The new iMac represents a step forward for Apple. We investigated the unit’s new features.

It’s been a little more than a year since Apple introduced the iMac G5. While the update to the iMac unveiled last week doesn’t feature as many exterior changes, there are enough new features on the inside to stump even the most informed Mac user.

What’s new?

According to Apple, this iMac’s slightly thinner, tapered case conceals numerous component changes that go beyond simple improvements to processors and video cards. The iMac is the first Mac to use PCI Express, a growing connection technology in the PC world that’s faster than the AGP technology previously used to connect a Mac to its video cards. It’s also the first Mac to support DDR2 SDRAM, a faster RAM technology. The screen is brighter than the previous iMac models. And, it comes with a Mighty Mouse.

The faster processor, faster RAM, faster bus speed, and faster video card will all make the iMac faster.

Then there’s the built-in iSight camera, its included remote control, and the new Front Row and Photo Booth programs, all of which are currently available only on the iMac.

iSight test

The iSight’s not attached to the top of the screen like Apple’s standalone iSight cameras – instead, it’s actually integrated into the iMac’s plastic shell itself. The iSight’s lens is located dead-centre on the iMac’s face, just above the display. To the right is a small green light, which indicates whether the iSight is in operation or not. So you can’t remove the iSight – it’s baked right in.

Apple says the iMac’s included iSight is slightly better than the current edition of the stand-alone iSight. Like its external counterpart, the built-in iSight takes pictures at VGA (640-by-480) resolution.

Remote control

The new remote control is a an infrared device – the infrared receiver is hidden behind the apple logo just below the iMac’s screen. There’s also a small magnet hidden beneath the plastic on the bottom half of the iMac’s right side, and another magnet in the remote itself, so you can park the remote on your iMac instead of losing it within your couch cushions.

The remote works in tandem with the new Front Row software to let you control the media on your iMac, almost as if it was a TV set. When you press the Menu button, your Mac’s interface recedes into the distance and fades out, replaced by a remote-driven interface that lets you play music and DVDs, browse movie trailers, view iPhoto albums and slideshows, and watch videos.

Apple’s also selling the same remote as an iPod accessory. The new iPod dock has an infrared receiver on its front, and you can use the remote to control your iPod from across the room.

TV connections

You can use the Apple Video Adapter to output your iMac’s video to a TV. But your iMac will need to be close enough so that you can attach a cable to both the computer and your TV, and the output from the iMac will be at the much-lower resolution of standard video rather than at the native resolution of the iMac’s display.

Front Row seats

Apple is keeping quiet as to whether Front Row will appear on other Mac hardware. It seems pretty likely that we’ve not seen the last of the Front Row interface. Whether it appears on other Macs, or in other devices, remains to be seen.

It will also be interesting to see if outside developers can plug into Front Row. And it would be great if Front Row was ported to the Mac mini – a unit that could nestle right next to your TV set?

What’s the point of Photo Booth?

Photo Booth isn’t meant to be an earth-shattering program. It’s a bit of fun that takes advantage of a computer with a built-in camera. With Photo Booth, you can take pictures of yourself (or your friends) using the iMac’s built-in iSight camera. The screen flashes to white right when Photo Booth takes a picture, so the iMac screen behaves like a photographic flash. Photo Booth offers 16 different photographic effects in varying levels of weirdness, so your self-portrait can be a little less dull. With one button you can send your photo to iPhoto or Mail or Address Book or make it your user icon. It’s a lot like the Take Video Snapshot picture in iChat, with effects thrown in.

What no modem?

It’s true. First Apple let you buy a Power Mac G5 without a modem, and now the iMac G5 has no modem at all. Apple’s rationale is that with an increasing amount of people using broadband Internet, there are a lot of wasted modems out there in the world. So to save some money and space, Apple’s removed the modem from the iMac party. If you need a modem, you’ll have to buy the new, tiny Apple USB modem for £35.

This development probably spells the end for modems in Apple’s desktop Macs. It’s a philosophical change, a lot like the elimination of the floppy drive. The good news is, as long as Apple’s got a simple USB modem available as an option, you’ll still be able to get on the Internet even if you’re not a broadband user.

Apple’s formerly-optional wireless-networking and optical-drive technologies are all now built in. When you buy a new iMac, it will automatically come with AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth, and a SuperDrive. It looks like the days of optional wireless networking and DVD burning are rapidly coming to an end.