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Articles: First Look at the Intel iMac

It was widely expected that Apple would introduce at least one Intel-based Mac at the 2006 MacWorld Conference. So most attendees were not surprised that there was an introduction of the two Intel Macs, but they were in fact shocked by what models Apple chose to introduce. The year before, Steve Jobs had said that Intel processors would first be introduced into low-end Macs. Many assumed that would mean iBooks and Mac minis. Instead, we see the middle of the Mac lineup offered with the Intel chips. Apple really just slipped them in, quietly discontinuing the G5-based Macs, and in a very unconventional way kept the new Intel systems nearly identical in appearance to their PowerPC counterparts. The iMac G5 and the Intel iMac are so similar in fact; it is better to talk about what is different between the two instead of reviewing it by itself.

At home I use a 15" G4 1.25 GHz PowerBook docked to a LaCie Photon 20 Vision LCD display set as my primary monitor. Because of this, my favorite new feature of the Intel iMac is that it now supports and external DVI displays that can handle desktop spanning. Every other iMac has supported only VGA connections in Mirroring mode (external and built-in screens showing the same image). Intel iMacs will support the Apple 20" and 23" displays as well as most other DVI monitors. You just need to buy the Apple Mini-DVI to DVI cable. This allowed me to connect my 20" LCD to the Intel iMac and more than double the screen space of the 17" iMac.

The only other noticeable external difference was in the exhaust of the computer. It runs quiet and cool. On a cold day you will catch people warming their hands on the hot air expelled from a G5 iMac. Those people will have to find another heat source. The Intel iMac generates far less heat than the G5 version, and because of that, its fans spin slower. Slower fans make for a quieter computer, which is a welcome change.

In order to compare the performance of the iMac fairly, I used the migration assistant to import my laptop's data and applications. This would be the same as what most users who are upgrading to the new iMac will do. What I found is that Rosetta does a good job of running PowerPC applications. Unlike Classic, I didn't have to wait for Rosetta to launch. Instead, the process that launched my PowerPC applications was completely transparent. As Apple has already confirmed, none of my video editing applications or other Apple pro apps worked. Most other software did work though. However and surprisingly, iChat crashed on me consistently when I tried to start a video chat. Some unexpected conflict was imported over from my PowerBook and prevented the built-in USB camera from working. PhotoShop CS worked well in Rosetta but my Epson scanner would not work because the TWAIN driver could not load. For PhotoShop, I did a side-by-side comparison between the 1.83 GHz Intel iMac and my 1.25 GHz G4 PowerBook. I applied the same filters and tweaks to the same pictures and in nearly every instance they finished in the same amount of time (keep in mind this is in Rosetta on the iMac). At times, the iMac was faster but only by a split second.

The power of the Intel chip was felt when I ran Stuffit in Rosetta. I had Stuffit compress a 128 MB folder of RAW photos. The Intel iMac running Stuffit in Rosetta beat the native Stuffit on my PowerBook by 70 seconds. That was the only time I saw the Rosetta applications significantly outperform native ones. In most cases it was the same performance as on the PowerBook. Surprisingly, Rosetta even ran the game Battlefield 1942 comparable to my PowerBook. One hiccup was when I ran MS Office as a Rosetta-run application, it stuttered. When typing rapidly into Word there was an occasional second-long delay in typed words appearing. Despite the MS Office problems, Rosetta is a powerful emulator that worked better than I had expected.

The fabled "native" speed of the new Intel iMac was inconsistent in my tests. The boot up time is drastically shorter. It feels more like a computer waking from sleep than starting up. The iApps do run faster but not as much as one would expect and hope for. Many people at MacWorld this year told me how fast the demo Intel iMacs displayed web pages in Safari. Here on my wireless network, side-by-side, I saw no difference between my PowerBook and the Intel iMac. You can feel a general increase in speed but it is not the difference between a moped and a sports car. It feels like previous upgrades: faster but not revolutionary.

I believe that the mild upgrade in speed was tied to the lack of change in appearance. Apple appears to be working hard at convincing Mac users that not much has changed. The Apple tagline is that the processor alone is the only difference. For now the Macs we will see are going to support that argument with small changes only. To a Mac mini user an Intel chip will probably be a significant upgrade, one that would show that the G4 is lagging behind. And that is exactly why Apple is waiting to upgrade it. They want to minimize the disparities between old and new. These first Intel upgrades are for transition only. That is why I would recommend that you treat it as an upgrade option and not an imperative. If you were going to upgrade to the G5 iMac before, then the Intel iMac is a reasonable alternative. However, if you own a G5 iMac and think you are going to get a substantial upgrade from moving to Intel you will be disappointed.

Another consideration to make is that if you're looking to buy a computer that is forward-looking and that will run the latest yet-to-be-introduced software, the Intel iMac is a good choice. However, if you're dependent on older software and/or you just don't want to hassle with a few things not working here and there, stick with a G5 for now. And there's nothing wrong with that, even though the G5 will slowly phase out this year, the services they will perform for you will last for many years without a hitch. In any case, choose wisely.
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