iMac lives up to the buzz

Created as a low-cost PC alternative for students and consumers, Apple Computer Inc.'s innovative iMac platform is generating excitement in the federal government market. After a hands-on evaluation of the iMac, we understand the hoopla: We found the iMac to be fast, well-designed and affordable.

The iMac is an all-in-one PC and monitor priced at about $1,200 on NASA's Scientific and Engineering Work-station Procurement II. Federal agencies are snapping up iMacs at a surprising rate, said Paul Wiese, an Apple federal account manager. "People have been excited about it," he said. "It has got an incredibly low price for the power you get."

Users at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory like the iMac for its low price, high performance and small footprint, said Duane Straub, a Mac user in the lab's Systems and Network Department. "Many lab employees have multiple computers, and the iMac takes up little space as an addition," Straub said.

The system is best known for its distinctive see-through case design, but the iMac also is fast.

Its PowerPC processor revs to 233 MHz and backs it with a 512M cache and 32M of RAM. The 233 MHz iMac topped Apple's Power Macintosh G3 233 MHz in Macworld's SpeedMark 1.0 benchmark, scoring a 4.1, compared with a 4.0 for the much-heralded Mac G3. SpeedMark covers 54 real-world tasks in 15 programs and Finder, which is part of the Mac operating system. (Macworld is a sister publication of Federal Computer Week.)

Despite the comparatively low speed of the chip, the PowerPC processor is a reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) design that is more efficient than Intel Corp. Pentium-style chips. It offers performance comparable with Pentium II processors that have a higher clock speed. In fact, Apple claims better benchmark performance from the iMac than from a 400 MHz Pentium II when running typical productivity applications.

Nonetheless, blazing speed probably is not a top priority for many people who are interested in the iMac. "For people who just want to do word processing, spreadsheet, e-mail and Internet, [iMac] is perfect for that," Wiese said.

The most unusual feature of the iMac is its almost-invisible plastic cabinet. Not only is the unit translucent, so are the keyboard, mouse and cables. Unfortunately, however, form has taken precedence over function with the keyboard and mouse. Both are simply too small for most people to use comfortably. The good news is that both devices are Universal Serial Bus peripherals and can be replaced by larger, ergonomically superior devices such as Microsoft Corp.'s Natural keyboard and IntelliMouse.

Apple banished all the usual ports from its PC in the interest of simplicity. The iMac features only a pair of USB ports and built-in modem and Ethernet adapter. All these connectors and the microphone port hide under a door on the side, where they are easily accessible. Speakers and dual headphone ports are built into the front of the display, along with the CD-ROM drawer.

Despite the distinctive casing, some of the parts inside the iMac are rather ordinary, though still sufficient.

The modem is a 56 kilobits/sec device, and the hard drive is on the small side at 4G. The 15-inch display also is smaller than the 17-inch monitors shipping with most PCs, but it runs at a solid 1,024-by-768-pixels resolution. The bundled 10/100BaseT Ethernet is top-flight, and the combination of USB ports and an infrared port should provide good flexibility for users. Like most built-in speakers, the sound from the iMac's speakers is tinny but acceptable.

Apple bundles home-oriented software with the iMac, but federal buyers will want to add office productivity applications such as Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, both of which are available for the iMac. Customers also can run Virtual PC software if they need to run a particular Windows application, but they will need to upgrade from the standard 32M of RAM to 64M for the application to run efficiently, Livermore's Straub said.

Apple's documentation is a little frustrating because it comes in nine pamphlets, brochures and assorted broadsheets instead of one comprehensive guide. But that should not matter because the iMac is supposed to be so simple.

Thanks to the iMac, federal sales of Apple products— although still small— are on the rise, as are the company's fortunes overall. Apple officials said last week that they will report their first profitable year since 1995, following brisk sales of new products such as the iMac.

Federal resellers, however, are reporting more interest than orders for the iMac. "I haven't seen much yet in orders," said Beth Sowers, marketing executive at Government Technology Services Inc. However, she added, the iMac's lack of a floppy disk drive is a popular feature for security-conscious customers.

-- Carney is a contributing technology writer based in Herndon, Va. He can be reached at DanCarney@compuserve.com.

***

AT A GLANCE

Apple Computer Inc.(408) 996-1010www.apple.com

Price and Availabilty: Available on Government Technology Services Inc.'s NASA Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II contract for $1,206. For more information or to order, call (800) 999-4874.

Remarks: The Apple iMac may target students, but the low price, high performance and built-in 10/100BaseT Ethernet seem ideally suited to office use. The small size takes up little space in bureaucrats' cubicles, and the absent floppy drive will please security fanatics. Yes, the iMac is limited by its small display and lack of internal expansion capability, but it is fast enough that it shouldn't need upgrades anytime soon.

Final Score: Very Good

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