One of the Mac's biggest advantages over a Windows PC is that the computer's hardware and operating systems come from the same company. Unlike Microsoft, Apple doesn't have to worry about supporting dozens of computer manufacturers and hundreds of combinations of audio and video cards and other components.
This is what gives the Mac its plug-and-play reliability. And according to Apple, this is why the Mac is the ideal digital hub for managing audio and video. The problem is it isn't always true. When you introduce third-party (that is, non-Apple) gear into a system, you open the door to some of the same kinds of problems that plague Windows users.
Take the newest versions of Apple's CD-burning software, iTunes and Disk Burner. Both programs debuted in January, when Apple began shipping Power Macs containing CD burners. (If you're just tuning in, iTunes enables you to create and manage MP3 audio tracks and create audio CDs, while Disk Burner lets you create data CDs by simply dragging files to a CD icon.)
Initially, both iTunes and Disk Burner supported only the internal CD burners of the new Power Macs. But a few weeks ago, Apple released updates that support third-party CD burners. Almost immediately, Mac Web sites such as Macintouch (http://www.macintouch.com) and MacFixit (http://www.macfixit.com) were filled with anguished reports from users: iTunes 1.1 doesn't recognize my drive. iTunes sees my drive but won't burn properly. I installed iTunes, and now I can't burn CDs using Roxio's Toast software.
Most of these incompatibilities are caused by a limitation of the Mac operating system. In Mac OS 9, only one software driver can control a device, such as a CD burner, at a given time. Toast and iTunes each provide their own drivers, and when both are loaded, neither works. Apple's recommendation? Disable third-party CD-burning software before trying to burn a CD using iTunes or Disk Burner. It's too soon to say whether Mac OS X, which is due out March 24, will address this limitation.
After several unsuccessful attempts, I've given up trying to burn CDs using iTunes 1.1 and my external Sony burner. I still use iTunes to create and organize MP3 tracks--no other program does a better job--but I'll stick with Toast for burning. It's a better burning program anyway, and once you disable iTunes' CD-burning extensions, the two actually work well together: You can tell Toast which tracks to burn by simply dragging and dropping them from iTunes.
A new iTunes isn't the only thing Apple released last month. At the Tokyo Macworld Expo, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs introduced a new family of iMacs. All iMacs now include two FireWire ports, a video connector for attaching an external monitor, and a slot for an AirPort wireless networking card. An $899 model includes a 400-megahertz G3 processor, 64 megabytes of memory and a 10-gigabyte hard drive. A $1,199 iMac runs at 500 MHz and includes a 20-GB hard drive, while the $1,499 iMac Special Edition runs at 600 MHz and includes a 40-GB hard drive.
The two costlier iMacs include faster graphics circuitry and built-in CD burners. And they're available in two new colors--or more accurately, patterns. The Blue Dalmatian pattern puts bluish spots on a blue background, while Flower Power sports layers of posies. In both new patterns, the front panel of the computer is white--you see neither spots nor blooms when using the machine.
Apple also has tweaked the Power Mac G4 Cube. The original model, which includes 64 MB of memory and a DVD drive, now sells for $1,299--$500 less than the computer's original price. A new $1,599 model includes a CD burner and 128 MB of memory but runs at the same 450-MHz pace. A $2,199 model that runs at 500 MHz and includes 256 MB of memory and a faster graphics chip is available through the Apple Store (http://www.apple.com/store).
As befitting Apple's digital hubbub, all the new Macs also include iTunes and iMovie. That's swell, but compatibility problems such as the ones I've described are a reminder that today's digital hubs are a lot like the first wheel: They roll, but the ride can be bumpy.
Jim Heid is a Contributing Editor of Macworld magazine.