The new iMac

Everyone else is talking about it, so why not me?

There are two categories of reactions to Apple products: emotional and rational. Most technology companies don’t evoke much of an emotional reaction, and when they do, I suspect it’s more often negative than otherwise. But Apple’s got the kavorka. You can look at the spec sheets and form a reasoned opinion of their machines, but before you do that, you have to get through the visceral response.

My gut reaction to the new iMac was mild disappointment. Don’t get me wrong–in the grand scheme of things, I like it. But the fact that so many people did such a good job of predicting what the new machine would look like suggests a lack of inspiration at Apple. The new design is clean, uses almost no desk space, and probably will prove to have a host of merits once people start getting them on their desks. But it doesn’t wow me the way its “iLuxo” predecessor did: that machine, although the base did look a little clunky, had an innovative, unexpected design. Another surprising disappointment about the new iMac is that it is plainly a step backwards in terms of ergonomics: the iLuxo’s screen could be moved in three degrees of freedom; the new, in one (two if you put it on a lazy susan). This may have been a cost-cutting move (those swingarms must have been expensive). Apple may have discovered that most people didn’t really take advantage of all that adjustability, and chose to invest in other features. I wonder.

I’d been planning on making my next Mac a powerbook, but I could see using this iMac instead. Which brings me to my other point: the rational side. It’s interesting looking at the tradeoffs Apple made in speccing this machine, to reach a price point and/or to avoid cannibalizing sales from other machines. In many ways, the iMac seems to be best compared to the 17″ Powerbook in terms of value for money. They both have the same screen, which accounts for a disproportionate amount of their price. Here’s a quick comparison of some major features for the base 17″ iMac and the 17″ Powerbook (the better spec shown in bold):

  iMac Powerbook
CPU 1.6 GHz G5 1.5 GHz G4
Ethernet 10/100 10/100/1000
Firewire 400 800
Video NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 ATI Mobility Radeon 9700
Video out Analog, mirror Digital, 2nd display
Portability OK Good
Bluetooth Optional Standard
Wifi Optional Standard
Optical drive Combo drive Super drive
Price US$1300 US$2900

Updating the iMac to add Bluetooth, Wifi, and a Superdrive gets it up to about $1600, still a lot less than the powerbook. Apple is charging a huge premium for portability (which is kind of weird, because the iBook is a pretty good deal) and a few geeky features. The G5 chip itself probably could command a premium for its performance benefit, but in reality is cheaper than the G4 (though the supporting circuitry may not be). This suggests to me that Apple’s pricing on the 17″ Powerbook is out of line.