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iMac G5 Review: The Director's Cut

by - Episode 28 - October 15th, 2004

My other column, Dr. Mac, runs every Tuesday in the Houston Chronicle. Writing for the newspaper is a lot different from writing for The Mac Observer (TMO). The newspaper column is the same length-roughly 500 words-every week; TMO columns can be as long or as short as the subject requires. Newspaper columns don't have screen shots, photos, or other graphics; TMO columns do. (And, in millions of colors if I want!) And so on.

This week in Dr. Mac, I reviewed the iMac G5 I've been using for the past couple of weeks, and 500 words just wasn't enough. So here, this week, allow me to present the Director's Cut, with the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Let's start with the original column:

I've been testing a 20-inch iMac G5 for the past few weeks and there's a lot I love and very little to complain about. It has to be one of the most beautiful personal computers ever. A mere 2 inches thick, it sits gracefully on an angled aluminum foot, causing more than one visitor to ask, "where's the rest of it?"

But beauty is only skin deep, so it's a good thing these puppies are also blazing fast, with better graphics support, and bigger, faster hard disk options than have been offered before in an iMac. And with their G5 processor, the new iMacs can run iLife applications faster than iBooks and PowerBooks costing much more.

And the iLife suite (GarageBand, iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, and iTunes; included with every Mac) benefits greatly from the speed improvements. I rendered transitions in iMovie faster than I've ever rendered them on an iMac before, and not by a tiny bit, either. The tools in iPhoto were much more responsive, and I recorded and mixed songs in GarageBand that had more than a dozen tracks, which would have brought my older G4 iMac to its knees.

And if you opt for the Apple Wireless Keyboard, Apple Wireless Mouse, and a built-in Bluetooth module, an $89 build-to-order option, you can do away with unsightly wires on your desk. It's really very liberating and I recommend it highly, but there is a downside-the iMac and the wireless keyboard and mouse failed to recognize each other more than once, forcing me to hook up a wired keyboard in order to log in. It wasn't a problem for me but since you don't receive a wired keyboard and mouse if you choose the aforementioned option, it could be a problem for you. So, if you have an old wired USB keyboard or mouse lying around, think twice before tossing 'em.

I have only one complaint, and it's the usual one: 256MB of RAM just isn't enough for a machine this powerful. With just 256MB, your resource-hungry programs like iMovie and GarageBand are going to bog down. If you use iLife or other demanding software, you'll want at least 512MB of RAM.

And with 512MB of RAM, there was nothing I didn't like about the new iMac G5. It's jaw-droppingly beautiful, nearly silent, and faster than a racing greyhound. And while it's not what most would call cheap, with prices starting at just $1,299 it's not expensive, either.

Heck, not too long ago I paid more than $1,299 for an Apple Cinema Display, without a computer.

iMac G5 20-inch (1680-by-1050 pixels) from $1,899; iMac G5 17-inch (1440-by-900 pixels) from $1,299. Apple Computer, Inc. Cupertino, California. www.apple.com.

Now, the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor:

The wireless/wired keyboard conundrum

The wireless/wired keyboard issue is more annoying than I had originally thought. Not only do the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse occasionally lose their connection to the iMac G5, they won't work in Single User or Safe Boot modes.

I love the Bluetooth input devices, but having to plug in a wired keyboard to do those things is a pain in the ass. I admit that I boot into Single User and Safe Boot modes more often than most users, but still. To make matters worse, when you order the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse upgrade, you do NOT get a wired keyboard or mouse. So you'll either have to find a serviceable USB keyboard or buy one if you ever need to use the Safe Boot or Single User modes, which you almost certainly will at some point.

By the way, I couldn't believe this was true so I searched the Apple Support pages. The Apple Wireless Keyboard and Mouse: Frequently Asked Questions page (article #86651) confirmed it: "Although you can use a wireless keyboard to start up in Single-User mode or in Safe Boot mode, they will not work once the computer is started up in these modes. To continue in Single-User mode or in Safe Boot mode, use a wired keyboard and mouse."

Bummer, eh? It remains to be seen whether it's so much of a pain-in-the-ass that I revert to my wired keyboard, but it's a bummer just the same.

RAM Cram

I still hate the way Apple ships Macs without enough RAM to run well. 256MB RAM just isn't enough. Yes, you can use a Mac that way, but OS X runs better and faster with more.

I understand why Apple does it-to hit the price points they need to hit. But I'm not convinced shipping systems that don't perform at their best right out of the box, is the best way to hit them. Add $50 to the price or find another corner that can be cut without so much effect on performance.

Speaking of prices, why does Apple insist on gouging the consumer on RAM upgrades. I know some people will pay a premium to have the RAM installed at the factory, but Apple's premium is, for the most part, way out of line.

(On the bright side, they're not gouging you as deeply as they did a few years back. Their RAM prices today are 1.5-2X street price; when I checked my facts for Dr. Mac: The OS X Files (US$20.99 - Amazon) it went as high as 3X.)

Apple's 256MB upgrade (to 512MB total for $75) isn't a terrible deal. You could buy the chip and install it yourself-a task simple enough for most users-for around $50. But the bigger upgrades are a bad deal. For example, Apple's 1GB DIMMs go for at least $525 while today's lowest price (according to RAMSEEKER) is $174 and dozens of vendors are selling 'em for $240 or less.

I know all the arguments about "brand name RAM" being better, but I've been buying the stuff for almost 20 years and I've found that as long as you buy it from a reputable source, it all works the same. Furthermore, if a RAM upgrade works properly for a week or two, it's almost certain to work properly for as long as you own the computer.

I would pay a small premium to buy my next Mac fully populated with RAM, but I would never pay twice the street price, nor do I recommend anyone else pay it.

And, in the end...

By all means consider the iMac G5 next time you're in the market for a Mac. But if you choose the otherwise excellent wireless keyboard and mouse option, remember that you'll need a wired keyboard if things go wonky. And if you need a lot of RAM, you can save a bundle buying it elsewhere.

With those caveats in mind, I recommend the iMac G5 without hesitation. It's gorgeous, quiet, and sleek as an oiled otter. If I weren't totally addicted to having two displays on my desk, I would trade my Power Mac G5 for an iMac G5 in a heartbeat.

And that's all he wrote…

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.

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