Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

A New Gold Standard for PCs

When Apple Computer launched its video iPod last month, the hype was so great that another important Apple product announcement was lost in the shuffle. The company also released that day a new, improved, and yet cheaper, version of the already excellent iMac G5, its flagship consumer desktop computer.

At the same time, Apple Computer also introduced a new software program called Front Row — embedded in the improved iMac — that, like Microsoft’s Windows Media Center, allows users to play music and to view photos, videos and DVDs from across a room, using an included remote control.

The new iMac G5 includes an entire computer, with the processor, in a flat-panel monitor.

We’ve been testing this new iMac, and our verdict is that it’s the gold standard of desktop PCs. To put it simply: No desktop offered by Dell or Hewlett-Packard or Sony or Gateway can match the new iMac G5’s combination of power, elegance, simplicity, ease of use, built-in software, stability and security. From setup to performing the most intense tasks, it’s a pleasure to use. And, contrary to common misconceptions, this Mac is competitively priced, when compared with comparably equipped midrange Windows PCs; and it handles all common Windows files, as well as the Internet and email, with aplomb.

As for Front Row, we liked it as well. Though it does less than Microsoft’s very nicely designed Media Center version of Windows, Front Row is cleaner and simpler, with a much easier remote control. It could use some improvements, but, even in this first version, it enhances an already-terrific computer.

The combination of the new, improved hardware, plus Front Row, makes the iMac G5 the best consumer desktop you can buy this holiday season, period. For mainstream consumers doing typical tasks — Web surfing, email, office productivity, photos, music, home videos, etc. — it’s the finest desktop PC on the market, at any price. Hard-core game players, stock-market day traders, serious video producers and some other niche users should look for other computers. But, for most people, the new iMac G5 is the best choice.

At first glance, the new iMac G5 looks very similar to the model it replaced. Like its forerunner, it packs an entire computer, including the very fast and powerful G5 processor, into a slender, striking, white flat-panel monitor. The guts of the computer are entirely contained behind this gorgeous, vivid 17- or 20-inch screen. People viewing the machine for the first time often mistake it for merely a monitor.

But the new model has a slightly faster processor and is even thinner and lighter than its predecessor. And it now has a high-quality built-in camera for videoconferencing and taking snapshots, formerly a $150 external option. Plus, it includes the remote control and Front Row.

Yet the top-of-the-line model, with a 20-inch screen, is now $1,699, down $100 from its predecessor. The 17-inch model is still $1,299, despite the added features.

About the only hardware feature we wish the iMac included is a set of slots for the flash memory cards used by digital cameras and other portable devices. Many Windows models now include such slots, but iMac owners will have to buy an external card reader.

The new model is 15% sleeker and 10% lighter than before. While the older iMac’s shape was flat across its white rear panel, this one tapers off at the edges to give it a slightly thinner, more elegant, look. The power button, and the USB, FireWire, Ethernet and other ports, are still on the rear, though they’ve been rearranged.

Unlike most desktops, the iMac G5 comes with built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, so you can use it far away from a wired Internet connection. It also includes Bluetooth wireless networking; a DVD and CD burner; 512 megabytes of memory; and Apple’s new two-button mouse. The 20-inch model has a 250-gigabyte hard disk and a processor that runs at 2.1 gigahertz. The 17-inch model has a 160-gigabyte hard disk and a processor that runs at 1.9 gigahertz.

Like all Macs, the new iMac comes with Apple’s excellent Tiger operating system, which hasn’t yet attracted any successful viruses and has no reported spyware. Tiger already includes the key features Microsoft is promising for its next version of Windows, due in about a year. These include an integrated desktop search, parental controls and tougher security. And it comes with Apple’s iLife suite of first-rate multimedia programs for managing and creating music, photos, videos and DVDs — better than any similar software for Windows.

Computer Photo
Apple’s Front Row software program is embedded in the new iMac, which is 15% thinner than the earlier model.

The small, thin remote magnetically clings to the right edge of the computer, almost hidden from view. This remote has just six buttons, and the layout is similar to that of an iPod shuffle portable music player — including a circular ring that doesn’t scroll like that of a regular iPod. On this circle are Seek and Volume buttons, and its center is reserved for a Play/Pause button. A lone button labeled Menu is positioned below this ring.

Front Row uses the same concept introduced by Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Edition three years ago — simplifying the system’s display with huge icons and large type to make your computer’s media usable from across a room. Media Center is one of Microsoft’s better programs, and it has been well-received by many users. Unlike Front Row, it can also play live TV from a PC with an included TV tuner and can record TV shows like a TiVo does.

Apple says it deliberately decided to leave out the TV function, which it doesn’t believe many people want on a computer. In fact, many Windows Media Center models are now sold without the TV function.

After loading songs, videos and photos onto our new iMac, we sat a little ways back from the desk, aimed our remote at the Apple logo beneath our screen (where the infrared remote receiver is hidden) and started fooling around with Front Row. Pressing the remote’s Menu button instantly sends your desktop view off into the distance, replacing that with Front Row’s home screen, a black background and four giant icons clearly labeled Videos, Music, Photos and DVD. The remote’s Seek buttons rotate the icons around the circle in either direction until the icon representing your program is in the lower, center part of the screen.

The remote also functions when you don’t have Front Row open to adjust volume and skip through songs or various photo albums.

We started with Music, selecting it with the center Play/Pause button and using Seek buttons to scroll through a menu like that seen on an iPod’s home menu — Now Playing, Shuffle Songs, Playlists and so on. The Menu button worked as with iPod, sending us back one screen each time we pressed it.

Once a song was selected, its title, artist and album were displayed on the right, and a large image of the song’s album art took up the left half of our iMac screen. A giant progress bar took up the lower edge of the screen.

We backed out of Music and into Videos, where we chose from a list of Movie Trailers, Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows and Video Podcasts.

The Photos section is similar to Videos. It shows a list of iPhoto content; in our case, it listed Library, Last Roll, Last 12 Months and the three albums that we had stored in Apple’s photo-organizing software. Whenever one of these listed items was highlighted, the photos from that album or section were displayed in a mini slideshow on the right. Selecting the section started a full-screen slideshow.

DVD use is simple with the remote; we used its Seek buttons once again to navigate around menus in the movie “Shrek” without a problem.

We liked the remote’s simplicity, but we wish Apple had included a Power button, and made it work like a scroll-wheel iPod. And Front Row itself lacks many of the functions of the iPod and iTunes software, like the ability to rate songs, to show only a song’s album art or lyrics, or to accompany the music with a colorful visualization.

We liked the iMac’s built-in iSight video camera and a smart little built-in application called Photo Booth that takes your picture with as many as 16 different contortions and can keep you entertained for a while.

All in all, we can heartily recommend the iMac G5.

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