The move to Intel processors puts Apple seriously on the PC landscape. They will hurt the traditional PC makers with better design and power.

We’ve always avoided recommending Macs. True, they’re nice to look at and the quality of the free software can’t be denied. But they’ve generally been under-powered, thanks in no small part to a reliance on IBM’s less-than-earth-shattering PowerPC processors. But there could be a turning tide with the new 20-inch iMac and its slightly slower, slightly cheaper 17-inch brother: the first Apple products built around Intel processors. Don’t think that Intel has palmed off this newcomer with a cheap and cheerful last-generation chip, either. The brain behind this machine is a brand spanking new 2GHz Core Duo.

But isn’t that a laptop processor? Well, yes. Or that’s what it was designed to be. Apple, however, has decided that it fits perfectly inside its all-in-one desktop unit. And it’s difficult to dispute that logic.

Thanks to Intel’s 65nm process, and Smart Cache technology, which enables it to switch off inactive portions of the chip, the Core Duo is extremely efficient. This lower power consumption enables it to run very cool, and this in turn means that few fans are required and volume is kept down as well. In case you’re unfamiliar with the iMac, this is the world’s most famous computer, and is built into the back of a screen. Obviously, this means that there’s not a massive amount of space inside, so a cool, quiet processor is exactly what’s required.

Okay, so the iMac is cool and quiet. But is it fast? Well, there’s one large handicap in this regard. Thanks to Apple’s switch to Intel chips, a large amount of Mac software now contains instructions incompatible with the new technology; you can read exactly why in the box below. Apple isn’t stupid, though, and hasn’t just left its users with redundant software. The only trouble is, its solution isn’t perfect, either.

Say it with Rosetta
Installed on this iMac, and on every Mac for the foreseeable future is a translation program called Rosetta. This package certainly has its advantages: it runs in the background and allows you to run 99 per cent of the software that would otherwise be useless on the new machines. However, it has serious implications for speed. Any program that features even mildly complicated processes will suffer slow-down, to the point where you may as well be using an old iMac with a PowerPC chip. For example, we tried applying a radial blur to an image in Photoshop. The process took over four minutes; you could do it in less than three minutes on a PC.

Of course, translation won’t always be an issue. Recompiled Mac programs are gradually springing up, and they’ll continue to do so until all the popular software can be run natively. And, it has to be said, the iMac is far more competent with native applications: it flies through iTunes, iPhoto and all the other Apple programs already converted.

There’s another obstacle to its processing of complex calculations, though, and unfortunately this one won’t go away with time. Indeed, it will only get worse. In its wisdom, Apple has opted to install just 512MB of DDR2 RAM as standard, even in this higher-powered 20-inch model. You can upgrade this up to 2GB, but the extra cost is unreasonable. Seeing as any PC manufacturer worth its salt now uses 1GB in all but its cheapest units, this is plain folly. It’s difficult to measure the exact impact of Apple’s decision, but you can rest assured it’s holding the iMac back.

Still, speed isn’t everything. The iMac, like many Apple products, has built its reputation on looks and usability, and the new model comes up trumps in both those regards. It’s without doubt the best-looking all-in-one machine money can buy. And when you turn it on, the brightness of the 20-inch panel continues this excellent impression.

On the usability side, the Mac operating system, OS X, reigns supreme. This is the main reason why a PC user would want to switch. Quite simply, OS X cuts out a huge amount of the faff you have to put up with when running Windows. Until Microsoft gets its act together – potentially with Vista – Windows looks like a tired old pony next to this lively colt.

Stunning software
Software in general is a huge Mac strongpoint, and every new Mac comes with a mammoth range of free tools and utilities. Top of the pile is the iLife suite, encompassing the photo editor iPhoto, audio editing in the form of GarageBand, DVD playback and video editing through iDVD and iMovie, and, new to the ’06 suite that debuts here, iWeb – a basic web authoring package.

iTunes is also considered part of iLife, but, as any iPod owner knows, you can download this for free from Apple’s website. Every one of these applications is clear, user-friendly and feature-rich. The other program we should mention is Front Row. This is Apple’s all-new multimedia app and provides ‘ten-foot’ access to all your music, videos and photos through an extremely pretty remote control. It’s a very nice program, and Microsoft should certainly look at its graphics. But at present its not a real competitor to Media Center for the simple reason that it doesn’t feature TV tuning. Apple needs to get PVR functionality as soon as possible if it wants to fight the digital home war.

The laptop processor aside, the innards of the iMac are much the same as a PC. You get a 160GB hard drive, a dual-layer DVD rewriter and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Mac die-hards are very excited by the inclusion of an ATi X1600 graphics card. Admittedly, this does make for the first opportunity to play games to a decent level on an Apple system. Still, it’s hardly earth-shattering stuff to the rest of us. We’d also like to have a quick moan about the number of connections. Does Apple really think three USB 2.0 connections is enough, especially when the keyboard eats one up straight away?

This machine may feature some interesting new technology, but in reality it’s the same old Apple. The exterior is delightful, and the software is top-notch, so it’s definitely a great first computer.

20-inch widescreen LCD with 1680×1050 resolution

2.0GHz Intel processor with 2MB shared L2 cache

512MB memory (667MHz DDR2 SDRAM)

250GB Serial ATA hard drive

Slot-load 8x double-layer SuperDrive

ATI Radeon X1600 graphics with 128MB GDDR3 memory

Built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0

Reccomended Retail: $2649.00

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