The iMac G5: A first look at Apple's new all-in-one

OK, let's get the iMac aesthetics issue out of the way right from the start.

Judging from comments on a variety of Mac-related Web sites, Apple fans around the world are sharply divided about Apple Computer Inc.'s new iMac G5 desktop machine. Announced on Aug. 31 and now shipping in dribbles and drabs, the third-generation all-in-one sports a host of improvements and a completely new look. Gone is the flat-panel screen supported by a chrome arm above a hemispherical base.

In its place is an all-white flat screen with the innards of the computer hidden behind it in a case that's just 2 in. deep. Think of it as a grown-up version of the iPod -- certainly that's what Apple wants you to think. Think I'm kidding? See for yourself in this Apple video.

Although Mac fans generally seem to like the hardware (with the exception of the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra graphics card), they're decidedly mixed in their views of the flat machine's look. Some have called it a step back for Apple from the obviously cool "iLamp" model that preceded it. Others say the new machines represent the best in minimalism and will fit right in with most corporate environments.

For the record, I hold with the latter crowd. I like the look, though not because it represents a great leap forward in the design of desktop computers. The idea of packing a computer's hardware into the area behind a flat-panel screen isn't new. But Apple's usual attention to detail in how that's done, and the resulting iMac hitting store shelves now, shows that old ideas and designs can be made new again.

I should note here that this isn't an extensive review of the iMac G5, which I've had for only four days. Computerworld columnist Yuval Kossovksy will take on those duties in the next few weeks, and is expecting an iMac G5 for review purposes from Apple. Instead, I want to offer a quick overview of the hardware.

iMac G5 up and running
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iMac G5 up and running

Image Credits: Ken Mingis
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To me, the new iMac looks like a 1969 vision of a 21st century computer, the kind of thing Stanley Kubrick or George Lucas might have included in a sci-fi movie just about the time man was landing on the moon. It has a retro-futuristic appearance that seems bland at first, and then very, very sharp upon further examination and use.

I bought it sight unseen. Or rather, I'd seen pictures of it on Apple's Web site and taken the virtual tour online, but I'd never laid eyes on one until I opened the box holding the 20-in. model I snagged at the local Apple Store. The store had just gotten in a dozen or so of the iMacs; mine was the third or fourth 20-in. model to walk out the door. In fact, they weren't even out on display yet.

The new iMac comes in three variations (four, if you count a stripped-down education model). The entry-level machine has a 17-in. screen, a 1.6-GHz G5 processor, an 80GB Serial ATA hard drive, 256MB of memory, the 64MB Nvidia video card and a combo drive that plays CDs and DVDs and burns CDs. It sells for $1,299. For $200 more, you get the same thing equipped with a 1.8-GHz processor and a SuperDrive that also burns DVDs. And the top-end model, priced at $1,899, offers a stunning 20-in. screen, that same 1.8-GHz processor and a 160GB SATA hard drive. Bluetooth and AirPort wireless cards are optional -- and if you want Bluetooth installed, you can do that only by getting a build-to-order machine directly from Apple. The various USB and FireWire ports are located on the back, with a hole cut into the foot through which cables can be routed to keep clutter down.

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A look at the internals of the iMac G5
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A look at the internals of the iMac G5
I pulled the iMac G5 out of the box (it's packed standing up, similar to how Apple packages its cinema-display LCD screens) and set it on my desk. Then I turned it over, unscrewed three screws and easily lifted the back off. That's one of the new iMac G5's charms: It's much more user-serviceable than its predecessor. It even has diagnostic LEDs on the motherboard designed to help you troubleshoot issues that might arise. Taking off the back allows access to basically the whole computer. I added an AirPort Extreme wireless card, took the stock 160GB hard drive, and promptly swapped in a Western Digital Raptor 10,000-rpm drive. What I lost in space -- the Raptor is a 74GB drive -- I hoped to gain in speed.

The whole project took about 15 minutes.

Inside of the back case of the iMac G5
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Inside of the back case of the iMac G5
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I closed it up, plugged it in, hit the power button on the back side, and the iMac G5 jumped to life.

My biggest complaint, and this goes for all three models: Apple skimped on the RAM. If you're eyeing one of these machines, plan on installing more RAM. Yes, Mac OS X 10.3.5 will run with the 256MB of RAM included. But it quickly slows down if you do anything more than open your e-mail and launch Safari. I first ordered a 1GB stick of RAM online (for $195), the same kind of RAM for which Apple charges $300. It arrived the next day but was defective, and the iMac started having kernel panics. I pulled the RAM chip and bought two 512MB chips from a local retailer. That meant taking out the 256MB chip, as the iMac has only two RAM slots. But the second batch worked just fine, and as you would expect, the difference was night and day.

I'll say it again: Get more RAM. At the very least double what's inside. If you want to go for broke, get two 1GB chips. Also note that while the RAM sticks don't have to be paired, doing so speeds up the throughput of the iMac G5's memory bus to 128 bit. If the RAM is unmatched, say you have a 256MB stick and a 512MB stick, the memory bus is 64 bit. I'm not sure I'd notice the difference, but Apple says RAM chips of "the same size and composition ... provide the fastest and most efficient throughput."

The 1.8-GHz G5 processor works as snappily as you'd expect, and while it's cranking through bits and bytes, produces a fair amount of heat. Apple built in three fans to take care of that problem, with cooler air pulled in through a grated-opening bottom. (The speakers are located there as well.) Would-be buyers have asked about the fans and how much noise they produce. Some new owners have complained on message boards that their fans come on a lot. Mine don't. The iMac G5 has run silently so far, although I haven't stressed it out yet with processor-intensive tasks.

I did take a moment to run the Xbench benchmarking test, just to get a rough idea of where it stacks up in comparison to some of the other hardware I've reviewed. With the faster Raptor drive installed -- and the processor speed set to "highest" -- Xbench reported a respectable score of 165, down about 43 points from my first-generation dual 1.8-GHz Power Mac G5, and about the same number of points above the 1.5-GHz PowerBook G4 I benchmarked this summer. Subjectively, it feels about as fast as the Power Mac in routine tasks, though I'm sure the lack of a second processor would be felt when doing Photoshop or digital video work. Yuval's extensive review of the iMac G5 in the coming weeks should give us a better idea of how well, or poorly, the iMac performs.

The 20-in. screen looks pretty much like Apple's 20-in. Cinema Display, although the brightness and contrast specs are slightly different. I couldn't tell any difference between them, though. It's as bright and sharp as any Cinema Display I've used, and one friend who sat down in front of the iMac this weekend found it almost too bright.

That brings me back to the overall look of the iMac G5. At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. It is somewhat blocky, and the expanse of white space beneath the screen has annoyed some fans as throwing off the proportions of the overall machine. I actually think it provides a bit of visual heft that tends to weigh down and offset the "lightness" of the white plastic case. But aesthetics are subjective, and even the last version iMac had its share of detractors.

What's most important is that you can now buy a speedy G5 desktop machine with a crisp LCD screen for as little as $1,299.

Look at it this way: A stand-alone 20-in. Cinema Display sells for $1,299. That's just for the LCD monitor. In the top-of-the-line iMac G5, you get virtually the same screen, with a G5 computer now elegantly attached to it, for just $600 more. In my book, that's money well spent.

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