How the Apple iMac Works

By: Craig Haggit

The original bondi blue iMac re-established Apple's brand and solidified the company's reputation for sleek, innovative design.
The original bondi blue iMac re-established Apple's brand and solidified the company's reputation for sleek, innovative design.
UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

The iMac could not have come at a better time for Apple. Steve Jobs, who founded the company out of his garage in 1976, lost an internal power struggle and left Apple in 1985. By the time he returned in 1997, the company was losing cash hand over fist and fighting for its very survival. Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computers, even suggested he'd liquidate the company if it were his call [source: Singh]. Jobs was given the job of CEO and in the coming years, he and one highly talented designer restored the company's prestige and built the iconic reputation Apple is known for today. A big reason for the change in fortune lay in a clean-looking series of machines, called iMacs, first announced on May 13, 1998 [source: Levy].

Before the iMac, Apple had limited success selling its line of PowerPCs, which were somewhat uninspired boxes looking not unlike their Windows-based competitors. While the PowerPCs weren't especially exciting, Apple nonetheless still had a loyal user base among those who prized Macs for their perceived superior graphics capabilities.


The original iMacs were totally reimagined personal computers, geared toward that relatively new phenomenon called the Web (the lowercase "i" in the name initially stood for Internet). These desktop machines incorporated simplicity and clean lines throughout their design. Their signature characteristic was the merge of the tower (that big rectangular box containing the CPU, CD drive and ports) and the monitor into one curvy unit, along with one notorious mouse that we'll look at more closely later on.

iMacs have garnered a lot of publicity for Apple over the years, though the press has not always been good. While they have more room inside than MacBook laptops, which are notorious for running hot, cooling problems persist. Initially, the small space also meant they had limited processing power. Better design and technology helped with the speed concerns, but have not completely resolved overheating issues.

The story of the iMac is a good one, so let's look at the iMac's not-so-humble origins. From the perspective of anyone outside of Apple, the original iMacs were a big risk. If the market didn't like the translucent half-egg shaped machine, Apple was toast. But they didn't need to convince everyone -- just enough people who were tired of the ugly beige boxes that were flooding the market at the time.

Could they pull it off? What was it about the iMac that pulled people back to Apple?

The First iMac

Apple eventually released an array of candy-colored iMacs. This assortment was featured dancing across the screen to The Rolling Stones song "She's a Rainbow" in a popular ad campaign.
Apple eventually released an array of candy-colored iMacs. This assortment was featured dancing across the screen to The Rolling Stones song "She's a Rainbow" in a popular ad campaign.

The big question swirling around the computer industry in 1997 was not if but when Apple would declare bankruptcy. The company had been hemorrhaging cash every quarter since 1995 [source: Apple]. Steve Jobs had a gift for seeing the market in a way few others can, and he thought the industry was ripe for a computer with some style. That machine, as it turned out, also had the power to save the flailing company.

Reaction to the iMac was initially mixed. Performance tests compared to PCs weren't impressive [source: Silvius]. But that's missing the point. Apple had a reputation for long-term reliability for its machines, and now it had style too -- something PCs lacked. And Apple was betting that consumers would realize how much they wanted style when they saw the iMac.


The iMac was clean and symmetrical. It had no need for most external power cords and connections. Its components resided inside a colorful and curvy case. They say looks aren't everything, but Apple suddenly made the personal computer something it had never really been before -- visually appealing.

One component of the original iMac that didn't catch on so well (except, ironically, as an example of bad design) was the small, round single-buttoned mouse that came with it. Cute? Perhaps. But most were happy when they dropped that mouse design. It was too small for most users to rest their hands comfortably upon it, and its circular design made it difficult to orient properly.

The original iMac also made virtue out of vice by speeding up the death of the 3.5" floppy disk drive. Apple saved internal space by eliminating the component, but annoyed many users until alternative storage tools became more popular.

Obviously, many found life without a floppy drive and dealing with that pesky puck-shaped mouse worth it just to have a stylish computer on their desk. Translucent design was suddenly everywhere [source: Edwards]. Even putting a lowercase "i" in front of random words took off in ways few predicted.

Apple not only survived, it gained strength. But the computer industry kills off those who try to rest on their laurels, so the iMac has seen several revisions through the years. Let's take a trip down Memory Lane to review the iMacs of Christmases past.

The iMac Grows Up

Steve Jobs allegedly wanted this version of the iMac to resemble a sunflower, but many people refer to it as the "desk lamp" iMac.
Steve Jobs allegedly wanted this version of the iMac to resemble a sunflower, but many people refer to it as the "desk lamp" iMac.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

In January 2002, Apple launched the iMac's first major overhaul. The 2nd generation iMac (the original line is now referred to as the iMac G3) sported a flat-screen monitor and turned the egg-shaped CPU on its side. The resulting design looks a bit like something out of a Pixar film, which isn't too surprising, considering Jobs spent a lot of his time away from Apple working for the animation company. The high-end version had an 800MHz processor, 256MB of RAM, a 15-inch adjustable monitor and 60GB hard drive. Very good specs at the time.

In August 2004, the iMac G5 debuted at the Apple Expo in Paris, with the machine's current look and feel. Looking more like a thick flat-screen monitor, this entry into the iMac family included side-loading disc drives and back-side ports. The monitor sized jumped by 5 inches in the high-end model, with the processor speed clocking in at 1.8GHz, 256MB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive.


Several upgrades to the G5 line bumped these numbers higher still. The January 2006 upgrade in particular was notable in that it was the first version to use Intel processors.

With all the upgrades and versions of iMacs that have been introduced, it can get rather difficult to keep track of the family tree. If you ever want to figure out what version your iMac is, check out the support pages at Apple [source: Apple].

Since 2004, newer iterations of the iMac have focused on features rather than design. An internal camera was installed in 2006. Other enhancements included the requisite upgrades in hard drive capacity, processor speeds and RAM. Screen sizes in these years increased up to 24 inches.

There's no debating that the iMac has had a major influence on the computer industry. Other computer makers have realized that a lot of people actually do care what their computers look like. Other industries took a cue from Jobs' gift for theatrics and design too. Not long after the first translucent iMac appeared, consumers could find everything from computer peripherals to silverware manufactured in candy-colored translucent plastics.

New iMac Design

The 2011 editions of the iMac lineup came in two different screen sizes and four different price points.
The 2011 editions of the iMac lineup came in two different screen sizes and four different price points.
Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Apple released its current iteration in the iMac line-up on May 3, 2011. It continues the design scheme of a big monitor/computer combination sitting on top of a sleek stand.

Like the previous iMac, the current design is framed in an aluminum casing and is an LED-backlit display, producing a bright and crisp screen. All ports remain on the back of the machine as well, with only a DVD slot on the side. Apart from the screen and the frame, the only thing visible on the front is a small Apple logo. A larger logo on the back hides the wireless receptor.


A desktop computer that produces no heat has yet to be invented, but Apple tries to minimize the fan noise by making use of the laws of thermodynamics. Heat rises naturally, so the air intake is on the bottom through the speakers, with the exhaust venting through the top. This doesn't stop some iMacs from having overheating issues, but these do not appear to be anywhere close to universal. The official maximum temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). The central processing unit (CPU) and the graphics processing unit (GPU) are also separated inside to prevent additional heat buildup [source: Apple].

To make the iMac even speedier, Intel and Apple collaborated to develop the much-anticipated Thunderbolt I/O technology, which we'll talk about in more detail on the next page. This technology is likely to set a new standard in the industry for communicating between computers and peripheral devices.

Today's iMacs set a high standard for speed and design. But just how fast are they?

Apple iMac Specs

Today's iMac comes in four primary configurations, with a fifth designed specifically for the education market. Let's look first at what they all have in common, then explore the differences, remembering that like most computers, these are all upgradable.

All new iMacs sport Intel's Thunderbolt I/O technology, which at a bi-directional 10Gbps (gigabits per second), makes USB2 -- the current standard at 480Mbps (megabits per second) -- seem like the Pony Express [source: Kingsley-Hughes]. Thunderbolt is also twice as fast as the likely dead-on-arrival USB3, which promises a maximum speed of 5Gbps. Unlike the first iMac, which omitted the floppy drive and left users no way to access their existing storage, these new iMacs still include USB ports for all your legacy (but likely soon-to-be-obsolete) devices.


Adding to this speed are the quad-core Intel Core i5 processors at speeds ranging from 2.5GHz to 3.1GHz. All but the most inexpensive iMac come with a 1TB (terabyte) Seagate hard drive. It's worth noting that iMacs sold in May and June 2011 had some serious issues with the 1TB hard drive, so Apple is replacing them for free at Apple Stores or through a mail-in service [source: Apple]. Other common features include built-in 802.11n wireless and Bluetooth networking.

The educational iMac is a bit pared down. Available only to schools, it uses a slightly-older Core i3 processor and no Thunderbolt I/O, but otherwise is a decent value at $899.

The main iMacs come in at four price points: $1199, $1499, $1699 and $1999. The first two come with a 21.5-inch screen and the second group with a 27-inch screen, both offering 16:9 aspect ratio (some earlier iMacs curiously used a non-standard 16:10 ratio).

The $1199 model comes with a 500GB hard drive, unlike the three pricier models with the 1TB drive we mentioned earlier. The two most expensive models also include two Thunderbolt ports compared to one for the other models. If you're big into heavy-duty graphics or plan on that second display, consider getting one of these models.

Overall, the specs and speed are comparable to current desktop PCs, though PCs have yet to use Intel's Thunderbolt I/O. Apple's exclusive use of this technology (thanks to Apple's collaborative effort with Intel to develop it) ends in 2012, at which time it'll be open season for other manufacturers.

All this power's no good unless it's doing something. Time to find some cool software to play with (and a lot of it's free).

Apple iMac Software

iPhoto empowers users to design custom photo albums, and even integrates a printing service to bring those albums to life as hard-cover keepsakes.
iPhoto empowers users to design custom photo albums, and even integrates a printing service to bring those albums to life as hard-cover keepsakes.
Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

So what do you do with an iMac? Like almost any other computer, iMacs comes with a number of preloaded software packages, and you can buy many more separately.

iLife takes your ho-hum family photos and movies and jazzes them up into something your friends and family might actually want to watch. Create chic photo albums, or make Hollywood-style movie trailers from family movies. GarageBand, which is included with iLife, teaches you how to play piano or guitar, and if you record your wonderful singing voice, compensates for any unfortunate deficiencies in natural talent.


FaceTime, another preloaded application, lets you connect to your friends and family in high-def and larger-than-life using that fancy HD camera on the iMac. However, they'd better have another Apple device like an iPad, iPhone or even iPod Touch, or else this software won't cut it. No worries -- Skype or most other free Internet call software will still let you talk to your PC friends.

Most office drones around the world know Microsoft Office's family of productivity tools. While you can get this for the iMac too, Apple has its own set of tools called iWork. This set includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, but no database creation tools. If you're the type to avoid paying for office suites when you don't have to, then consider OpenOffice, which offers a free Mac version of database creation tools compatible with OS X [source: OpenOffice].

So where do you get applications that don't come with your iMac? Why, the Mac App Store of course. Mac App Store is actually an application that serves as an Apple purchasing portal. After you download and install Mac App Store, you can buy things like iWork and other tools, toys and games for your iMac. Apple's big on controlling your experience, so Mac App Store looks and works a lot like the App Store for its mobile devices. Only approved software is available here.

Don't fret -- there's nothing stopping you from getting software elsewhere. Other free goodies you should load your iMac with include DropBox for sharing files in the cloud, Adium for consolidating all your IMs, and Skype for keeping in touch with your friends and family.

Now, let's trick out our iMac with some of the cool accessories you can get for it.

Apple iMac Accessories

Accessories for an iMac might sound like a contradictory concept, considering the design of the machine is all about keeping your desk clean, but note that most of these accessories are wireless, or at least come in wireless models. Even the keyboard comes wireless, though you can request a wired one.

iMacs come with a Magic Mouse, featuring multiple finger-tracking options to help provide those handy shortcuts while navigating around the web and your applications. A popular alternative, not included but yours for $69, is the Magic Trackpad. It functions like a trackpad would on a laptop, and in fact is a large-scale knock-off of the MacBook Pro trackpad. It even clicks like a mouse button, so if you long for the days of the single-button mouse, this might be the option for you.


Want to splurge for a second monitor and really impress your friends? A Thunderbolt Display will run you about an even grand. If you plan on going this route, you'll need the 2011 iMac or later to take full advantage of the Thunderbolt I/O technology.

So where are iMacs going in the future? It's more or less a given based on recent patents issued to Apple that touch-screens for the iMac are on their way [source: Purcher].

A bigger issue for the future of Apple is what direction the iMac and other products will take without Steve Jobs at the helm. He handed over the reins to Tim Cook on Aug. 24, 2011. In October, 2011, Steve Jobs passed away. But Apple's culture grew out of Jobs's philosophy and it seems unlikely the company would stray too far from its defining characteristics. If you factor in a product ramp-up time of about two years, it'll be a while yet before we see the full effect of his departure.

So did the iMac save Apple? That was the big question back in 1998. It'd be easy to argue that it pulled Apple out of its mid-1990s freefall, even though today iMacs represent a much smaller share of Apple's profits compared to iPhone and iPad sales.

Lots More Information

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