By DAVID SHAMAH
"New and improved? Does that mean the old version was bad? I mean, like detergent; if I'm supposed to buy the new and improved version, does that mean my clothes were always dirty before?"
Okay, now you know why I write about computers, not comedy. But unlike with most detergents, this year's most amazing "new and improved" really is - and it opens up the door to perhaps the most inventive and creative cross-platform computer hacking in history, as hardware, software and operating systems meld and gel into one multi-purpose mess! I'm talking, of course, about the Mac innovation that's got everyone talking - the new line of dual-core Intel processor powered Macs, a development that must have taken lots of Mac folk aback - way aback, in fact - because the idea of an Intel processor is just so un-Maclike.
After all, in the world of Macintosh, the lines between good and evil, light and darkness, as well as junky and good, are very clear - Windows/Intel bad, Apple/IBM/Motorola/PowerPC good. At least that's the "orthodox" view of Mac history, and the fact that Apple has gone over to "the (now former) enemy" shows that whatever idealistic fantasies users once might have had about Apple, business is business.
Not that there weren't legitimate reasons for a change in processor supplier (if not this particular change). Loyal Mac users have over the past few years been frustrated at the bumpy development of a long promised G5 version of Apple's Powerbook laptop line, as well as topping out the speed of G5 chips in desktop Macs. The G5 process, first introduced in desktop machines in 2003, were heralded as great improvements over the G4, with many tests giving G5s a significant processor speed advantage over the-current top of the line Pentiums - not that the G4 processor was a slacker, either (see http://tinyurl.com/4mgv9 http://www.barefeats.com/pentium4.html and http://tinyurl.com/egjd6) The last Powerbook (G4 Dual-Layer SD), released last October, had gone about as far as PowerPC chips could take it without making the laptop "too hot to handle" for users. And given the last couple of years' crop of Intel Pentium M laptop processors - including "dual-core" processors, where two processors on a motherboard can tackle separate tasks, or parts of the same task, respectively (although, to be fair, IBM was the first one with a dual core processor of any kind).
But as of last June, and especially as of January, all that is history.
The announcement that Apple was collaborating with Intel was first made at the annual San Francisco Macworld in June 2005, and the official end of the era of "the other" came in January, when three Intel dual core processor Mac models were introduced - an iMac model with a 17 or 20 inch screen, a Mac Mini and a new laptop called a MacBook Pro. Still available are G4 Powerbooks as well as G5 desktops, although rumor has it that Apple is phasing them out and selling off existing stocks (http://tinyurl.com/le7fb) - meaning that it's likely that there are bargains to be had on perfectly good machines that were top of the line just a few months ago (talk about "new and improved"). Interestingly, the new Mac Minis are priced the same as the older G4 versions, while the iMac model costs as much as a G5 iMac did last year at this time.
So what do you get for your money with an Intel Mac? Well, if you're familiar with the current crop of Macs of whatever type, you'll easily recognize the new ones, at least from the outside. I've been using one of the new 17 inch iMacs, which on the outside, looks the same as its G5 predecessor. In terms of design, there's no better word to describe the outsides of an iMac than "elegant." About 3 inches thick, it's mostly screen, with the guts laid out flat. As with many Mac products, the insides are verboten, but this site (http://tinyurl.com/z6lnx) has some nice pictures of a disassembled iMac. The machine's CD/DVD reader/writer is on the right side, and the back of the machine comes with a bunch of USB ports (2.0), Firewire ports, Ethernet connection, sound input and output, and a DVI connection for HDTV, flat panel and VGA monitor connections.
Also included is a fancy keyboard (unlike with the Mac Mini, where buyers have to supply their own) and mouse (ditto). In fact, the mouse is so fancy it's got a special name - the "Mighty Mouse" (See http://tinyurl.com/fxqbg). Reviews on this are mixed, but if you want to check it out, you don't have to spend $1,300 on an iMac to get one. Apple sells them separately for $49 (http://www.apple.com/mightymouse).
Other hardware included with the Intel iMac is a 160 GB (17 inch version) or 250 GB (20 inch version) hard drive, built-in Bluetooth 2.0 connection, a builtin AirPort connection - AirPort being the Mac's version of wireless networking. The iMac can function as an Airport Extreme base station, providing wireless networking capabilities to Wifi equipped Mac or Windows laptops (some tinkering may be necessary). In addition, you get a built in web camera, called iSight, which will take photos or video and load them into Apple's included iMovie software (part of the bundled iLife '06), or allow you to do video conferencing (also using a bundled iLife component called iChat), with up to four different locations able to join a chat simultaneously.
Last, but not least, you get a remote control for the iMac's bundled entertainment software, called Front Row. With the remote control, you just click to load videos, DVDs, photo slideshows, or music from iTunes (also included, although its free for all, unlike the rest of iLife).
And, of course, you get the 17 or 20 inch built in screen, with gobs of graphics and video memory. If this sounds like a lot of stuff for $1,299 (the US price for the 17 inch iMac), it is. Macs, after all, have traditionally justified their higher retail prices by including lots of hardware, but I daresay that for the money, you get more than you would in a similarly equipped PC. And we haven't even discussed software yet - which we will next time.
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