Apple Inc. has dropped "Computer" from its name, but its computer business is still growing, even if the iPod player is the company's real star.
Apple's resurgence started with the first iMac, in 1998. Little by little, Apple has been persuading people to opt for Macintosh computers over Windows PCs.
After Apple refreshed its iMac line last week, I decided to test one from the perspective of a Windows user. I found it to be a powerful if not completely irresistible enticement to switch.
If you haven't looked at iMacs in a while, they now look like half a laptop — the display half, with the processor and other components built into the flat-panel screen. The new iMacs ditch the plasticky look that's been a hallmark of the line since the beginning, replacing it with an aluminum casing that's even thinner than before.
It's very sleek-looking, but do you remember the first iMacs? They resembled colorful television sets and looked more fun than a pack of bubble gum. Then there was a special edition with a transparent gray cover, through which you could see the copper coils on the back of the cathode-ray tube. That was hot.
With the latest models, the iMac has grown up, gone to business school and now wears a suit — a very well-cut suit. It won't look out of place anywhere, but it's not as exciting.
The basic model costs $1,199 and has a 20-inch screen. Another $300 gives you a faster processor and graphics card and a bigger hard drive. The top model, for $1,799, has all those components but a 24-inch screen instead. All have one gigabyte of memory. The prices are roughly $300 less than the previous line, for the same size screen.
I tested the middle model, but with an extra gigabyte of memory, which costs $150. When I removed the extra memory, I didn't find a difference in how fast the unit started up, switched between programs or rendered a high-definition movie in iMovie.
That tells me that most users will probably be fine with the cheapest model and the standard 1 GB of memory, because processor speed is not that important anymore. Apple's operating system clearly makes good use of memory; Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows Vista will barely give you the time of day on 1 GB.
I found the iMac very easy to get working on, even though I haven't used a Mac intensively for some time. Getting online through my home wireless network using the built-in Wi-Fi card was a cinch, as was video chatting using the built-in camera and my AOL Instant Messenger account. The iMac's iTunes software immediately found the iTunes music library on my home PC and gave me access to the songs.
Along with the new computers, Apple updated its iLife suite of software, which normally sells for $79 but comes free with the iMac.
The iMovie program, in particular, has been thoroughly revised, with a new and very handy interface. Despite little experience with movie editing, it took me just half an hour to boil down an hour of footage into a 2-minute high-definition movie of my baby, shot with a brilliant camera from Panasonic, the HDC-SD1 (street price $750). Uploading the movie to a gallery on Apple's .mac Web service took only a few more steps.
That's the Apple experience in a nutshell: Tight integration of hardware, software and Web services, along with great interface design, allowed me to download, edit and upload the video without ever going to the user manual.
So why am I not completely sold?
Well, I found some flies in the ointment. I'd call them "maggots in the apple," but that's trite and makes too big a deal of them.
I had problems accessing files on my home PC via the wireless network. The iMac would only sometimes show the PC's shared folders. There's probably a fix for this, but this is something that should work out of the box.
Like many other computers, the iMac has three different modes of inactivity: display off, sleep mode and shut down. The trouble is, there's no clue which state your iMac is in, and different inputs can be used to wake the computer up. If the display is off, moving the mouse will turn it on. But if it's in sleep mode, you need to click the mouse. If it's off, neither of those will work, and you have to press the power button.
Turning on a computer shouldn't be a guessing game. Sure, minimalism is great, but it wouldn't have killed the design to put in an LED that indicates the computer's state of relaxation.
In the iMac's favor, power consumption in operation is low, at around 75 watts according to my meter. That's comparable to a laptop, and about half of what a powerful desktop PC will draw, excluding the monitor (Remember: the iMac's power usage includes the built-in monitor). In Sleep mode, the iMac draws just 2 watts.
My other complaint is with how the screen displays small type, like the body text of Web sites. It looks faint and blurry on the iMac screen. This isn't unique to the iMac, as it has to do with how Apple's operating system places text relative to the pixel grid on LCD monitors.
Microsoft's ClearType technology produces text that has better contrast and is more legible. It's less faithful to the design of the font, which is why Apple resists it. But I'm not a graphic designer and not particularly appreciative of the beauty of fonts, and I should have the option to engage something like ClearType on the iMac.
These are minor complaints.
The iMac deserves to be a strong contender for any PC user looking to get a new computer. If I was looking to replace my PC right now, I would be sorely tempted. Even the Windows software I've accumulated over the years isn't a real reason not to switch, because Macs can now run Windows, too (with some additional software purchases).
However, unless you're shopping for a computer in preparation for the fall semester, wait to get an iMac in October, when Apple is to roll out a new version of its operating system, called "Leopard," with improvements to the user interface. If you've already bought a computer, the upgrade will cost $129.