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iMacculate conception;Apple iMac

Just out - and already it's a design classic. Merlin John reports

If you think all the hoo-hah about the iMac, Apple's new computer for school and home, is just the result of hype - think again. Yes, Apple is spending millions on promotion, but the iMac could do for the computer industry what portables did for television manufacturers.

Need a compact machine for the corner of the classroom or bedroom? This is the machine. Just pick it up by its handle like your portable TV and bring along the keyboard and mouse in the other hand. Want to connect it to networks? No problem. Either plug it straight into the network or a telephone line.

Its network and modem connections are as fast as you could want. In fact, it's said you need only 10 minutes to connect four plugs and get the iMac on to the Net - and it costs schools just pound;799.

If there is any hype, it's in the descriptions of the translucent, "glowing" case. It certainly doesn't glow, but it is translucent, along with all the accessories. You do get the feeling that you're dealing with a commodity more than with any other desktop computer.

What's surprising is the lack of any serious criticism. Some pundits felt the lack of a floppy disk drive was too radical. But that may be seen as a security advantage in school networks. Realistically, floppy disks are only used for transferring files and, in these days of networks and the Internet, it is far more efficient to send a file down the wire.

For those who really need disk access, all the main manufacturers are showing iMac-compatible prototype drives complete with translucent livery. And the iMac's new industry-standard connectors (USB or Universal Serial Bus) means Mac users have access to a far wider range of accessories.

There have been grumbles in the States about Internet compatibility, but these seem to be because some Internet providers are not yet up to the iMac's high modem speed (56k - the new standard). The other criticism comes from PC users - the Mac isn't a PC. Ooops, so it isn't. But the iMac's G3 processor is so quick that it can run Windows programsperfectly well with the help of emulators such as Virtual PC.

The iMac really is a design classic - and here is a significant UK influence. The head of the design team is English. Jonathan Ive is the son of Mike Ive, who is OFSTED's technology adviser. He takes design very seriously. When it was suggested that he had set out to differentiate the product for Apple, Jonathan Ive did not mince words: "I really detest that." He added: "Our goal wasn't just to differentiate our product, but to create products that people would love."

They love the iMac in the US and it is already a success. Demand is outstripping supply. And, with the popularity of Apple's G3 computers, the company's share of the schools market has shown signs of recovery. A recent survey of 5,000 schools in San Francisco found that 38 per cent of machines ordered for the coming year were Macs, up from 32 per cent last year. A number of prestigious colleges now recommend it as their preferred choice for students.

The iMac may not be greeted as enthusiastically in the innately conservative English and Welsh schools market. But in Scotland and Ireland, and at those schools confident in their use of Apple equipment, it could easily persuade them against a switch to Windows.

Apple iMac 233MHz comes with 512k cache, 32Mb SDRAM, a 4Gb IDE hard drive, 24x CD, 10100baseT ethernet and 56K modem, Mac OS 8.1 and USB. Price: pound;799 from Xemplar.

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