Business-like, isn't he?




    iMac G5: Nice System, but at a Nice Price?

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Low End Mac 2 November, 2004

    In September 2004, Apple's Steve Jobs announced the third major remake of the company's iconic iMac, the iMac G5. Like the last generation iMac, it's a white all-in-one model with a flat panel LCD display, this time in generous 17" and 20" sizes. But where the G4 iMac kept the computer's guts in a sort of half-volleyball anchored to the LCD screen, this time around Apple has put everything right into the somewhat thickened display casing itself.

    It's as if the typical personal computer's tower simply disappeared. What you get is a display with keyboard and mouse -- desktop computing at its most minimalist. Other companies, including Gateway and Sony, have had models with the computer attached to the screen, but these have tended to sport an awkward and unsightly bulge on the back to house all the messy stuff. Apple's sense of design has pulled it off again.

    While the G4 processors used in the previous generation topped out at 1.25 GHz, the new iMacs are built around G5 CPUs running at either 1.6 or 1.8 GHz. Other performance enhancements include use of PC3200 (400 MHz) DDR memory (the G4 iMac used PC2700 [333 MHz] RAM).

    The frontside bus speed gets a big boost, from 167 MHz to 600 MHz, and the hard drive (80 GB and 160 GB depending on model) now uses the fast Serial-ATA standard rather than the more common parallel ATA drives. The greater hard drive bandwidth probably accounts for much of the perceived performance improvements on many applications, such as Virtual PC.

    Graphics remains the same, an nVidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra with 64 MB of video RAM. As before, the graphics unit is not user replaceable.

    Some other things remain the same as well. While the new G5 iMacs include high-speed USB 2.0 ports, the two FireWire ports remain the original 400 Mb/sec version, not the faster FireWire 800 ports found on higher-priced Power Mac and PowerBook models. Similarly, only 10/100 ethernet is included, not the gigabit ethernet built into Apple's high-end models.

    And while you can now use up to 2 GB of RAM in the two memory slots (up from a 1 GB maximum in the previous iMac), all three models in the iMac G5 lineup come with 256 MB RAM by default. This is enough to allow OS X 10.3.x to boot up and to let users surf the Net, word process, and more. But it really isn't adequate for too many of the applications iMac buyers will want to use -- even Garage Band, one of Apple's iLife applications preloaded on the iMac, screams out for more RAM.

    Microsoft's Virtual PC 7, for instance, lists 512 MB as its minimum. (To be fair, a Windows 98/VPC 7 installation ran quite nicely on my test iMac with the default 256 MB RAM. But the Windows XP installation that came with VPC 7 barely started up and was quite unusable with that amount of memory. It came to life when Apple sent me an additional 256 MB stick of RAM).

    G5 iMac inside

    Luckily, it is very easy to open the new iMac. Lay it face down on a table (on top of a towel to avoid scratching the LCD display), and loosen three screws along the bottom of the LCD case. With typical Apple attention to detail, the screws remain locked in the cover so they can't be lost. The back of the case, along with the base, can then be angled up and off. All the computer's guts are cleanly arranged and easily accessible.

    Last year's iBook G4 and 12" PowerBook owners were not pleased to discover that these models, also shipping with 256 MB, came with a pair of 128 MB sticks and no empty slots. To increase the RAM, it was often necessary to remove at least one stick -- and there were no buyers for the now redundant 128 MB stick; it couldn't be used in older iBooks or PowerBooks, and buyers of newer models had no need for 128 MB sticks.

    At least this time around, the iMac comes by default with one 256 MB memory stick and one free slot, making it possible to add memory without having to throw any away. You can mix and match RAM sizes, but you'll get better memory performance using a pair of sticks of the same capacities. The RAM used is standard-sized (and priced) SDRAM; no expensive slim sticks needed this time around.

    Total time to open the case, add RAM, and close it up again: about 5 minutes.

    Apple's ads all show a cable-less iMac, but to get rid of cables for network, keyboard, and mouse, you'll need to pay extra; wireless capability isn't included in the base configurations of any of the models.

    With the case open, it's easy to add an AirPort Extreme card for wireless networking. While Bluetooth wireless can be installed on factory-ordered iMacs, you can't add an internal Bluetooth module afterwards; the Bluetooth models use a different "mid-plane assembly" that would be expensive and difficult to replace. Instead, if you decide want a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse later on, you'll need to buy a USB Bluetooth module, giving you at least one dangling cable. Better off to order it at the time of purchase.

    (Yes, there's a dangling power cable in any case, but it's located in back-centre of the case, and passes through a hole in the foot, making it virtually invisible, at least looking from the front).

    You could upgrade the hard drive as well, but that's about the total of what you can do. As with previous iMacs, inside-the-case expandability is limited. IF you want PCI slots or replaceable AGP video cards, you'll need to look at Apple's Power Mac line.

    The G5 processor runs hotter than last generation's G4s; as with the G5 Power Macs, the new iMac is designed with multiple fans, each to cool a specific area, and these fans run only when and as fast as needed. This works well; Apple claims these iMacs run at 25 dB, quieter than the 28 dB of the G4 iMacs (or a 32 dB whisper). Setting it up across the room from a clone PC, I never noticed the iMac.

    Besides running quieter than a whisper, this iMac makes music as well. Unlike the G4 iMacs, it has a pair of speakers built-in, facing down from the bottom of the case, reflecting sound off your (physical) desktop. Better than most built-in notebook speakers, it's not bad. For better sound, though, you can always connect external speakers or a home stereo using the audio output port on the back. This single 1/8" plug can connect either to a standard analog stereo cable (like those found on typical headphones) or to an optical-digital connection, allowing for 5.1 channel output.

    Along with the row of connectors on the back, users will find the power button. This seems hard to reach, especially since Apple's keyboards no longer include the power button found on older ADB and USB models. It reflects Apple's hope that you will rarely, if ever, turn the iMac off; OS X wants to take care of lots of behind-the-scenes housekeeping late at night.

    iMac G5With better performance than the previous generation G4 iMac (though not as blazingly fast as the dual-G5 Power Macs),and with a stylish new understated design, the new iMacs deserve to be a big hit.

    But I have my doubts. The original iMac (sporting a bulbous blue and white translucent case and built around a 15" CRT screen and 233 MHz G3 processor) was released in 1998 priced at US$1,299. At the time, while not the cheapest personal computer available, this was perceived as an affordable bargain, especially for a Mac.

    This generation iMac also starts at US$1,299. And for the same price, it delivers a lot more than its predecessor. But over the last six years, the bottom has fallen out of the PC market; $1,299 is much further from the low-end than it was then. It doesn't even represent the low end of Mac models; G4 eMac desktops start at US$799, and you can even by a Mac notebook, the 12" G4 iBook for US$999.

    But with pricing ranging from $1,299 to $1,899 (for the 20" LCD model with a 160 GB hard drive and a SuperDrive DVD burner) -- and don't forget to budget in an extra US$75 or more to upgrade the RAM (and possibly more for AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth, and more), the new iMac sits in an awkward middle of the price range for personal computers. Buyers on a budget will look elsewhere, either to other Macs or to PCs, while graphics professionals may prefer one of the more powerful and more expandable Power Mac G5s.

    I like the G5 iMac a lot, and I hope there's a market for it. We'll see.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan