Triumph of form, substance


Apple Computer's stylish new iMac puts the user-friendly computermaker back on the map.

Not since the original Macintosh in 1984 has a new electronic box made such a splash.

"It's been the most successful personal computer in our history," says Suzanne Shelton, spokeswoman for CompUSA, the largest US computer retailer, based in Dallas.

And overall computer sales this Christmas are up, spurred on by dramatically reduced prices.

All this adds up to good news for Apple - a company that many market observers had written off just a few years ago.

Yet a string of new products under returned founder Steve Jobs, crowned by the iMac, have heralded the company's rebirth.

Like the original Macintosh, the artsy iMac is a product of Mr. Jobs's unique vision of personal computing.

Compact and easy-to-use, it trumpets design as much as performance.

The styling - a rounded, translucent, teal and gray box with pin stripes and a handle - succeeds more because it's different than beautiful.

Pull it out of the box, plug it into the wall, connect the keyboard and mouse, and fire it up. That's as complicated as iMac gets.

Adding other accessories is just as easy.

New universal serial bus (USB) connectors allow as many as 127 peripherals to be plugged in at once. And none require opening up the computer to add special cards or installing special software. Just plug in a printer and the computer knows what it is.

Peripherals can even be connected, disconnected, or reconnected while the computer is running.

So far, makers of printers, accessory storage disks, keyboards, and such have made 250 devices that can plug into the iMac.

The new USB connectors also open a new world of accessories to Mac users, as they no longer have to buy Apple-specific peripherals.

Yet it's the price that keeps iMacs flying off store shelves: $1,299, loaded with software. Some mail-order catalogs already offer reconditioned iMacs for $1,099.

Macintosh users have often paid far more for their computers than those who buy Windows machines. And Apple has, in the past, been content to sell far fewer of them.

But no longer.

While the iMac costs a few hundred dollars more than bargain basement Windows PCs, it doesn't carry the 50 to 150 percent premiums past Macs have commanded.

It's by far the fastest computer for the money, outrun only by its big brother - the 300-MHz-and-up professional G3.

The iMac's slower 233 MHz chip, however, makes it work best as a no-fuss home computer.

The first thing iMac users may notice is what it doesn't have: the familiar slot for a floppy disc drive. In Mr. Jobs's vision, floppy disks are no longer essential.

But for $150 you can add an external floppy drive, and home users should buy one to back up their information.

The price - and compact size - obviously forced a few compromises.

First, the standard 32-megabyte memory falls short. It can't run Microsoft's memory-hogging Office Suite software. And for Internet surfers, three or four Netscape browser windows plus a separate e-mail program freezes the iMac.

The compact keyboard is larger than a laptop's, but some may miss a couple of buttons: The right-delete key, the righthand option key, and the "end" key can be time-savers for those who log long hours at the computer.

The circular iMac mouse can also be a nuisance.

Apple calls it a "finger mouse," and says it calls for finer motor skills than traditional oblong computer mice.

True. It works best with your wrist stuck on the desk and just your fingers doing the walking. The problem is, fingers have a limited range of movement. In the office, mice mainly manipulate the right and bottom scroll bars, and pull-down menus across the top of the screen. And traveling that far requires arm movement.

And the round mouse can be held slightly askew, making it more difficult to put the cursor where you want it to go.

On the bright side, you can buy an extended keyboard and an oblong "palm" mouse for less than $80 together.

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