Apple Computer's new iMac is the most stylish personal computer you can buy. But is it the best entry-level computer?
To answer that question, I've spent the last couple of weeks using a new iMac alongside another new, low-cost computer: Gateway's 500SE, which runs Microsoft Windows XP.
Basics. I tested an 800-megahertz iMac with 256 megabytes of memory, a 60-gigabyte hard drive and Apple's SuperDrive, which can read and burn both CDs and DVDs. At $1,799, this iMac is the costliest; next month, Apple will ship a $1,299 model that runs at 700 MHz and has a standard CD burner and less memory and hard drive space. All iMacs have 15-inch, flat-panel screens.
The Gateway 500SE sells for $999 and includes a 1.6-GHz Pentium 4 processor, an inadequate 128 MB of memory, a 20-GB hard drive and a CD burner. It too has a 15-inch flat-panel screen.
Both computers also include modems, Ethernet networking jacks, speakers and Universal Serial Bus connectors (three in the iMac, four in the Gateway).
The iMac also contains two FireWire jacks.
So the Gateway is initially less expensive, but its price approaches the iMac's if you add a DVD burner, FireWire, more memory and a bigger hard drive.
Looks. You've seen the iMac: it's a futuristic white dome topped by the display, which pivots and swivels at the touch of a finger. The round speakers look like two clear, acrylic eyeballs. The entire system is unique, and you either love it or hate it.
You've seen the Gateway, too, or at least you've seen a dozen similar computers. It's a basic beige tower, with a display and speakers to match. From a design and engineering perspective, it's as unique as a Quarter Pounder.
The iMac is larger than it looks in Apple's advertisements. Its circular base is about 10 inches in diameter, and the display and chrome arm protrude several more inches. I had to push the iMac partway off the back of my desk to get the display to a comfortable viewing distance.
I lost less desktop space to the Gateway, whose display is only about five inches deep. (Of course, the beige tower sat on the floor alongside my desk.) You can adjust the Gateway's display only slightly.
Setup. A single cable powers the iMac and its speakers. The Gateway requires one outlet for the tower, one for the display and a third for the speakers.
Most Windows PCs have similar outlet appetites.
Boot the iMac for the first time, and a program helps you set up the computer and optionally register with Apple.
When I booted the Gateway, I saw an odd Windows XP error message recommending that I try booting again. The second time was the charm, and Windows XP's setup and "activation" screen appeared. You can skip activation, but only for 30 days, at which point Windows XP stops working until you register with Microsoft.
Both the iMac and the Gateway have fans, but the iMac's is significantly quieter.
Expansion and speed. No contest here: The Gateway has three general-purpose expansion slots; the iMac none. The Gateway can accommodate a second internal hard drive or a removable-media drive; the iMac can't.
On my test track, the Gateway was faster in most tests, but it wasn't twice as fast--proving that performance isn't determined by processor speed alone.
Verdict. From the hardware perspective, neither computer cleaned the other's clock. The iMac has style and setup advantages; the Gateway is marginally cheaper and far more expandable. Both are fine for home and business users. The biggest differences between them lie in the software they include and the operating systems they run.
I'll talk about that next week.
Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.