The Apple eMac: Just for Kids?

by Robert Velarde (Posted: 1/2/04)



Home computers have come a long way. My first one, an Atari 400, featured 16k of RAM (original models had only 8k), a membrane-style keyboard, one cartridge slot and a blistering 1.79 MHz processor. That’s right--1.79 megahertz. The original asking price for this model, which was originally released in 1979, was $549.95 USD. And that was with no screen (most of us used televisions back then), no hard drive and no floppy drive. I remember using a cassette recorder to load programs. Later I added a bulky 5 1/4 floppy drive that made frightening grinding noises whenever it would access a disk.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and you’ll find you get a lot more for your hard earned dollars. The latest Apple eMac, for instance, starts at $799 for a system with a built-in 17" CRT display (16" visible), a 1 GHz G4 processor, a 40GB hard drive and 32MB of graphics memory (for official Apple specs see www.apple.com/emac/specs.html). The model used for this review is an 800Mhz G4 eMac with 640MB of RAM and a CD ROM drive (purchased for less than $700), but the differences between this system and the newer ones are minimal. The system is running Panther, 10.3.1.



ORIGINS OF THE EMAC

The design of the eMac is based on the extremely successful iMac line, which first debuted in 1998. The eMacs, however, do not come in a variety of colors. But if you are extremely fond of white, then you’ll be very happy with the all-white eMac. When it was originally released, the eMac targeted the education market and, in fact, was only available for purchase by educational institutions, educators and students. That all changed some time later when Apple realized there was a viable market for a CRT-based Mac (the eMac is currently the only CRT-based system sold by Apple). Now the eMac is available to anyone with the desire and the resources to purchase one. That’s a good thing, because, for the price, the eMac is an excellent value. For the Mac user on a budget, the eMac is an excellent choice. Prior to my purchase of an eMac for my kids, they were using a 1998 Tangerine iMac (266Mhz G3) I had purchased on eBay for a couple of hundred bucks or so. While the system was adequate, it was slow, would not run many newer programs and even after a clean-install of OS 9 was still prone to crash more often than I liked.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE EMAC?

I’d like to begin by getting some of the negative points about the eMac out of the way. I wouldn’t consider any of these negatives to be extreme, but they are worth mentioning. First, the power button is in an awkward location on the right side. It is a bit hard for kids to reach (which may be a good thing in the classroom, I suppose). Also, since the button is flush with the body of the eMac, you have to sort of hunt for the button if you can’t see it from where you are. Second, the CD/DVD tray seems a bit flimsy and may not stand up too well under daily use by children not accustomed to using a computer. Third, while access to both RAM slots and the internal battery is relatively easy, the memory tops out at 1GB. Granted, this should be more than enough for the average user, but graphic designers on a budget should hold out for a Mac that can handle more RAM.

Also, if you want to upgrade the internal 32MB video card, you’re out of luck (unless you can find a third-party solution and are willing to disassemble your eMac, I suppose). Unless you consider the AirportExtreme spot an expansion slot, there are no internal expansion slots in the eMac. Of course, with two FireWire ports and three USB ports (five if you count the two on the keyboard), it is possible to connect an external DVD writer, hard drive or various other accessories. Fourth, probably as a result of my lengthy time as a PC user (see my switcher article for more about this), I crave at least a second mouse button. A scroll wheel would be nice, too.

Finally, Apple is still not shipping these systems with enough RAM. Sorry, but 128MB is not sufficient to run Jaguar or Panther adequately. The SuperDrive equipped system ships with 256MB of RAM, which is an improvement, but 512MB will make for a much better end-user experience. Expect to spend some extra money on memory if you get an eMac. I opted for a 512MB module which, combined with the 128MB that came with the eMac, adds up to 640MB. If at a later date the kids need more RAM, I’ll add another 512MB and max the system out at 1GB. In a nod to the longevity of the average Mac, though, our old Tangerine iMac is running OS 9 quite nicely with 256MB of RAM. I’ve been told some of these old iMacs can take up to 512MB, depending on the model. For a computer that is over five years old, it’s nice to know there are still viable expansion options for our old iMac.

Other negative issues involve software. While the fast-user-switching feature of Panther is extremely useful, only one account at a time can run Classic mode. Many of the programs my kids use need Classic to run, but only one account at a time can run a classic application. This isn’t a big deal, but it would be nice if there were a simple way for more than one account to run Classic. Another problem I had in setting up the eMac for my kids involved efforts to limit access to certain programs. In short, it didn’t work like it was supposed to work. In the end, I just put the basic programs they needed access to on the dock, gave them standard user accounts (but not administrator access), and unplugged the Ethernet cable to keep them of the Internet for now.

WHAT’S RIGHT WITH THE EMAC?

Despite the negatives pointed out above, the eMac has many positives as well. If price is a consideration (and it usually is), the current eMac line starts at $799 ($1099 for a SuperDrive equipped model). Educational discounts will drop the price of each model by $50. The “legacy” model I purchased for my kids cost $699. Sure, as of late November 2003, a Dell PC could be had for $449 (including a 17" CRT), but you generally get what you pay for. This, though, is not the place to get into a detailed discussion of total cost of ownership or the merits of a Mac versus the PC (maybe in a future article!). Let’s just say for a few hundred dollars more, I’d go with the eMac over a budget PC any day.

Another positive aspect of the eMac is the classy design. The white case is well designed and reminiscent of the crystal iBook line. At 50 pounds (22.7 kg), though, it is not a system you will want to lug around often. Gone is the handle that was built into older CRT-based iMacs. While it has much more power than the original iMac line, as well as a bigger screen, it really doesn’t take up much more space at all. Apple sells a tilt and swivel stand for $59, but my kids can easily swivel the eMac without the stand. So long as the system is at a good level, the tilt feature is not really needed.

When I asked my 8-year-old son what he liked about the eMac, one of the things he said was that the eMac has “a lot of other stuff on the side.” It does. On the right side of the system are several ports: headphone jack, audio in, three USB 1.1 ports, two FireWire 400 ports, a 56k modem jack, a 10/100BASE-T Ethernet port and a VGA out port. (Note that a VGA out adapter is not included and the eMac will only mirror a display and not extend the desktop.) With so many USB and FireWire accessories available, the eMac is indeed expandable up to a point. It also includes an AirPort Extreme wireless expansion port. Incidentally, by removing one screw (thankfully not a Torx; it’s a Phillips) it is relatively easy to access the RAM expansion and internal battery.

I’ve noticed that moving the mouse will not wake the eMac from sleep mode. This, as far as I’m concerned, is a plus. My wife’s PowerMac G4 is extremely sensitive to movement and is often waking from sleep mode at the slightest bump of the desk. In a classroom setting in particular, having eMacs stay in sleep mode unless the mouse button is pressed is a good thing. The ability to adjust the volume or eject a disc from the keyboard is also a welcome addition over our 1998 iMac. Speaking of volume, the speakers on the eMac are much louder and clearer than our old iMac. The speakers, by the way, came covered with plastic grills--that should keep kids from damaging them.

WHAT ABOUT THE SOFTWARE?

Of course, what good are all these positive eMac features if the system doesn’t come with decent software? While the eMac does not include high-end programs such as Microsoft Office, it does include plenty of high-quality software out of the box. All of Apple’s iLife applications are included (except for iDVD on eMacs without a SuperDrive), such as iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, iCal, etc. Mac users should not overlook the value of easy to use, but relatively powerful programs like iPhoto, for instance. On Windows-based systems, finding a decent set of integrated applications to handle such functions is not always easy (or free). In addition to the iLife applications, our eMac included Apple Works, Quicken Deluxe, World Book Encyclopedia 2003 Jaguar Edition, Otto Matic and Deimos Rising. Current models list Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 as one of the included games. My children really enjoy the World Book Encyclopedia. It is slick, simple, and packs plenty of eye-candy. A nice feature of this edition allows for the installation of all the multimedia options onto the hard drive. Felt Tip Sound Studio is also included, though we haven’t used it. Sound Studio allows the recording and editing of audio via the built-in eMac microphone. I’ve also installed Glider Pro (now freeware)--a great, violence-free and entertaining game. As a freelance writer and graduate student, AppleWorks does not meet my needs, but for children or the average user, it is adequate, though in dire need of renovation. Our eMac came with OS X Jaguar 10.2.3 installed, but CDs were included for Panther. The Panther installation went smoothly and the fast-user-switching, in particular, is a great feature to utilize, especially with kids.

EMAC VS. OTHER MACS

How does the eMac compare to other Mac options? In short, the eMac is much cheaper. As of this writing, a 15” iMac runs $1299--that’s $500 more than the cheapest eMac. That extra $500 will buy you a flat panel LCD, twice as much standard RAM (256 vs. 128), double the hard drive space (80GB vs. 40GB) and, well, a pretty cool design. Is all that worth an extra $500? That depends on your needs and your budget. My kids are doing great with the eMac and, frankly, the extra cost of the iMac would not have added a whole lot to their end-user experience. The eMac gets the job done and it cost $500 less. Note that both systems are also limited by the screen size (although someone no doubt may come up with a way to replace an iMac display with a larger one) and other expansion options. The low-end PowerMac G5 1.6 GHz is currently priced at $1799 (display not included). That’s $1000 more than the eMac. Toss in a decent display and the price of the PowerMac G5 comes in at around $1300-1500 more than the eMac. Of course, the eMac is not in the same league, really, as a PowerMac and it’s not meant to be. The great thing about the current line of Macs is that there is really something for everyone--student, professional, home user, etc.

JUST FOR KIDS?

So, is the eMac just for kids? Definitely not. While originally designed for the education market, the eMac is a solid, relatively powerful system. And it’s attractively priced for a Mac. Sure, it has its downsides, such as shipping with a paltry amount of RAM, but most of these negatives can be rectified, while others are not serious enough to impact the target consumer. Best of all, it’s a Mac and it’s running one of the most elegant and stable operating systems this former DOS and Windows user has ever had the pleasure of using. My 4-year-old put it best when he said, “Daddy, I like my computer because it’s an Apple, like yours!” I couldn’t agree more.

Robert Velarde, co-author of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press), is a writer and editor. He has published articles on topics such as theology, philosophy, alternative medicine, and technology and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary. A long-time DOS and Windows user following his Atari computing days, he switched to Macs early in 2002