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  • Newsletter Issue #1044

    May 14th, 2023


    Being a loyal Mac user in 1998 wasn’t such a great place to be for many of us. Although co-founder Steve Jobs was doing a lot to keep the company afloat with a slimmer product lineup, profits were slim or none. In the days before the iPod, iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch, many still didn’t take the company seriously. Worse, many Mac users had made the switch to Windows.

    But in the spring of that year, I got a long look and a fair amount of experience with the product that some suggest saved Apple. In those years, I was a member of their Customer Quality Feedback (CQF) program, which meant that I’d get pre-release software and occasionally a pre-release Mac to put through its paces.

    Hardware, of course, had to be returned at the end of the beta cycle, although there was one instance where I came close to keeping a certain preproduction Mac.

    I recall, for example, receiving a new Power Macintosh that was eventually “Steve’d,” parlance for being dropped from the lineup, or killed before production. So one day, my CQF contact called and asked me to return the machine for eventual disposal. Yes, they supplied return labels.

    And then there was this curious, all-in-one pear-shaped blue plastic machine with a translucent cover.

    For some reason, it shipped without a cover for the CD drive, and it was surely strange among personal computers of that time. There was, for example, no floppy drive. Peripheral ports included something called Universal Serial Bus (USB), a new standard meant to replace SCSI, ADB and serial ports. There was also an Ethernet port for network connections. Fortunately my printer supported Ethernet, and it meant that I could file share with my other Macs.

    Performance was decent enough, and the 15-inch CRT color display offered a decent picture. It was small enough that the image accuracy was good enough, with little of the bending or tilting that often afflicted larger displays.

    If you looked over the parts carefully, you’ll see that, other than the display, Apple relied on components that were largely used on PowerBooks. This allowed for miniaturization at the expense of outright performance. But its 233 MHz G3 processor was fast enough for most routine tasks.

    Apple sent me this original Bondi Blue iMac without a manual or much in the way of documentation other than a few basic notes. So I sort of had to figure it all out for myself. Then again, that’s what customers pretty much had to do if they bought one. A simple setup routine (“there is no step three”) was a key promotional element.

    As you know, the iMac was meant as the ultimate Internet-savvy consumer computer. At a U.S. list price of $1,299, it was extremely affordable for a performer computer. If you compare $1,299 in 1998 to 2023 dollars, that price would rise to $2,405.43.

    Anyway, the iMac didn’t quite hit the mark for my needs; the lack of a floppy drive was one factor, although the iMac did generate a market for add-on drives for a while. It also wasn’t the sort of Mac on which I’d want to work in Adobe Photoshop or QuarkXPress.

    But it was perfect for my my son, Grayson, then age 12, and, with Apple’s indulgence, he was allowed to use the iMac so long as he didn’t tell his friends or schoolmates about it.

    The first iMacs shipped in August, 1998. A few weeks before, my CQF contact called and asked me to install what he said would be the final system firmware update before release. But it was a cautionary note. Some test units would become bricked upon installation of this update, meaning they would become unusable and I’d have to return the unit. Otherwise I could keep it, and he’d send a cover for the CD drive.

    I was a little suspicious here, because he certainly could have sent me a new logic board if he really expected to gift me a computer, even if it was a relatively cheap one.

    Sure enough, the update ran, but the iMac failed to boot. All the usual diagnostics failed. Grayson was disappointed when I packed it up and sent it back to its ultimate reward.

    In those days I was writing a weekly column for the online version of the Arizona Republic titled “Mac Reality Check.” With the iMac shipping, I telephoned Apple PR and requested an interview subject who could speak meaningfully about the new gadget. I didn’t expect Steve Jobs, although I asked. Instead, they referred me to its designer, Jonathan Ive.

    No, the article doesn’t seem to be searchable anymore at the newspaper’s site.

    As you know, the iMac traveled a circuitous path over the years. The original got its share of CPU upgrades over the years, and soon came in colors. Some PC makers tried to get in on the action with fancier colors and shapes. One or two resembled the iMac just a little too much, and Apple acted accordingly with lawsuits.

    In 2002, Apple moved from a CRT to a 15-inch flat panel display, suspended over a circular white base with an articulated arm. Sporting a 700 MHz G4 CPU, it wasn’t a slouch. I even acquired one for my handicapped nephew, and he loved it. Until, one day, there was a robbery at his Phoenix home. Very little was taken except for his iMac.

    I never owned one of these things myself. I was still following the same routine with separates. Indeed I got one of the first Power Mac G5 towers the following year, and ultimately upgraded to a 30-inch Dell display. It was, to my mind, the ultimate system.

    Until it wasn’t.

    In late 2009, I returned to the iMac, choosing one of the new 27-inch models as my work machine. It sported an Intel i7 processor and a 1TB hard drive. I was mostly satisfied, except that its hard drive was pokey. Indeed, a few years later, I replaced the drive with a comparably sized SSD from Other World Computing, which made a huge difference in perceived performance.

    In the early days, I’d replace my Mac every couple of years or so while working as a writer covering the personal technology beat. Besides, a work computer was tax deductible.

    That iMac kept running until early 2015, when I made a special deal on one of the new 27-inch iMacs with 5K Retina display, first released the previous year. It was a maxed out machine, sporting a 4GHz Intel i7 processor and a 3TB Fusion Drive.

    As most of you know, a Fusion Drive was Apple’s scheme for a hybrid storage device, sporting a small (128GB) SSD, and a 3TB hard drive. In theory, the OS and most productivity apps, and most work files, would fit on the SSD and thus you’d get most of the performance of a dedicated SSD at a lower price.

    All well and good, although I’ve had to replace that Fusion Drive twice. The first time, even the Apple Genius suggested maybe I should consider a large SSD to replace it; the price of admission wasn’t much higher, but I’d have to have it replaced by a third-party tech.

    And takes us to one of the key flaws of the design of those iMacs. Installing an SSD in the 2009 model meant using suction cups to pry off the display, and unhooking the slim wiring harnesses to get at the internal workings. With its 5K successor, Apple opted to use a specially-designed adhesive to anchor the display to the chassis. I could manage the installation on the former, but on the latter I opted to let a dealer do it.

    In late 2022, I still had that 5K iMac in regular production, but its drive assembly went on the fritz. This time, I took the hint and acquired a 2TB internal SSD, again from Other World Computing. The Fusion Drive was adequate; the full SSD seems more than twice as fast on routine tasks.

    More to the point, after eight years of heavy use, my old iMac is still my only desktop computer. The latest macOS it can run is 11.7.x Big Sur; the latest is macOS 13 Ventura. In short, it may be on borrowed time, but it gets the job done.

    As with all Macs — other than the Mac Pro — today’s iMac uses Apple Silicon. The first and only update came out in 2021, sporting a 24-inch display. Losing three diagonal inches doesn’t seem so bad. Going from 30-inches to 27-inches didn’t either, and I might consider one when Apple produces a successor with an M2 or M3 CPU. That may occur by the end of 2023 or early in 2024 according to the rumors, so I should save my dimes to buy, considering my advanced age, the last computer I’ll ever buy.

    What’s surpassing about the current iMac is that the basic version harkens back to the original 1998 edition with a starting price of, you guessed it, $1,299.

    As to my 2009 iMac, well it’s still in use and, according to its owner, can manage the productivity he requires for his work, which includes editing real movies. Not bad, not bad indeed.


    Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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