Three years after rewriting the books on computer design and simplicity with the iMac, Apple Computer Inc. has unveiled updated models with a flat-screen display, faster processor, and a new look.

Cheryl Vedoe, vice president of education for Apple, calls the new iMac “the ideal solution to seamlessly integrate digital media into teaching and learning.”

The revamped iMac looks nothing like its egg-shaped predecessor, or any other PC for that matter. A 15-inch liquid crystal display attaches by a chrome swivel bar to a white base that holds the guts of the computer.

“This is the best thing I think we’ve ever done,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and chief executive, during a two-hour speech at the Macworld Expo trade show in San Francisco Jan. 7.

It remains to be seen whether the new iMac will take off as did its predecessor, which sold 6 million units in three years. Computer makers have been suffering through the current economic recession.

The basic configuration, which will cost $1,299 and be available in March, runs on a 700-megahertz G4 processor. It has 128 megabytes of memory, a 40-gigabyte hard drive, and a rewritable compact disk drive.

The middle model, available this month, has twice as much memory and a combination rewritable CD drive and DVD player. It is priced at $1,499.

The flagship model, which started selling for $1,799 in January, has an 800 MHz G4 processor, 256 MB of memory, a 60 GB hard drive, and a “SuperDrive” that can write and record CDs and DVDs.

Apple spent about two years developing the new machine and chose early on to make revolutionary changes in its design rather than create a smaller version of the original iMac, Jobs said.

All wires—including the power cord, universal serial bus cables, and others—run from the back of the machine’s white base. DVDs and CDs are inserted at the front, just below a large silver Apple logo.

Yet the most noticeable difference is the sharp, nonflickering liquid crystal display. The viewable area on the 15-inch monitor is the same as most 17-inch, old-style cathode ray tube monitors.

The monitor tilts in all directions and swivels. The base is heavy enough to prevent the unit from tipping over—or being used as a replacement for a laptop computer.

“This is in my mind the most aggressive model they have ever introduced,” said Charlie Wolf, an analyst at Needham & Co. “They blew out my expectations with this machine.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Vedoe touted the new iMac’s benefits for education.

“The small footprint—smaller than any other desktop computer—is ideal for K-12 classrooms with limited space,” she said. “Desktop computers in K-12 are frequently used by multiple students collaborating on projects or by a teacher working with students. The fact that the display on the new iMac can swivel up to 180 degrees is a real advantage for such classroom use—and a more ergonomic solution than other desktop computers.”

Jobs said the new iMacs will form a digital hub to which cameras, music players, and other devices can be connected.

Since announcing the digital hub strategy last year, Apple has unveiled several Mac-only programs and gadgets, including the popular iPod music player and iTunes music software.

On Jan. 7, Jobs unveiled another component: a program that imports, stores, and helps share pictures taken by a digital camera. It also links to internet services for printing pictures and even publishing a book.

Jobs also touted the increasing number of applications that run on Mac OS X, the Unix-based operating system that was launched last March. Now all new Macs will boot up using OS X, though the Mac OS 9.1 will remain an option, he said.

For schools with more limited resources, the entry-level original iMac at $699 includes a 500 MHz G3 processor, 128 MB of memory, a 20 GB hard drive, and a CD-ROM drive, Vedoe said.

In addition, for $899 Apple offers the original iMac with a 600 MHz processor, 256 MB of memory, a 40 GB hard drive, and a CD-RW drive.

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