Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Reviewing Apple's latest

As mentioned previously, Janeshouse.com is now the proud owner of an iMac G4 1.25 GHz desktop Mac, replacing a tired (but rebuilt, reloaded, and now available for a very nice price) PowerBook. We also temporarily have an eMac as well - the eMac is a replacement for the old iMac my parents have, and I'm setting it up for them. Both systems came with Panther included - the eMac was set up with it, while the iMac had MacOS 10.2.7 preloaded and a Panther upgrade kit in the box.

So, here goes the mini-review:

We already owned an iMac - the 800 MHz 17" screen model with the SuperDrive. It's Jane's Mac, and the one we do our bookeeping on. Performance was respectable compared to my old PowerBook (a TiBook 667), mainly due to the improved video subsystem. Well, I did a little subjective benchmarking before stomping the new iMac, and it was noticeably faster. The faster processor makes a significant difference at most tasks, as does the improved GeForce 4 video subsystem with twice the VRAM of the older iMac. Panther is faster than 10.2.x at all tasks so far - boot time is down to about 30 seconds from hardware initialization, iPhoto loads about twice as fast as it did previously, and Safari's "hangs" don't happen on the faster system with Panther loaded.

Minor annoyances (to me): I like most of the new keyboard's design. But Apple has put a rest of sorts in between the cursor keys and the navigation keys - and that rest is uncomfortable. I prefer the older Apple Keyboard. Also, the iMac's fan is a little louder in this model than it is in Jane's iMac. Wah. It's still a lot quieter than in any PC I've used or built, except for the fanless Mini-ITX PC I use as a server.

I was also a little disappointed that I couldn't get the iMac in-store with built-in Bluetooth. It's available online as a BTO option only. I recycled my D-Link Bluetooth dongle - but I was hoping to not have to use it.

As for the eMac, setting it up is not significantly different from an iMac, except for these differences:

First, it's a royal pain to get out of the box. And it's almost as much of a pain to get back in.

Second, it uses standard PC133 SDRAM, while the iMac now uses PC2700 DDR SDRAM. However, both slots are user-accessible. In the iMac, only one slot is accessible - a single SO-DIMM (laptop) socket in the base of the iMac. Removing the panel is an annoyance on both systems, but putting it back on sucks far more on the iMac. Look at Apple's service instructions and you'll understand.

Third, though the eMac's CRT is very good, I'm spoiled by LCD-based systems instead. Again, wah. My folks will love it compared to the old iMac DV they have now (which will ultimately be recycled into David's first computer sometime next year).

Given the price, though ($799, plus we got a 10% discount on that), the eMac is absolutely a great buy. Make sure to add RAM, though - it only includes 128MB at that price point. Another 256MB should cost you about $35 at any CompUSA or Best Buy.

As for Panther, the experience has so far been pretty good. I'm happy with the speed, and replacing Aqua with the brushed metal look is growing on me. I like the new Finder, and most underlying functions are more responsive. I had two problems in the upgrade, mainly related to the way I did it.

When I set up the iMac, first I upgraded it to Panther, then I hooked up my PowerBook in FireWire target disk mode. I drag-copied all my user files and applications over, then I copied all the preference and support files I could identify. Everything worked fine, but the first problem was that my user applications all now appeared twice in the Finder's "Open With" contextual menu. This was fixed when I re-did the install using the "Archive and Install" option, preserving all my settings. I should have done that in the first place, since the PowerBook was running 10.2 instead of 10.3.

The second problem is more frustrating, though more minor. Whatever I try to name the Mac doesn't take - the Mac is convinced that the name I pick exists elsewhere and instead names itself "pc-00023" instead. Trying to forcibly set the hostname using "sudo hostname" fails. It's obviously from a setting file I brought over from the old OS by mistake, but still a pain in the butt. I'll puzzle it out at some point.

Fortunately, it's easier to read/edit preference files on MacOS X than it is on Windows. The OS and apps store their settings in "plist" files that are simply plaintext XML files. Apple provides an editor that can specifically read the schema, but you can also use any text editor if you know what you're doing. I'll slog my way through it over the next few days as time permits.

Also a plus - Panther no longer requires a driver for my Smartdisk media reader, USB behavior is much better, and the printing subsystem is better, faster, and much more stable than it was prior.

If anyone wants to buy the PowerBook - let me know!

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