Apple's iMac rates high on cool scale but has built-in limitations

Pros and cons:
+    Good 3-D rendering
+    Very easy setup
–    No floppy drive
–    No upgrade path

The iMac is the coolest-looking computer I’ve ever seen.

As soon as I set up Apple Computer Inc.’s latest model in the GCN Lab, visitors
started dropping by with lame excuses and asking casually if they could play with the

Underneath the groovy appearance, the iMac is a moderately powerful computer that can
hold its own against similarly priced low-end PCs. It has several minuses, though, that
are potential deal-breakers in the government market.

In case you haven’t seen the advertisements, the monitor and CPU are encased in a
compact, egg-shaped unit that you can pick up and carry around by a molded handle. It
resembles the Mac Classic and has the same disadvantages.

The main flaw is lack of an upgrade path. If you need a larger monitor than the
built-in 15-incher, too bad. And if something goes wrong with the monitor, be prepared to
give up the entire system.

Now for the big plus. The iMac’s setup was so easy a 5-year-old could do it. Less
than three minutes after opening the box, I plugged the mouse and keyboard into Universal
Serial Bus ports, plugged the system into a power outlet and booted up.

The 233-MHz Power G3 processor comes with 512K cache, 32M of RAM and a 66-MHz system
bus. The iMac can simulate an additional 36M of RAM via disk caching—a practice
I’ve never liked in any Mac. Virtual memory is a cheap way to get more RAM, but it
causes excessive disk writing and shortens system life.

The iMac’s stereo speakers with surround sound suffered from the same underpowered
quality as most other built-in speakers. Audio CDs sounded poor unless I stood directly in
front of the speakers, and even then the bass notes got lost, making recordings sound

Sounds from the Web or program-generated sounds were functional.

Because of the iMac’s entry-level price, I expected poor graphics. But I got a big
surprise: a built-in Rage IIc 2-D/3-D graphics chip from ATI Technologies Inc. of
Thornhill, Ontario, and 2M of synchronous graphics RAM.

A bundled game called Nanosaur used 3-D objects. The iMac’s frame rate impressed
me as I ran Nanosaur 3-D simulations. It could display 30 frames/sec at slow points in the

When lots of carnivorous dinosaurs came charging out of the swamp, the rate dropped to
about 12 frames/sec but was still smooth. I ran a few modeling programs and got similar
results, so it appears the iMac can handle midlevel simulation well.

The internal 24X CD-ROM drive, however, was unimpressive. A computer this slick
deserves a DVD-ROM drive. Even if Apple declined to go that far, it should have installed
a faster CD-ROM drive.

Switching to a faster CD drive or putting in a DVD drive would be impossible without
ripping out the original 24X drive—and opening the case is very difficult. Obviously
Apple did not intend users to upgrade the iMac with different components.

The CD-ROM drive would have suited a notebook computer better than a desktop machine.

CDs had to be snapped into place, and the drive ejected the CD arm only an inch,
forcing me to pull it the rest of the way out. That’s too fragile for office use.

My visitors’ biggest complaint was about the circular mouse, half the length and
width of a standard mouse. Users with small hands could easily envelop the entire unit.
Apple should have called it a turtle, which it resembles.

I was disappointed to see that Apple has yet to add a second button to its mice. The
second button is important for today’s complex programs.

The iMac has only USB adapters, no SCSI port. The keyboard functions as a USB hub for
attaching devices; non-USB devices can’t be connected. Offices that have SCSI- or
parallel-port printers will find the iMac an unsuitable replacement for older Macs.
It’s ironic because Apple was a SCSI pioneer.

Another flaw is the lack of a floppy drive. There’s no way short of networking to
get information off the iMac. Inability to save files to floppy makes this system little
more than a dumb terminal with modem and networking capability.

The all-internal 10Base-T Ethernet connector, 56K modem and infrared port guarantee
easy setup but limit any upgrades.

The iMac is a good system that performs well for the price. But government users should
be cautious about choosing it over low-end PCs or standard Apple G3 systems.

If you aspire to be neo-groovy, you can always buy a lava lamp.  

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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