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Desktops

Ten thoughts on the new Intel iMac

The new 20-inch Intel-powered iMac is a beauty, but it does have some warts.

Somehow I ended up in an Apple store asking about the availability of the new Intel-based iMac. Yes, they had a few in stock, despite the lack of signage in the very crowded store (the employees manning the Genius Bar deserve a raise).

Long story short, I lugged home a 20-inch model with the Intel Core Duo, and I have some thoughts for anyone considering whether to pick one up.

This is not a review, replete with benchmarks and Photoshop filter times (shorter bars are better) and musings on Rosetta emulation software. Rather, it's a list of some initial impressions on the newest iMac. Because the machine is virtually identical to its predecessor in appearance and operation (the new chip runs most software, although through emulation), I've included some thoughts on the process of upgrading to a new machine.

Appearance
Jokes about the Jay Leno-sized chin aside, this is one striking machine. It's like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade version of the iPod, and we know how popular that's been. Many people say it's silly to talk about the looks of a PC, any more than you'd marvel about the eye-pleasing contours of a chain saw: "It's a tool, leave it at that."

Intel iMac
Credit: Scott Ard
There's little to distinguish the Intel
iMac from its predecessor.

But computers are increasingly the focal point of the den--especially when they have 20-inch displays--and are often found in the kitchen or bedroom as well, so aesthetics are worth noting. After all, lamps are made to lighten a room, but people put a lot of time into finding one that is also pleasing to the eye and matches their decor. Why settle for a PC that looks like it was designed by Soviet carmaker?

As for the Intel iMac, there is little to distinguish it from its predecessor. Indeed, the one physical characteristic that is different in an iMac with built-in iSight is a mini-DVI port on the back, which allows a second display to extend the desktop rather than simply mirror it. By the way, the built-in display is beautiful: crisp letters, not a dead pixel that I could find, and bright enough to make you reach for the SPF30.

Memory
The Intel iMacs ship with 512MB of memory, which is enough to use the machine right out of the box, but probably not enough to judge the iMac's performance fairly. I noticed a slight lag in switching from one application to another, and an extremely annoying stutter when moving the mouse across the screen. For example, when opening a Web page and immediately moving the mouse, the cursor hesitates and then jumps ahead, usually well ahead of where I intended it to go.

I'm hoping a RAM upgrade fixes this, or I may be in line at the Genius Bar next week, or in line with my receipt to return it.

Of course, upgrading RAM is practically a requirement for any new PC. The problem here is that the Intel iMac RAM is hard to find and more expensive than memory for PowerPC iMacs. Apple's own Web sells 1GB of Intel iMac memory (PC2-5300 SO-DIMM) for $300, which is $100 more than the same amount for the non-Intel iMac (PC2-4200 DIMM). Many Web sites sell the memory for less, but most listed it as unavailable.

Cracking the case
Before Apple upgraded the flat-panel iMacs to include items like a built-in iSight camera, the company was praised for allowing people to easily open the case to do things like swap out the hard drive.

Not so with the new Intel and PowerPC iMacs: Apple has made opening the case much more of a hassle. That's worth noting if you are considering whether to get the 17-inch model, which has a 160GB hard drive, or the 20-inch, with 250GB. (Memory is easily added through an access door on the bottom that requires only a screwdriver to open.)

Noise
This iMac is remarkably quiet. I don't know how it stacks up against the PowerPC version, but it's significantly quieter than the G4 iMac it replaced or my Cube before it (which sounded like a biplane whenever I left a disc in the drive).

Sound
The speakers are small, but they sound quite good. They are not sufficient if you want room or house-filling tunes--that's what the "digital audio out" plug is for. But for listening to some music while working or cruising the Web, they sound great. Because they are located at the bottom of the case, facing down, it could be the way the sound bounces off the desk on the way to the ear.

Front Row
If you haven't used this remote control and multimedia feature yet, go to an Apple store and check it out. It is the future. You can see somewhere down the road that an Apple computer will be able to send all sorts of digital content throughout your home using an interface/software/hardware mashup that only Apple seems capable of getting right. The addition of a high-definition digital video recorder would be a big step in making this happen sooner, and of course the Mac rumor sites have been predicting such capability will be added. The sooner the better.

(Apple added an interesting design note to the iMac by allowing the Front Row remote to attach magnetically to the side of the machine.)

Migration
When starting up the iMac for the first time, you are asked if you want to import data, applications and settings from your old machine. After connecting the FireWire cord and starting up the old machine in "target" mode, the process went flawlessly. The old machine was essentially replicated on the new iMac--e-mail, photo galleries, music playlists, applications, desktop pictures, and so on. Certain items such as VPN set-up information did not transfer, possibly for security reasons. The process took a couple hours but was painless and startlingly effective (although I am having some issues getting Flash Player to work in Safari).

I would imagine this removes a major hurdle for those who are considering a new computer but recall the days of dragging and dropping files, or burning them to a disk to be transferred.

Parental controls
The old iMac was handed down to my daughter, who started using a dying 7500 when she was about 3, but has used an iBook with OS 9 almost exclusively for years. I'd never had a reason to set up separate accounts under OS X before, but they work very well for limiting what children can do with a computer. For example, with her account she can access a single playlist that I created on the new iMac, which she can "share" through a wireless connection. That way she has access to Hilary Duff, but not to The Streets. And for the Web, I easily created a list of Web sites she can visit and limited her ability to download apps. Again, the process was very simple and it seems foolproof, at least for a while.

Applications
The iLife '06 applications that are now shipping with new Macs were written to be "universal," meaning they run on the PowerPC and Intel processors without the need for the Rosetta translation software. And that means they run faster on the Intel iMac than software that has does not have universal code (which is practically everything else). In my limited usage, they performed as expected, with seamless and speedy integration. For example, iPhoto started up and was able to adjust photos much faster than my old machine (which was rated at just 800MHz, as opposed to 2.0GHz).

Does it do Windows?
There's been a lot of speculation about the ability to load Microsoft Windows on the Intel-powered Macs. The salesman at my local Apple store said XP would not run but Vista, the new Windows version due this year, "might." It's comes down to differences in BIOS and EFI, and you can get more details about that in our FAQ.

Bottom line: $1,700 for a PC is not cheap. But considering the size and beauty of the display, the included software (which likely will account for 80 percent or more of the usage on the machine) and extra hardware doodads like the video/audio outputs, remote and built-in Web cam, and the clearly superior GUI, it almost feels like a bargain--assuming I can get a spastic mouse to behave. (Update: The mouse issue was solved. Click here for details.)