Review: iMac Multimedia Software Simple, Elegant

When asked a few years ago if they might someday offer a Mac that works like a Microsoft entertainment PC, Apple executives joked that they were instead focusing on the convergence of computers and toasters.

The basic concept of a PC powering a living room multimedia hub — as pushed by Microsoft Corp., at least — was flawed, they said.

People simply don't interact with a TV the same way they do with a computer, said Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Fast forward to 2005, and Apple Computer Inc. still hasn't released a better toaster. But it has updated its all-in-one iMac G5 computer with a remote control and a program that shares many of the features of Microsoft's Media Center operating system.

The program, called Front Row, lets you listen to music, watch videos, play DVDs and display photos from a distance with a few clicks of a lighter-sized, six-button remote control.

Its graphically pleasing interface takes over the screen and can be easily viewed from afar.

Apple's way of dealing with the TV problem was to simply ignore it. Front Row doesn't display live TV, though it can be connected to a TV to mirror what's on the computer.

Those missing features certainly make it less functional than a Windows Media Center PC. But, at the same time, the new iMac bundle excels at what it can do.

Sometimes, less is more.

There's still plenty here that, as it evolves in future releases, could end up send the designers of Microsoft's Media Center back to the drawing boards.

Once Front Row is launched by pressing the "Menu" button on the remote, four options are available: Play a DVD, listen to music, watch a video or view photos. They appear on an invisible, virtual lazy susan that's completely controllable by the remote.

The entire program is actually just a shell that makes it easier to control the Mac's underlying programs from a distance with the remote. Each option opens up an underlying library from iTunes (music and video downloads), iPhoto (pictures) or iMovie (home movies).

Throughout, the display is both simpler and pleasing to the eye than the Media Center shell.

Deeper inside, the various menus resemble what you'd find on an iPod's display, and that makes navigating with the remote a lot easier.

Though there is of course no option to view live TV, there are plenty of choices for video. You can watch video podcasts downloaded from iTunes as well as access a number of movie trailers. Home-brewed movies can, of course, be viewed as well.

If you've purchased any episodes of "Desperate Housewives" or "Lost" from the iTunes Music Store, you can watch them on the iMac by choosing "TV Shows." That's also true of any purchased music videos. (It supports most standard video formats.)

The one thing that you can't do is actually make a purchase through Front Row. That requires running plain old iTunes, which is controlled by sitting close to the computer, moving the mouse and typing on the keyboard.

Unlike a Windows Media Center PC, however, Front Row never dumped me in a position where I had to leave the couch and pick up the keyboard. The machine also doesn't have the nasty habit of turning itself back on after it's been put into standby mode — a problem I'm currently having on a Media Center PC I'm testing in my bedroom.

But even if you don't ever use Front Row or touch the remote, the iMac G5 is an excellent computer. Like previous generations, it's an all-in-one with all the guts of the computer elegantly contained in a white display that's mounted on a silver base.

IMacs now include a video camera built into the top of the screen as well as Apple's recently introduced two-button Mighty Mouse. Both also ship with 512 megabytes of memory, combination recordable CD/DVD drives as well as built-in support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless.

Despite the added hardware, the new iMac is actually slightly lighter and thinner than its predecessors. And the low-end model, which has a 17-inch screen, 1.9 gigahertz PowerPC G5 microprocessor and 160 gigabyte hard drive, is priced at $1,299 — the same as the last model with the same screen size.

I tested the higher-end flavor, with a 20-inch screen, a 2.1 GHz processor, 250 gigabyte hard drive and a $1,699 price tag that's actually $100 less than the previous 20-inch iMac.

Of course, the all-in-one design seriously limits the expandability — and it means you'll be stuck with its built-in display if you choose to hook it up to an external TV.