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Livin’ la vida digital

Steve Jobs’ Digital Lifestyle concept takes center stage.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has made Apple’s vision clear: The Mac is the digital hub for the digital lifestyle. Taking him at his word, I’ve been using the new iMac for weeks now, both professionally and personally, to see if it is indeed what he claims.

I chose the $1,800 high-end iMac rather than a Power Mac G4 for two reasons: You get more bang for your bucks, and it’s a blissfully quiet machine, something you really appreciate as you listen to music and watch movies on your Mac. What I’ve found is that the iMac isn’t quite the perfect digital hub, but with some tweaks it’s awfully close to one.

Of course, digital hub or not, the iMac has to pass muster as a solid computer. As a system for most users, the iMac is an excellent choice. It comes with a top-of-the-line software collection that includes iTunes 2, iMovie 2, iPhoto, iDVD 2 (on SuperDrive-equipped systems only), QuickTime, AppleWorks 6, Mail, Internet Explorer, AOL, Quicken 2002 Deluxe, World Book Mac OS X Edition, Otto Matic, Mac OS X Chess, PCalc, Acrobat Reader, and FAXstf 10.0 Preview. Download the new (and free) Palm 4 software, and you’ll have pretty much all the apps you’ll need for basic productivity with the iMac. The system’s 800MHz Power G4 processor and Nvidia graphics card make it plenty powerful and graphics-capable for most day-to-day use.

The much-ballyhooed digital-lifestyle applications–iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD–all live up to their hype. They make it easy and fun to manage digital photos, play music, and make your own movies and DVDs. My son and daughter play on our church basketball teams. At the end of the season, during our sports banquet, I showed the world premiere of a DVD that I had created completely with out-of-the-box iMac hardware and software. The disk had movies (with titles and soundtracks), still photos, and interviews from the season. All modesty aside, the crowd was blown away. If I’d had iMacs on hand, I could have sold several on the spot.

The iMac is not only good for making movies, but excellent for viewing them as well (at least for a one- or two-person audience). DVD playback is exceptionally smooth–if you’re simply enjoying a movie. If, for some reason, you’re running several apps and trying to watch a DVD movie in a small window, you may get an occasional hiccup in the audio or video.

While the Apple Pro Speakers that come with all but low-end iMac are impressive for their size, audiophiles will want to beef up the bass by adding a $59 iSub subwoofer. Or, for even better sound, add a higher-end speaker set. My favorite is the $179 SoundSticks from Harman Kardon, which sound great and are a nice aesthetic match with the snow-white iMac.

Not only is the iMac display beautiful to behold, it’s also an impressive piece of engineering. Even ignoring its revolutionary “neck,” the monitor contains an AirPort antenna to facilitate wireless connectivity and, to the left of the screen, a tiny hole that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a surprisingly sensitive microphone. You can use it to record sounds (though be warned that it’s not hi-fi) for use with applications such as iMovie, or use it with such speech technology products as IBM’s ViaVoice and MacSpeech’s iListen.

There are some items I’d recommend adding to your iMac for optimal performance with your digital lifestyle. If you have more than one Mac in your house, you might consider setting up an AirPort Base Station. It will set you back $300, plus $100 per computer for AirPort cards.

If you don’t like continually reaching behind your iMac to connect and disconnect USB devices, you’ll need a USB hub. The only one that matches the new consumer model is the snow-white gHub from Dr. Bott. It expands a single USB port into four equivalent ports that are available for additional USB devices or USB hubs.

Then there are two non-essential but totally cool items from the folks at Griffin Technology that make the world’s sexiest computer even sexier.

The PowerMate universal audio controller is a $45 USB device that can control the volume of your computer and your audio applications, along with other tasks. You can assign it any task that has keyboard equivalents: close windows, empty the Trash in the Finder, fast forward or rewind in audio programs, undo typing in Word, etc. It can also be used as a universal input device and game controller (though I’ve not had much luck with it as the latter). The PowerMate has a programmable button that can support jobs such as muting your audio output and marking your in and out points in iMovie.

And it’s a treat for the eyes. It has a polished aluminum finish and a glowing base that dims and brightens to reflect the volume level of your computer–and that makes it look like a small spaceship when you turn the lights out.

If the flat-panel monitor’s microphone isn’t beefy enough for you, check out Griffin’s iMic, a $35 USB device that lets you connect just about any microphone or sound input device to your Mac. It supports both line and mic-level input, as well as line-level output for any USB-capable computer. In other words, you can use it to get high-quality audio in or out of your Mac.

And, of course, Apple’s iPod handheld is also a wonderful accessory, though an expensive one. But if you’re on the road frequently, it might be worth the money. The device, which has a 10GB storage capacity, has replaced both my portable CD player and external hard drive when I’m on the road. I can store songs and back up my files, all on one device. Plus, now you can even store contact info on the iPod. But don’t throw away your Palm just yet; you can’t store to-do lists and calendars on the iPod like you can on a dedicated PDA.

That said, there are simply some digital-hub areas that Apple has ignored. If my iMac is going to be the ultimate digital hub for me, it’s got to handle TV and FM radio. Thankfully, two solid third-party solutions are available.

Formac makes the best such solutions, although they’re also the priciest. The company’s $399 Formac Studio can convert digital video or capture and digitize analog video and audio from TV or radio tuners. It sports a plethora of input and output jacks, including two FireWire ports, a full set of analog inputs (SVHS, RCA video, left and right stereo RCA audio) and analog outputs, a coaxial cable input for your TV, and a coaxial antenna input for your radio.

Since it’s a FireWire device, it runs off the bus power of your Mac’s FireWire port. An optional $25 AC adapter is available, but you shouldn’t need it with an iMac.

Formac Studio lets you capture and edit video from the Formac Studio in any DV-editing package such as iMovie or higher-end apps such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere 6. It comes with software that has a video codec and a Formac Tevion controller application that can be used to capture video and tune in to TV or (possibly) radio programming. You can capture videos full-screen at 30 frames per second and digital audio quality of 48KHz at 16 bits.

With the built-in TV/FM tuner, you can receive up to 125 TV channels, with automatic channel identification. The zapping feature lets you preview the complete channel program at one glance. Tevion lets you capture your favorite movies, soaps, and commercials and use them as additional footage, and a frame-grabbing feature lets you capture stills.

In July, Formac will release the $999 Formac Studio DV/TVR, which gives you all the features of Formac Studio and will come with proprietary software that allows you to schedule and record movies with a built-in stereo TV tuner. With its built-in 48GB hard drive, you’ll be able to record up to four hours in digital video. You’ll be able to play, fast-forward, and rewind all recorded movies in thumbnail size. According to the folks at Formac, you’ll be able to navigate from clip to clip with the push of a button, access any movie sequence instantly by scrolling the timeline bar, and enlarge to full-screen playback. The only drawback of the two Studio products is that, as this article was being written, Formac wasn’t sure whether it would bring the products’ FM tuning features over to Mac OS X from the traditional Mac operating system. A company rep said there wasn’t much demand for this feature from Mac users, although Formac will add the FM functionality if enough Mac OS X users ask for it.

I believe the one area where the iMac, and most personal computers, falls short is in the area of gaming. It’s simply easier to connect joysticks and other gaming peripherals to a PlayStation, XBox, or GameCube than it is to connect and configure them on a computer. And while there are some great games now out on the Mac platform, there’s still a dearth of sports-related titles, one of my favorite video-gaming categories.

Some gamers also have concerns with the iMac’s video card. With the GeForce4 out and the appearance of video cards with 128MB memory, the GeForce2, with only 32MB of video memory, seems sort of paltry to some. I guess if the video card requirements continue to rise as quickly as they have been doing on the newer games, the iMac could lack the oomph for some gaming titles. On the other hand, I’ve tried some processor- and graphics-intensive games such as Giant: Citizen Kabuko and Black and White on the iMac with no noticeable performance problems.

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