Jobs Splits iMac Line over Digital Video
Steve Jobs introduced two new iMac computers at an invitation-only event in Cupertino last week. The new iMac models lower the initial price point for buying a Macintosh, add some new and welcome capabilities, sport fully transparent cases, and improve the iMac’s "cool factor" relative to competition from inexpensive PCs.
Basic iMac — The new low-end iMac sports a list price of $999, making it (barely) the iMac’s first foray into the sub-$1,000 market. The new system also features a 350 MHz G3 processor with 512K of backside cache, a 100 MHz system bus, a standard 64 MB of RAM, a 6 GB hard disk, and an ATI RAGE 128 VR 2D/3D graphics controller with 8 MB of VRAM. The iMac retains the 15-inch shadow-mask display from earlier models – along with a 56 Kbps modem and 10/100 Base-T Ethernet – but adds a redesigned transparent blueberry case which exposes internal components to full view. One internal component you won’t see, however, is a fan: the new iMacs are cooled by convection, making the computers considerably quieter than earlier models. Like the recently introduced iBook, the new iMacs support optional AirPort cards for wireless networking. The CD-ROM drive has also changed to a slot-loading mechanism like a car stereo, so there are no more awkward CD trays to bump or damage. (There’s also no eject button; to eject a CD at startup, hold down the mouse button.)
A slot-loading CD-ROM isn’t the only thing iMacs are borrowing from automotive systems: the new iMacs also feature a Harman/Kardon Odyssey stereo sound system, offering greater audio fidelity and bass response. Harmon/Kardon will also sell a 6-inch iMac-colored subwoofer called the iSub. The iSub is a USB device: the new iMac supports USB audio, so the audio data remains fully digital until it gets to the speakers, providing greater flexibility and less loss of fidelity due to interference or poor audio connections. The new iMacs have dual-channel USB, like Apple’s Power Macintosh G4 systems, so audio running over USB can be on a separate bus from data coming from other USB peripherals like storage devices or scanners – otherwise, audio might stutter or pause when other peripherals are in use.
For the terminally trivia-minded, the iMac (Slot Loading) is not Apple’s first computer priced under $1,000. That honor goes to the oft-scorned Mac Classic, which nine years ago was available in a bare-bones configuration for $999.
iMac DV — Jobs also announced the iMac DV, which is a souped-up version of the slot-loading iMac aimed at digital video aficionados. The iMac DVs start at $1,299 and feature 400 MHz G3 processors, a slot-loading DVD-ROM drive, a 10 GB hard disk, two 400 Mbps FireWire ports for connecting to external devices like DV video cameras, a VGA video output for video mirroring on an external monitor, and the full selection of the fruit-colored cases that have become emblematic of the iMac line. At the high end of the iMac line is the iMac DV Special Edition, featuring 128 MB RAM standard, a 13 GB hard disk, a graphite colored case matching Apple’s new Power Mac G4 line, and a $1,499 price tag.
All the iMac DV systems come with iMovie, new consumer-oriented video editing software derived from Apple’s professional-level Final Cut Pro. iMovie will be available only with the iMac DV systems. iMovie permits full control of FireWire-capable video cameras and easy drag & drop authoring of video clips with music and titles, all with a brushed metal interface unfortunately reminiscent of the QuickTime 4 Player.
Apple apparently hopes the iMac DV will reveal a market for consumer video editing it has been trying to find for more than three years, beginning with Performa 6400 video editing systems. Although over eight million DV camcorders have shipped, high bandwidth network access is becoming more widespread, and iMovie is decidedly easier to use than the Avid VideoShop package in earlier offerings, in my experience consumers want to edit video about as much as they want to mark up HTML pages using SimpleText. It’s unclear whether video editing technology has come down far enough in price and complexity for a consumer system to be a broadly successful product.
The Name Game — Apple has improved iMac naming conventions by christening the new DV series, giving us a way to distinguish DV systems from other iMacs, previously differentiated by clock speed, color, and confusing "Rev" lettering. (See "Macintosh Model Implosion" What’s in a Name" in TidBITS-485.) Unfortunately, Apple uses the term "Slot Loading" to describe both the new low-end iMac and the DV systems in its technical documentation, creating new terminology confusion. Since Apple seems to be releasing revised iMac models every few months, it would help folks in sales, technical support, and software development if Apple were to introduce a naming scheme which could uniquely identify major revisions of the iMac line.
Still Improving — Although the iMac DV might not be for everybody, there’s little denying the $999 souped-up iMac represents a significant enhancement that appeals to the same sort of folks who have made the iMac such a runaway success: consumers, students, schools, and businesses. While the rest of the computer industry still seems to be trying to convince itself the iMac’s success isn’t a fluke, Apple continues to prove it can deliver a great value with style. And that’s fine with me.