iMac Review: It's a Mac

© 1998 Washington Apple Pi Labs

Washington Apple Pi Journal, January/February 1999, reprint information

Related articles: iMac Benchmark, iMac Memory

Racing Johann and Brodie

Without doubt, the biggest computer industry story in 1998 was the iMac, eclipsing even the Microsoft antimonopoly trial. Why it was a big story varied, depending on point of view:

First, of course, we needed an iMac. Washington Apple Pi Labs carefully cultivated associates, dropping hints that we'd like to borrow an iMac for a while. All the new iMac owners said "No." We dropped hints at Apple; Apple didn't even respond to the hints. Finally, someone did loan us an iMac, but we had to promise to give it back. Somewhat offended at this lack of trust, we reluctantly agreed.

And six minutes after starting, we'd logged on to the Internet via the Washington Apple Pi Explorer service! Things would have proceeded even faster but (a) we were taking pictures and (b) we lost two minutes searching for a penknife to open the box. To naysayers who claim this isn't much of a contest (we were, after all, racing against a seven year old) we say: maybe so, but we didn't have help from Brodie.

iMac top box

When you first open the iMac box, you find a Styrofoam box containing the keyboard, mouse, all cables, the master CD-ROM discs, and the minimal documentation.

iMac in shrinkwrap

After removing this box, you then lift the plastic-shrouded, 38 pound iMac up and out onto a table. This last task strikes us as probably too difficult for a seven year old kid.

Scandal! Cheating! Doubts!

In spite of our success, we did come away with some observations. First, none of us at Washington Apple Pi Labs believes Johann got that iMac out of the box without help. An iMac might weigh less than many computers and it might have a handle molded into the back. But at 38 pounds, it weighs a large fraction of a seven year old, and we doubt Johann could generate enough leverage to pull the iMac out of the box and put it on a desk. (We went back and looked at a QuickTime clip of the "Simplicity Shootout" commercial; the camera cuts away and never actually shows Johann pulling the iMac out!)

Having uncovered one bit of scandal, we wondered about another: how did Johann log on to the Internet? When you first turn on an iMac, it guides you through a series of steps to set various preferences, and then guides you through signing on to the Internet via a commercial ISP (Internet Service Provider). In order complete this last step, however, you need to give the ISP a credit card number. We doubt Johann has a credit card. (We hope Johann doesn't have a credit card.)

For our part, we, too, cheated: we cancelled the setup process when it asked if we wanted to configure things for the Internet. Instead, we inserted a copy of the Washington Apple Pi "Pi Fillings: The CD" (this does not come as a standard iMac component, by the way) and ran the TCS Explorer System Configuration Installer 2.0. After running the installer, we dialed in to Explorer (and the Internet) without a hitch; we didn't even need to reboot.

The Dark Side

Of course, we did have to use Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0.1, since that is how an iMac is set to function, fresh out of the box. It was an interesting experience, good for variety, but Explorer isn't Netscape Navigator, and Microsoft Outlook Express 4.0.1 isn't Claris E-Mailer 2.0. We thought about changing all the default applications but then remembered: we're just borrowing the iMac. Sigh.

We also discovered there isn't much in the way of documentation with the iMac. In fact, the "manual" is just a long piece of cardstock with six illustrated panels showing you how to set the machine up. An "Emergency Handbook" was included, but it is generic to Mac OS 8.1, with just a few small changes to cover the iMac CD-ROM drive and USB (Universal Serial Bus) devices. At one point, it discusses the "Reset hole," for example, but there is no illustration showing which, of the many holes on an iMac, might be the right one.

iMac manual

The iMac doesn't have a true manual, just this long piece of cardstock showing the six steps necessary to get the iMac up and running. The back of the card repeats these instructions in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Scandinavian (which means we aren't sure if it is Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

None of the applications bundled with the iMac contains traditional documentation, either. They depend on instructions built-in to the application, or use electronic documentation provided in Adobe Acrobat format (Adobe Acrobat Reader is pre-installed on the iMac), or they use HTML (HyperText Markup Language) files for use with a Web browser.

Strangely enough, the lack of documentation was not a drawback, since we probably wouldn't have read it, anyway. We do wonder, however, what a genuine computer novice would do after the iMac finished guiding them through the setup process. Would they know they could write letters with ClarisWorks? Would they know that Nanosaur is a game? How long would it take them to realize a game (MDK), a graphics package (Kai's Photo Soap SE) and a cookbook (Williams-Sonoma Guide to Good Cooking) aren't even installed on the iMac, but are included in the packet of CD-ROM discs that come with the machine?

While the iMac has only been available for a short time, the answer appears to be: it isn't a problem. Apparently the vast majority of computer novices do manage to set the machine up properly, write letters in ClarisWorks, and even wander around on the Internet, using just the on-line and electronic documentation included with the iMac. The iMac could become the preferred computer of trees.

Problems

There were, of course, Problems. The biggest one is Nanosaur. This is an irritatingly addictive game in which you guide a time-traveling, intelligent dinosaur on a mission to rescue dinosaur eggs. It sucks up way too much time, and watching the planet get obliterated by a comet is almost as much fun as winning. (Well, we presume it would be as much fun, since we've never come close to winning.)

Speed is another problem. The iMac is very, very fast, faster than the Washington Apple Pi Labs crew expected. Almost immediately, everything had to be tested on the iMac, leaving other perfectly capable Macs, some with similar speed, sitting unused.

serial number

Pre-installed on the iMac is a small application, Register, which allows you to register your computer purchase with Apple across the Internet. To complete the registration, you need a model number, from the outside of the shipping box, and the iMac serial number. The serial number is not so conveniently located inside a compartment on the side of the iMac.

At least two members of the Washington Apple Pi Labs crew insist the iMac is "cute." From some angles, it does look like a 1960's high-tech vacuum cleaner, complete down to the two-tone color scheme. But compared to any other computer it is startlingly good looking. Named "Double 07" (in honor of the "Bondi blue" case color), the iMac made everything else in the Washington Apple Pi Labs look drab and uninteresting.

Bluntly put: a single iMac is an attractive nuisance. We should have asked to test a half dozen at once.

Solutions

The lack of a serial port on the iMac was not a problem; we couldn't think of anything we wanted to plug into a serial port. We also didn't mind the lack of a LocalTalk port; the built-in high-speed 10/100Base-T Ethernet port more than made up for this. We also didn't mind the lack of a SCSI port; between the four-gigabyte hard drive and CD-ROM drive, there wasn't much need of SCSI peripherals.

We did have problems with the mouse. Unlike a "normal" Mac mouse, the iMac mouse does not have an obvious "front" and "back." Every time we reached for it, there was a bit of uncertainty as we made sure the round iMac mouse was actually pointed in the right direction. This uncertainty diminishes over time, but not completely.

Fortunately, there are quite a few USB peripherals available for the iMac, and one of them is the MacALLY iBall, a trackball. Constructed of translucent plastic, it fits right in with the iMac color scheme, and, like all trackballs, requires a tiny amount of desk space. Best of all, it has a definite "front" and "back," and caused none of the disorientation of the iMac's round mouse.

The iMac's keyboard was a pleasant surprise. It is smaller than most Mac keyboards, and there was some concern that it wouldn't "feel" right. These fears proved to be unfounded; it is a nice keyboard. The cursor keys and function keys are not in the usual locations, but they aren't hard to reach, either. About the only inconvenience: there is only one Option key, on the left side, unlike the left and right Option keys found on full-sized Mac keyboards. MacALLY has a full-size extended keyboard, so those who wish can move to something more "traditional."

Another pleasant surprise: the sound. While Apple has hyped the Stereo Surround Sound speakers built-in to the iMac, we were dubious, and thought they might be somewhat tinny. While they don't measure up to the best stereo equipment, they aren't bad at all, and the dual front-mounted headphone jacks come in handy if someone complains that the speakers are too good.

At the iMac introduction in May 1998, Steve Jobs, ever the hypemeister, declared the iMac screen "gorgeous." More objective observers couldn't comment, since the prototype was up on a stage and they weren't. After extensive testing, we've decided: Steve wasn't exaggerating as much as usual. While "gorgeous" would not be the word we'd use, the iMac screen is crisp and stable, with excellent color fidelity. Apple even made sure that ColorSynch has an iMac setting, as an aid to making sure screen colors look good on other media. The Monitors & Sound Control Panel even allows you to adjust the monitor geometry and color, though we found no need to do so.

Touching the World

We had no problem connecting the iMac to a 10Base-T Ethernet hub, allowing it to share files with other computers and an Ethernet-equipped PostScript printer. Sharing files also revealed an interesting fact: the iMac was a faster file server than any of the other Washington Apple Pi Labs machines. The owner of the iMac suggested we "forget whatever you are thinking." Meanie.

The lack of a floppy drive presented no problems at all. Between the Ethernet port and the modem port, we had no problem sucking in any information we needed. We suspect the market for iMac floppy drives will be ephemeral; after using them for a couple hours when they first get the machine, most iMac users won't need them again. Ever.

We obviously didn't try to test the iMac with LocalTalk devices, or with an old serial-based ImageWriter printer. There are several interface boxes available from third-party manufacturers that act as bridges between the iMac and old peripherals, but we weren't interested in old peripherals.

Due to a lack of other 100Base-T-equipped devices, we couldn't test the Ethernet port at higher speeds. We also couldn't test the infrared port, or USB storage devices. Our request for lots of equipment to conduct such testing met with laughter. (We are interested in new peripherals.)

The built-in modem presented no problems at all: it works. We were unable to test it at speeds faster than 33.6K since our meager budget doesn't include a subscription to a telecommunications service supporting faster speeds. Sigh.

At one point, we tried to use an old copy of SoftWindows (running Windows 3.11) to do network management on a Windows-based server. This cracked everyone up: Windows 3.11 runs very fast on an iMac. In fact, an iMac is easily the fastest Windows 3.11 machine we've ever used. Running Virtual PC 2.0 (which uses Windows 95) wasn't quite as much fun: it runs at respectable speeds, similar to that of other Power Mac G3 computers running VirtualPC. Our advice: don't forget your sense of humor if you have a need for running one of Microsoft's operating systems.

Things We Don't Like

By majority vote, the Washington Apple Pi Labs team endorses the iMac mouse as both "cute" and "good." One lone dissenter finds it annoying. All of them like the MacALLY iBall trackball.

Running under Mac OS 8.1, the iMac sometimes didn't respond to a keyboard reset (Command-Control-Power). The iMac designers thoughtfully included a Reset button. They also thoughtlessly buried it in a tiny hole inside a compartment on the side of the machine that can only be reached with a straightened paperclip or similar long, thin wire.

Admittedly, things seem much smoother in Mac OS 8.5, but burying the Reset button is beyond a mere irritation; it is arrogance. The designers are, in effect, saying their computer is so perfectly designed that it will never require resetting. On aesthetic grounds alone, this is near criminal, forcing users to mutilate paperclips to overcome problems with an otherwise elegant machine.

Besides, in a paperless office, who has a paperclip?

iMac ports

In the same compartment where the serial number is hiding are most of the iMac's ports. From left to right: a microphone port, a speaker port, two USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports, an Ethernet port, two almost-invisible holes for the Reset Switch and Programmer's Switch, and a telephone jack.

Conclusions

The iMac is fast. It doesn't occupy much space. It has minimal cable clutter. It has an excellent mix of hardware features and bundled software. It is an excellent value, for both new computer users and those upgrading from older machines.

Most important of all: it most definitely is a Macintosh.

*


Return to electric pi

Revised December 13, 1998 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/