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ISSUE 582: New economy- Dec 19 2000

The high-tech office


Latest versions of Apple iMac faster, more stylish than PCs

Was it just a bit more than two years ago that what was then commonly referred to as "beleaguered Apple Computers" turned the technology world on its head with the release of the iMac?

With iMacs showing up in the background in movies, TV shows and even the mystery novel my wife is reading (Marcia Muller's Listen to the Silence), they have become not just another computer, but a fashion statement that defines their era.

The first iMacs ran at 233 MHz and came in any colour you wanted, as long as it was "Bondi Blue." Current iMacs include a 350-MHz $1,199 model (Indigo blue only) and 400- and 450-MHz models (adding red and green along with DVD drives and high-speed Firewire ports) for $1,499 and $1,999 respectively. All with 64 MB RAM, these are called iMac, iMac DV and iMac DV+, respectively.

Apple loaned me a 500-MHz model (a $2,299 iMac DV Special Edition, available in white or grey) with 128 MB of RAM and a 30-GB hard drive. Like all iMacs (and Apple's notebooks), it uses a G3 Power PC processor, not the newer G4.

Most users will not notice the omission. The G4 adds specialized commands to optimize performance of graphics applications; while Photoshop jockeys will want one of Apple's G4-powered (and more expensive) models, the G3 offers plenty of oomph for the rest of us.

While we can compare G3- and G4-powered Apples, it gets harder to compare Apples to oranges -- I mean to PCs (i.e. Intel- or AMD-powered Windows personal computers). And with the so-called Wintel systems boasting 800 MHz or even 1 GHz processors, Apple's systems sound wimpy by comparison.

They're not. Independent tests suggest that the G3 and G4 processors perform as well as Intel-style processors with much higher speed ratings. My subjective impression of the new iMac bears this out.

On the Internet or running Office-type tasks, it's every bit as quick as a new PC claiming many more megahertz.

Besides boosting speed and storage, these new iMacs improve upon the original in a variety of subtle ways. Minus a fan, they lack the white noise generated by most computers. With improved sound and a DVD drive (in all but the lowest-priced model), they're nice home entertainment units.

A little door makes it easier to add RAM, though with 64 to 128 MB, there's less need to. Firewire ports (again, on all but the low-end model) allow users to connect high-performance drives, video cameras and other demanding gadgets. Apple took heed of user complaints about the mini-keyboard and hockey-puck mouse that shipped with earlier versions. The keyboard is once again full-sized and adds keys to adjust speaker volume and to eject CDs, though it lacks the power key that generations of Mac-users expect.

The new mouse, like Microsoft's recent models, uses a glowing red light instead of a ball, but one-ups Microsoft with its sleek design. And at last there's a reset button.

You'll need that. Like run-of-the-mill Windows 98 systems, the current Mac OS can get hung up too easily. Apple's on the verge of offering a new, industrial-strength operating system: OS X (more on that in the new year).

But even with the current OS, newer iMacs hold their own against the beige Wintel majority. Though its styling now seems a throwback to the long-lost 1990s, iMac remains an attractive computer. Despite Apple's positioning it for the home and education markets, iMacs could do a good job on many office and retail desktops, at least for those willing to, as Apple's ads request, "think different" about the Intel/Microsoft standard.

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