Hands on: New iMacs' form, function a 'fabulous combo'

Who doesn't want faster processors encased in stylish aluminum?

There is, in the design world, always a natural tension between form and function.

Sure, that favorite desk, couch, car or computer might look like a million bucks. But does it do what it's supposed to do, in the way it's supposed to?

When it comes to marrying form and function in computers, no one does it better than Apple Inc. -- although even it offers up the occasional clunker. One-button mouse, anyone?

Such is most definitely not the case with its latest all-in-one computer, the revamped, beefed up and very, very stylized iMac, released just last week and already available on store shelves at prices ranging from $1,199 to $2,299.

The iMac sitting on my desk -- sent by Apple for review purposes -- hits the sweet spot at $1,499, with all the Intel power most users would need, a gorgeous 20-in. screen, a new (and thinner) aluminum case, and the new iLife '08 digital suite of software.

The newest iMacs all feature brushed aluminum casings, shiny screens and a redesigned keyboard.

The newest iMacs feature brushed aluminum casings, shiny screens and a redesigned keyboard.

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Oh, and speaking of thinner, be sure to note the new keyboard. Thin is most definitely in when it comes to the iMac's restyled keyboard, which has an aluminum finish and white chiclet-like keys like those used on the MacBook line. It also sits flatter on the desk, something that some typists might need a little time to get used to. More about the keyboard in a minute.

Unboxing and setting up the iMac is a case of ease-of-use incarnate. There were the usual ooohs and aaahs in the office when I pulled it from the box -- "Quick, get a video camera," someone yelled -- and in five minutes, I was online and ready to go. (I could have been up and running faster except that several office mates wanted to see the new keyboard.)

As for the changes internally, the processors in all four models -- two with 20-in. LCDs and two with 24-in. screens -- have been upgraded. The standard hard drives generally hold more data (ranging from 250GB in the entry-level $1,199 model to 500GB in the top-end $2,299 model) and all but the basic version come with the ATI Radeon HD 2600 PRO video card with 256MB memory. All except the most expensive model come with 1GB of RAM; the $2,299 version has 2GB of RAM, and you can double that to 4GB -- for a steep price: $700. (It's even more, $850, to bump up the RAM in the lesser iMacs.)

Word to the wise: Buy extra RAM from a third-party vendor and save yourself some serious bucks.

In other words, there's a model for just about every budget and need, though it's worth pointing out that this iMac goodness starts at a higher base price than before. Until last week, the cheapest iMac was just $999.

Apple execs aren't worried, however. In an interview late last week, they stressed that the new lineup of iMacs offers much more than earlier versions -- noting, for example, that the now-discontinued $999 model was smaller and slower than its replacement.

Apple is proud of its "ability to come out with this beautiful new design and offer the value increase of the 20-in. display for $300 less [than the previous 20-in. version] and the 24-in. model for $200 less than previously," said Laura Metz, desktop product manager at Apple. The old 24-in. model cost $1,999.

Metz also noted that all iMacs use Core 2 Duo processors from Intel Corp., either a 2-GHz or 2.4-GHz chip, depending on model. And for the first time, speed demons can order a top-of-the-line 24-in. iMac with a fast, 2.8-GHz processor. Metz noted that as far as Apple knows, the chip is not yet available elsewhere. The 2.8-Ghz Core 2 Duo -- which adds $250 to the price of the $1,799 model and is included in the $2,299 version -- is up to 29% faster on some tasks using applications such as Apple's iMovie, Aperture or Final Cut Pro than the previous top-end processor, according to Metz.

Metz also pointed out that in addition to the larger hard drives, buyers can configure the machines with as much as 1TB of storage in the 24-in. models, with the extra cost amounting to $450 or $550, depending on which model you're upgrading.

That's room enough for a lot of digital photos. Or homemade videos. Or Word docs. Or music files.

All iMacs come with the usual retinue of hardware goodies: an 8X double-layer SuperDrive; a remote for Front Row use; 802.11n Wi-Fi networking; Bluetooth; USB 2.0; FireWire 400 and 800 on all models; and exceptionally bright and sharp LCD screens -- though none of them makes use of the LED backlighting available in Apple's 15-in. MacBook Pro. The 20-in. model weighs 20 lb. and offers a screen resolution of 1,680 by 1,050 pixels; the larger ones, weighing in at just over 25 pounds, offer true HD resolution: 1,920 by 1,200 pixels.

A rear view of the iMac showing various ports.

A rear view of the iMac showing various ports.

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A quick note on those screens. When I first fired up my 20-in. test iMac, I noticed that the screen looked a little washed out using the default calibration. So I launched the Display Calibrator Assistant, tweaked the contrast and colors, and voila, all was well. Your mileage may vary, of course. And as gorgeous as the screen is, I couldn't help but find myself wanting that higher 1,920-by-1,200-pixel resolution in the 20-in. model. The higher resolution works just fine on my 17-in. MacBook Pro, so I'm sure it'd be just as useful on the smaller iMac.

As solid as the tech specs are in the new hardware -- the function side of the equation, if you will -- it's the design that will most likely grab your attention. Now, we're talking about form. And Metz was not surprisingly eager to tout the exterior changes.

"The use of aluminum and glass lends itself to a very sophisticated and elegant look," she said. "The way we've implemented [design] on the iMac is unique. It makes it have that much more appeal."

Indeed. This computer looks like it just dropped off the pages of Dwell magazine, which offers a high-end look at architecture and design. The iMac drips style, whether you're only ponying up $1,199 or going all out for the $2,299 model. White plastic is out; high-tech aluminum and glass -- trimmed in black -- is in.

Thin is in with the new iMac.

Thin is in with the new iMac.

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"The piece of aluminum has no seams on it," Metz noted. (She's right.) "It's made out of one piece of aluminum, and the piece of glass is precision-fit."

Another design tweak: A shiny black bezel surrounds the screen, which is now glossy instead of matte -- one reason colors look incredibly saturated, with superwhite whites and deep blacks. That bezel is actually painted on the inside of the screen glass, Metz said, helping to make DVDs, digital videos and photos shine. "It makes your content really pop."

The bezel helps hide the iSight webcam (which offers good 640-by-480 resolution, even in a dimly lit room), and in some ways echoes the design of the popular new iPhone. Around back, where all those ports hide out of sight, the cover is black polycarbonate.

Even the back looks neat and clean.

Even the back looks neat and clean.

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And then there's the keyboard.

"We had the opportunity to redesign the Apple keyboard, to move to an ultrathin design [with] anodized aluminum to match the iMac," said Metz. "It comes with USB 2.0 ports so you can sync up your iPod (or connect other peripherals). We feel it's very complementary to the iMac."

Complementary? Yes. Dwell-worthy? Absolutely.

As for keyboard feel, the white keys elicited mixed reviews among those who tried them out. I'm not a trained typist, hunting and pecking with a number of fingers, and while keyboard feel is important, it's never been a major factor in buying a computer for me. Apparently, others are much pickier about where their fingers land. Colleague Scot Finnie couldn't wait to check out the keyboard, having seen pictures of it that leaked online two weeks ago. His professional view amounted to a sad "Harrumph," with his concerns focusing on the key travel and the spacing between keys. One of Computerworld's top tech gurus stopped by and typed out this verdict: "I wonder if I'll like this as much. It's OK, but the keys are farther apart."

(He was comparing the keyboard to Apple's last-generation all-white keyboard, which he likes.)

Yet another editor -- someone who tends toward ergonomic keyboards -- pronounced the new design adequate, allowing as how that wouldn't stop her from buying an iMac.

The redesigned keyboard looks solid, but got mixed reviews from several office mates.

The redesigned keyboard looks solid, but got mixed reviews from several office mates.

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Call it a mixed verdict. But if keyboard feel is important to you, get to an Apple Store and try out the keyboard for yourself. As for function, Apple made a few changes, losing the Apple logo from the command key and shifting the function keys around a bit. F1 and F2 now adjust brightness, F3 launches Expose, F4 launches Dashboard, F7 through F9 move you through songs in iTunes, and F10 to F12 modulate the volume. All are illustrated with easy-to-understand icons.

In day-to-day use, the new iMac is a smooth and silent operator, with power to burn. Boot-up times are about what you'd expect from a 2.4-GHz Core 2 duo processor running on an 800-MHz front-side bus with 4MB of L2 cache and pulling files from a 7,200-rpm hard drive: from Mac chime to desktop takes about 24 seconds.

The new iMac runs build 8R4031 of the Mac OS X with alacrity. Using the Xbench benchmarking utility, I got scores ranging from 143 to 150, with an average score of 146. For comparison purposes, I benchmarked the latest 17-in. MacBook Pro -- also sporting a Core 2 Duo 2.4-GHz processor -- back in June. Xbench reported a score of 118 on the laptop. On the iMac, launching programs is quick, with most up and running in just a bounce or two of the dock icon. And as has long been the case with iMacs, this one churns away at data almost silently.

Speaking of programs, another boon for would-be iMac buyers, is the inclusion of the new iLife '08 suite of digital software tools. ILife '08 was unveiled by Apple CEO Steve Jobs on the same day he took the wraps off iMacs, and it includes a host of updates and cool tools likely to wow users.

Computerworld is planning a more extensive look at iLife '08 and iWork -- which includes a new spreadsheet program called Numbers -- later this month. But I can tell you from my preliminary look at the changes offered in iPhoto, anyone who's a fan of Apple's digital life suite will be impressed.

Rob Schoeben, Apple's vice president of Applications Product Marketing, minced no words in talking up the various changes. "We basically overhauled our entire consumer experience with a brand-new version of iLife and iWork," he said. "iLife '08 really is by far the most significant upgrade we've ever done in the 10 years since we started this focus on the digital hub."

He noted the addition of "events" in iPhoto to better help users reduce picture clutter by representing all photos from one session with a single picture -- an important consideration given that Apple found the average user has between 4,000 and 6,000 photos in his iPhoto library.

"The reality is, if you're scrolling, it can be kind of challenging," Schoeben said. "We have this computer here that's very smart, so we said, 'Let the computer decide what an event is.' Any photos taken in a day are grouped into an object called events -- and now your photo library clutter can be reduced 50 times. It's a much better browsing model."

Users can also tweak the settings to change which photos will appear in an "event."

Schoeben also talked about changes to iWeb, iDVD, an extensive overhaul of iMovie and "deep integration with the iPhone." One new service allows an iPhone user to snap a picture, upload it to a Web gallery immediately, and then have that same photo synched automatically with his or her iPhoto library back home through Apple's beefed up .Mac service.

The iLife '08 suite isn't unique to iMacs. As of last week, it comes with all of Apple's current hardware; iWork, however, must be bought separately.

As I noted earlier, Computerworld will have a much more complete look at both suites later this month.

Software, like hardware, is a matter of function, and the changes Apple has made to its digital life suite take an already popular collection of useful tools and make them even better. Combined with the iMac's solid blend of hardware form and function, it yields a fabulous combo that will make almost any user happy.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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