I've been using a new Intel-based Apple iMac since last week. I had been curious to see how the machine would compare to its predecessors, and I’m happy to say that the news is mostly quite good. Encased in the same case as its predecessor, the 20" widescreen iMac looks almost identical to the iMac G5 it replaces, albeit with one new exterior addition: a mini-DVI-out port, which, when combined with an external display, lets you extend the Mac desktop to two screens.

Inside, of course, the iMac is all new, with an Intel Core Duo processor, and Intel-based versions of Mac OS X 10.4.4, Front Row, and iLife '06. In day-to-day use, the iMac is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor: The performance is snappy, especially in the Finder, the bundled applications, and iLife.

Some pieces are missing, however, and these exclusions could make Apple's Intel transition perilous in the short term for long-time Mac users. First, the Classic environment isn't available in the Intel version of Mac OS X; therefore, pre-OS X Mac applications will never run on the new machines. Second, higher-end Apple "pro" applications such as Final Cut Pro will need to be updated to Intel-based versions before they’ll work, and Apple is typically charging for the privilege. (My copy of Final Cut Express HD, for example, won’t run on the new iMac.)

Third, and perhaps most damaging—when you consider that the iMac is billed as a home computer—Mac games typically don't run well, particularly those that are designed for 3D video cards. I've tested DOOM 3, Unreal Tournament 2004, and Halo on the new iMac, and all of them ran so slowly that they were unplayable. (I eventually turned off virtually every graphical feature in Halo and ran it at the lowest possible resolution to achieve a semi-playable experience.) That said, game makers are working to provide Intel-compatible upgrades for the best-selling games, and of course new titles will likely be sold in the Universal Binary format, which lets Mac applications run equally well on Power PC- and Intel-based Macs. Aspyr pledges a free patch for Unreal Tournament 2004 that should be available any day.

One of the big questions about the Intel-based Macs is whether we'll be able to run Windows on the machines and dual-boot between, say, Windows Vista and Mac OS X. Hackers around the world are working on such solutions right now, and I have no doubt that we'll soon see the fruits of their labors. Indeed, I purchased the iMac with the notion that I'd soon be dual-booting between OS X and Windows Vista. When that happens, I'll discuss the details here in Connected Home Media.

Like its predecessor, the new iMac is available in 17" and 21" variants, at prices of $1299 and $1699, respectively. Those prices might seem a bit high compared to similar PCs, but remember that they include the roomy displays and a number of features that most PCs don’t include, such as FireWire, an 8X dual-layer DVD burner, an integrated VGA-quality Web camera, a remote control, and, of course, iLife '06. A fully equipped iMac can set you back north of $2000, but don't be misled: This is a high-quality machine with legs for the future. I highly recommend it, especially if you don't mind living on the edge for the next few months.