growing digital applications arsenal, the company launched on Nov. 14, 2002, a new Web site touting Windows XP's digital media features. Microsoft is pushing for areas: Music, movies, photos and communications. Windows Media Player 9 Series (Can you believe that name?) offers up some tremendous advances in digital music--as long as you use Microsoft's audio format--such as 5.1 surround sound. Microsoft issued the first release candidate, or near-final testing version, on Nov. 1. The same day, the company release the first beta of Movie Maker 2, Microsoft's response to Apple's iMovie 2. Apple can claim the lead over Microsoft making movies--for now.


Evaluating value


Now, all this said in favor of the 17-inch iMac, which I really, really liked, most PCs pack more raw power than Apple's trendy all-in-one. (Mac users that like to talk about the megahertz myth and how PCs really aren't faster may be beyond listening to reason.) This power difference is particularly true of the new crop of PCs--3GHz Pentium 4 models that debuted on Nov. 14, 2002. These computers pack big power that could overwhelm some potential iMac buyers, but so will the price. Most of these systems will sell for much more than any model in Apple's flat-panel iMac crop.


Still, even the current crop of PCs pack power the iMac may find tough to match--or so it would seem at first glance. Case in point: HP's Pavilion 763n comes with a 2.53GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, 64MB GeForce4 MX 420 graphics accelerator, DVD recording drive, 80GB hard drive, 56k modem, 10/100 networking, USB 2.0 and Windows XP Home for $1,249 from PC Connection. A 17-inch flat-panel monitor would cost about another $500, bringing the price to $1,749 or about $250 less than the high-end iMac. Advantages to HP: Faster clock-speed processor, more memory, better graphics card and availability of USB 2. Advantages to Apple: Digital display, wide-screen monitor, 802.11b wireless readiness, smaller size, attractive ergonomic design and bundled digital applications.


Consistently in my testing, many PCs appeared faster than iMac. But the iMac was more trouble free, in terms of everyday glitches using the applications and operating system or hassles connecting devices and peripherals to the computer. The iMac also proved plenty fast for what it needed to do, at least for most consumer tasks. But I did note some troubling performance problems that the majority of users might never see. Apple could fix this by using the same 800MHz processor found in the PowerBook G4.


Buyers pining for raw power may want to pass on iMac--the same way someone shopping for a minivan might not consider a Volkswagen Beetle or sports car. Carrying the analogy further, a minivan might have all kinds of extras, like collapsible seats, TV for the kiddies or five doors. But those features might not appeal to the sports car or beetle buyer. You could apply the same rule to PCs vs. Macs. PC evangelists like to tout feature differences and the megahertz--OK, gigahertz--gap between Windows computers and Macs.


But like any other purchase, what you as the buyer want is most important. The aforementioned Gateway 300S Plus would appear to be a better deal than the iMac--after all, Apple's comparable computer does cost $500 more. If you need a basic PC cheap, OK, getaway with the Gateway. But people shopping for a quality computer they will be happy with for a long time, might find iMac to be the better choice.


Taking an analogy from autos, a faster or more powerful engine does not necessarily mean better handling for everyday driving. The iMac is fun to use and hugs the road nicely. Those interested in digital applications or looking to get a consistently good experience from their computer might want to consider the iMac. Here, the unseen might matter more than iMac's trendy styling and ergonomics.


The iMac would likely outlast the Gateway 300 and many other lower-cost PCs, too, for long-term use. I own a nearly two-and-a-half-year-old Apple Cube that runs Mac OS X 10.2 just fine. During that two and half years, Apple and Microsoft released major OS overhauls. The same vintage PC would be better off on the junk pile than running Windows XP. Again, Apple's attention to detail--in this case customer satisfaction--is important. The Windows PC business model is built on forced-obsolesce, where faster processors and more processor-intensive software help foster a continuing cycle of upgrades. Apple has found a better balance, trying to win over new users through compelling applications rather than push faster processors.


So, in some ways, evaluating the value of a Mac vs. PC is more than about price--or appearances. I give the iMac an A-.

Joe Wilcox has been covering technology since 1994 and now spends his days writing about Microsoft for CNET News.com. Joe can be found online at joewilcox.com.

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