Tech Lab

iMac — too good for its own good?

Want to buy the latest thing from Apple Inc., but don’t want to stand in line? No problem. Just show up at your nearest Apple store and pick out a brand new iMac.

That’s a personal computer, in case you’ve forgotten. Apple still makes them, and sells quite a few. But not as many as it used to. A few days with the new and improved iMac can help you understand why.

Personal computer sales have been sliding for over a year. The Mac is not exempt. Its sales are down nearly 8 percent, largely because existing personal computers — Windows PCs and Macs — are good enough for almost anybody. So good, that there’s not much point in upgrading.


If you spend most of your computing time running familiar programs such as Microsoft Corp.’s Office, or Internet-based services like Google Docs, Dropbox or Facebook, it scarcely matters what computer you use, or even what year it was made. Millions still happily use computers running Microsoft’s Windows XP, which hit the market during President George W. Bush’s first term.

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People once upgraded their machines to get the latest in new technology. But recent personal computers aren’t much faster than the machines of five or six years ago. The latest efforts to excite consumer demand — superthin “Ultrabook” laptops, touchscreen PCs, and Microsoft’s Windows 8 software — have barely moved the needle. For innovation, we’ve looked to smartphone and tablet makers. Lately, they’ve begun running short of new ideas, too, but PC makers drained the tank years ago.

So those of us with money to spend on tech are buying iPads and Galaxy S4 smartphones. But buy a new Windows PC or Mac? Why? The old one is still fine, and new machines aren’t that much better.

Which brings us to the new iMacs. Apple rolled them out last week, even as consumers were lining up to buy the company’s new iPhones. It’s an all-in-one design in which the actual computer is built inside the monitor enclosure. Many companies are building them this way, but nobody does it better than Apple. Remember the lozenge-shaped, multi-colored iMacs of old? They were the first products introduced by Steve Jobs after his return to the company. I wrote a column predicting they would flop. It’s one of my favorites — keeps me humble.

Today's iMacs range in price from $1,299 to $1,999, a pretty steep price for a personal computer. But at least it comes with a monitor — either 21.5 inches across or 27 inches. I borrowed one of the big ones from Apple. Not only is the huge screen a delight to the eyes; it also made me more productive, because I could open more windows simultaneously. Its maximum resolution is actually higher than that of a standard 1080p high-definition television.


The computer’s innards are tucked in behind the screen. The 27-inch edition has an access door where you can install more random-access memory, if you didn’t buy the maximum 32 gigabytes in the first place. Otherwise, the iMac’s components are untouchable, with no upgrades allowed.

Apple keeps the iMac remarkably thin, partly by leaving out an optical drive. If you want to play DVDs, you’ll have to purchase an $79 external drive. IMacs come with an old-school one-terabyte mechanical hard drive, but for $200 extra you can get Apple’s Fusion Drive. This system combines a hard drive with 128 gigabytes of flash memory, which shovels data into the processor much faster and boosts the iMac’s performance. Or you can get a full terabyte of pure flash memory, for an extra $1,000 — about the price of two entry-level Windows PCs.

The iMac comes with a wireless Bluetooth keyboard. The radio connection occasionally flamed out, and I was annoyed by the lack of a numeric keypad, but it was decent enough. And the mouse took a bit of practice to master. It’s Apple’s Magic Mouse, with an upper surface that works like a smartphone’s touchscreen. Want to scroll through a document? Slide your finger up and down on the mouse.

For all the usual tasks — video gaming, Internet surfing, word processing, movie-watching — I found that the new iMac performed splendidly. It’s well worth a look if you’re in the market for a new computer, but how many of us are these days?

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at