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Nothing Short of Astonishing

Published October 13th, 2005

Apple’s latest surprise announcements were so over-the-top that I wanted to write a few paragraphs about them. Once again, a highly anticipated product (this month, a video-capable iPod; last month, an iTunes-capable cell phone) is upstaged by a product no one anticipated. Last month, the iPod nano took everyone by surprise in its sheer audacity and beauty. This month, the new “media center” iMac is an even bigger surprise, and in some ways even more audacious.

video iPod


Why it’s cool:

Video support!
Apple’s product timing for the last few years has been nearly flawless. It really is time to add video playback capability to the iPod, and I think had the rumors proved false–or had Apple waited until 2006 to add this in–sales of the full-size iPods would have had no reason to grow this holiday season. As it is, Apple has now provided just the incentive many users (like me) who bought the first iPod photo models a year ago needed to upgrade. I was relieved to see that the display is larger to support this.

iTunes 6
Having upgraded to Verizon’s new FIOS service last month, it’s clear to me that as broadband support like this expands, more and more people are going to be collecting videos like they earlier collected digital music. I’m delighted to see Apple taking the first steps into opening up the digital-video download market like they originally did for digital audio. An incredibly smart move that I’m sure will be highly successful as they expand the store’s stock of video content. Together with Quicktime’s vanguard support for the incredible h264 video compression technology, Apple is now far ahead of the pack in getting the consumer products in place for the digital video revolution that’s coming.

Smaller, lighter
I just got back from a small trip with my 60gb iPod photo, and though it’s wonderfully small, the device weighs my shirt pocket down just a wee bit more than I’d like. So when I see that the new model is almost a full ounce lighter (5.5 oz, down from 6.4) and 1/5 inch thinner (.55 inch, down from .75 inch), it’s definitely cheer-worthy!

Why it’s not:

No firewire!
My son got a new 4th gen iPod recently… one of the iPods that came with both firewire and USB 2.0 cables. He was having pretty inconsistent luck synching up until I suggested he try the firewire cable instead of the USB 2.0. Now, I don’t have any hard facts on that… but I do know I’ve never had any trouble at all synching over firewire, and I’d just as soon continue doing so. For one thing, my USB ports are all pretty much claimed by other peripherals. I suppose losing the firewire option has something to do with slimming the iPod, but I’m not happy about it.

Incompatible peripherals
I was about to spring for a new iTrip, and it’s just dumb luck that I hadn’t done it already. I’d be pretty pissed if I had and then found I couldn’t use it with the new 5th gen iPods. I’m sure other peripheral owners will feel the same. Of course, we’ve seen this problem before, and you can chalk it down to the price of progress. However, the last time Apple made such a drastic change in connectivity options, the iPod hadn’t yet made the leap from minor cult status to full-blown Walmart-worthy ubiquity. Once you get to that stage, the end-user benefits of changes like this had better be clearly explained. Cause you not only have customers to worry about, you’ve got the whole iPod peripheral industry now as well.

No 80gb model
I know it’s coming eventually, but with my huge music library, I really don’t have room for many photos, and I sure won’t have room for many videos with “just” 60gb. I’d really hoped 80gb would be one feature of the new models. Frankly, I’d say Apple missed the boat if they have the chips available and just chose to hold them back. I would have been quite willing to pay an additional $100 for another 20gb, and I suspect others would, too. Would it have been so hard to have 30, 60, and 80gb models?

OK, so that’s three scores, and three strikes. How do I call it? Oh, it’s a clear winner… no doubt! The video support and size change more than outweigh the fewer connection options and failure to add hard-disk oomph. In fact, I’d say the video support will prove to be a huge long-term win for Apple, and it will be clear that the company’s timing was right-on.

new iMac


Why it’s cool

iSight built in!
Frankly, there are so many great things about this secret project that initially caught my eye, it’s hard to say which I was most impressed with at first. However, I’d have to say that building a video camera directly into the iMac is going to be another one of those Apple firsts that will seem obvious once all PC’s have them, yet right now is simply breathtaking. Clearly, Apple doesn’t think people are taking advantage of iChat AV the way they should… and they’re right! I for one just haven’t been able to justify spending $130 to equip my Macs with iSight cameras. Yet I’m really looking forward to having video capture capability built in as part of my system. Apple is so far in front with this technology, it’s got the ultimate video-phone in the making if enough people are able to communicate with them. And with momentum building for Macintosh usage, what better way to demonstrate superiority than to not only give people iChat AV, but the video tool you need to take full advantage of it as well? Simply genius, in my book.

And if that wasn’t enough, I can’t wait to see this new PhotoBooth application Apple’s adding. Up until now, the iSight has been sold primarily as a video camera. With PhotoBooth, Apple is saying, Hey, you’ve also got a still camera built in! Best of all, PhotoBooth sounds like another Apple innovation that adds a bit of fun to computing. If only Windows PC users understood that computing can be fun! Apple has understood this all along, and whimsy–as well as elegance–in the Mac’s user interface and applications is one of the things I love most about my computer.

Apple remote
Once again, here’s a tool that’s been talked about since the Airport Express came out last year, but finally sneaks in as part of a new iMac. It’s the core component of the new Front Row software, which is Apple’s take on a user interface for casual sofa-surfing. My family’s been using Elgato’s amazing Eyehome the last few months, so Front Row itself isn’t all that novel. (There are a couple of other excellent open-source projects to provide a “media center” interface like Front Row… in particular, Center Stage. However, Apple is first to market with an interface that’s actually complete.) Of course, part of what Apple has done is to seriously show up Microsoft’s lame attempt at building a “media center” PC. For one thing, Apple has proven what I’ve been arguing … you don’t need a whole separate computer to turn your PC into a TV set. You just need the right software. On the PC side of the house, Microsoft and its clan have been trying to convince consumers that such a PC requires an additional $1,000 or so of investment. Apple’s just shown that it costs nothing at all. If you buy a Mac, that is. :-) This will be huge as a selling point to potential switchers, if Apple gets the word across.

Oh, by the way… contrary to what I’ve read from other commentators today, the Apple remote comes standard with both new iMac models. You won’t have to pay separately for one.

Mighty Mouse standard
Okay, it’s still not Bluetooth-enabled, but it’s a pretty big deal that Apple’s throwing this in as standard equipment. Again, particularly for potential switchers who see that one-button mouse as a roadblock.

Smaller, lighter!
Apple says the new iMac is “noticeably lighter” than the original model. I’d say that’s an understatement if the written specs are accurate. You know how much lighter they are? Three full pounds! I’d say that’s a bit more than noticeable. The 17-inch model drops from 18.5 to 15.5 pounds, and the 20-inch from 25 pounds to 22. Not exactly a laptop yet, but still much lighter than your average TV set! Moving these puppies from room to room as needed to play back DVD’s or music isn’t going to seem like a big deal at all. I’ve been doing that with the current model as it is… at least, I was until I got EyeHome set up.

Beefier specs

Normally, this is where Apple gets all the attention in a product upgrade. With all the other amazing features of this new iMac, though, these will elicit a slight yawn at the end of the presentation. Still, a bump in the processing speed (to 2.1 ghz), hard disk space (top end option goes to 500gb), front-side bus (to 700mhz), optical drive (a faster Superdrive is now standard in both models), faster RAM (the first Mac model to use DDR2 SDRAM), and better graphics support (support for PCI Express, and a bump in video card to ATI Radeon X600 from the 9600) (video RAM stays at 128mb) are clearly icing on the cake. (Apple had added Bluetooth and Airport Extreme as standard features in the last revision, but it’s still worth noting that you don’t have to buy those anymore. Oh, and the Bluetooth card now supports the faster 2.0 spec.)

Lower price!?
Yes, somehow Apple is managing to release this package at a lower price point–for the top-end model–than before. The iMac line now has 2 models, with the lower-end 17-inch model staying at $1,299 (but getting Superdrive and all the rest added to it!), and the top-end 20-inch model dropping $100, from $1,799 to $1,699.

Why it’s not:

Let’s see… Oh yeah, a modem
This may be a big deal to some of you, but I’ve been ordering my Macs without modems for a few years now. So it’s no big deal to me that you now have to buy an external USB modem if you want to add one to your Mac. Still, if you really have to have one, you’ll now have to fork over $49 to get it, and it’ll have to take up one of your USB ports.

No TV tuner
True. This is typically an option for Windows “media center” PC’s, but I have no idea how well they work. For the Mac, I’d hope Apple would start offering TV tuners as an optional add-on. That said, I don’t think I’d want one inside if it meant a larger, heavier machine. In the meantime, I highly recommend Elgato’s EyeTV models, which are great TV tuners, but so much more besides. Scheduling and editing TV shows and movies has never been simpler. Thank god I can throw that damn VCR recorder away! Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple come out with something similar to the EyeTV one of these days.

So… do you see how brilliant this is? Here is Apple, less than a year from unveiling new hardware running on Intel chips. Everyone is wondering if they can sustain sales of existing PowerPC-based hardware. Christmas is coming. What to do?

This is a perfect example of “pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” and a perfect reason why you would do so. With the new iMac, I predict Apple will so dazzle both its existing customers and its potential customers that sales of desktop Macs will continue making gains in market share. Fresh from a jump from 4.3 percent to 6.6 percent through August 2005, the Mac’s share of retail computer sales looks likely to grow again in the months ahead.

If we want to be able to videophone our friends any time soon, that’s got to be a good thing!

Oh, and Apple has yet to show us the rabbits it’s holding in its hat for the expected PowerMac and PowerBook upgrades. I can’t imagine that they would be as astonishing as the iMac rabbit, but I’m confident they’ll not be duds. For us long-time Apple customers who suffered through the embarrassing 1990’s, when neither Apple’s marketing nor its technical strategies were well conceived, it’s a joy to behold the spot-on decisions it’s making nowadays.

Bring on the rabbits, Alice!

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