Test driving the iMac Apple: It looks way cool. But how well does it work?

August 17, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

It's being called the most innovative computer since the original Macintosh, and by the end of the week it will be everywhere: on TV, in magazines, on the radio. But should Apple Computer's new iMac, which hit stores on Saturday, be atop your desktop?

At $1,300, the iMac is easily the most economic home computer Apple has ever offered. It includes a built-in monitor, 32 'u megabytes of memory, a 4-gigabyte hard drive, 24X CD-ROM, stereo speakers, and a slew of software. It's space-age Jetsons-esque looks also make it the sexiest. After putting the machine through its paces one morning last week, it's clear the iMac - with a few caveats - justifies the hype.

The "i" in iMac stands for Internet, and Apple engineers took great pains to make the computer easy to pull from the box, plug into the wall, and launch into cyberspace. The iMac comes with a built-in, industry-standard 56K modem, as speedy as dial-up modems come these days, and Ethernet support. Ethernet technology allows the iMac to be networked easily with other computers, a perk that should make it attractive to schools and ** small office owners.

Unlike the first Mac, which redefined the way people user personal computers, the iMac is no technological breakthrough - it uses the same, albeit updated, operating system Apple has always used. But iMac's no slouch under the hood either. Apple engineers wired in a 233Mhz G3 microprocessor, which Apple claims runs twice as fast as similarly priced Windows machine.

Such claims are irrelevant - who, after all, has a tachometer taped atop his computer? What really counts is how fast a computer feels, and the iMac feels fast. With a click, even beefy software such as Quicken Deluxe 98 and Netscape Navigator popped up in seconds.

Up close, the computer is compact and easy on the eyes. The 15-inch color monitor is crisp and vibrant. And, of course, there's the shape. Taking a cue more from Van Gough than Gateway, Apple designers spurned the computer world's ubiquitous tan box in favor of a shapely blue-and-white negligee of a cover that reveals the computer's silicon private parts.

The iMac is by no means perfect. Here are the drawbacks:

As many people have pointed out, the iMac comes sans floppy drive. Apple says that 3-inch floppy disk drives are digital dinosaurs destined for extinction and that focus groups showed most people don't use them. True, floppies are too anemic to hold most of today's swollen software programs, and more computer users are swapping files over the Internet rather than on disk these days. But that doesn't mean nobody needs them.

Teachers still often ask their students to submit homework on disk. Cubicle dwellers (like me) take small files back and forth from home to office. And not everybody is online yet. So many iMac owners will probably want to buy an external storage device, such as an Imation SuperDisk drive, which could add a few hundred dollars to the price tag.

Then there's the peripherals problem. The iMac comes with two universal serial bus (USB) ports. While this technology will eventually make it easier for iMac owners to plug in and use printers, scanners and other peripherals, USB-compatible devices won't be hitting store shelves for weeks - even months. So for now, iMac owners who want to use, say, an Epson printer, must get a USB adapter to make it work, adding as much as $70 to the price tag. What's more, USB technology isn't compatible with the SCSI ports that older Macs used, so longtime Apple users who upgrade to the iMac won't be able to use their old peripherals.

Bottom line: the iMac is a solid machine, stylishly packaged and reasonably priced. If your computing needs stop at Web surfing and word processing and you don't like much setup hassle, the iMac is a strong choice. If you need to do more, you're probably better off with a higher-end Apple or a Windows-based machine.

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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