Tools Of The Trade: The Apple iMac G5

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The Independent Online

Apple's iMac home computer is not as iconic as the original, multicoloured iMacs launched in the late 1990s, or even the flat screen, Anglepoise-lamp design that followed it.

But the latest model - and the third generation iMac to use a G5 processor - is Apple's first serious attempt to build a genuine home entertainment computer. It could also be the first computer to bring video conferencing into the mainstream.

As well as introducing a minor speed increase, Apple has added two important new features to the iMac. These are a remote control and software, which Apple calls Front Row, that switches between the DVD player, iTunes music software, iPhoto and iMovie video applications. Viewers can pause and skip a show as well as control the volume, without needing to resort to the keyboard.

Computers based on Microsoft's Windows Media Centre have had similar functions for a couple of years, but Media Centre PCs generally cost more than a standard Windows computer. Apple has just two iMac models in its line-up, one based around a 17in screen and one with a 20in display. The media features are standard on both.

The multimedia functions on the iMac make it a good choice for professionals working with graphics or imaging, as well as a general-purpose computer for reception areas or meeting rooms. But business users are likely to be equally as attracted to the iSight video camera.

Apple introduced its iChat software a few years ago, and has been quietly winning converts to this instant messaging service by adding support for voice and video calls. It sells a standalone iChat camera, which works across its computer range. But the iMac is the first model to have this built in.

It is an innovation that exploits Apple's strength in ease of use to the full. Plug a new iMac into a network port in two locations, sign in to the iChat service and you have an end-to-end video and audio-conferencing system for under £2,000. Apple's iChat software even supports several simultaneous connections, so it is possible to use it for multi-way conferencing. The quality, over a broadband connection, is extremely good.

Front Row and iChat give the iMac the wow factor, but the computer is also a solid all-round performer. Apple includes wireless networking, Bluetooth and gigabit ethernet, as well as a DVD writer as standard, and the flat-panel displays are widescreen compatible.

The only downside to the new models is that the 17in iMac comes in only one version, with a 1.9GHz processor; the old model came in 1.8GHz and 2.0GHz versions. There is also no in-built modem. But as the new models are cheaper than their predecessors, even with the added features, most buyers probably won't mind.

RATING: 4 out of 5

PROS: great for the living room; in-built video conferencing

CONS: 17in model comes only with 1.9GHz processor

PRICE: £899 (17in display); £1,199 (20in model)