Old Mac of the Month: The iMac G5

This month’s post is by Jordan Merrick, a freelance writer and web designer who runs Sparsebundle, a UK-based blog about technology, Apple, web design, video games.

This year celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of the iMac. You’d think that if we looked over the lineage of the iMac, we’d see a number of major design changes as time went on. But that’s not the case and, in fact, since the introduction of the iMac in 1998 it has had only two major design changes. Sure, it’s had a coat of paint, a change of clothes and it’s gotten bigger whilst losing weight, but the fundamental form factor of the iMac that we see today has been unchanged for almost ten years, a chinned display with (up until recently) a side-mounted optical drive. It’s a form factor that owes its beginnings to the iMac G5.

The original iMac, a CRT housed in a translucent case, saved Apple and cemented itself into popular culture that is, even today, still an iconic design. The iMac G3 bowed out after three years before the next iteration arrived.

The iMac G4 (referred to by some as the iLamp) was the first major redesign of the iMac as Apple switched to LCD screens and was a radical departure to the original iMac’s design. The iMac G3’s design had to focus around the sheer volume of a CRT. Although that limitation had gone, Apple still focused on the display and took a very original approach to mounting it on a swing arm. It was certainly unique and, love it or hate it, proved to be very popular. That form factor lasted just over two years.

On August 31 2004 at the Apple Expo in Paris, Phil Schiller took to the stage to announce "one more thing” – a complete redesign of their flagship Mac. It was the day that Apple introduced the iMac G5.

image via Apple PR

The iMac G5 was far more mature in comparison to its predecessors. This machine was simply a neutral white rectangle, less than 2” thick, held aloft by a single piece of aluminum. Gone were the cutesy colors and childish nature of the infant iMac G3 as well as the nose and lip piercings of the teenage iMac G4 that made sure it stood out of a crowd. The iMac G5 had finally grown up, moved out and got a job. It was the deliberate lack of any ostentatious characteristics in the iMac G5 that would pave the way for Apple’s minimalistic design choices over the next decade.

The iMac had finally reached adulthood.

The design was reminiscent of the iPod, and the fact was pushed by Apple in its advertising.

Aside from the design change, the big news was that iMac was finally able to benefit from a G5 processor. The G5 had found a home in the PowerMac over a year ago but due to heat and cost constraints, the iMac had been trundling along with the G4 that had already been showing signs of age. This meant that the iMac rocketed from a rather pedestrian 1.25 GHz G4 to a blisteringly hot 1.8 GHz G5 processor. The system bus speed increased accordingly, from a lowly 167 MHz to a much more sprightly 600 MHz. Throw in the addition of Serial-ATA and the iMac was now a serious alternative for the PowerMac G5, at least for those who didn’t need PCI cards.

These G5 processors ran hot, and I mean hot. The iMac G5 housed three fans in its thin frame. The iMac was ingeniously designed for heat dissipation. Along the bottom of the iMac ran a grille (behind which Apple hid the speakers) that allowed cool air to be drawn in by the fans. The top of the iMac had a thin vent that provided an escape route for rising hot air caused by the heat inside. Within the iMac ran a series of plastic channels that artificially directed the air flow. The act of the heat rising out of the iMac caused a convection current, a pressure difference in the air within, which would draw cool air in without the need of a high-speed fan. This meant the iMac could run near silent since the fans would only need to run at a minimal speed for many tasks. It might sound incredibly boring but it allowed the near-molten G5 to be fitted inside a Mac that was much closer to being a laptop than a desktop.

What was surprising about the iMac G5 was just how much was carried over from the previous iMac G4. While everyone was distracted by the change in form factor and the introduction of the G5 in its second Mac family, not a whole lot changed under the hood. It still had three USB ports, two FireWire ports, Mini-VGA, Ethernet, a 56k modem and AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth as optional components. The graphics card remained the same Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 that the iMac G4 shipped with and even the 17” and 20” LCD displays were the exact same panels Apple had already been using.

The iMac G5 was the most user-serviceable machine Apple shipped under Steve Jobs’ second reign.

Apple would often send service parts out to customers who reported a problem. This meant the customer didn’t need to find somewhere to repair it since the Apple Store hadn’t been around much at the time. At one point there was a repair program for the power supply which meant Apple provided a free service to affected customers with an iMac G5 that met certain criteria. Many customers who reported the issue were sent the service part to fit themselves, again to save the customer the hassle of visiting a service centre. I even met one customer on the Genius Bar who had been sent a logic board by Apple.

The iMac G5 had the optional Bluetooth and AirPort Extreme cards, but adding them was something customers could do themselves. You didn’t need to drag your iMac G5 to the nearest service centre, you could just buy the kit and fit it yourself. Better still, if you wanted to upgrade the RAM or hard drive in your iMac G5, no problem — go right ahead.

To upgrade or service the iMac G5, you simply lay it face-down and loosened three screws. The whole back would then pivot away like the hood of a car to reveal what must be the most exceptionally designed internals that had ever graced a computer. Everything was modular and almost everything was designed to be user-serviceable, from the hard drive to the logic board. It meant experienced technicians could do entire logic board replacements in about 15 minutes and replacing the optical drive or hard drive could be done in less than five.

image via Apple PR

As a former Apple technician, the iMac G5 will always have a special place in my heart.

This easy-open design came in handy, as the iMac G5 would be plagued with video and power issues, stemming from capacitors on the logic board and in the power supply that would burst:

Apple would end up opening a wide-reaching repair program to cover machines that were out of warranty, but afflicted with the problem.

The iMac G5 was eventually replaced just over a year later with a newer model, the first Mac with an iSight camera built-in. What it gained in additional features, it lost in serviceability. No longer was everything easily accessible and the only part the customer could upgrade was the RAM. As for servicing it, things were dramatically worse in comparison. Repair times, along with frustration, increased and the accessing the parts involved bending the bezel into all sorts of angles whilst using a credit card to jimmy it open like a door lock in an 80s cop show.

But hey, it was half an inch thinner.

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