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Pro User's Perspective on the New iMac (and Other Apple Revelations)

by Chris Stone
01/15/2002

As the Mac systems administrator for O'Reilly, I went to Macworld San Francisco with lots on my mind. I was in line at Moscone Center Monday at 6:30 a.m. for the keynote, attended the show each day throughout the week, and was still standing, though with tired feet, at 4:00 p.m. Friday to help pack up the few books we had remaining at the O'Reilly booth.

By now you've probably read many of the general-impression reports from the show. But what about the new iMac (and other Apple announcements) from the vantage point of power users and developers? For those of you with the pro perspective, here's a different look at Macworld.

The Keynote

During his keynote, Steve Jobs introduced some welcome, though not entirely unexpected, additions to Apple's product line. From the power user's perspective, however, much of what Jobs presented offers only limited benefit.

The biggest announcement, the new flat panel iMac, is certainly a boon for home and education users. With its 700MHz or 800MHz G4 processor and nVidia GeForce2 video, the iMac will easily satisfy the needs of the typical Web browsers, gamers, and Office users--whether using Mac OS 9 or X.

More demanding users, however, might find the new iMac, like its predecessor, does not have that many compelling things to offer. Here are a couple of specific features of the new iMac and what they might mean to power users:

The LCD Display

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The iMac's LCD display is certainly a good one, as all of Apple's desktop models have been. But like all LCDs, it can display just a portion of the color gamut that CRTs provide. For publishing professionals who depend on accurate on-screen color, even a good LCD like the iMac's will not do well.

Also, having a viewable size approaching that of a 17-inch CRT, the iMac display would prove too small for most designers, who these days are used to 19-inch or larger displays. While the iMac does include a VGA port for connecting a second monitor, it allows for only the mirroring of the main display--which is of no benefit to users wanting to increase their screen real estate with additional monitors.

USB

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Jobs touted the iMac's "five" USB ports, though in truth the new iMac has just one more USB port than its predecessor, and in fact, the same number of on-board USB controllers: two. Jobs' creative arithmetic adds the two USB ports on the keyboard to the three on board to arrive at the total of five. Apparently one controller shares two of the on-board ports, and the third port has the second controller to itself.

This configuration could become an issue for users having lots of USB peripherals with various power and speed requirements. For example, at least some USB cameras will not work in the lower-powered keyboard USB ports, and they will need to be plugged into the computer instead. Since the keyboard is already plugged into the computer, the user will need to know which free port is not being shared to benefit from USB's full 12Mbps data-transfer rate.

While the issue is not insurmountable, connecting USB peripherals is still about as limited as it was with the previous iMac.

Durability

Hands on the iMac
How will the innovative design of the new iMac hold up under heavy use? Photo by Derrick Story

I find the new iMac attractive, stunning in fact in its melding of form and function. I can only guess, however, at the durability of the new design, in particular the neck that holds the display above the base. I wonder how the hinges will stand up in a heavy-use, production environment, where the display will be moved around a lot day after day. (I don't think this question is completely unfounded, having experienced the failure of the lid hinge on some PowerBook models after a few years of use.)

The iMac Power User

For power users unconcerned with highly accurate color, the intricacies of attaching multiple USB devices, or the other limitations described above, the new iMac could be a great solution at a good price. For example, programmers and system administrators satisfied with a 17-inch CRT monitor (typically 16-inch viewable) at 1024 x 768 could find the 15-inch viewable LCD with its flicker-free text display even better on the eyes.

For such users, then, the iMac provides a fast, compact, and nicely appointed Unix workstation for less than $2,000.

Other Announcements

Jobs made another announcement that should have perked up the ears of any Mac system administrators, that Mac OS X will now be the default OS installed on all new systems. Since I suspect that corporate Macs, especially those in publishing, still need to run Mac OS 9, support staff will need to prepare for the practicalities of switching all new machines back to Mac OS 9.

On a related note, I did learn that Apple will also ship all new Macs with the OS X Developer Tools preinstalled. This is good news for support staff and developers who until now needed to take into consideration the possibility that the Dev Tools were not installed on an end user's machine.

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