Up Close and Personal With the New iMac

A hands-on look at Apple's newest iMac.

After Mondays keynote address by Apple Computer Inc.s CEO Steve Jobs, company representatives gently herded packs of journalists to the Macworld Expo show floor at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

The show itself was not due to open for another day; this event, meant to give the press a timely look at Apples new iMac, was necessitated after the company moved up the keynote day from Tuesday to Monday. While other exhibitors booths were terra incognita, Apples floor space was bright and ready to go. It was there that members of the media got to have hands-on time with the new Macintoshes, take and manipulate digital pictures with iPhoto, and ask questions of Apple honchos, who were wandering the booth.

Say hello to the new iMac

Up close, the new iMac looks both bigger and smaller than it does in pictures. The 15-inch LCD screen is indeed bright and has as usable a viewing angle as any flat display; it can also rotate 180 degrees on the base as well as vertically. However, the resolution tops out at 1,024 by 768 pixels, which doesnt take advantage of the monitors usable space, the equivalent of that of a 17-inch CRT. Add to that the oversize widgets in Mac OS Xs Aqua interface (icons and the Dock can be scaled smaller by the user, but other interface elements cannot be), and the monitor suddenly seems as small as the old iMacs 15-inch CRT.

Conversely, the hemispherical base is quite a noticeable lump on the desktop. Its footprint is only 10 and a half inches in diameter, but it also rises 10 and a half inches up. Depending on your monitor angle, you may not even see the base in the course of normal work, but if you do, the bright white base is noticeable. The rounded shape is dramatic, but with the iMacs keyboard, mouse and speakers added, the shape could make arraying your workspace slightly more problematic. You cant, for example, push your keyboard up against the base.

Its heavier than it looks, too. Apple says that its all right to grab the whole computer by the articulated neck for hefting around, but the new iMac doesnt feel significantly lighter than the old iMac.

The above-mentioned neck, though, is necessarily beefy. Though it functions similarly to the spidery trusses on a Luxo lamp, serving to maintain viewing angle no matter the monitors fore or aft position, the new iMacs neck is a chrome-encased unit. This is partially for aesthetics, but it also serves both to hide and to protect the monitors signal and power cables.

The keyboard and mouse are white versions of the standard USB-based units that come with Apples Power Mac line of desktops. The Apple Pro Speakers that come with the top two iMac models are the same as the ones that shipped with the ill-fated Power Mac Cube of last year.

In terms of performance, the new iMac, unlike previous versions, seems adequate to handle the demands of Mac OS X and its graphics-intensive interface. The old iMacs -- and even some of the less-powerful Power Mac desktops -- chugged noticeably when users moved or resized drop-shadowed, translucent windows and performed other basic tasks.

In part, the new capabilities are due to optimizations in Mac OS X 10.1 and later (the new iMacs said they were running Mac OS X 10.1.2, though the build number suggested that it is a hardware-specific revision), but much of this boost must be due to the new iMacs featuring G4 rather than G3 processors. Its been well-documented that a good portion of Quartz, the two-dimensional rendering engine underneath Mac OS X, contains optimizations for the G4s AltiVec graphics subsystem.

And the new iMacs sport nVidias GeForce 2 MX 3-D accelerator cards (the lower end of nVidias line) -- many journalists were seen diligently testing applications such as the Quake III: Arena on the display units.

Mac OS X on a new 800MHz iMac does feel usable if still not zippy. For some reason, the mouse will not track across the screen as rapidly as on a Mac OS 9 screen, even set to maximum speed. If that or any other lack in Mac OS X is too worrisome, though, all the new iMacs will be bootable into Mac OS 9 with a change in the Startup Disk Control Panel.

This raises the question: Now that the iMac boasts processor speeds and storage capacities that rival the flagship Power Mac desktop line but at lower price points, what is to distinguish the "pro" Power Macs?

As of Monday, a customer could order a SuperDrive-equipped, 800MHz iMac with 256MB of RAM and a 60GB hard drive for $1,799. The closest Power Mac, with a 15-inch LCD monitor added, offers a slower processor, less RAM and hard drive and only a CD-RW drive, all while costing hundreds of dollars more.

But the limitations of the iMac listed above -- no screen spanning (it does support mirroring), a low top resolution and lack of expandability -- could be unacceptable to truly professional users, those in the print, music, video or scientific markets. For these customers, their options at the moment are to look on the cheaper iMac with some degree of envy or to wait for upgraded Power Macs.

Which some thought were promised by the "Warp factor Ten" teasers on Apples own Web site.