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Tech 101 | Mac Focus

New iMac Line Is Fast, Fun and Still Fresh

April 05, 2001|JIM HEID | jim@jimheid.com

Apple's iMac is the Volkswagen Beetle of personal computers, an affordable Volkscomputer whose cuddly, round-cornered design has turned it into an icon. And like the venerable VW, the iMac has staying power. Through frequent improvements, Apple has kept the iMac fresh for nearly three years now.

The 2001 iMacs are out, and they continue the trend. I tested the $1,499 iMac Special Edition, a fast and fun machine that's adept at everything from surfing the Web to editing digital video to burning CDs.

The top of the iMac line, the iMac SE contains a 600-megahertz G3 processor, 128 megabytes of memory (expandable to 1 gigabyte), a copious 40-GB hard drive and a slot-loading CD burner. The SE's $1,199 sibling has a 500-MHz processor, an inadequate 64 MB of memory, a 20-GB hard drive and a CD burner. An $899 iMac runs at 400 MHz and includes 64 MB of memory, a 10-GB hard drive and a CD-ROM drive instead of a burner. All models are blissfully quiet, with no noisy fans.

For expansion, all current iMacs provide two Universal Serial Bus ports and two FireWire ports. There's also an Ethernet jack for network and high-speed Internet connections and a slot for a $99 AirPort wireless networking card.

All iMacs now have a video connector for an external monitor, which mirrors the iMac display. It's handy for education and business users who want to connect a large monitor or projector for classrooms or conference rooms.

My test iMac SE wore the new Flower Power color scheme, which emblazons portions of the computer's case with posies. Apple's manufacturing process gives the floral design a rich, layered look, but this is still one flowery computer. I felt the same sympathy toward it that I feel when I see a poodle humiliated with ear bows. And I say this as both a poodle owner and a gardener. The front of the computer is an elegant white, but Apple continues the flower show with the on-screen desktop pattern, which looks like a shower curtain my mom threw out in 1971.

Buyers of a less botanical bent can buy the iMac SE in Blue Dalmatian (bluish spots) or the gorgeous Graphite (a transparent gray). The mid-range iMac also comes in Indigo. The entry-level model is available only in Indigo.

Thanks to its 600-MHz G3--the fastest G3 processor Apple has ever used--the iMac SE did not disappoint when I put its petals to the metal. In my tests, Microsoft Word was slightly faster on the iMac SE than on Apple's new, 500-MHz PowerBook G4, but converting CD audio tracks into MP3 files using iTunes was slower. Neither result was surprising: Word's performance depends largely on clock speed, while iTunes gains a boost from the G4 chip's Velocity Engine circuitry.

All new iMacs include Apple's iTunes software for making and playing MP3 tracks and burning audio CDs, and iMovie for editing video shot on miniDV-format camcorders. Burning audio CDs using iTunes was a cinch: After creating MP3s from some of my favorite CDs, I dragged them into iTunes' playlist window and then clicked a button. My CD was done a few minutes later. This is a terrific computer for music lovers, especially when paired with Harman-Kardon's $199 SoundSticks speaker system.

Apple's Disk Burner software made it equally easy to create data CDs. To back up a folder of documents, I simply inserted a blank CD and then dragged the folder to its icon as though copying it to a floppy disk.

Disk Burner and iTunes are not the Mac world's most powerful CD-burning programs--that award goes to Roxio's $99 Toast 5 Titanium, about which I'll write in a future column. But for simplicity, Apple's software is unbeatable.

Some pundits say the iMac is getting long in the tooth and Apple needs to pull a fresh consumer-oriented rabbit out of its hat. Three years is a long time in this business, but no Windows computer provides the iMac's mix of performance, versatility, simplicity and design elegance. Even in its advanced age, the iMac is a superb consumer computer.

*

Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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