Old Mac of the Month: the iMac G4

Editor’s Note: This month’s Old Mac of the Month entry is by Matthew Christensen, a senior Film Production major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles that also happens to be extremely passionate about Apple. His focus is on post production and specifically editing and color correcting films. Some of his editing/coloring work can be seen here and here. You can follow or get in touch with him on Twitter @the_risingtide.

A Tough Mac to Beat

The very first iMac left some big shoes to fill. Between its industry-busting design, simplicity and intangible cool factor, I can imagine it would have been difficult for computer makers at the time (let alone Apple) to know where to go next. With the iMac G4, the team at Apple did it again. Jonathan Ive describes designing this new machine:

When we set out to design the new iMac, there definitely was a tendency for us to be evolutionary. But one of the things that was great about the original iMac was that it was so revolutionary. So the new iMac had to be revolutionary too.

Released in 2002, the iMac G4 was indeed revolutionary. Even though Apple had set the bar for an all-in-one personal computer with the first iMac, other manufacturers hadn’t jumped on board. Flat panel LCD monitors were becoming commonplace, but always shipped separate from the main CPU tower. With this new design, Apple found the best of both worlds. Again, Jonathan Ive:

It’s just this very simple, pure frame that appears to just float in space. When you look at it now it seems so simple, it seem so obvious. Then again, as usual, the simplest, most efficient solution has been the most elusive.

That mobile, separated-yet-joined screen is what most people remember when they think of or see an iMac G4. It invites you to move it around freely while simultaneously is ready to hide away the machine itself and immerse you in what you are doing. Were Steve Jobs on stage today introducing this computer, I don’t doubt the word magical would escape his lips at least once. The design is a testament to the lengths Apple is willing to go to push the envelopes of user experience and simplicity. The screen is perfectly weighted and balanced to be easy and smooth to move, yet not fall out of place once stopped. You won’t find any tightening screws on the joints holding the screen. Keep in mind, too, that creating this iMac was not as simple as drawing it out on paper and stuffing components in a dome. Apple had to custom design a circular logic board with ports radiating out and fit the optical drive and hard disk stacked on top to fit in the dome.

Peeking inside the machine really is incredible, especially contrasted with the simple elegance the end user sees on the outside.

My iMac G4

Here comes my disclaimer. I was 12 years old when the iMac G4 was released. I absolutely remember seeing the cute commercial on TV as a kid, but at the time we had a Gateway PC running Windows 98 at home. I had used Macs at school and loved computers as a whole, but I really wasn’t a Mac fan yet.

Fast-forward to three years ago. As a freshman film production major I knew I wanted a MacBook Pro to do video editing. That was my first Mac and I’m quite proud to be typing this article on it right now. In the last three years I’ve undergone the complete transformation into an Apple fan. So when a friend approached me about an old iMac her dad had bought from a garage sale, of course I was interested. When she mentioned it worked perfectly and she only wanted $30 for it, the deal was done. Sure, I had my own perfectly fine laptop, so why would I buy a 9-year-old outdated machine? If you don’t immediately understand I can’t really explain it. I honestly would have probably gotten it even if it hadn’t powered on, just to tinker with. The fact that it ran beautifully was icing on the cake.

To a true Apple fan’s delight, the seller had included the original sales pamphlet for the iMac G4. It’s fascinating to page through the huge, full-page pictures and Apple Garamond font and seeing how Apple marketed the computer. The copy touts the fact that this is the first Mac with an included SuperDrive, the 15” LCD, and so on. It spends a lot of time advertising the features of OS X we all know and love: the Aqua interface, UNIX underpinnings, the Dock, and the included iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iTunes. Steve Jobs’ view of a digital hub was perhaps most visible in this pamphlet emphasizing organizing your photos, syncing your music to your iPod, and making your own movies. The last few pages are devoted to debunking a few myths Windows users might have in the format of a Myth followed by a Fact. The final one falls into the cheesy but true category:

Myth 6: Macs are far easier to use then PCs.

Fact: Guilty as charged.

Once home I discovered that whoever had sold it originally had been silly enough to leave all their data on the machine in the form of a password protected user account. To my delight, I discovered this iMac still had its original OS 9 partition! Two hours later, after filling up on nostalgic exploration of the antique OS and not having anything earlier than an OS X 10.5 Leopard install disc (thus no password resetting) I decided to just wipe the drive and start fresh. My mom’s boss is a long time Mac enthusiast and happened to have a copy of OS X 10.4 Tiger available for me to install clean on the computer and after some software updates it was running perfectly. Those keen readers out there may note that OS X 10.5 Leopard is able to run on a G4 processor, but unfortunately it requires an 867 MHz or faster clock speed and mine just missed the cut. I looked into the few hacks out there to trick Leopard into installing but I decided to just let the machine run on the leaner Tiger and see how that went. I haven’t been disappointed.

With its 800 MHz G4 processor, 768 MB of RAM, 100 MHz System Bus, a 60 GB ATA hard drive, and a 15” 1024×768 screen my iMac’s specs are paltry compared to today’s model.

What’s amazing to me, though, is how rarely I notice.

The only time it has kept me waiting was trying to use the unbearably slow USB 1.1 ports. The solution is to use either the FireWire 400 or Ethernet ports available around the base.

So, in my apartment I decided to put the iMac to use for three main functions:

  • a wireless iTunes server
  • a wireless printing server and scanning station
  • playing Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion

Because WiFi was not quite as ubiquitous back then as it was today, the AirPort card was an optional add-on for this model of iMac and mine was without it. Rather than try and find a decent card online I opted to simply buy a cheap but reliable ethernet cable from MonoPrice.com and connect it to my apartment’s wireless router. We also found a decent pair of speakers on Amazon and had them shipped to us. Due to system requirements, iTunes 10 will not run on my iMac, but version 9 is more than happy to do so. Luckily, iTunes 9 is still compatible with the iOS Remote app from Apple so now my three roommates and I can use our iPhone or iPod touch to activate and control what music is playing through the speakers in the living room. Even though it’s not a new technology, guests are always impressed when we can whip out an iOS device and change the volume or song on request. Then, simply connecting my HP printer via USB and installing the necessary software for scanning allowed the other Mac laptops in our place to print wirelessly. For scanning we just use the software on the iMac to have fine grain control and send the scans to our laptops over the network. I was even able to fairly easily set up Tiger to allow my roomate’s Toshiba laptop to print wirelessly as well, using CUPS. Finally, we all love to play Age of Empires II against each other here at the apartment, but in its infinite 1999 wisdom Microsoft made the identical Windows and Mac versions incompatible over a network, leaving my Toshiba-using roommate out of the fray. Snagging this iMac solved that, too!

Having had the iMac G4 for about six months now, I could not be happier. It has worked flawlessly. I had a spare Apple aluminum keyboard hanging around that now runs next to an original iMac hockey puck mouse I was given. The other night I needed to scan a document and so I went out to use the iMac in the living room. No one else was home, it was quiet and nice out, and I remember sitting down on the floor, pulling the screen towards me, and just being immersed in the simple, zen act of using that computer. I know that hockey puck mouse gets a lot of flack, and I’m not going to defend it too much, but it is the only Apple mouse I’ve used before without a right click. Part of that experience was having a machine with only a single click, that ran best with one application at a time, had a relatively small screen, and yet could do all I needed it to do at a good speed. That night made me love being a Mac user, and made me even more excited to write this piece about the wonderful iMac G4.

This computer is the epitome of what an Apple computer should be. It has a novel, intriguing design filled with solid components and software, yet simple and delightful for the average person to use. Even more importantly, all of those elements are still true today, 9 years later.

That’s what a Mac is all about.

Want to write about an old Mac you love? Get in touch! In your initial email, please indicate which Mac model you are planning to write about, so I don’t have systems covered more than once.

After we talk, please submit your work in Markdown or HTML. I will be editing posts to conform to AP style, and will link to your site or Twitter account in the Editor’s Note at the top of the post.