iMac G5: Updated all-in-one faster, better, cheaper

Six months ago, Mom's Macintosh was in trouble. Her aging Power Mac G4, coupled with a dimming 17-in. Apple Cinema Display, was slowing down. One of the FireWire ports didn't work (I later found out it was just dust-filled). And worst of all, she was running out of room for all her Clay Aiken pictures, tunes and videos.

The solution: Apple Computer Inc.'s top-end iMac, which at that point had been on the market for about three months. For $1,899, Mom got a 20-in. LCD screen, a 1.8-GHz G5 processor, 256MB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive and a new lease on computer life. I promptly added an Airport Extreme card and bought more memory. Total cost out the door was something north of $2,100.

Fast forward six months. It's May, and Apple has updated its iMac lineup (see story). For the past few weeks, I've had a chance to put the newest top-end iMac through its paces, thanks to Apple's review program, and I've found it to be more than a worthy successor to the first-generation all-in-one. In fact, it's a steal, easily the best value of the three iMac models Apple sells.

Here's why: The 20-in. screen, already bright and vibrant in the earlier model, remains unchanged. This is a good thing. The processor is marginally faster. While not a major speed bump, this is a good thing, too. The amount of standard memory has doubled, the hard drive now provides 250GB of space, and the SuperDrive is faster and offers dual-layer support. In addition, Airport Extreme is built in (as is the latest version of Bluetooth), the video card is improved, and it comes with Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" and the iLife '05 suite of software installed.

Heck, the new iMac also sports Gigabit Ethernet for better networking, especially in a corporate environment.

All together now: These are good things.

The only thing Apple skimped on was the price. It has been lowered $100 to $1,799, which makes this one faster, better, cheaper computer. And did I mention that co-workers routinely come by and ooh and aah over the iMac's industrial design?

As much as I liked the "lampshade" version of the iMac, I always found it to be a bit too cute as a desktop machine for the workplace. I don't think that's the case with this iteration at all. The 2-in.-wide white chassis, mounted snugly to a single aluminum foot, looks like it's ready for business as soon as you fire it up. And firing it up, especially with Tiger installed, is something that takes just 35 seconds from the Mac start-up chime to ready-to-use desktop.

I have the iMac sitting here on my desk next to my regular machine, a Dell Inc. laptop connected to a 17-in. Dell CRT monitor. Every day, I face a dark gray laptop plugged into a dark gray docking station sitting under a beige monitor. If I hit the power button on both machines at the same time, guess which one wins the race? (If you guessed Dell, you'd be wrong.)

My point here isn't to slam Dell. This isn't meant as a benchmark comparison, as the two machines are worlds apart. My laptop does what it's supposed to do. But who says hardware at work can't be functional and still look good?

Speaking of functional, the newest iMac is, not surprisingly, faster than the version I reviewed last fall. I was able to snag one of the first of those iMacs to show up at a local Apple Store, and as soon as I did, I took it home and opened it up. That's one of the selling points Apple has pushed: ease of use and ease of upgrades.

In that case, I added a Western Digital Raptor 10,000-rpm drive in a bid to squeeze out as much speed as I could. (Yes, I gave up on some storage space, but I'm not as keen on keeping Clay Aiken pictures, music and videos as Mom.) The whole operation took about 15 minutes, and when I fired up the iMac, I used the Xbench benchmarking application for a quick read on performance. With the faster drive installed, that iMac got a score of 165.

I didn't have a Raptor drive available to install in the newer iMac, but I benchmarked it anyway. Out of the box, it scored 180, meaning the iMac you grab off the store shelf is already faster than the one I had to soup up last fall. That's with the processor speed set to "highest" in the system preferences, a setting that did not seem to make the whisper-quiet iMac noticeably louder. As always with benchmarks, your mileage may vary. Heat didn't seem to be a problem either. The CPU temperature as reported by Temperature Monitor hovered around 136 degrees Fahrenheit.

I should note that the iMac came in very handy last week when a photographer delivered a DVD filled with pictures from a recent Computerworld event for our print publication. As it turned out, he'd burned them onto a dual-layer DVD, and the only computer in the building that could read the disk was the borrowed iMac. I promptly copied all 700 -- 700! -- pictures to the iMac's hard drive and then burned them to two regular DVD-R disks. Problem solved.

This brings me to my point: The iMac G5 was already a solid performer that does just about everything a user needs, and does it well. The newest model does it all even better -- the result of a tack I've seen Apple take -- largely out of necessity -- with other recent hardware upgrades.

Given IBM's inability, or unwillingness, to cough up faster G5 processors in quantity (or cooler ones for use in laptops), Apple has had to devise other ways to increase the value of its hardware (last week's announcement about Intel Corp. notwithstanding). It did much the same thing when it recently bumped the specs of its Power Mac line and in January when it released new PowerBooks. Slightly faster processor speeds, plus a number of under-the-hood changes and enhancements, coupled with price cuts, make for an overall better computing experience.

For an already great machine, the latest tweaks make the choice of whether to buy an iMac even easier. Don't worry about next year's versions, with or without Intel inside. If you need a new computer and the iMac fits your needs, you'd be crazy to wait.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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