Monday, November 29, 2004

The holiday shopping season is upon us — the National Retail Federation says $23 billion was spent at stores nationwide last weekend — and the choice of a gift computer might be in your sights.

Two recommendations of computers to buy, with one machine earning my annual “Computer of the Year” designation, and another being an impressive runner-up, though a different kind of product.

And the winner is … Apple’s IMac G5. It will cost close to $2,100 to get the supersized 20-inch model with extra RAM and a wireless keyboard and mouse. That’s a relatively high price in this age of far-less-expensive Windows-based machines. But Apple Computers IMac G5 is a very impressive machine. It earns top honors from this column, and might well earn a top spot on your holiday shopping list.

Beyond its Space Age looks — stark white plastic frame, suspended on a metal easel, with a supersharp LCD display — is some Space Age technology. The PowerPC G5 chip is a supercomputer-in-waiting with 64-bit processing power that cuts through applications like a hot knife through butter.

While there are no 64-bit applications for the Mac yet — at least none that I’ve found — that’s likely to change next year with the introduction of “Tiger,” the next generation of Mac OS X. That operating system will support 64-bit applications, and those will run quite well on the PPC G5 chip. Apple promises that today’s 32-bit applications will also run better, in many instances, under Tiger.

But even if Apple fell into the sea tomorrow, and if not another line of code were written for the Mac platform, the IMac G5 would still be a great achievement that should deliver sterling performance for years. Its compactness, and Apple’s emphasis on wireless computing are two very positive factors. I believe this is a computer that will deliver several years of good use and thus is a good value for the money.

The least expensive IMac is a 17-inch model with 256 megabytes of RAM and an 80-gigabyte hard drive, all for $1,299. However, spend the extra $200 and get a G5 chip that’s a shade faster (1.8 GHz versus 1.6 GHz) and swap out the DVD-playing/CD-writing drive for one that reads and writes both DVDs and CDs. Details on all these products are at

EMachines a strong runner-up. It’s at the other end of the price spectrum $599.99 — and it runs Windows XP Home Edition, not the Mac OS. But the EMachines T3256, reviewed here recently, is an ideal home computer for a Windows user. It has a DVD/CD-writing drive; lots of hard-disk space, 160 gigabytes to be precise; and an AMD Athlon XP 3200+ processor that’s fast enough for most us.

What helps set this machine apart from the rest of the PC pack is its media bay, ready to read cards from several kinds of digital cameras, as well as five USB connectors, an Ethernet port and a built-in modem, which also handles faxes. All at a price that should be easy on the wallet.

I’ve used the T3256 for several weeks and have had no disappointments in performance. In fact, I’d be willing to put an EMachines device up against some of the “better” brands that have been floating around the PC world for quite some time, and I feel confident it would hold its own. For the family seeking an inexpensive computer this holiday season, I don’t know where you might do better. Product information at

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