-- Apple has dropped the price, bumped up the speed, and enhanced the features of its 20-inch iMac G5. The result is an all-in-one desktop computer that's more media friendly and affordable than its predecessor; but like that unit, it falls short of being a media PC because it lacks a built-in TV tuner.
I tested a shipping version of the new 20-inch iMac. Equipped with a 2.1-GHz processor (up from the prior model's 2.0 GHz), and 512MB of DDR2 RAM, the $1699 system delivered crisp performance, and the 20-inch wide-screen display looked sharp. Audio, on the other hand, was average in the absence of a set of external speakers. Apple says this version of the iMac has a slightly faster front-side bus than the previous one, too, and it supports PCI Express graphics, though the only graphics choice is an integrated ATI Radeon X600 XT chip with 128MB of DDR SDRAM (The 17-inch iMac model includes the Radeon X600 Pro.) A 250GB hard drive and a DVDA?RW double-layer drive rounded out the package.
Aside from its having a slightly thinner build, the biggest differences between this iMac and the previous generation's are three new entertainment features.
First, Apple added an iSight Webcam--third-eye style--right into the front of the iMac. Unlike Apple's $149 external FireWire iSight Webcam, this one has a (theoretically) superior CMOS sensor rather than a CCD. Like the external iSight, the iMac's iSight captures movement at 30 frames per second and has a built-in microphone. I and my colleagues conducted a reasonably smooth videoconference over the system's built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi connection. The picture was good for the most part, though it grew a little blurry when the person on the other end moved quickly.
Second, Apple has added a Photo Booth application, which lets you take photos of yourself using the built-in camera. When you click the camera button in this one-window application, the iMac counts down from three, the screen turns bright white (like fill flash), and the iMac takes a picture that you can then e-mail, store, or assign as your IM icon. Photo Booth is fun and it works fine, but it's not a reason to buy the iMac.
Finally, Apple bundles an infrared remote control that works with the new Front Row remote-viewing software. The remote looks like an iPod Shuffle and carries similar navigation buttons. It works at a distance of up to 30 feet away from the iMac's infrared sensor, which is hidden beneath the Apple logo on the front of the case. When you're not using the remote, it magnetically sticks to the lower-right side of the iMac--a neat design extra.
To activate Front Row, you hit the Menu button on the remote. After about a 1-second delay, the screen turns black and then four icons (Videos, Music, Photos, and DVD), take center screen. Connect to the Internet, and you can access Apple QuickTime's movie trailers right from the Front Row interface (a diversion that instantly sucked up 20 minutes of my life). One nitpick: I wish that I could turn off the remote's audio effects.
If you already have an IR universal remote, Apple says, you can use it to navigate Front Row--with one major caveat: Your universal remote has to support Front Row's keyboard commands.
The remote control made me want to watch TV, which I can't do on the iMac since it lacks a built-in TV tuner. Though the iMac supports PCI Express graphics, I haven't been able to find any current internal TV tuner cards for the Mac, and in any event you can't open the iMac to install one. To add TV to your iMac, you'll have to purchase an external TV tuner such as El Gato's $329 Eye TV 200 FireWire digital video recorder.
Despite my quibble over the TV tuner, I think the 20-inch iMac is cool. Apple has wrapped up a nice set of multimedia features in an attractively designed package at a price competitive with comparably equipped value PCs. If you're looking for a beautiful all-in-one desktop, this iMac is a nice option.