Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

The iMac Gets a Brain Transplant

Just a couple of months ago, in this column, we proclaimed that Apple Computer‘s iMac G5, then the company’s flagship Macintosh desktop computer for consumers, was the best consumer desktop PC on the market. In fact, we called it the “gold standard” of desktop PCs and said no desktop from the major makers of Windows-based computers could match it.

Last week, in a surprise move, Apple gave the iMac a brain transplant. It chose the iMac as the first Macintosh model to be converted to work on the same Intel processors used by makers of Windows PCs, rather than the PowerPC processors from IBM that have powered Macs for many years. This was serious surgery to perform on the company’s star product and launched the planned transition to Intel much sooner than originally expected.

Apple's new Intel-powered iMac.
Apple’s new Intel-powered iMac.

Apple says it changed chips because Intel’s latest processors are faster and run cooler, and allow for more flexible and creative computer designs in the future. It says the new iMac is two to three times as fast as the old one, mainly because the Intel Core Duo chip it uses packs in the equivalent of two processors.

But there’s a downside. Nearly all existing third-party software for the Mac, including major programs like Microsoft Office, will have to be rewritten to run on the Intel processor — a process that is under way but will take months to complete. Apple had to build into the new model special, invisible, translator software that allows the older programs to run on the new chip in the meantime. This translator software, however, doesn’t work with every program and can slow down the ones it does work with.

So, how did the brain transplant go? Is the new Intel iMac as good as its predecessor? Does the machine’s raw power offset the translation slowdown?

To find out, we’ve been testing an Intel-based iMac against an iMac G5 only about a month old. The two machines look identical and sport nearly identical features. The major differences are hidden under the hood.

For days, we ran a wide variety of software on the two iMacs, and performed all of the common tasks mainstream consumers do — surfing the Web, emailing, instant messaging, word processing, using spreadsheets, editing photos, playing music, managing personal finances, playing simple games.

Our verdict: The brain transplant was a success. The two machines behaved almost identically in our tests. Compatibility is excellent. The new model easily handled all the major consumer software we threw at it. We never noticed the translator software, called Rosetta, and any slowdowns it imposed were so slight as to be indiscernible.

The new model was actually a little faster at a few of the tasks we tried, but nothing like the two to three times as fast that Apple claims. A mainstream user who didn’t know what was under the hood couldn’t tell the difference between them, even after using them for hours. It appears that the faster chip roughly balances out the translation effect.

So, if the new model works only about as well as the old one, what’s the advantage for consumers? Well, the slight, scattered, speed gains we saw should grow greater over time, as Apple and third-party software makers tweak their applications to take full advantage of the dual-core Intel chip. A year from now, an Intel iMac purchased today will likely be notably faster, if you update your software to newer versions.

But, even now, this is a terrific computer. It’s still the best consumer desktop on the market. It still runs crisply, still is free of viruses and spyware, still has the best operating system and the best built-in software of any desktop we’ve tested. Given how smoothly the new machine works, and how likely it is to get even better, we would prefer it today over the iMac G5, which Apple is still selling for the same price until inventories are gone. The G5 is still a fine machine, but the Intel model has a brighter future, and, based on our tests, it seems ready to go today.

There are a couple of caveats about our results. We tested only common consumer software and tasks, not heavy-duty or professional applications, like Adobe Photoshop, or professional music and video programs, which tend to stress the processor. Some of these nonconsumer products won’t work right until they are rewritten.

Also, there are two drawbacks to the Intel-based iMac that we judged relatively unimportant to most users, but which could be crucial to some. It can’t run old, pre-2001 Mac programs that were written for the old Mac operating system, called “Classic.” And, even though it now uses the same processors that Windows machines do, the new iMac can’t run Virtual PC, the Microsoft program that allows Macs to run Windows software. Microsoft is rewriting Virtual PC for the new Macs but won’t be done until 2007. Some other company may bring out a way to run Windows stuff on the new Mac sooner than that. But, for now, it can’t run Windows programs.

On the other hand, the new iMac has a few advantages. It has a faster video card than the old model and a digital video connector rather than an analog connector.

Doom 3, a non-Apple program, ran well on the new iMac.
Doom 3, a non-Apple program, ran well on the new iMac.

From the outside, the two machines are twins. Apple was careful to keep the same physical design, a beautiful white flat-panel monitor with the entire guts of the computer stashed behind the screen in an amazingly thin space. Both have a built-in camera and microphone. The user interface and software features are also identical. Both models run the same excellent Mac OS X operating system. And both also include Front Row, the special interface that allows you to view photos and videos, and play music, from across a room using a small, included remote control.

Even the price of the new model is the same — $1,299 for a version with a 17-inch screen and $1,699 for one with a 20-inch screen.

For our tests, we copied all the third-party software and files from our iMac G5 to the Intel iMac, so the machines were configured comparably. Both had the same amount of memory, the same DVD drives and the same Internet connections.

We ran a mix of Apple and third-party software. We weren’t surprised that all the Apple programs, like iTunes and iPhoto and the Safari Web browser, ran perfectly and swiftly. Apple has already rewritten them for the Intel chip.

But we were pleasantly surprised by the performance of non-Apple programs. We tested Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, the Firefox Web browser, Skype, Google Earth, Quicken, the Eudora email program, Doom 3, Kodak EasyShare and others — none of which had been rewritten. All launched quickly and ran smoothly and well.

We did find one program that wouldn’t run at all on the Intel iMac: AOL for Mac OSX. But AOL’s main features can all now be accessed from its Web site, so you don’t need this software in most cases.

Web pages loaded swiftly on the new iMac, though not markedly faster than on the old model. We changed the font on a thousand-word document in Microsoft Word and saw no lag at all. We created a chart in Microsoft Excel, and it appeared almost instantly. Email worked indistinguishably well.

This column was written in Word on the Intel iMac, and there were no glitches or hitches or hang-ups of any kind.

On four of our test tasks, the new model outperformed the old one significantly — all in Apple software that had been rewritten for the new chip. It was 15% faster at importing music from a CD, using iTunes. It was 42% faster at converting a video clip from one format to another, using Apple’s QuickTime program. It was 44% faster at importing nine large digital photos into iPhoto. And it was 24% faster at duplicating a huge folder filled with more than 27,000 files occupying more than 12 gigabytes of space.

Why didn’t our results support Apple’s claim of a two to three times speed gain? Like most computer companies, Apple bases such claims on special, complicated benchmark software that doesn’t necessarily match up with the kinds of mainstream consumer tasks we tested.

The bottom line: Apple’s iMac, with its new Intel processor, is still the gold standard of consumer desktop PCs. And it stands to get better over time.

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