Apple's Expansive iMac

Photo by Tony Cordoza

When Apple introduced its lower-priced line of iMacs in 1998, it made a big step toward its goal of getting Macintosh computers in the hands of a wider range of users. The line has undergone a number of changes since then, with new iMacs sporting everything from psychedelic candy-color cases to powerful built-in video editing capabilities. But the newest models, based on the PowerMac G4 processor, are the tastiest yet. Besides a 17-inch (diagonal) widescreen LCD monitor, the top-of-the-line G4 offers an unprecedented mix of features, performance, and value for $1,999.

A sturdy metal arm that swivels both vertically and horizontally attaches the widescreen flat-panel monitor to the dome-shaped base, which conceals all of the computing hardware-a clever, space-saving design that minimizes the area the iMac takes up on your desk. The monitor is driven by a video card incorporating NVidia's GeForce4 MX graphics processor. (The other new iMacs have 15-inch LCD monitors in a more conventional squarish shape driven by GeForce2 MX processors.) The NVidia chip was designed to maximize graphics performance for computer games, but its "firmware"-based MPEG-2 decoding and advanced video deinterlacing/scaling also deliver exceptional image quality when you're watching DVDs. Another reason for the iMac's pristine video performance is the digital connection between the graphics card and the display. Most computer monitors use analog VGA jacks to make the connection, which requires an image-degrading digital-to-analog conversion before the video signal emerges from the computer.

The iMac offers a few other goodies to enhance its audio/visual appeal. A supplied pair of small transparent, spherical speakers designed by Harman Kardon connect to a stereo minijack output on the back panel and deliver very decent desktop sound (a matching subwoofer is available as a $59 option). Apple's SuperDrive combination DVD-R/ CD-RW burner lets you record audio, video, and other data to optical media using the bundled iDVD 2 and iTunes 3 application programs.

Even though it's not included with the iMac, Apple's iPod (see "Reviewer's Choice")-the best portable digital music player on the market-has a natural synergy with it, as we'll see. We reviewed the first-generation iPod in February/March (see "Apple Leads the Pack"), and already it's undergone several changes. The new models have Windows compatibility, a wired remote control, PDA-like contacts and calendar features, and up to a 20-GB hard drive-enough to take your entire music collection on the road.

Another key feature of the G4 iMac is the new Macintosh operating system, OS 10.2, a.k.a. Jaguar. I've been a Mac user for over a decade, and this is the first time I've actually been impressed by one of Apple's OS overhauls. Jaguar's bag of tricks includes an Address Book feature that lets you enter things like names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses once, and then share the information among various applications-not by cutting and pasting but dynamically. And then there's Rendezvous, a feature that will automatically recognize and create a profile for each device you plug into your home network (including Windows PCs!), freeing you from the hell of having to manually enter IP address strings in onscreen dialogue boxes.

I could rave on about other improvements, but since space is limited I'll mention just one more. The Unix-based Jaguar is a great deal more stable than previous Mac operating systems. Imagine my amazement when the application I was working in crashed (something that occurred only once in the two weeks I spent with this system) and I simply had to launch it again-without having to reboot the computer!

With its 80-GB hard drive, the G4 iMac provides ample room for storing audio, video, and digital photos. But raw data storage capacity is only one thing-it's what you do with the data that counts, and this is where the new iMac stands out. The applications that Apple bundles with the iMac include iMovie 2 and iDVD 2 (video editing and DVD authoring), iPhoto (digital photo management and editing), and iTunes 3 (digital music management, MP3 encoding, and CD burning). Each of these easy-to-use programs comes with comprehensive documentation, and there are tutorials for iMovie and iDVD. Apple also deploys them in a way that helps you quickly get from point A to point B.

For example, when you boot up with your digital camera connected, iPhoto automatically launches and instructs you to import images to the program's library. And when you pop a CD into the SuperDrive, iTunes automatically rips it and adds it to the MP3 library (you can disable this feature if you prefer), then contacts the online Gracenote CDDB database to retrieve artist and track information. This is a welcome change from the PC world, where new machines often come with applications dumped onto the hard drive with little or no guidance on how to use them or shuttle data between them.

Since Apple's suite of applications is the heart of the iMac, they deserve some explanation. New features in iTunes 3 since our review of the first-generation iPod (with iTunes 2) include Smart Playlists, which let you extensively customize parameters of the music libraries that you create. For example, if I was in a nostalgic mood, I could devise a playlist of alternative rock from the mid to late 1980s and limit the list to songs I felt deserved a five-star rating. The Smart Playlist feature would make a musical trip down memory lane easy, and my mix of Replacements, Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü highlights would be added to my iPod at lightning speed the next time I plugged it into the iMac's FireWire port.

Another key iTunes enhancement is Sound Check, a feature that scans all of the tracks in your library and evens out their playback levels. Finally, there's Join Tracks, a feature that Apple tells us was a direct response to criticism of the original iPod by Sound & Vision technical editor David Ranada. Join Tracks lets you group multiple tracks from classical or live music CDs into one continuous track that's free of audible gaps.

Digital cameras are quickly replacing traditional film-based ones, and Apple's iPhoto application is there to help you handle the mass of pics filling up your flash-media cards. The digital photo program is similar to iTunes in that you load files into a library, organize them into groups, and add information like dates, titles, and captions. You can also group your pictures by custom or preset themes (like birthdays, vacations, and kids) as well as edit them, cropping out unwanted sections and removing red-eye effects.

But the best part of iPhoto comes when you click the Share button onscreen. That lets you view a full-screen slide show accompanied by music from your iTunes library, export photos to a Web- or DVD-friendly file format, or order prints online. You can even create elegant photo books with custom titles and layouts, upload the information, and then have the finished books mailed to your home. The books aren't cheap at $29.95 and up (depending on the number of images they contain), but they sure look nice.

Like iTunes, Apple's iMovie 2 and iDVD applications have been previously covered in these pages (see "Make Your Own DVD"), so I won't go into too much detail about them. The easy-to-use iMovie 2 editor still ranks as one of the best basic video applications out there, and the same goes for iDVD. But in the latter case there are a few updates to report, as iDVD has gone on to become iDVD 2.

If you're a fan of the dynamic, motion-packed menus of DVD movies, you'll love some of iDVD 2's new features. A key change is that the program now supports motion backgrounds and buttons. Simply drag and drop movie clips created in iMovie 2 to iDVD 2's interface screen, and you can immediately preview how they'll look in your DVD's opening menu. You also now have the option to position buttons and text anywhere you want on the menu, while total movie length for a disc has been extended from 60 to 90 minutes. Another cool thing about iDVD 2 is that it starts encoding your movie clips to the DVD-friendly MPEG-2 format as soon as you add them to your project. The action takes place in the background while you do something else-select music, design titles, whatever-so when you're ready to burn a DVD, the video will be formatted and you'll be ready to rock.

I'm not used to watching DVDs on a desktop computer, but the iMac's widescreen monitor proved so compelling that I found myself treating it like a regular TV. Movies looked incredibly clean and crisp on its 1,440 x 900-pixel screen (the 16:10 aspect ratio is only a slight deviation from the standard 16:9 of widescreen HDTVs). Hannibal, for instance, came across with solid blacks, rich colors, and completely natural-looking skin tones. Much of this had to do with the video features that I mentioned earlier, but the widescreen display's ability to accommodate the increased resolution of anamorphic DVDs was also a big factor.

Apple's top-of-the-line G4 iMac takes the company's goal of making moderate-price computers that nonprofessional users can appreciate to an entirely new level. With its widescreen display, powerful video processing, excellent suite of bundled applications, and impressive OS 10.2 operating system, the newest iMac is a multimedia wonder. My first thought was that it would make a great all-purpose computer/entertainment center for a college student in a dorm room. On second thought, almost anyone would be thrilled to own this remarkable machine.

Tech notes

Since I was looking at the iMac's screen as I would a regular TV, I decided to run my standard suite of video tests on it. Viewing the resolution pattern from the Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up test DVD, the monitor cleanly displayed transitions between black and white lines in the 6.75-MHz patch, indicating that it could handle the DVD format's maximum 540-line video resolution. It measured very close to the NTSC standard 6,500-K color temperature throughout most of the 20- to 100-IRE range, with only a slight dip toward red at the lower end of the grayscale. This is the kind of performance that any HDTV would be proud to deliver.