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PERSONAL TECH

Power without the premium

Consumers who balk at Apple's prices will like the new eMac

When it comes to technological verve, it's hard to beat Apple Computer Inc. From its "lamp Mac" to its wide-screen PowerBooks to its SuperDrive, the company always appears on the crest of the latest wave while its PC counterparts paddle frantically in pursuit.

Nevertheless, PC denizens who harbored any envy toward Macintosh owners could find solace in two things: the enormous share Windows-based computers have of the market and the premium Apple enthusiasts have to pay for their hot rod boxes.

With the rollout of the new eMac models, though, that premium has been largely diminished, and the price of entry into the Apple fraternity vastly reduced.

And that price reduction doesn't come with a step-down in silicon sinew.

An eMac with a 16-inch-viewable CRT display, a fast 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, a front-loading SuperDrive, ATI Radeon 7500 graphics engine and 256 MB of memory sells for $1,165 to $1,299 on the Internet.

The G4 coupled with Apple's Velocity Engine is really perky for working with audio and video files. The Velocity Engine uses the same 128-bit vector processing used by supercomputers to accelerate importing audio files and fashioning video productions.

Although eMacs can be purchased with a CD-ROM or CD-RW drive, the SuperDrive model is the way to go. The new 4x SuperDrive will read CDs and DVDs and burn CD-Rs. CD-RWs and DVD-Rs at twice the speed of previous versions.

In addition to supporting the latest wireless networking protocol, 802.11g, the unit supports Bluetooth connectivity with an optional device that plugs into a USB port.

The eMac is targeted at the education market, but it can be purchased off the shelf wherever Macs are sold.

Like the old iMac, the monitor and computerworks are built into a single tear-drop unit. And the machine is sinfully easy to set up.

Unlike the older machines, the eMac comes only in off-white, not a variety of neon colors, and it doesn't have a handle, which would come in handy since the unit weighs 50 pounds.

Although powerful, the unit has a few drawbacks.

Its power button, located on the side of the unit, is flush with the body of the device and is difficult to locate.

Its display is a flat CRT, not the flashy LCDs used in other Apple models and that are rapidly replacing tubes in the PC universe. That's largely an issue of taste, however, not performance, since the screen is sharp, bright, and delivers rich colors. Its flat surface mitigates the distortion caused by the surface curvature of conventional CRTs.

The display feels spacious, especially in its maximum screen resolution of 1280-by-960 pixels. Other available resolutions are 800-by-600, 1024-by-768 and 1152-by-864.

The unit's expansion options are limited. You can add more memory -- up to 1 GB -- and an Airport Extreme card for wireless networking at 54 megabits per second, but that's about it.

But expanding a computer by tinkering with its guts is less of an issue these days than it used to be. That's because a computer can be expanded through external devices that plug into its USB and FireWire ports.

The eMac has five USB ports (three on its side and two on its keyboard) and two FireWire ports, in addition to headphone and audio line-in jacks, built-in microphone, modem and 10/100 Ethernet port.

There's also a Mini-VGA output port. You can use the port to attach another monitor or a VGA projector to the unit as well as display the computer's screen on a TV set or video projector, or record the screen on a VCR. However, you'll need optional adapters to do that.

Apple's outstanding suite of iLife programs is packaged with the eMac.

There's iPhoto and iTunes for managing and organizing digital images and music; iMovie for editing video; and iDVD for creating movies and slideshows on DVDs that will play on most commercial DVD players.

There's a calendar program, iCal, for keeping tabs on appointments; iSync for synchronizing information with Palm OS devices; Quicken 2003 Deluxe for managing money matters; Appleworks for performing office suite functions; the Worldbook Encyclopedia on CD; and a variety of other programs.

For computer buyers enticed by what Apple calls the digital lifestyle but have balked at the price of a lifestyle change, the eMac offers a opportunity to catch the view from the top of the wave without wiping out the savings account.

John P. Mello Jr. is a freelance writer. He can be reached at jpmello@cox.net.

© Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company