New iMac tries to play it cool

Hot G5 chip requires some serious effort to avoid overheating in all-in-one desktop design.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
One of Apple Computer's biggest challenges with the latest iMac was making sure the machine was cool.

Not hip--that's a requirement for all of Apple's products. This iMac needed to find a way to stay cool, as in "won't melt the desk."

The G5 processor at the heart of Apple's new machine gives off quite a bit of heat, so much so that Apple has been warning that it will be some time before consumers see a G5 laptop.

Apple says it managed to beat the heat with a couple of clever tricks. One is an air intake hole near the speakers at the bottom of the machine. Acer tried a similar trick on some laptops--using the speakers and area around the screen as a vent. The new iMac is not liquid cooled, like the top-of-the-line Power Mac G5, but does use three fans--one near the hard drive, one near the G5 and another as part of the power supply.

"It's hard to cool a PC down without a lot of fans and a lot of noise," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said. "Even though G5s tend to run hot...the machine is absolutely whisper quiet."

By putting separate cooling systems near the G5, the hard drive and the power supply, Apple said it is able to keep the machine's sound softer than that of a whisper.

In choosing to put the computer behind the display, Apple went with a concept it rejected the last time around. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the desk-lamp style machine in January 2002, he said that keeping the display and the computer guts separate allowed the flat screen to really be flat.

But times have changed, said Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of hardware marketing. With the last go-around, the machine would have had to have a big bump somewhere to house the components. The company and the industry have made enough gains now that the all-in-one can be both flat and not that much thicker than just a display alone.

"If we really could build a flat computer behind the panel, we wanted to," Joswiak said. "If there was one complaint people had, it was that (the last iMac) still had a base."

With the new iMac, Apple tried to learn a thing or two from the simplicity of the company's popular iPod digital music player. The new iMac's minimalism has both plusses and minuses.

"I think that it has the same wow factor," Jupiter's Gartenberg said. "What it lacks is some of the personality of its predecessor."

The last-generation iMac was likened to Pixar's Luxo Jr. mascot, and Apple's commercials animated the computer, having it move as though alive.

At the same time, the design could be alienating, Gartenberg said. "You either like them or you hate them."

With the new design, Apple has a machine that is unlikely to offend. It can go in any room and even be mounted on a wall.

"To me it is beautiful, in that it's the least amount of desktop computer possible without becoming something else," said Mark Rolston, a vice president at industrial design firm Frog Design. "It's the last desktop computer, in a sense, the last leg of design before everything becomes a laptop or a tablet. There's no waste there."

Cramming a G5 into such a tight space can be seen a step toward a G5 notebook, but Joswiak cautions that it would be tougher to build the current chip into a laptop than it was to get it in an all-in-one. "The challenges of cooling a G5 in a Powerbook design are significantly greater," Joswiak said, noting that a Powerbook is less than half as thick as the new iMac, leaving far less room for cooling tricks.

It is also not clear how significantly the G5 supply crunch has eased. "We're not doing any midquarter updates on supply," Joswiak said.

Apple had hoped to introduce this iMac early this summer, but a shortage of the chips forced the company to wait until September.

Apple has said it will start shipping the new machines in the middle of the month, but the company has not given an estimate of how soon it expects them to be widely available.

There are also the usual "only at Apple" design touches. The power button is in the back, so as not to interrupt the machine's simple front, but when in standby a light glows on the front at the same relative position as the power button to guide a user to the on button. The speakers, which were external on the last model, were worked into the bottom of the device, sending sound down out of the machine to bounce off the desk before reaching the user.

To keep its beauty, Rolston said, the new iMac requires that users heed Apple's design cues and use a wireless keyboard, mouse and Internet connection "If you've got a lot of USB peripherals, that whole vision falls apart."

But Rolston said he is happy to see Apple push particular use through its design. Placing the power button in the back, for example, is a good thing because it encourages users to keep the machine in sleep mode rather than turning the device off.

"The design is actually spelling something out," he said.

Rolston's one complaint is that the bezel of the display is so much larger at the bottom, where the device houses the speakers and power supply. Rolston said he wishes that the machine had a little less "chin," even if it had to be slightly thicker.

"It's sort of the Jay Leno of computers, but otherwise it's beautiful."