The Mac is back. After years of competing with Windows PCs on the basis of operating system alone, Apple has realised that computers are consumer products. PCs, including Macs, have generally been design-free zones expressing their innovative edge by having a pair of multimedia speakers grafted like cancerous growths on to the sides of the monitor. The iMac puts clear blue plastic between Apple and the rest.
Early Mac users, many of them working in education, bought Mac Pluses, the SE, and SE30 because they were good machines that worked well, had networking included, looked good, and could be moved around. The iMac is the compact Mac for the new millennium.
The machine has all you are likely to need in a desktop machine. It is well connected, looks great and is luggable. If James Dyson had built a computer instead of a vacuum cleaner, it would be like the iMac, combining the best of design and technology.
The iMac incorporates both the monitor and computer in a two-tone clear and Bondi-blue curvaceous plastic shell. It uses some up-to-the minute technologies such as a 56K high-speed modem, and universal serial bus (USB) connectors.
The USB is the new connection standard for PCs and replaces both SCSI (small computer system interface) and the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) used on previous Macs. It should allow iMac users to use far more peripherals from the Windows market.
There is plenty of processing power for the target market of home and school users. The machine comes with a high-power processor that outperforms Pentium II chips, has 32Mb of random access memory (RAM), which can be upgraded to 128Mb, and a 4Gb hard disk. Internet connection can be made through the 56K modem (the new high-speed standard) or by attaching to the school network. The built-in Ethernet connection socket links you to 10 or 100Mbit networks. The machine also has a 24xCD drive.
The monitor is crisp and clear and has two small speakers neatly built in to the lower front which produce good stereo output. The overall performance and speed - which compare favourably with the relatively expensive Apple G3 notebook - impressed me.
The set-up instructions are brief: take it out of the box, connect the cables and install from the set of CD-Roms. There is a short series of prompts but everything is straightforward. It's that simple.
The machine also comes with a CD for restoring the software should any mishaps occur during use. There are no massive manuals - help and information is supplied on screen - through a Web browser.
The iMac design also extends to a small, light keyboard and charming spherical mouse, in matching designer plastic - both a delight to use. (After using the iMac, the mouse on my Apple Performa felt like a tank.) The use of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) connectors makes for true connectivity, allowing devices like printers or scanners to be connected and disconnected without shutting down the machine first. The USB is used to connect the keyboard, mouse, printers and other devices such as external hard disks.
There are two USB ports on the side of the machine in a neatly concealed compartment, along with the modem and Ethernet connections. USB provides the machine with a single, simpleconnectivity solution.
Okay, so there is no floppy drive. The iMac is a network-centric machine, which has as much connectivity as anyone could wish for. Saving and backing up files can be done on the network, or on the 4Gb hard drive. Anyone desperate for a floppy drive can connect one of a wide variety of disk media in matching iMac livery. Those desperate to run Windows on their iMac will get very acceptable performance from an emulation program called Virtual PC.
The iMac combines attractive yet functional design, first class connectivity and plenty of power, making it the best variety of Apple for a long time. It is excellent value for money.
Les Watson is Dean of Learning and Information Services at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.
iMac Apple one-piece computer incorporating screen, 24xCD-Rom drive, 4Gb hard drive, 233 MHz G3 processor, 32Mb RAM (upgradable to 128Mb), high-speed modem (56k) and Ethernet network connection. Price: Pounds 799 + VAT Xemplar 01223 724200 Apple 0870 2410212