Low End Mac Round Table

Happy 10th Birthday, 'Luxo Jr' iMac G4!

Low End Mac Staff - 2012.01.06

iMac G4 on the cover of Time magazine

While the original iMac seemed like a radical departure from modular beige computers in 1998, it really amounted to little more than building the computer into the monitor and adding some color. The iMac G4, on the other hand, was a radical design departure with its computer in a hemispheric white base and a flat panel display practically floating in the air above it. The novel design was unexpected, and Steve Jobs even managed to get the iMac G4 on the cover of Time magazine the week it was announced.

Luxo Jr.
Pixar's Luxo Jr.

Today Low End Mac's staff takes a look at the iMac's design legacy, paying particular attention to the pros and cons of the G4 "Luxo Jr" design.

Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): I was lucky enough to have been invited by Apple - as one of three Canadian tech journalists - to attend the MacWorld conference where the iMac G4 was announced (and lucky enough to have my airfare and hotel paid for by Apple. Those were the days!)

Personally, I found the "Luxo Jr" design a bit too quirky, though I was impressed by the engineering behind the floating arm supporting the display. And I was even more impressed that in the time between lining up to get into the keynote and leaving the convention center in the early afternoon, downtown San Francisco had seemingly been covered with billboards showing off the up-to-now embargoed model.

Clearly Apple's PR was on top of its game!

Thinking back a decade, there were a couple of things noteworthy about the G4 iMac - the use of a G4 processor (previously only available in Apple's "high-end" pro models) and an LCD display - again, previously a rare and high-end option, while keeping the popular pricing of the iMac line. Now, it's hard to remember what a stir it made to have an LCD display on a mid-range model.

Steve Jobs introduces the original iMac
Steve Jobs introduces the iMac in 1998.

Leaman Crews (Plays Well with Others): I do remember the original Bondi iMac being seen as quite a radical design at the time. Apple did a great job of promoting the all-in-one concept, with much fewer cables, and how simple it was to get online. This was at a time when it seemed the Apple had no idea how to promote or market their own products, so I was proud of them for selling it based on some concepts that really hit a nerve with folks in the era of the first Internet boom. Although not as well remembered as Think Different or Switchers, I'd have to say that Apple's campaigns revolving around the original iMac were some of their most effective.

I also thought Apple did a great job of building up customer interest in the iMac by announcing it several months ahead of it actually shipping. It was the hottest personal computer on the planet before anyone could even buy one. I don't recall specifics, but I do remember Apple adding some options or beefing up the specs before it actually shipped* - I'm sure the specifics could be found somewhere in the Low End Mac archive, as it was right here at this site where I read about the iMac, nearly daily, back in 1998 and 1999. (Improving a product before it hit the store shelves would be a feat Apple would repeat in 2007 - the iPhone was announced with a plastic front but got upgraded to glass by the time it was available for sale.)

* For the record, the iMac was announced with a 33.6 Kbps modem but shipped with a 56 Kbps one.

original Macintosh

Having followed Apple for a long time by 1998, I didn't think the iMac was such a radical design. To me, it was an update of the original 128K Macintosh for the Internet era. Same concept, just newer specs and a cooler looking case. At the heart of both the original Mac and the first iMac was the idea that a computer should be a personable appliance. You didn't need to know your megahertz from your gigahertz, or your RAM from your hard drive space. The Mac and the iMac were compact, attractive, and did stuff for you, just like your toaster or washing machine.

It seemed like a logical thing to me and captured a retro spirit prevalent in late 1990s culture. Around the same time, Volkswagen brought back the Beetle (also updated for a more modern age), and we were all in anticipation of the first new Star Wars movie in over a decade-and-a-half. It was a good time to be in your 20s, with free time and disposable income. Everyone from Apple to VW to George Lucas was happy to sell me updated versions of childhood favorites.

The iMac G4's design is important in Apple history because it was one of the few post-Bondi iMac designs that could really take your breath away upon first seeing it. It was a great design. At my work, we bought about 100 of them in 2002, and they were real workhorses. The last of them were retired only last year - meaning about nine years of performance for some. We had a few where the neck went limp, losing its ability to hold up the LCD. But really, I don't recall having much trouble with any of the "flower pots", as they came to be known around the office. I don't know why Apple never pursued a similar design. It worked well, the product sold well, and it got the okay from critics too - a rare trifecta. Perhaps they just wanted to leave well enough alone and let the iMac G4 take its place in Apple's long and storied history.

Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): Unlike some other members of the Low End Mac staff, I remember some of the clever marketing for the G3 iMac, but I don't remember anything about the G4 model when it came out. If I had seen it back then, I might have found my way from the Windows wasteland sooner.

iMac G4

The iMac G4 "iLamp" remains my favorite Mac desktop design of all time. I like the ergonomic, flexible neck, the gorgeous LCD, the unique and futuristic look of the dome. Really, there's nothing about its design that I don't love. Even now I have one in service as a kitchen Mac, and I just set one up for a friend as a guest computer. While I don't think any hobbyist has managed it yet, I can't wait for some intrepid case-modder to figure out a way to wire a Mac mini in there, giving them a whole new lease on life.

Two significant drawbacks come to mind specifically for the iMac G4. The earlier models use original 802.11b AirPort cards, which are limited both in speed and compatibility with wireless security standards. The RAM is only partially accessible for user upgrading (the smaller SO-DIMM is easy enough to change out, but the internal slot is more of a challenge), and the optical drive and hard drive are not accessible at all unless you're very adventurous. Apple managed to cram a lot of hardware inside that small dome.

The other drawbacks of the iMac G4 are largely the same as those that hold back any G4 in the Age of Flash and the modern Internet. Fortunately, many of the late models (1 GHz+) can run OS X 10.5 Leopard, which helps somewhat with browser compatibility, support AirPort Extreme cards, and we've recently discussed several ways to keep Flash running on older G4s here at Low End Mac.

Charles Moore (several columns): I've never owned any species of iMac - or any desktop computers at all since the Mac clone era Umax SuperMac S900 that I still have, but which hasn't been booted up for years, and and the G4 Cube I owned for a few months in 2001. One of my daughters has had several teardrop iMacs, including one of the original Bondi Blue units, but the iMac that has tempted me most was the "Luxo Jr"/"iLamp" G4 model, that I'll hereafter refer to simply as the "Luxo."

It wasn't quite able to exert enough pull to overcome my affinity to the freedom, flexibility, and self-containedness of laptops, but it came closer than any other desktop Mac since the Cube, save perhaps for the Mac mini.

Anyway, by my lights, the Luxo is the most elegantly stylish Mac desktop ever, beating out even my runner-up original compact Macintosh. I regret not having picked one up when they were still cheap and plentiful in the mid-to-late '00s. I still have two G4 upgraded Pismo PowerBooks in active service, so by that measure I could still be getting useful work out of a Luxo iMac, although the curtain is definitely lowering on G4 Macs as practical production systems for even the second-tier relatively light duty use I put my Pismos to.

The biggest limiting factor for me is browser performance. I'm still getting along on the Pismos with TenFourFox, OmniWeb, and whatever the last version of Opera 10.x that supported OS X 10.4 Tiger was, but none are entirely satisfactory, and surfing gets slower and slower. TenFourFox is the most usable of the bunch, and if not for it being available, I would probably have thrown in the PPC towel by now. As it is, I'm using my iPad more and the Pismos less for light-duty stuff like drafting this commentary.

20-inch iMac G4
The 20" iMac G4 with speakers.

However, one of the last Luxos came with a 1.25 GHz G4 CPU, RAM maxed-out to 2 GB, and the high-end model's 20" 1680 x 1050 display would still be a sweet and capable machine that can still run OS X 10.5 Leopard and deliver better performance than my wife's 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook G4, which is still a very usable machine.

This roundtable topic got me thinking about one of the Macs I've been sort of sorry I didn't buy. A bit of a flight of fancy at this stage of the game, and portables still suit me better in practical terms, but a Luxo Jr. iMac is something of an objet d'art, n'est ce pas?

Austin Leeds (Apple Everywhere):¾ As the proud owner of a 15" 800 MHz iMac G4, yet one who hasn't actually been its primary user, I must admit that this iMac has been a great addition to the fleet. My parents have been the primary users, mostly for email and Tiger's dictionary, and problems for them have been few and far between.

iMac with Apple Pro Speakers
iMac with Apple Pro Speakers

However, I invariably have one use for it when I do use it: pumping the bass from those surprisingly powerful Apple Pro Speakers!

Leaman Crews: Nothing else to add except +1 for Apple Pro Speakers. I miss them! Throw in an iSub from Harman Kardon, and you had an awesome setup for blasting iTunes.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): I've never owned a G4 iMac, and I've always considered the design somewhat weird with that white dome base, but over time, I've come to see the brilliance of the floating display. You can raise it, lower it, or turn it so someone across the desk from you can see it. It's not as space efficient as the later "slab" iMac design introduced with the first iMac G5 in mid 2004, but it's a big improvement over the footprint of the G3 iMacs and the behemoth 17" eMac.

Honestly, I've been spoiled with dual processor G4 Power Macs, which makes me very impatient with older, slower Macs running OS X - especially the G3 iMacs and 'Books (all 500 MHz and slower) in my collection. I've played with various versions of OS X, fiddled a bit with Linux, and come to the conclusion that these are best as Mac OS 8.6 and 9.2 machines. Faster processors, more memory, and faster hard drives would improve the experience, but G4 with its AltiVec velocity engine just does wonders for Mac OS X.

A last generation model (15" 1 GHz or 17" or 20" 1.25 GHz) would be a great addition to my collection, but they tend to go for collector prices these days. I'll stick with my dual processor Power Macs until they die.

Jason Schrader (Maximize Your Mac): I myself have never owned any iMacs. I too have leaned towards the power and versatility of the Power Macs. My mother owns a 1.25 GHz iMac G4, and it has barely been used (she doesn't even have Internet). It's in like new condition for sure, and I asked her what she thought about me writing about upgrading it in my column. She replied, "Take it." I have always marveled at its design, especially its mechanical arm. It looks like nothing before it and has never really been rivaled in its design. I do have to say that I don't like being tied to a monitor, as I tend to upgrade often (I ran two for years until I picked up a 24" model). Now I just have to go pick it up and order up some memory and maybe a hard drive (when prices go down) as there is little to upgrade on these machines.

Dan Knight: I'll weigh in with Jason on this one. I often use the same display for years and years longer than any of my Power Macs. Alternatively, I can just get new displays if I need something larger or different - no need for a whole new computer.

Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): Although the Luxo was first released with 700 and 800 MHz varieties, I've always wanted a 20" Luxo with it's amazing screen real estate. However, for me the most burning memory of the Luxo's release in January 2002 was when I purchased my Summer 2001 Graphite iMac G3 600 MHz at full price for $1,299 plus tax just months earlier in September 2001. I was quite happy with the purchase initially, the Luxo G4 arrived just four months later with a much sleeker design, twice the graphics memory, and of course G4 AltiVec processing. The iMac G4 would have provided me with much more long term utility than the G3 iMac (the 800 MHz unit even shipped with a SuperDrive), and it only arrived a few months later. To make matters worse, the iMac G3 600 MHz unit I purchased dropped to $999 after the release of the Luxo.

This is very typical of Apple - some models are small steps forward, while others are quantum leaps ahead. I will always remember the Luxo as the first Mac I should have purchased rather than the one I did purchase.

Charles Moore: "First Mac I should have purchased rather than the one I did purchase." That would have been a PowerBook 1400c instead of the 5300 I bought a month or so before the 1400 was released. I did eventually own a 1400 (and still have it), but as a near fully-depreciated obsolete unit. LEM

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