iMac More than Skin-Deep

1998.12: If you surf the Mac sites, you’ve probably run across links to “Skin-Deep Beauty: The iMac’s Performance Doesn’t Live Up to Its Snappy Appearance” (no longer online) by John Breeden, published by The Washington Post on December 17. The article raises a few valid criticisms of the iMac, but also contains some inaccuracies.

iMac Hello AgainThe following is adapted from a letter I sent to Mr. Breeden. (Quotes from his article are indented. My letter is in italic type.)

I was disappointed to note that you didn’t review the current iMac, but instead reviewed the Revision A iMac, which was displaced two months ago.

“Because of the iMac’s entry-level price, I expected poor graphics. But I got a big surprise: a built-in Rage IIc 2-D/3-D graphics chip from ATI Technologies Inc. of Thornhill, Ontario, and 2 megabytes of synchronous graphics memory.”

The current iMac has 6 MB of VRAM and the Rage II Pro for even better video performance.

“It resembles the Mac Classic and has the same disadvantages. The main flaw is the lack of an upgrade path. That means, if you need a larger monitor than the built-in 15-incher, too bad. And if something goes wrong with the monitor, be prepared to give up the entire system.”

As for your comments on the Mac Classic, remember that it could be upgraded from an 8 MHz 68000-based computer with a 4 MB RAM ceiling to a 16 MHz 68030-based Classic II capable of handling 10 MB of memory. Not earthshaking, but definitely an upgrade path.

So what makes you think there won’t be a similar upgrade path for the iMac? Apple has offered motherboard upgrades for so many models since the original Macintosh that I probably couldn’t list them all (and even a free upgrade from the Lisa 1 to Lisa 2 for owners of the Mac’s predecessor).

Additionally, Griffin Technology sells an adapter, the $79 iPort, that allows use of a larger, external drive with the iMac, as well as use of older Mac serial devices such as printers.

“The iMac can simulate an additional 36 megabytes of memory via disk caching – a practice I’ve never liked in any Mac. Virtual memory is a cheap way to get more memory, but it causes excessive disk writing and shortens system life.”

Virtual Memory is not to be confused with Disk Caching. Disk Caching sets aside a chunk of RAM to store data from the hard drive for faster access. Disk Caching can greatly improve overall system performance.

Virtual Memory uses the hard drive to emulate RAM, but there are several orders of magnitude of difference in access speed. Virtual Memory does reduce system performance.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that Virtual Memory shortens system life.

“My biggest complaint is the circular mouse, half the length and width of a standard mouse.

“I was disappointed to see that Apple has yet to add a second button to its mice. The second button is important for today’s complex programs.”

I agree on both points about the mouse: the round shape looks great but handles poorly, and Apple should have adopted a two-button design in 1987 with the ADB connector. (I use a two-button Kensington Mouse at work and really miss it at home. Maybe for Christmas….)

“The iMac has only USB adapters, no SCSI port. . . . non-USB devices can’t be connected. Offices that have SCSI- or parallel-port printers will find the iMac an unsuitable replacement for older Macs. It’s odd, because Apple was a SCSI pioneer.”

The lack of any high speed port (whether SCSI or FireWire) only makes sense if Apple doesn’t expect users to grow beyond the iMac’s original capabilities. On the other hand, most PCs don’t have any kind of connector for an external hard drive – and parallel port Zip drives and the like are terribly slow compared with SCSI or USB.

On the other hand, there are USB-to-SCSI adapters and SCSI cards for the iMac’s slot on the way.

Besides, the iMac isn’t designed to replace older Macs; it’s designed for new users or for addition to an existing Mac installation (remember who pioneered inexpensive networking in the 80s).

On top of that, most Mac users don’t have SCSI- or parallel-port printers. Instead, they have serial or networked printers. (But if they do want to use a parallel printer, Infowave makes PowerPrint USB to allow the use of over 1,000 different parallel printers.)

“Another flaw is the lack of a floppy drive. There’s no way short of networking to get information off the iMac. The inability to save files to a floppy makes this system little more than a dumb terminal with modem and networking capability. The all-internal 10Base-T Ethernet connector, 56k modem and infrared port guarantee easy setup but limit any upgrades.”

No floppy? I can live with that, especially with free online storage services providing up to 5 MB of space for storing files. (Better yet, an older Mac networked over ethernet to store copies of my files.) Sure, some people still use floppies, but the floppy drive is pretty well dead today. Zip practically killed it long ago, and SuperDrive is putting the last nails in the coffin.

The ethernet port on the iMac is 10/100, not simple 10Base-T. With cable modems right around the corner offering up to 30 Mbps, 10Base-T would not show the foresight Apple has always been noted for.

And the iMac is a lot more than a glorified dumb terminal. It has a 4 GB hard drive, can accept more memory than any iMac user would dream of installing, and works with USB drives and other accessories. As with every Mac since the 1986 Plus, networking is an integral part of the design, including the IrDA port, 56k modem, and 10/100Mbps ethernet.

Not only that, the iMac also looks cool.

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