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iMac vs. Pentium: No points for good looks

It's cute, but what's it really worth? Here's how Apple's iMac stacks up against the Intel-based competition.

November 9, 1998
Web posted at: 11:35 AM EDT

by Susan J. Silvius

(IDG) -- Sure, the iMac is a cool-looking computer. And the translucent aquamarine box is helping Apple regain profitability. But interim CEO Steve Jobs' boast that the iMac is faster than the quickest Pentium II is pure hype -- and it falls apart under scrutiny.

To see whether Apple would make believers out of us, we pitted the iMac against two Intel-based PCs: a pricier Pentium II-400 system and a Celeron-based machine that costs about $300 less than the iMac. The results: In its base $1299 configuration, the iMac finished last in each of our application tests. The system was nearly as easy to use as the company claims, but its poor performance means Apple failed in its core mission.

When Apple launched the iMac in August, the fastest PCs you could buy ran on Intel's 400-MHz Pentium II. Could a cheaper computer built around Motorola's 233-MHz Power PC G3 processor dust a high-end Pentium, as Jobs claimed? Forget about it.

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With 32MB of RAM (its standard shipping configuration), the iMac got clobbered on our Excel and 5MB-image Photoshop tests; in fact, the slower of our two test PCs, a Packard Bell Multimedia 945 with an Intel Celeron-333 processor, finished ahead of the iMac by 55 percent and 80 percent, respectively, on these tests. And when we compared the iMac to our high-end system, a $1799 Micro Express MicroFlex-c400A with a Pentium II-400 CPU, the contest was, well, no contest. The iMac took more than three times as long to finish a standard series of Excel operations, even after we doubled its RAM.

The standard iMac fared better on our word processing and game tests, losing to the Packard Bell by only 8 percent, and matching its frame rate running Quake. But when the iMac went up against the PII-400­based MicroFlex, the results were brutal. (All applications were optimized for the appropriate platform.)

Ease of use

Getting the iMac out of the box -- and yourself onto the Internet -- is almost as easy as Apple claims. A well-designed setup sheet helps new users get started. And we successfully connected to Earthlink, Apple's default Internet service provider, in just minutes.

But pitfalls are all too common. If you want a different ISP, for instance, getting connected is trickier. And there's no printed user's guide to help resolve hardware problems.

Sure, the iMac is eye-catching, but Apple left a lot out of that elegant box. For starters, it comes with no floppy drive (though you can buy an external USB version for $70 or so), no free drive bays, and only one available expansion slot.

Good video

The iMac's all-in-one case includes an integrated, nonupgradable 15-inch monitor with a flat-screen display clearly superior to the Packard Bell's 15-inch display, yielding even focus and sharp, readable text. The integrated video subsystem includes an ATI Rage IIc 3D processor and 2MB of SGRAM; but like the budget PC, it lacks a 3D accelerator for high-end gaming. The iMac's speakers purportedly emit "SRS surround" sound, but they played music CDs poorly: too much treble, weak bass, and no way to adjust either.

We added RAM during testing and found that upgrading the iMac is a chore, even for an experienced user. To get to the empty memory slot, we had to painstakingly disassemble the case, with little help from the documentation.

Still, Apple has earned a reputation over the years for above-average system reliability -- a point to consider when you shop.

That brings us to our bottom line: The iMac may be a handsome sentimental favorite, but all the good looks and good intentions in the world can't make up for slow application performance, poor sound quality, and no upgrade path. Apple tells users to "think different." We advise Apple to "think again."

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