Apple's original iMac marked the beginning of a turnaround for the company, and despite the consumer-oriented nature of the product, iMacs have found a place in many a home studio over the years. With the iMac range finally inheriting a G5 processor, have Apple created the perfect entry-level machine for demanding Mac musicians on a budget?
The iMac was the first product spearheaded by Apple CEO Steve Jobs after he returned to the company he co-founded in 1997. With its Bondi-blue, all-in-one design based around a 15-inch CRT monitor and G3 processor, it was a huge success when it was released in 1998. This was just around the time of the first dot-com craze, when Internet appliances were the talk of the day, and so the 'i' in iMac was originally intended to reflect its suitability as a personal computer designed for the Internet. Before the CRT model reached the end of its life, all manner of fruity and more serious enclosure colours arrived, although this colourful part of Apple's recent history seems fairly distant at this point, with the very white styling used in Apple's current consumer line-up.
While the iMac has always been given a consumer designation by Apple, alongside the iBook and the iPod, it has also been an attractive machine for Mac-based musicians looking for a low-cost machine. The later G3/CRT-based iMacs also had the bonus of requiring no internal fan, relying on convection cooling instead, which made them perfect for the studio environment.
The G4 iMac was released at the beginning of 2002 and became the first model to feature an LCD display, using the now infamous and instantly recognisable Anglepoise-styled design. I have a soft spot for this Mac because it was the machine I had on my desk at SOS during my full-time tenure, and while the floating screen never lost its novelty, the small footprint of this machine was particularly appealing. It's also worth remembering that the G4 processor was originally released in 1999, so it actually took some time for this chip to be used in a consumer machine. By this time, there was much music software available to take advantage of the G4 and its Velocity Engine, so the iMac G4 wasn't a bad entry-level, musician-friendly Mac.
However, the G4 iMac didn't mean the end of the CRT-based Macs. Since these models were slightly more expensive than the previous generation of iMacs, Apple also introduced another all-in-one Mac with a 17-inch CRT known as the eMac (see box), which also featured a G4 processor. Although the eMac was originally intended for the education market (putting the 'e' into eMac), Apple later introduced it as a publicly available model, since consumers were attracted to the lower cost.
While the iMac has always lagged technologically behind the professionally oriented Power Mac, with the introduction of the Power Mac G5 in June 2004, the iMac was beginning to seem a little dated, despite the introduction of a 20-inch model before last Christmas. Indeed, breaking with usual policy, when stocks of the iMac G4 ran out after Apple mistimed the introduction of its successor towards the end of the summer, the company were forced to admit that a newer model would be announced in September... which brings us neatly to the iMac G5, briefly discussed in last month's Apple Notes.
Every generation of iMacs has featured a radically different design, and that of the G5 model really brings the machine back to its all-in-one roots. Looking like a somewhat oversized LCD display, the monitor is once again the computer, and while I don't buy Apple's "Where did the computer go?" advertising — it's very clear where the computer went, with such a big white space under the actual LCD panel — the iMac G5 is still surprisingly compact when you consider what the insides of a Power Mac G5 look like. On the two sizes available, which feature 17- and 20-inch LCD displays, the depth is just 1.99 and 2.2 inches respectively, and the screens themselves offer the same resolutions as previous Apple 17- and 20-inch displays: 1440 x 900 and 1680 x 1050 pixels, powered by Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra graphics hardware with 64MB DDR SDRAM with AGP 8X support — the same graphics hardware, incidentally, that's fitted as standard in all but the dual 2.5GHz Power Mac G5.
The iMac I was sent for review was the high-end model, featuring a 20-inch screen, a 1.8GHz G5 processor with a 512k Level 2 cache and a 600MHz front side buss. The lower two iMac models both feature a 17-inch screen, with the mid-range model featuring the same processor and buss speed as the 20-inch model, and the entry-level machine offering a 1.6GHz G5 processor with 512k Level 2 cache and a slower 533MHz front side buss. One difference between the architecture of the dual-G5 Power Macs (though not the new single 1.8GHz model) and the iMac G5 is the former's faster buss speeds: on the dual Power Macs each processor's buss speed is half the clock frequency of the processor, which would equate to 800MHz for the 1.6GHz G5 and 900MHz for the 1.8GHz chip. This slower buss speed in the iMac should mean a slight performance dip when compared to the same speed chip in a dual Power Mac, but in practice, this didn't seem too significant, as we'll see later.
Memory is a little bit of a contentious issue because, while the iMac G5 uses PC3200 DDR RAM, all models only come with 256MB, which really isn't enough for anything more than basic, domestic use, and is a little bit disappointing in a computer that costs £1350 (in the case of the 20-inch model). If you get an iMac, you should really make sure it comes with at least 512MB RAM — which is precisely the amount Apple had installed in the review model. There are two memory slots in the iMac G5 (compared to four or eight in the Power Mac G5), and consequently you can only install a maximum of 2GB RAM into the system (as opposed to 4 or 8 GB in the Power Macs). Still, 2GB of RAM should be enough for most users, especially until Tiger, the next major Mac OS X release, is available to let applications really take advantage of the 64-bit memory-addressing potential of the G5.
In terms of storage, the lower two models in the iMac G5 line-up feature 7200rpm 80GB hard drives, with the 20-inch machine offering a 7200rpm 160GB drive instead. Commendably, Apple have opted to use SATA (Serial ATA) for interfacing this drive, as with the Power Mac G5, and this means the internal drives are perfectly fast enough for recording audio without having to connect an external Firewire hard drive. The optical drive in the iMac G5 is of the slot-load variety, which some users may remember from the later G3 iMacs and the G4 Cube, and is located on the upper part of the right-hand side of the unit. It's amusing to see discs pop out the side of the computer, but you don't need to be a design genius to see Apple had few alternatives, and you quickly get used to this initially odd location. The 1.6GHz iMac offers a Combo drive (8x DVD read, 24x CD-R write, 16x CD-RW write, and 24x CD read), while the 1.8GHz models feature a Superdrive (4x DVD-R write, 8x DVD read, 16x CD-R write, 8x CD-RW write, and 24x CD read).
In terms of connectivity, the iMac's ports are located on the back of the unit, which this is probably as good a place as any, and a fairly neat place to plug dongles in, for example. There are two Firewire 400 ports, three USB 2.0 ports (with an additional two USB 1.1 ports if you have the wired keyboard), 10/100 Ethernet, a video connection for outputting to a VGA monitor or S-Video, and a 56k modem. While Apple use Firewire and Ethernet to distinguish between professional and consumer product lines, I still think it's a shame that the iMac doesn't offer Gigabit Ethernet or Firewire 800, even in the high-end model. Firewire 800 is becoming more prevalent, and most networks are migrating towards Gigabit Ethernet infrastructures these days, even in the home where Gigabit switchers are perfectly affordable.
When it comes to wireless connectivity, the iMac G5 is like most of Apple's products: it comes Bluetooth- and Airport Extreme-ready, but with neither installed as standard. The internal Bluetooth module is a build-to-order option, whereas the Airport Extreme card can obviously be installed at any time. I found it a bit surprising that at least the high-end model didn't come with either pre-installed as standard, but it's well worth adding both to your shopping list if you buy an iMac — not only does it help the aesthetic, but it is actually quite practical in reducing desk clutter.
In terms of audio, there's a headphone output that doubles as an optical output and microphone input, and the iMac's speakers, powered by a 12 Watt amplifier, are now located on the bottom of the unit so that the sound is output downwards and reflected off the desk on which the computer is standing. I was somewhat dubious about this, but the results sounded much better than I anticipated, with a reasonably well defined sound and adequate bass response — not that you'd want to do anything more than listen to iTunes with these, admittedly! Mind you, I still think the previous generation of iMac speakers sounded slightly better.
Installing the iMac is ridiculously easy, and Apple were kind enough to send me the wireless keyboard and mouse set with the review unit, along with an inbuilt Airport extreme card, so the only cable that needed to be plugged into the iMac was for power — just like the ads! The configuration procedure was simple and required pairing the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which worked without any issue, and completing the final user registration of the OS X setup application. New Macs also have an option to transfer settings from your old Mac during the setup process, which could be useful, although I didn't try this and tend to prefer a clean start anyway.
The screen was of a high quality, seeming consistent with that used on the previous 20-inch iMac, and I was pleased to find no dead pixels. Since the computer and screen are one and the same, the iMac G5 is presented on a stand that enables you to tilt the screen up and down. While this doesn't offer quite the same cool flexibility as the Anglepoise-like arm of the iMac G4, it is perfectly fine, since most of the time you want to be able to stare straight at the computer screen. Interestingly, Apple will soon be offering a VESA mounting adaptor for the iMac, which means you'll be able to mount the machine on any kind of wall or desk as you see fit — surely the iMac G5 is destined to become the darling of receptions in every post-production facility in Soho!
In terms of software, the iMac G5 is of course pre-loaded with Apple's latest iLife software bundle, which includes Garage Band, and I have to confess that I've yet to speak to any professional who didn't have something of a weakness for this simple yet surprisingly powerful music-making application. I don't think SOS readers who purchase an iMac will just want to rely on Garage Band, but it has a habit of coming in useful on occasion and making us all wish we were 12 again.
One thing that's worth pointing out is that noise generated by the fans inside the iMac G5 is noticeable in the general use of the computer, although not unbearable. The Superdrive tends to add to the general computer noise quite considerably when a disc spins up, although in fairness you're hardly likely to have a disc spinning constantly when working the computer.
In terms of interfaces, the eMac has two Firewire 400 ports, three USB 2.0 ports (with an additional two USB 1.1 ports if you have a wired keyboard), a mini VGA-output port, which also offers S-Video and Composite output, a headphone output and audio line in mini-jacks, 10/100 Ethernet, a 56k modem and the option to fit an Airport Extreme card and have an internal Bluetooth module as a built-to-order purchase.
In order to test the relative power of the iMac G5, I decided to run the same tests in Logic as discussed in previous Apple Notes columns when looking at the dual-2GHz Power Mac back in February and March, and the 15-inch Powerbook G4 in last month's column. Although Logic 7 is now available, I decided to continue using Logic 6 to keep things relatively fair, and once again used the inbuilt audio hardware with the default 512-sample buffer-size setting.
First of all, I experimented with how many Space Designer plug-ins I could run on the iMac G5, and managed a total of 17 instances using the 'Large Hall 2.6 secs' preset across two Audio Busses, with a single instance of the ES P synth running to create a test signal on an Audio Instrument object. Logic 's Audio performance meter was well and truly maxed out and the User CPU parameter of the Activity Monitor (Applications / Utilities / Activity Monitor) showed 92 percent. Although I haven't tried this on a dual-processor Power Mac G5 yet, I was only able to run four instances on a 1.5GHz G4 Powerbook, so the iMac already shows a pretty impressive performance improvement over G4-based Macs.
Moving on to the old stalwart of performance benchmarks, the somewhat dull 'How many Platinumverbs?' test, I was able to run 46 instances across four Audio Buss objects, using the same single Audio Instrument object with ES P as a test signal, which gave a User CPU reading of approximately 88 percent, with Logic 's Audio performance meter again fully maxed. By way of a comparison, the 1.5GHz G4 Powerbook managed 20 instances and the dual-2GHz G5 ran 120. In this test, the single-processor G5 again proves itself over the G4 Powerbook — although it's worth remembering that greater performance compromises are made in laptops over desktop machines — and the comparison with the dual-2GHz G5 system is about what you would expect if you crudely assumed that a single 2GHz G5 chip would be capable of running 60 instances.
The final set of tests focused on the EXS24 sampler. Using a 16-bit 44.1kHz harp (HA_ES) instrument from the Vienna Symphonic Library, with EXS24 's disk streaming option and the filter both disabled, I was able to get 254 voices with the User CPU meter showing approximately 90 percent. There were initially a few audible glitches when I first started playback, but these disappeared after a few seconds and I wondered if that was to do with the way the system was handling virtual memory — physical memory was presumably becoming limited, as the harp patch alone required 386.7MB memory of the 512MB available. With the filter enabled this number dropped to 94 voices, measuring 94 percent on the User CPU read-out.
As has been pointed out in previous EXS24 tests, setting the sample storage mode to 32-bit dramatically increases performance, although in the case of the iMac G5 tests I wasn't able to use 32-bit storage mode on the usual harp instrument because it would have required nearly 800MB of free memory — clearly more than the 512MB installed in the iMac. So although a fair test in this case wasn't possible, I switched to the stock Stereo Grand sound for curiosity, which required just 61.3MB memory using 32-bit storage, and I was able to get 704 voices with 92 percent User CPU use. If you're not going to be doing huge orchestral arrangements, the iMac G5 with Logic and EXS24 is going to be a capable system.
An interesting point is that fan noise didn't increase substantially when the CPU was being completely hammered, although there was an audible increase as you would expect, and it was quite amusing to hear the fans slow down again in between tests. I was also pleasantly surprised that the iMac enclosure itself remained fairly cool, with no part becoming particularly scalding. The only part of the case that seems to get a little warm is the top surface, just above the ventilation strip, which isn't too shocking.
I liked working with the review iMac G5 a lot — but with perfect timing, on the day I had to submit this review, Apple released a new single-processor Power Mac G5 model (see this month's Apple Notes) that completely nullified my original conclusion. My original final thought was that with the then-cheapest Power Mac G5 (the dual 1.8GHz) model retailing for £1449 without a display, the £1049 single-processor 1.8GHz/17-inch iMac model was not only great value for money, but a perfect entry-level Mac for a musician who needs something more powerful than a G4 without having the budget for a Power Mac G5.
However, for only £50 more, albeit without a display, you can now get a Power Mac G5 with Gigabit Ethernet, Firewire 800, the ability to expand via three PCI slots and add a second SATA drive along with extra memory, and the flexibility of adding whatever display you like via DVI or ADC, which means you can also separate the computer from the display if fan noise becomes a problem. Since you effectively get all of these features for the cost of a monitor, it becomes slightly more difficult to recommend the iMac G5 to every musician looking to embrace the G5 processor on a budget.
On the other hand, with the continuing absence of a Powerbook G5, the iMac G5 perhaps still fills an interesting gap in Apple's product line for a powerful, yet portable, G5-based computer. For not much more than the cost of an iBook G4 or entry-level Powerbook G4, the iMac G5 provides the same sized screen as Apple's top-of-the-line 17-inch Powerbook model, and weighs in at 18.5 pounds (8.4kg) for the 17-inch models or 25.2 pounds (11.4kg) for the 20-inch, compared to 6.9 pounds (3.1kg) for the 17-inch Powerbook.
In conclusion, though, the new iMac G5 is a great Mac offering improvements over previous G4-based Macs, and it should appeal to anyone who wants a portable, all-in-one design for music-making.
- All-in-one design.
- Even in a single-processor configuration with slower front side buss compared to the more expensive Power Mac models, the iMac still offers a tremendous improvement over previous G4-based Macs.
- While not as mobile as a laptop, the iMac G5 is still fairly portable compared to most desktop computers and significantly more powerful than Apple's current Powerbook line-up.
- The fan noise is more noticeable than in previous iMac models.
- Apple's new pricing of the single-processor Power Mac G5 model takes away some of the iMac's thunder as the most appropriate low-cost Mac for musicians.
The iMac G5 is a capable machine for musicians looking for a G5 Mac on a budget. While the new entry-level Power Mac might be more suitable for some users, the tidy and relatively portable all-in-one enclosure of the iMac will make it a popular choice.
17-inch 1.6GHz model £919; 17-inch 1.8GHz model £1049; 20-inch 1.8GHz model £1349. Prices include VAT.