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Apple Flat-Panel iMac review: Apple Flat-Panel iMac

Apple Flat-Panel iMac

John Rizzo
7 min read
Apple's consumer-minded iMac gets more powerful with each iteration. In fact, the retooled 17-inch model--with a 1GHz G4, processor, 256MB of RAM, a SuperDrive, and a fast 80GB hard drive--is nearly a rival to Apple's own Power Mac G4 lineup. The 1GHz iMac's performance gains over the 800MHz, 15-inch model's are noticeable in everyday use, and its upgraded components, including faster RAM and a speedier system bus, result in excellent graphics performance. While the $1,299 15-inch iMac is a relative bargain, the $1,799 17-inch model ought to include built-in wireless networking and a little more RAM. Adding memory and built-in AirPort Extreme (802.11g) and Bluetooth wireless networking quickly pushes you past the $2,000 mark--at that point, you might as well consider the more flexible and expandable dual-processor Power Mac G4. Apple's redesigned iMac eschews the previous all-in-one, teardrop-shaped design, which it saves for the student-minded eMac. It now houses the computer in a 10.6-inch-diameter white dome topped with a thick, stainless-steel, articulating arm that supports a crisp LCD. The design is striking, to say the least, and imminently practical. You can turn the display 180 degrees, tilt it 35 degrees, and raise or lower it 7 inches each way, exerting very little pressure on the arm.
The 17-inch iMac's wide-screen format offers nearly two-thirds more desktop space than the 15-inch version. In fact, the display is ample enough to fit two word-processing or PDF pages side by side, with plenty of room left over to access the desktop.

An all-new look for Apple.

The new iMac's acres of display.

The display comes equipped with a higher, 1,440x900-pixel resolution, which may require you to zoom in on tiny text. But for your trouble, you'll also get higher-quality display of graphics and movies. Plus, the screen's 16:10 aspect ratio means that DVD movies viewed in letterbox format now fill the entire screen, offering a significantly bigger image than before.
Of course, as on all current iMac displays, the chrome articulating arm not only holds up the monitor, but also lets you smoothly and easily raise and lower, rotate side to side, and tilt the screen to just about any position. The arm is so sturdy, in fact, that Apple recommends that you use it as a handle when you pick up the roughly 22-pound iMac.

Go ahead, grab the iMac by the arm.

The iMac's small dome leaves no room for internal speakers.

The larger, 17-inch display usually hides the dome from sight while you work, and the system's nearly silent fan doesn't betray its presence, either--a nice plus in the home or small office, especially when compared to the extremely loud Power Mac G4s. The 10.2-inch-wide dome on both the 15- and 17-inch models saves a significant amount of desk space compared to the room needed for a clunky CRT monitor, though the small size also means that there's little computer to hide cables behind. The small CPU housing also forces you to sacrifice a tiny bit more desk space for the two transparent, spherical, high-quality Apple Pro speakers. The audio amplifier is built into the iMac, so you don't see any electronics in the speakers themselves.
The iMac ships with the Apple Pro speakers, as well as the roomy and comfortable Apple Pro Keyboard and the Apple Pro optical mouse. We'd still prefer a two-button mouse, which is invaluable for gaming as well as for accessing the Mac OS's contextual menus.

Apple offers the iMac in a 15-inch configuration and two 17-inch models. The entry-level, 15-inch model features an 800MHz processor, 256MB of SDRAM (upgradable to 1GB), a 60GB hard drive spinning at a fast 7,200rpm, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and an Nvidia GeForce2 MX with 32MB of DDR SDRAM.
The new, standard-issue 17-inch iMac comes packed with powerful features, including a 1GHz G4 and a faster, 133MHz system bus (to the 15-inch version's 100MHz), 256MB of PC2100 (266MHz) DDR SDRAM, a 7,200rpm 80GB Ultra ATA/100 hard drive, Apple's faster, 4X DVD-R/CD-RW SuperDrive, and an Nvidia GeForce4 MX with 64MB of DDR SDRAM. Not surprisingly, the faster components and improved graphics card translated to better performance in our Labs tests, as well as impressive graphics scores.
You can add Apple's new AirPort Extreme card and built-in Bluetooth only to the 17-inch model; the 15-inch iMac can hold an 802.11b AirPort card. You can configure the 17-inch iMac to hold its full-capacity 1GB of RAM and toss in the AirPort Extreme card and built-in Bluetooth for a little more than $500, but unfortunately, you can't upgrade the GeForce graphics card to the ATI Radeon 9000 Pro of the midrange Power Macs, and you can't toss in a bigger hard drive.

The 17-inch iMac adds a DVD-burning SuperDrive.

The iMac's array of ports.

Alas, like all iMacs since the original Bondi Blue model, the 17-inch flat-panel iMac won't let you add internal drives, such as a second internal hard drive, and that's a pity, since 80GB can run out quickly if you work with a lot of digital video, for example. You can easily add an AirPort card for wireless access and a RAM module, however, just by popping off the bottom of the dome (holding the iMac sideways or upside down).
The dome also offers ports galore for external drives and devices: three USB ports, a VGA port, two FireWire 400 ports, a 100MB Ethernet port, a modem, and speaker and headphone ports, plus two extra USB ports on the keyboard. We'd prefer at least one or two FireWire ports on the "front" of the dome, but the iMac's rotating display means that the front can become the back in an instant, as long as you don't need frequent access to the disc drive.

The iMac ships with Jaguar and a slew of other software.
One of the iMac's best features is its seamless interoperability of hardware and software, which is enhanced only now that Apple bundles the stellar iLife with every new Mac. Other software goodies that come standard with the iMac include Quicken 2002 Deluxe, FAXstf X, the World Book Encyclopedia, iMovie 2.0, iDVD 2.0 for burning DVDs, and AppleWorks 6.2, which can open Microsoft Office documents and save them in Office formats. You'll also get three games, including Pangea's engaging, 3D, '50s sci-fi adventure Otto Matic. Each new iMac also ships with Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar preinstalled.

Application performance
Apple's latest upgrade brings the iMac up to the 1GHz mark, and with it, modest performance gains over the 800MHz model. But the new iMac also benefits from a range of other hardware upgrades: a 133MHz system bus, an Ultra ATA/100 hard drive, a 256K L2 cache, and an Nvidia GeForce4 MX with 64MB of RAM. By comparison, the 800MHz iMac features a 100MHz system bus, an Ultra ATA/66 hard drive, no L2 cache, and an Nvidia GeForce2 MX with 32MB of RAM. These upgrades offer performance improvements that, while not overwhelming, are palpable in the everyday use of common applications. In CNET Labs' iMovie test, the 1GHz iMac bested the 800MHz model by nearly half a minute, while trailing the dual 1GHz processor G4 by a similar margin. In our iTunes test, the 1GHz iMac scored closer to the 800MHz iMac, taking just over a minute to convert a 10-minute-plus CD track to MP3.
In the more intensive Photoshop 7.0 tests, the iBook's performance paled compared to that of the powerhouse G4 systems, which each feature a dual processor, a 167MHz system bus, and an L3 cache (we were unable to run our new Photoshop 7.0 tests on an 800MHz iMac for this review). CNET Labs uses three different applications (iMovie, iTunes, and Photoshop 7.0) to test Apple desktop performance. Through the use of a number of timing tests, CNET Labs are able to roughly determine the performance of a given system.
iMovie   (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time in minutes  
Power Mac Dual 1GHz G4
iMac 1GHz G4
iMac 800MHz G4
iTunes  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time in minutes  
Power Mac Dual 1GHz G4
iMac 1GHz G4
iMac 800MHz G4
Photoshop 7.0  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time in seconds to complete 10 functions  
Power Mac Dual 1.25GHz G4
Power Mac Dual 1GHz G4
iMac 1GHz G4
Quake III
Gaming performance on the 1GHz iMac is strong, thanks to the more powerful Nvidia GeForce4 MX with 64MB of RAM. In our Quake III Arena test, this iMac scored nearly 60 frames per second, which is close to the point where frame rates become indistinguishable in gameplay. The iMac was outclassed by the superior Power Mac Dual 1.25-GHz G4--the only other Mac we've tested with the updated Quake III for OS X.
Quake III Arena  (Higher bars indicate better performance)
Frames per second  
Power Mac Dual 1.25GHz G4
iMac 1GHz G4
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Quake III Arena for OS X. Although Quake III is an older game, it is still widely used as an industry-standard tool.
System configurations:
Apple iMac
OS X 10.2.3; PowerPC G4-800; 256MB RAM; Nvidia GeForce2 MX 32MB
Apple eMac
OS X 10.2.3; PowerPC G4-700; 128MB RAM; Nvidia GeForce2 MX 32MB
Apple Power Mac G4
OS X 10.2.3; PowerPC G4 1GHz; 256MB RAM; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 64MB
As usual, Apple backs its machines with a subpar one-year parts and service warranty and a stingy 90 days of toll-free technical support. However, you can extend all of this to three years, with the $149 AppleCare Protection Plan. That's not a bad price, but we'd prefer free tech support for the life of the standard warranty.
Apple counters with substantial Web support, including online technical notes, FAQs, and large message boards, though you must submit to the site's free registration process before you can access the wealth of info. Also, thanks to OS X 10.2, you can now view much of the online help content from certain operating-system features: Sherlock 3.0 lets you search for and read knowledge base articles, and the help system can connect to the Internet and download info into the Help application.

Apple Flat-Panel iMac

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7Support 7