Sunday, July 6, 2008

New iMac a tempting Apple

Apple has dropped "Computer" from its name, but its computer business is still growing, even if the iPod player is the company's real star.

Apple's resurgence started with the first iMac, in 1998. Little by little, Apple has been persuading people to opt for Macintosh computers over Windows PCs.

After Apple refreshed its iMac line last week, I decided to test one from the perspective of a Windows user. I found it to be a powerful if not completely irresistible enticement to switch.

If you haven't looked at iMacs in a while, they now look like half a laptop - the display half, with the processor and other components built into the flat-panel screen.

The new iMacs ditch the plasticky look that's been a hallmark of the line since the beginning, replacing it with an aluminum casing that's even thinner than before.

It's very sleek-looking, but do you remember the first iMacs? They resembled colorful television sets and looked more fun than a pack of bubble gum. Then there was a special edition with a transparent gray cover, through which you could see the copper coils on the back of the cathode-ray tube. That was hot.

With the latest models, the iMac has grown up, gone to business school and now wears a suit - a very well-cut suit. It won't look out of place anywhere, but it's not as exciting.

The basic model costs $A1698 and has a 20-inch screen. Another $A451 gives you a faster processor and graphics card and a bigger hard drive. The top model, for $3339, has all those components but a 24-inch screen instead. All have one gigabyte of memory. The prices are roughly $A300 to $A400 less than the previous line, for the same size screen.

I tested the middle model, but with an extra gigabyte of memory, which costs $A220. When I removed the extra memory, I didn't find a difference in how fast the unit started up, switched between programs or rendered a high-definition movie in iMovie.

That tells me that most users will probably be fine with the cheapest model and the standard 1 GB of memory, because processor speed is not that important anymore. Apple's operating system clearly makes good use of memory; Microsoft's new Windows Vista will barely give you the time of day on 1 GB.

I found the iMac very easy to get working on, even though I haven't used a Mac intensively for some time. Getting online through my home wireless network using the built-in Wi-Fi card was a cinch, as was video chatting using the built-in camera and my AOL Instant Messenger account. The iMac's iTunes software immediately found the iTunes music library on my home PC and gave me access to the songs.

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