Mac Musings

The iMac G5: iPod Success or Cube Fiasco?

Daniel Knight - 2004.09.01

Apple finally did what a lot of us had expected them to do when they finally introduced a flat-panel iMac - they put the computer behind the screen.

The new iMac G5 eliminates that large, heavy, hemispherical white base of the iMac G4, replacing it with an aluminum stand that complements current PowerBook and Power Mac design.

Apple got other things right as well. No more spherical speakers to clutter up the desk. No more cables running from the keyboard and mouse to the computer.

Matching the consumer iBook and eMac models, the iMac G5 is white. It is also competitively priced, with the entry-level iMac G5 selling for the same US$1,299 as the original iMac that shipped in August 1998.

Of course, we're much more interested in what the computer offers in terms of power and value than how it appears, but the iMac G5 looks like a real winner.

Power To Spare

Available in 17" and 20" models, the iMac runs either a 1.6 GHz or 1.8 GHz G5 processor - the same CPU at the heart of the Power Mac G5. Only one CPU, unlike the dual processor Power Macs, but that's still a lot of horsepower.

iMac G5Just how much horsepower is it compared with the 1.25 GHz eMac and iMac G4? Good question. The G5 architecture is quite different from that of the G4, and reader reports at MacInTouch indicate that a single 1.6 GHz G5 is a bit more powerful than a 1.25 GHz G4 - by about 16% overall.

On those Xbench tests, the Power Mac G5/1.6 matched a Power Mac G4/1.25 on the CPU benchmark but beat it on every other test except for the disk test.

I switch between a 400 MHz PowerBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM and a 5400 rpm hard drive and a 1.25 GHz eMac with 1 GB of RAM and a 7200 rpm hard drive. The 'Book is starting to feel sluggish, but the eMac zips along on just about everything except video conversion. I'd rate performance as wonderful for a personal computer, and the 1.6-1.8 GHz G5s in the new iMacs will at the very least edge out G4/1.25 GHz performance.

Frankly, if this isn't enough power for you, you don't want a consumer computer. Advance directly to the Power Mac with its dual processors.

The Value Equation

We have three points of comparison for the iMac G5 - the iMac G4 that it replaces, the eMac that remains in the line, and the discontinued single CPU 1.6-1.8 GHz Power Mac G5.

The iMac G4

Last time we looked, the supply of G4 iMacs had pretty much dwindled to a few used and refurbished units. Apple was selling a refurb 1.25 GHz 17" iMac G4 with SuperDrive for US$1,499, and Small Dog listed an open box 20-incher at US$1,859.

The 17" iMac G5/1.8 sells for US$1,499 with a 4x SuperDrive. The 20" model retails at US$1,899. Compared with refurbished and open box iMac G4s, the more efficient CPU in the iMac G5 makes it the better value.

Add to that the lighter, more compact design, and unless you really like the adjustable screen on the iMac G4, the G5 is the way to go.

The eMac

The entry-level 1.25 GHz eMac has a combo drive and sells for US$799. The entry-level iMac G5 runs at 1.6 GHz and also has a combo drive. It retails for US$1,299, over 60% more than the eMac for somewhere around 15% more power.

The SuperDrive eMac sells for US$999, while the 17" SuperDrive iMac G5/1.8 goes for US$1,499. We're seeing a 50% premium for about 30% more horsepower - and a slower SuperDrive. (The eMac ships with an 8x SuperDrive, but the vertical SuperDrive in the new iMac is a 4x model.)

For value, the eMac wins hands down.

That said, the eMac is big and heavy. If space is a factor, or if you would much rather have a flat panel display than a flat CRT display, the iMac G5 does represent a good value.

The Power Mac G5

If you shop around, you can pick up a Power Mac G5 with a single 1.6 GHz CPU for about US$1,450-1,500. It's gorgeous, whisper quiet, and has three PCI expansion slots. You can replace the video card. It has empty drive bays. If you want expansion - and are willing to ante up for a monitor - it's a very nice machine.

But the iMac isn't intended for the power user. Sure, it has a G5 and can eventually support 64-bit computing, but it's all about simplicity and convenience. For US$1,499 you get a single 1.8 GHz G5 CPU and a 17" display.

Expansion aside, the iMac G5 is definitely a better value than a used or refurbished Power Mac G5/1.6.

Will It Succeed?

For sheer value, you really can't beat the eMac, but for looks, G5 prestige, and size, the iMac G5 is a very attractive computer. But the big questions is this: Can Apple turn it into the next iMac?

The original iMac was a runaway success, the most popular computer model on the market. Period. Windows PCs included. Flat panel iMac G4 sales paled in comparison with the CRT-based original, and as cool as the pivoting display was, value is far more important in selling a consumer machine than coolness.

Remember the Cube? Gorgeous, but with limited expansion and initially priced too high to sell against the more expandable Power Mac G4. It had some minor design flaws, like a too sensitive power switch on top of the unit, but the design was generally brilliant.

It flopped on the market because cool takes a back seat to value. The same goes for the iMac G4.

Cool plus value sells in spades, whether we're looking at the original iMac, the aluminum Power Mac G5, the 12" 'Books, or the iPod. Make it cool. Sell it at the right price. Buyers will buy.

The iMac G5 is indisputably cool, and it offers a real performance boost over the 1.0-1.25 GHz G4 models it replaces. It even offers more power for the dollar than a used single processor Power Mac G5. But will the market go for it?

I think Apple's going to be fighting two perceptions here. The first is that it's too cool to be affordable. People are going to see it, assume that it's overpriced, and look at the eMac or a Windows box.

The other is that Apple knows how to make cool a good value. Just as the iPod blew away so many lower cost, lower capacity MP3 players, the iMac G5 offers cool plus power at a justifiable price. Well, to Mac users, at least.

I predict much greater success than the iMac G4 ever had, but less than the old CRT iMacs. I don't think we're dealing with another Cube here; there will be a perception of value this time.

And the design seems to be perfect, at least from first glance.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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