The latest iMac--the third incarnation, if you're keeping track--is the natural evolution of a computer that keeps getting slimmer and slimmer. The first iMac was an all-in-one egg-shaped system, and the second looked more like a desk lamp than a PC, with the CPU hidden in its half-dome base. In this third design, the computer has seemingly disappeared altogether, and we're left with a floating flat-panel screen. Some things haven't changed, though: the Apple iMac G5 is still more about style than substance (it's a good performer but not an excellent one), and it's still not very expandable. We looked at the $1,499 middle child of the iMac G5 family, which includes a 17-inch wide-screen display, a 1.8GHz G5 processor, and an 80GB hard drive. Our test system included an extra 256MB of memory, an AirPort networking card, and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which brings the total cost to $1,752. Bargain hunters should look to the Apple eMac and power users to the Power Mac G5, but for anyone with a love of sleek, minimalist decor, this is the computer for you. To tell the truth, we're not sure why the iMac needed this redesign. The move from the first-generation iMac to the second made sense because the machine became more compact and, with its swiveling screen, more versatile. But this iMac is actually less flexible than the last, since the screen can swivel only up and down (from -5 degrees to 25 degrees). Sure, you can move the whole machine for side to side, but that's not very elegant. Still, the iMac G5 is slimmer and lighter than its desk-lamp predecessor.
The guts of the computer are hidden behind the 17-inch wide-screen display, so the body of the iMac is only 2 inches thick--amazingly slender for a desktop computer. And the 17-inch model is 5 pounds lighter than the last-generation 17-inch iMac. It rests on a gently curving aluminum stand, and the ports--three USB 2.0 and two FireWire 400, as well as audio line-in, optical audio out, and video out--line up on the back of the iMac, along with the power button.
With no buttons or ports on the front of the iMac, the machine has a lovely uninterrupted appearance, which should come as no surprise since Apple's iPod design team had a hand in creating the iMac G5. (In contrast to ads we've seen, an Apple product specialist told us that the similarities are only a coincidence and that there was no effort to mimic the iPod's appeal.) Unlike the iPod, however, the iMac G5 sacrifices functionality for beauty--it's a pain to keep reaching around to plug things in. And if you opt for the iMac G5 VESA wall mount, which the Apple Store states will go on sale later this month, getting to the back-panel ports and the power button becomes an even trickier chore.
The case is easy to take apart, but there isn't much to upgrade once you've done so. To open it, lay the iMac on its front, and loosen the three Philips-head screws that hold the back on (these are captive screws, which means you can't lose them). With the iMac's back off, you can install an AirPort Extreme card or add more RAM into the lone free slot, but that's it. This is nothing new; iMacs and other all-in-one computers have always had limited upgradability.
The interior is a model of efficient design, with no cables to tangle--not even a power brick. The fans that cool the iMac are so quiet, you'll need to hold your ear to the machine to hear it working.The new Apple iMac G5 comes in three models (we tested the middle one), selling for $1,899, $1,499, and $1,299. The top model has a 20-inch wide-screen display, while the others are 17-inchers. Beyond a larger display, the extra $400 for the top model gets you only a 160GB hard drive; the other two have 80GB drives. The top two models have SuperDrives (DVD-R/CD-RW), while the bottom iMac G5 includes a combo drive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW). If you are completely sold on any of the three preconfigured models, Apple gives you a handful of options to customize your iMac online.
As its name implies, the iMac G5 gets the PowerPC G5 chip with this release, which means faster processing that will be more noticeable for people running video or photo-editing apps or processor-intensive games. The top two iMacs have 1.8GHz processors, and the bottom runs at 1.6GHz. We had no complaints in our real-world testing, where the iMac was perfectly fast and able to run several apps at once. (Go here to see how the iMac G5 performed on our benchmarks, including our new Photoshop test.) Our iMac came with 512MB of RAM, which is a built-to-order option.
Apple has a history of providing too little RAM, and that's certainly true here, where the standard allotment for all three models is only 256MB. If Apple intends for the Mac to be the hub of your digital home, it should do better than that. We suggest you make the $75 upgrade for a total of 512MB of memory.
The iMac G5 includes built-in speakers and a microphone on the bottom of the screen. A nice surprise: the speakers produced clear audio, even at high volumes. We're accustomed to the included speakers on Macs being weak and tinny, but for a change, we got a pleasant sound from them. Audiophiles will still want external speakers; the integrated speakers are light on bass.
The iMac doesn't come with Wi-Fi (AirPort) or Bluetooth built in, but they're available as extras when ordering. Our system arrived with both. The AirPort card lets you connect to 802.11b or 802.11g wireless networks, and the Bluetooth option included both a wireless keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, the wireless versions are identical (minus the cords, of course) to the standard lightweight keyboard and the ridiculous one-button mouse that accompany Macs.
The iMac comes with a nice bundle of software, one that we prefer to the PowerMac G5's because it has a few games. You'll get OS X 10.3; iLife, with iMovie, iTunes, iDVD, iPhoto, and GarageBand; AppleWorks; iChat AV; Quicken 2004; World Book 2004 (be sure to try the nifty World Book screensaver); and the games Marble Blast Gold and Nanosaur 2. We like that migration software is now included, helping you transfer files and settings from an older Mac.Application performance
Our Apple iMac G5 uses a 1.8GHz PowerPC processor and offers a slight improvement in application performance over the previous-generation 20-inch iMac, which housed a 1.25GHz G4 processor. On our iTunes test, the iMac G5 converted a 10-minute song (in AIFF format) to MP3 15 seconds faster than the older iMac. We attribute some of this performance gain to the new optimizations Apple has made to Mac OS X between version X 10.3.3 and X 10.3.5.
For a more well-rounded look at the iMac G5's performance, we created a new Photoshop test. Unfortunately, the test is so new that we've run it on only one other system, the Power Mac G5. (We hope to update this review with Photoshop results from other non-Apple PCs soon.) It came as no surprise that the iMac G5 trailed the dual-processor Power Mac G5 by a healthy margin.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
CNET Labs uses Adobe Photoshop to evaluate the system's performance as an integrated whole--the CPU, the memory, the hard disk, and the graphics card. We run an automated suite of operations that simultaneously stresses a variety of the machine's subsystems and simulates a real-world Web-production work flow. The suite includes launching the application; converting between color spaces and bit depths; applying a variety of filters; working with layers, selection areas, and alpha channels; and resizing and compressing images. We time how long it takes to run the suite on 15 files that range from 1.8MB to 49.2MB, in 8- and 16-bit color.