iMac is barely there -- but delivers goods

Design: Bearing more resemblance to a lamp than to most computers, Apple's latest release makes the most of space -- by giving users more.

January 24, 2002|By David Zeiler | David Zeiler,SUN STAFF

You've never seen a computer like Apple's new iMac. And that's the point.

For a company with less than 5 percent of the market, innovation equals survival. The oddly appealing flat-panel iMac, unveiled by Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the recent Macworld Expo in San Francisco, fortifies the company's reputation as an industry trendsetter.

At first glance, the machine appears to be an awkward hybrid, with its 15-inch flat panel screen attached to a white dome base by a sturdy, frictionless stainless steel arm that doubles as a handle. The guts of the computer live in the dome, with the various ports arrayed in the rear.

So, it looks more like a Luxo lamp than a computer - that's part of its charm. It looks like it belongs on a desktop, even more so than the old, egg-shaped iMac and certainly more so than the ugly rectangular boxes and hulking monitors of the rest of the computer world.

As with any genuinely fresh idea, this different approach makes more sense the more you look at it, and in particular when you start to use it.

During a brief encounter with one of these newfangled machines at a meeting with a team of Apple representatives last week, I was impressed by the ease with which the screen moves and how steadily it holds its place when you let go. Apple's press materials say it "literally floats in the air," and I have to agree.

The crisp, bright liquid crystal display looked better than I thought it would, considering that it's a mass production unit that had to be economical enough for Apple to put it in its consumer-oriented computers. Aside from two older-design iMacs with standard built-in monitors that Apple is retaining so it can offer less-affluent customers a sub-$1,000 option, the company now sells only flat-panel screens across its entire line.

Some critics quickly berated Apple for charging too much for its new consumer offering. The least expensive iMac will sell for $1,299, the mid-range for $1,499 and the top model for $1,799.

I think the flat-screen iMac is a great value, and not just because of its unique design. I was honestly stunned at the technical specifications for this machine.

Apple has blessed the $1,299 model with a 700 megahertz G4 processor, a step up from the G3 in the old iMac and the same chip the pro tower models use (though at a slower clock speed); a 40-gigabyte hard drive; a CD-RW drive; and the same powerful NVIDIA graphics card as the pro towers. Apple skimps only on memory, as the entry-level model comes with a paltry 128 megabytes, but memory is cheap and fairly easy to add.

Like its bulbous predecessor, the new iMac has limited expandability - other than memory, you can add only an AirPort card for wireless networking. But the USB, FireWire and Ethernet ports should meet the needs of most home and education users, the machine's target market.

With the new iMac, Apple finally has delivered a robust consumer desktop, a nod not just to the reality of competing with powerful, cheap Windows PCs, but an acknowledgement that the G3-based iMacs being replaced aren't quite beefy enough to fulfill their role as the "digital hub."

That's Apple's name for its vision of the Mac as a place to plug in such gizmos as digital video cameras to make home movies with iMovie, or to upload MP3 songs from iTunes into an iPod music player. The new iMac helps complete the digital-hub strategy by providing a more affordable machine with the hardware required to run these programs with sufficient zip.

The ideal model for such digital hub activities is the $1,799 version - and insanely enough, it's the best deal of the lot. It boosts the processor speed to 800 megahertz, the hard drive to 60 gigabytes and includes a SuperDrive, which can burn CDs and DVDs as well as read them. A comparable PC equipped with a DVD burner and 15-inch flat panel display would cost about the same, if not more.

Betting that demand for the SuperDrive model most likely will be the greatest, Apple is making it available first, late this month, to be followed by the midrange iMac next month and the entry-level model in March.

Unlike the ill-fated Cube, which earned raves for its design but was under-powered and overpriced, the new iMac is a dream machine.

But will it sell? Last week, Apple's chief financial officer, Fred Anderson, said iMac orders "were higher than any other product since the original iMac, in terms of first-week orders after the date of announcement."

Who says lightning can't strike twice?

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