Apple's new iMac is as radical in appearance as its predecessor — but how well does it fit into the recording studio?
The original iMac is widely held to be the product that saved Apple's financial bacon back in 1998 when all around (including Apple's best desktop machines) were beige. At least in design terms, it was a revolutionary machine that found its way into many environments where, previously, the collection of odd dull boxes and tangled cables that normally make up a computer had been unacceptable. The fact that it also happened to work quite well is often overlooked. Its lack of connectivity meant there were few hardware conflicts(!), while the then-new Mac OS 8.1 supported G3 processors, as well as IDE hard drives that were far better value than SCSI in terms of performance per pound.
Initially it was not a good choice of machine for music. With no CD-R and only USB connectivity, at a time when working USB audio interfaces were an exception, it was severely challenged for MIDI and especially audio recording. However, the iMac market certainly encouraged Roland, Midiman and others to bring these devices to a useable state, and as the iMac developed, it gained larger hard drives, CD-RW drives, faster processors and FireWire ports: iMac DV machines are still very useable for music applications with the addition of the relevant interface and external drive. Towards the end of 2001, however, rumours began to fly about a TFT screen version, with the original CRT monitor now beginning to look outmoded in terms of size and picture quality.
When the new model was revealed, reactions from press and public were similar to those at the launch of the original: mostly favourable, with reservations from those who consider design and computers to be mutually exclusive!
Even unpacking the new iMac is entertaining — the foam designers must have had fun with this one! As well as the base unit with screen and swivel mount attached, you also get two Apple Pro speakers (unless you've bought the cheapest model), a white keyboard and mouse, several useful cables, all the relevant discs, a manual and warranty information. Placing the machine on my desk was quite a surreal experience, and I have to say I have never seen anything quite like it. It's much heavier than I expected, and is therefore perfectly stable. It also seems very well made. Much has been made of the screen mounting, which is almost universally flexible — the desire to try all possible angles for the screen was overwhelming!
I was particularly impressed with the layout of connection sockets in a curved row at the back of the base unit. With everything plugged in, this makes cables fan out neatly, a feature which will certainly please project studio owners and office managers to whom untidy cabling is the sign of an untidy mind. There are three USB ports (the keyboard connects to one of these with the mouse plugged into one of its two ports) and two FireWire ports are available alongside the mini-VGA monitor feed, speaker out, headphone out, Ethernet and modem sockets, making the new iMac more 'connectable' than the current G4 PowerMac. The four USB ports reduce the need for a USB hub, which is good as these can often be a source of problems, especially with USB MIDI interfaces.
The power button is to be found alongside the sockets on the back of the base unit. For a while I couldn't work out how to restart the machine, but a read of the manual informed me that holding the Power button for five seconds forces a shut-down. The keyboard and mouse are white 'pro' style, similar to those that come with the PowerMac, but feel much cheaper to the touch. The legends on the keys, however, are much easier to read than those on the G4s, especially in low lighting conditions.
On booting up, the full glory of the crystal-clear 15-inch TFT screen is revealed. Combined with the swivel mount, this is by far the best design of monitor I have ever used. The sheer flexibility afforded by the universal joints means that you can adjust the view to your preferred seated (or standing) position and not the other way round, and as you change your posture the monitor position can be changed to suit. I use an old 17-inch CRT monitor and an iBook, both of which now feel awkward and inadequate alongside this breathtaking design. It's particularly suitable for guitarists like me who like to stand up when they play and sit down when they edit (the TFT screen is, of course, also far less likely to cause interference to badly shielded pickups).
Acoustic noise is an important issue for computer-based musicians, whether you have a soundproofed control room or record in the same room as your equipment, but sadly is not a top priority in Apple's flagship machines. The current G4 PowerMac contains no fewer than four fans, while the PowerBook's fan makes it much noisier than a laptop ought to be. The new iMac also contains a single fan, and its noise level is comparable to the PowerBook, which is a little too loud to be insignificant in a studio environment. However, unlike the PowerMac, which you can hide away in a box if necessary, or the PowerBook, which you can move, the iMac is going to be right there on your desk, so assess this potential problem carefully before purchase! This aspect of current Apple computer design is disappointing, especially when you remember the radical G4 Cube design, which was fanless and noiseless, cooling itself by convection.
On top of the standard one-year warranty, the new iMac comes with three months' free software support and six months' hardware support — although it is fairly difficult to troubleshoot hardware without using software in an integrated design like this! Apple will of course sell you AppleCare (their extended warranty) but Macs are famously easy to maintain.
The new iMac comes with Mac OS 10.1.3 and Mac OS 9.2.2. Mac OS X is the default boot system, but this can be easily changed using the Startup Disk control panel. Mac OS X looks fantastic on that screen, but OS 9 is still the operating system which 99 percent of Mac-based recording setups run, due to a lack of hardware drivers and OS X-native music software. The iMac also comes with the usual Apple goodies such as iMovie, iTunes, and DiskBurner, which provide a working multimedia system straight from the box.
The machine sent for review was the top-of-the-range 800MHz Superdrive model (see 'Current Specifications' box for specifications of the entire range). This comes with 256MB of RAM, a recommended minimum for audio work, although this can be upgraded to 1GB. Apple will charge you £400 plus VAT for this as a 'configure to order' option; you can upgrade the memory yourself by adding a SODIMM module in the one free memory slot, but this would make the total memory only 768MB. In order to achieve the full 1GB, the DIMM module (the memory supplied with the iMac) has to be replaced, and this must be done by an Apple service provider if you want to maintain the warranty. It must be noted that the motherboard buss speed is 100MHz, 33MHz slower than the top-end PowerMac and PowerBook. The relevance of this for performance with music applications is discussed below.
The spec states that the iMac has a 256k on-chip L2 cache running at processor speed, but there is no L3 cache (a motherboard cache handling regularly used instructions running at one-quarter processor speed), as featured on the PowerMac 933MHz and dual 1GHz models.
The Superdrive is the Pioneer DVR AO3 as fitted to the PowerMac G4 (Superdrive models), a proven design whose only bugbear is that it is excessively 'clunky' (a technical term meaning clunky) when reading some CD-ROMs. The internal hard drive is a Seagate ST36 which spins at 5400rpm and has a seek time of 9.9ms, which should be adequate for most audio work if you intend to use the internal drive, although it is recommended that you add a second drive for this purpose. Expect up to 50 continuous mono tracks of 44.1kHz/16-bit audio from this drive when running Logic Audio Platinum v4.8.1 with no plug-ins and the Larger Disk Buffer option turned on; this will be reduced if a track requests many small files, requiring the disk read head to search for more data.
The video card is an industry standard which will easily support millions of colours even when the rest of the system is working hard.
Compared with the PowerMac 933MHz and dual 1GHz models, these specifications are slightly inferior in most areas, but if you compare the iMac with the PowerMac 800MHz model (which has an almost identical specification, costs about the same if you add a flat-panel monitor, and does not include a Superdrive) you can see why reports of the imminent demise of this model are rife. Although Apple never reveal their strategies, I wouldn't mind betting that the current range of PowerMacs, while slightly revitalised by speed bumps in January of this year, are due to be replaced by something a little more special — watch this space!
Memory bandwidth in megabytes per second (MB/s) for various Apple computers, tested using Gauge Pro:
- iBook 600: 87.5
- PowerBook 667: 146.5
- PowerMac 800DP: 150.5
- iMac 800: 160.3
I installed and used Logic Audio Platinum 4.8.1 and 5.0, as well as Digital Performer 3.02, and in general use the iMac was fast and stable. Boot times and program start-up times were marginally slower than on a top-end PowerMac such as the PowerMac 800 dual-processor machine I used for the FireWire hard drive test article in SOS April 2002, but faster than on my iBook G3 600, and this small difference was also noted with program operations such as overview drawing and time-stretch. This makes perfect sense since the PowerMac has a big 7200rpm hard drive and a 133MHz buss, whereas the iBook has an equivalent drive and buss speed to the iMac, but only a G3 processor without Altivec-enhanced processing.
Number of mono PlatinumVerbs that can be run simultaneously in Logic Audio 4.8.1 (with Larger Process Buffer on):
- iBook 600: 10
- iMac 800: 13
- PowerBook 667: 16
- PowerMac 800DP: 23
Running Gauge Pro on the iMac revealed a memory bandwidth (speed of data transfer between memory, motherboard and processor) of 160.3MB/s, a figure 7 percent better than the PowerMac 800MHz dual processor! However, Gauge Pro is a benchmark and is therefore not to be totally trusted, or taken as an absolute indicator of performance as far as a specific application is concerned. When running mono PlatinumVerbs (an Altivec-enhanced plug-in) in Logic Audio, the iMac managed only 13 before stalling (even with the Larger Process Buffer on), positioning it between the iBook and PowerBook in this test. It seems apparent that what is potentially a super-fast system is held back in some areas by buss speed and a slower hard drive.
If audio is your main consideration (and I'm just guessing that it is, if you've got this far!) then a second hard drive is essential if you wish to maintain the long-term integrity of your system drive. PCI-based SCSI systems and additional internal drives are out of the question, but FireWire is more than adequate for the task and you should achieve suitably high track counts depending on the specification of the drive. For example, Logic Audio 4.8.1 ran 32 tracks of continuous 24-bit/96kHz audio and 62 tracks of 16-bit/44.1kHz audio on a Lacie Studio Drive connected to this machine.
Steve Jobs (head of Apple) sees the new iMac as the "hub of your digital lifestyle", with enough speed and capacity to cope with modern applications and the data they generate. The design is captivating (or flawed depending on your viewpoint) and will no doubt be seen on the front desk of every ad agency in the land, but the project studio might just be its natural environment. It is powerful enough for most audio applications, and the expandability and interfaces are available now that FireWire is a going concern. It is reasonably quiet by average computer standards and the screen design makes working with this computer a pleasure, rather than a chore. It is over £900 cheaper than both the PowerMac dual 1GHz and the PowerBook 667MHz, and definitely has some advantages over those Macs whose price it competes with. This iMac really could be the ideal digital hub for your studio.
Current Specifications: iMacs, Laptops & PowerMacs
|iMacs||iMac 700 (CD-RW)||iMac 700 (Combo)||iMac 800 (Superdrive)|
|Processor||700MHz G4||700MHz G4||800MHz G4|
|Hard drive capacity||40GB||40GB||60GB|
|Hard drive speed||5400rpm||5400rpm||5400rpm|
|USB ports||3 (4 using keyboard)||3 (4 using keyboard)||3 (4 using keyboard)|
|Price (from Apple Store)||£1249||£1399||£1649|
|Portable Macs||iBook 600||PowerBook 550||PowerBook 667|
|Processor||600MHz G3||550MHz G4||667MHz G4|
|Hard drive capacity||20GB||20GB||30GB|
|Hard drive speed||5400rpm||5400rpm||5400rpm|
|Price (from Apple Store)||£1599||£1996||£2584|
|Comment||£1299 with a||-||-|
|PowerMacs||PowerMac 800||PowerMac 933||PowerMac 1GHz DP|
|Processor||800MHz G4||933MHz G4||1GHz G4 (x2)|
|Hard drive capacity||40GB||60GB||80GB|
|Hard drive speed||7200rpm||7200rpm||7200rpm|
|FireWire 400 ports||2||2||2|
|USB ports||2 (3 using keyboard)||2 (3 using keyboard)||2 (3 using keyboard)|
|Price (from Apple Store)||£1350||£1996||£2584|
|Prices include VAT.|
It has always been easy to rescue a Mac that has gone belly-up by using the Restore discs supplied, which literally restore the machine to its factory condition. Mac OS has never contained a utility to defragment the hard drive (why not?) so Norton Utilities is an essential extra if you want to keep your Mac running at optimum speed. Running Norton Speed Disk on several current Macs, however, I have noticed that it reports the drive to be 'Severely fragmented' even when freshly restored. A check with Norton manufacturers Symantec confirmed my suspicion that the Restore discs supplied by Apple with dual-boot Macs are disc images of an original drive where Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X are separated by a large space. Perhaps there is a good reason for this, but we'll have to wait until April for a new Norton Utilities for Macintosh (version 7) capable of dealing with this and other Mac OS X-related problems.
- Amazing looks and good performance.
- Superb monitor.
- Good value for money compared with other Macs.
- Not as powerful as some figures suggest.
- Noisier than an iBook.
- No Superdrive in cheaper versions.
- Only expansion options are FireWire and USB.
The new iMac is an extremely impressive computer combining style, ease of use and performance. The range of features on offer, especially in the Superdrive model, make it an ideal foundation for a computer-based studio.
Apple UK +44 (0)800 039 1010.