Apple Event: First Impressions

Perfectly timed just before the start of the school season, just when most people already are or are soon going to be on holidays (at least wherever people do go on holidays) Apple announced their new redesigned iMac and the long-awaited iLife and iWork updates. It also gave .Mac a badly needed ‘Web 2.0’ update. In this article I’ll sum up my impressions of the new products and services.

The iMac

iMac (August 2007)This is the B&O of consumer desktop computers. Slick, slim and packed with quality consumer-grade software, a work of art for design conscious users that hate clutter, the iMac has long been a token of Apple’s industrial design prowess ever since the original came out in 1998. The new update seems to continue the trend where gradually features previously found in Apple’s Pro series of computers make it to the consumer lines; it is also a tasteful incremental design update over the previous one, with a major change being the switch to the aluminum encasing. Even though Apple’s Cinema Displays are ageing, their design seems destined to live on for at least another couple of years as the new iMac borrows much from their form and size; Available with 20″ and 24″ displays, as with the previous model, the new iMac strongly resembles Apple’s ‘pro’ screens while also maintaining significant similarities to its predecessor. Visually it is stunning, thinner and more elegant than the previous model, with a black frame around the glossy screen. Although I presume technical prowess was never its strong point, this iMac is a bit more interesting than its (underpowered) predecessor; While the new iMac also seems to be using the low-TDP (mobile) Intel Core 2 series processors (aka Merom) — most probably the Core 2 Duo T7300 (2.0GHz, 35W) or an underclocked higher model for the low-end and the T7700 (2.4GHz, 35W) for the mid-range model — Apple offers a BTO option for the impressive Core 2 Extreme, probably an overclocked X7800 or derivative thereof (X7900 perhaps?) at 2.8GHz, rated at around 45-47W at the higher end. Given that the iMac is — effectively — a laptop stuck behind and under a TFT screen, the choice of CPUs makes sense and the Merom XE (Extreme) option is very welcome1. Apple seems to have found an excellent partner in Intel, especially given the excellent low-power mobile chips it’s been releasing lately2.

As far as graphics are concerned Apple seems to be hedging its bets by maintaining its custom with AMD as the new iMacs are powered by ‘ATi’ branded graphics sets (HD2400 XT and HD2600 XT) instead of nVidia or Intel chips. Finally, the iMac comes with a Macbook-like keyboard, proving the rumours that leaked the news some weeks ago. I have no idea how well this keyboard performs, but it looks like the keyboard someone that cares more about how it looks rather than how well she/he can type on it would have — the average stereotypical Mac user I hear some of the cynics say. What do I think? Well, I’d probably replace it with something more substantial if I ever bought an iMac. I type a lot.
I find the new iMacs to be an impressive, yet clearly marginal update on their predecessors. Even though I don’t think I’d ever go for a machine of this type (I’d get a MacPro without thinking twice about it), I would probably recommend it to friends living in the States, Japan, the UK and the few other European states where Apple maintains an active and efficient network of sales and customer service facilities. I would definitely not get a machine like this in countries where Apple has no official presence, especially if this machine was used daily, in a business or academic environment. I don’t even want to think about the logistics of getting it repaired.

iLife and iWork 08

Two years in the making. iLife keeps getting…more uninteresting with every release. It could be because those packages are already excellent value for money to the average consumer and they have absolutely no competition whatsoever. The additions to iLife’08 seem almost pointless; I didn’t find the new iMovie improved in terms of functionality — it seems to be much worse in many respects, just (arguably) √¶sthetics and to a smaller extent usability (and that’s only due to the scrubbing feature). I’m not convinced that ‘Events’ is a useful feature, while the new versions of iMovie and iPhoto don’t seem to remedy some of their major issues such as the ‘Library’ structure on disk, the lack of hierarchical organisation of content etc. Garageband’s ‘virtual band’ may be ‘entertaining’ to some people (esp. those under 14 years of age), but it’s not exactly useful or meaningful. iWeb seems largely unchanged and equally useless as its predecessor. I’m hoping that the performance of the package is improved, although the increased system requirements (iMovie needs a G5 or Intel CPU) hint that it probably hasn’t — at least on older hardware. Obviously without actually using this software it’s hard to be certain about several aspects of it. Either way I don’t really care as I don’t use the iLife programs much anymore.

We’re at a time when the Web-based application era looms ahead. But it wasn’t always this way; Having an Office suite by Apple was one of the few things a Mac user dreamt of back in the early 2000s. Keynote was a glimpse of how things could be on the Mac. iWork’04 made the promise stronger. I got Keynote the day it came out and the same thing happened with all the iLife and iWork releases to date. As far this release of iWork is concerned I’m not quite sure; the additions and improvements on Keynote and Pages seem superficial and minimal. Especially as far as Pages is concerned I expected much more from Apple. The only thing I found really interesting in iWork’08 is — of course — Numbers. I’ve been waiting for this ever since the first iWork came out in 2004. As I don’t use Microsoft Office (and haven’t used it since 2000), Pages has been providing the only reasonable way to read Word documents on the Mac ever since it was released — for those wondering: No, TextEdit doesn’t really count and {NeoOffice,} are both prime examples of how Mac applications should not be written, look, behave. Moreover, until 2004 I did several presentations every few months and Keynote was also one of the applications that got CPU time on my machines. ‘Numbers’ was the only piece missing from iWork puzzle and I’m happy that it’s finally here. Nevertheless, this seems like “The Archetypal Apple 1.0 Application”, so don’t expect this to rival Excel in terms of features for another 5 or 10 years or so, by which time Google will have — in all probability — bought Microsoft and released their conversational gButler that actually does all the work for you while reading aloud your email and telling fairy-tales to your children. Bottom line: Numbers looks impressive and I can’t wait to give it a try. Everything else seems marginally improved at best.
I won’t bother going into the new .Mac. .Mac was — and still remains — a huge disappointment and a ridiculous service that is aimed at the ignorant yet loaded Apple customer that knows no better. Having been a subscriber for many years since (literally) day one, I was convinced that Steve Jobs meant it when he said that it would be integrated with the OS, that new and ‘amazing’ services would come out soon and that loads of software would be available for free to subscribers — software that would cost lots of money instead. None of this happened and during my time as a .Mac user, the only thing that I found useful was syncing between my Macs. For the most part, if you can code you can get away with a good AppleScript/shell script/whatever. It’ll do the job just fine; if you can’t code and want to do a ‘proper’ sync, you could always get SyncTogether. It sells for $49.95 (half the price of .Mac for a year). I have no idea how well it works, but from what I read online people are happy with it [1][2][3]. Anyone claiming .Mac is good, they are either so biased that they don’t mind ridiculing themselves in supporting this joke of a service, or completely ignorant about what’s available out there; if you want hosting, email etc. get a proper account with a proper hosting provider; it’ll cost you less and it’ll provide 10-40 times more disk space and bandwidth than Apple, along with free software, hundreds of scripts etc for less than what Apple charges for .Mac.
To sum up: I think we’re getting a decent iMac upgrade (at least on paper/screen) and largely superfluous iLife/iWork upgrades with Numbers, the new, long-awaited spreadsheet from Apple stealing the show and completing the new ‘Office’ suite by Apple. At least for now.
1. There’s no way Apple could ever fit a Conroe (or higher power) CPU on an iMac without more substantial cooling.
2. On higher-TDP (server) processors such as the Opteron, AMD still retains the performance-per-watt crown, in some cases.