iMac, I Like

Anyone who has used PCs for a long time knows the joy has gone out of computing. The “wow” experience from setting up that first computer or exploring the vast informational riches of the Internet are memories. It is like the first time having sex, only sex is still great other times. Getting another new computer just doesn’t reach the same level of excitement or joy.

Until now.

I cracked open the box on a new iMac in mid-March 2002, the midrange model with 700MHz PowerPC processor, 256MB of RAM, 40GB hard drive, and CD-RW/DVD combo drive. (Ironically, later the same day Apple raised prices on all iMacs by 100 bucks; by October the price had dipped another $200. ) For the first time in as long as I can remember, working on a computer is fun. And that’s doing work. Other activities just get better from there. 

Note: Story updated Oct. 20, 2002

This wasn’t my first time up close and personal with the new iMac, which suspends a 15-inch flat-panel display from a half-dome base by a pivoting arm. Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of worldwide marketing, demoed the high-end model in Washington, D.C. in mid-January. Phil and Co. came to see several area journalists, soon after the product’s Jan. 7 introduction. I later learned Apple rented the Presidential Suite at a local hotel just for my demonstration. I was touched and later sorry I didn’t scarf back more food from the continental breakfast bar; I wanted to save some for other reporters.

Anyway, the new iMac didn’t exactly win my affection, despite Phil Schiller’s infectious enthusiasm. The odd-duck design failed to charm, and I was highly skeptical about the all-white color scheme. Still, I got about five minutes of play on the new model, which I used trying out a music CD I burned myself and playing the opening sequence to the movie Armageddon. Phil and Co. seemed a bit surprised I would bring music and a movie to play, but I wanted to see how the new iMac delivered on the “digital experience”.

But in doing the math, I wondered how a non-upgradeable computer selling for $1,799 could compete with souped-up Pentium 4 PCs, or even notebooks. Hey, they’re pretty much non-upgradeable, too. My rationale: Sony then sold a DVD recording PC for $1,199 that could be upgraded when needed and would cost less than the high-end iMac even factoring in the price of a pretty good monitor. Sony’s selling a 1.6GHz Vaio PC with 256MB of RAM, 60GB hard drive, and DVD recording drive for $1,099. That’s pretty damn cheap compared to the midrange iMac, which now sells for $1,699 and offers an 800MHz PowerPC processor, 256MB of RAM, and 60GB hard drive. Granted, the iMac packs a stunning 15-inch digital display and is 802.11b wireless networking ready, but the Vaio could be outfitted with 17-inch flat-panel display for the difference in price.

Feature-for-feature, the Sony would appear to beat the high-end iMac—hell, even the $1,199 entry-level iMac if you have a monitor already. But price isn’t the only consideration. If budget is your only consideration, read no further. For everyone else, I can only say that the new iMac packs one hell of a wow effect. The monitor is the best 15-inch flat-panel I have seen on any computer. The brightness of the display, crispness of text, and richness of color are shocking they’re so good. The adjustable screen changes the whole ergonomics experience as well. Tilt, twist or turn that monitor to suit your individual viewing position.

The new iMac delivers great video and sound, too. In fact, Apple would appear to have fixed what I long considered a sound shortcoming. For some reason, Macs don’t have good volume output, which is a problem when using Apple or Harmon Kardon speakers—or even headphones—without separate volume controls. You have to jack the volume way high to get adequate output. This problem would appear to be solved on the new iMac. Video also delivers impressively. I’m one of the few ditz-for-brains out there that likes watching DVDs on his (or her) computer. Playback is great, although it usually is on Macs. Consistently DVDs don’t look as good on PCs—regardless of processor speed, graphics card or playback software—as they do on Macs. Skin tones are redder, for example, while Macs deliver crisper images and more-true-to-life color. As good as the movies. (Suddenly, I’m craving hot fake-buttered popcorn.) Editing home movies, working with photos or doing digital music all are easy on the new iMac, more so than any PC—or any other Mac, for that matter—I have used. All that said, the new iMac is pretty, too.

Shows age fast?
But how long the new iMac stays pretty is certainly a concern. After all, the computer is mostly white—and I got to say the demo unit at my local CompUSA looks grimy after weeks on display. On the other hand, maybe iMac’s white-as-snow motif will help users treat the computer with the care and respect it deserves. That would certainly increase its lifespan, which for PCs may seem short-lived no matter what the care. You know, buy it today, obsolete tomorrow. Apple doesn’t churn over processors as quickly as other computer makers, so Macs tend to have a longer shelf life.

Some quirks are troubling, though. I have used Vaio and would say Sony delivers a great multimedia experience, better than other PC manufacturers. (Vaio stands for video-audio input-output, by the way.) But the wow experience of the new iMac is great. Hey, I want to use a computer again—even look forward to it. But to my surprise I found the 700MHz iMac’s 256MB of RAM inadequate. The new iMac lacked the pep I would have expected from such an expensive computer, particularly compared to cheaper Pentium 4 PCs and even some Power Macs. (So you know: MHz for MHz, Apple’s professional Power Macs pack more punch than iMac because of subtle differences in the microprocessors.) I bumped the memory up to 512MB, which mostly solved the sluggishness. (By the way, the new iMac takes notebook memory, not the larger DIMMs used in desktops.)

All that said, the new iMac delivers great sound through the small globe-shaped speakers—and thumping base, too, with iSub attached. Other niceties: The keyboard has great touch and feel and is very responsive. Ditto, on the responsiveness of the infrared mouse. Fine touches abound, such as the feel of the cables or the computer’s overall styling and, more importantly, workmanship. Like earlier iMacs, the new model is fairly quiet. No other computer I have used—that includes Sony Vaio—exuberated such quality. I found adding more memory and an AirPort wireless networking card to be a cinch, too.

Both upgrades added about $200 to the cost of iMac, which gets to the computer’s biggest failing: Potential additional cost. They say you get what you pay for, right? Well, if you can afford to outfit the new iMac, you get one hell of a computer. If. The computer comes with a fairly robust built-in e-mail program, Internet Explorer 5.1, and AppleWorks 6.22, which packs a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. But those people hoping to work at home but use Office 97, 2000 or XP for Windows at work will likely need Office v. X for Mac OS X at home. That’s another $150, as a discounted upgrade. Many PC makers throw in for free Office XP Small Business Edition, which handles most tasks. AppleWorks does include file translators from Dataviz’s MacLinkPlus—and the full version of the program packs in more features—but that may not be enough for some people. (Tip: Save files to rich text or HTML, the format language used for Web pages, to solve many file compatibility problems.) Also included: 2002 versions of Quicken Deluxe and World Book. Norton AntiVirus, a freebee with most PCs, is another extra you’ll have to spring for.

Those issues aside, the iMac comes with its own set of powerful programs: iMovie 2 for video editing; iTunes 3 for music ripping, burning and listening; and iPhoto, for managing, sharing or printing digital images. The high-end iMac also comes with iDVD 2, Apple’s DVD authoring software. Like the original iMac, the new model serves up plenty of USB ports—five, with three free on the midrange and high-end model—two FireWire ports, a 10/100-network connector and 56kbps modem. Oh yes, you can fully enable the wireless networking for $100.

Even with the dings for cost of extras and a couple of quirks, I have to give the new iMac an A-. So much for my first impressions in a Washington hotel room. “Who was she?” my wife just asked, looking over my shoulder. The white, little angel setting on my desk, darling.

Photo Credit: Grant Hutchinson

Editor’s Note: On July 31, 2017, this post was recovered, using Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of Date is authentic.