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ISSUE 498: The high-tech office- May 11 1999

ALAN ZISMAN

Apple's iMac is a colourful home computer
that proves its power against PC machines

When Apple "Not the Chair" Steve Jobs introduced the iMac last year, I was skeptical. Its colourful plastic design struck me as odd, rather than "different" as the company proclaimed. Jobs' plan to promote computers the way Swatch promoted watches -- as a fashion statement -- left me cold.

On a more substantive level, I worried that the machine's lack of traditional input and output devices would leave long-time Mac owners unable to use their current inventory of printers, scanners and hard drives, at least without further investment in adapters and connectors.

But did the market listen to me? Not a chance. The iMac has been a wildly successful product, both in its original 233 MHz blue-only incarnation, and in its revised, slightly faster forms that come in five fruity colours.

So, I went out and bought one. Tangerine, if you must know.

As promised by Apple, out-of-the-box set-up was easy. There were only a few cords to plug into the side and it was ready to be turned on.

The first time it ran, the system asked a number of questions and then started right up into an Internet connection script. That made it easy to connect to my existing Internet account. There is also an option to connect via the built-in modem, or by the built-in Ethernet.

The latest version of Apple's Mac operating system was already in-
stalled, and an assortment of applications is included. The selection is biased towards a home user and includes a cookbook program and the World Book Encyclopedia. Other programs, such as Appleworks, could be useful on a small office computer. It includes a very competent integrated package with word processor, spreadsheet, database, a version of the well-known Quicken financial program, and Adobe PageMill Web page creation software.

Some users have complained about the iMac's hockey-puck-styled mouse. They say its round shape makes it hard to tell which end points where. I haven't found this a problem.

I'm less happy, however, with the keyboard. To keep it the same width as the iMac itself, Apple shrank its formerly standard keyboard. In the process, a number of keys, including the page up/down and the arrow keys, have been moved to unusual locations.

Other keys, such as the end key, have simply vanished. I also don't like the white letters on dark keycaps. As a semi-touch typist (at best), I find the white lettering, along with the peculiar key locations, makes it harder to find my way around the keyboard.

A bigger limitation is the standard 32 megs memory. With the operating system alone requiring almost 20 megs, there simply isn't enough free memory for the computer to function at its best.

Most users should budget at least $100 or so for an additional 32 Megs of memory. (I suspect that Apple is shipping the systems with a minimal amount of memory to make the price look more attractive. This is similar to the practice of advertising computers without a monitor, a strategy not possible given the iMac's built-in monitor.)

Boost the memory, though, and you end up with quite a nice performer. Apple's advertised benchmark tests suggest its PowerPC G3 processors are as powerful as Intel processors running at twice the speed. There has been a lot of debate about how meaningful such results are.

I ran a simple little test of my own, on both my 266 MHz iMac and my 400 MHz Pentium-II Windows 98 computer. I copied the same, small Microsoft Word document onto the desktops of each machine, and double-clicked on them, timing how long it took for each to load into Word 98 on the Mac or Word 97 on the PC.

The results? (Drum roll, please....)
The Pentium II took 4.6 seconds to load the file, and the iMac, though rated at a slower clock speed, opened it in 4.2 seconds or a blink of an eye faster.

That's fast enough for me. It can run PC emulation programs such as Connectix Virtual PC at a bearable pace (which wasn't true on my older Mac) and allows me to use the
iMac as another Windows machine in a pinch.

I still think the iMac looks odd and certainly seems out of place among the stark beige of all the rest of my office equipment. And Mac-stalwart graphics professionals will need the added power and connection features offered in Apple's higher-priced models.

Underneath the colourful plastic, however, the iMac is a powerful, capable computer. Despite be-
ing marketed for the home market, it is worth a second look for many business users, especially since as soon as I bought one, Apple an-
nounced that it was boosting the speed from my model's 266 MHz up to 333 MHz.

New Mac users may be interested in evening classes being given at Apple's Richmond location. For details, contact James Olsen: 542-4225 (jolsen@simply.bc.ca). *



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