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New Quad-Core iMacs Are Fast, Slick and Beautifully Packaged

ReviewEarly 2011 Apple iMac (27-inch screen, 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5)
Apple updated its venerable iMac this week with new machines that are fast, sleek, and beautifully packaged.
Sporting Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors, powerful new graphics cards and Thunderbolt ports that can support two external monitors, the new iMac is the undisputed champion of all-in-one machines. Plus, it’s the only one out there that’s not butt ugly.
As well as being the most attractive desktop computer available, it offers just about everything modern computer users might need in a self-contained package, from a HD webcam to a gesture-sensitive trackpad.
I’ve been testing a 27-inch model with a 3.1Ghz Core i5 chip (the biggest, fastest stock model currently available at the Apple Store), and it may sound silly, but it’s almost too much machine for my needs. The screen is so big, I have to sit back lest I get motion sickness. And the i5 chip has power to spare for someone like me, who doesn’t do high-end video or graphics work.
Still, I’ll take it. If the chip is too powerful now, it sure won’t be in a couple of years.
Working With Three HD Screens
I picked up the new iMac as a day-to-day work machine. My old work computer was an ageing Mac Pro, which constantly froze thanks to a flaky graphics card. The USB ports were too feeble to charge my iPad, and the DVD drive made a horrible grinding sound. It drove me crazy.
But I held off replacing it until this week, when Apple updated the iMac to Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors, a big step up from the Core 2 Duo chips used in previous generations of the iMac (They Core duo is capable, but is basically a portable chip).
I picked up a 27-inch iMac on Tuesday and have been using it all week. With two 21-inch external monitors attached either side, it’s a productivity beast. I’ve got email, IM and other communication tools displayed on the screen to the right; Safari, Tweetdeck and Word on the middle screen; and Woopra and other website-monitoring tools to the left.
I used to have the two 21-inch HD screens hooked to the Mac Pro. Now they sandwich the iMac — and yes, three screens is better. I find it much easier to multitask this way (I never could get used to the virtual desktops in Spaces).
My computer desktop now stretches across the full width of my big oversized desk – almost five feet of screens and 5400 pixels across (1920+2560+1920 pixels). I have to physically move my head to look from one corner of the iMac to another, and even more so with the two external monitors.
I use a standing desk, so moving around isn’t a problem, it’s an advantage. But I did have to push the iMac all the way to the back of the desk otherwise I’d get sick looking at it, like sitting too close to the screen at the movie theater.
Many people won’t want or need such a set-up, and the big 27-inch screen is plenty big enough for most needs.
The All-Important Screen
The screen resolution is 2560×1440, which makes it 109ppi (the new 21.5-inch iMac has a 1920×1080 screen resolution or 102ppi). It’s a 16:9 aspect ratio, the same international standard format of HDTVs. And like HDTVs, it’s LED-backlit, which means it instantly reaches full brightness and offers consistent illumination across the full length of the screen. I can’t see any light blotches, dead pixels or other blemishes. It’s 27-inches of big bright high-resolution screen.
In fact, it’s so bright Apple included an ambient light sensor to automatically dial it down in darker settings. It’s a thoughtful touch, typical of Apple’s penchant for sweating the details. In a darkened room (or when you hold hand over the sensor), the screen dims to about 50% brightness.
The screen is glossy, but I don’t have a problem with that. I know glossy screens drive some people nuts. I think it makes the colors pop, and I haven’t had trouble with reflections. Your mileage may vary. There are anti-glare films on the market; unfortunately, Apple doesn’t offer an anti-glare screen option as it does with MacBook Pros.
The screen has a 178 degree viewing angle, which means brightness and color accuracy are consistent even when looking from the sides.
In The Box + Setup
The box is minimal: the iMac, a power cable, a mini wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse (or Magic Trackpad as an option); a booklet and software restore disks.
I was disappointed to see it came with Styrofoam packaging: I wish Apple would make greater use of environmentally friendly packaging.
The great thing about the iMac is that it’s ready to go as soon as you pull it from the box. Plug it in, connect to a wireless network, answer a few setup questions and it’s ready to go. There’s no monitor to hook up, no webcam to plug in.
Great Design, Super Build Quality
The new iMac looks the same as the old iMac – why mess with success? – but under the hood, it’s a whole new computer. It’s big and heavy. The 27-inch machine is a hefty lump of aluminum and glass. I almost got a hernia lifting it from the box. It weighs 30lbs.
As you’d expect, it’s very well made. It’s as seamless as the iPhone. There are no external screws or visible join lines between the aluminum body and the glass screen.
The back is one big slab of gracefully formed aluminum. It’s so good looking; it’s a shame to hide it around the back. It sits on a hefty curved aluminum pedestal that’s spring loaded, allowing the screen to be easily tilted but also to stay in position when moved.
Around the back there’s the power plug, 2 Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort, 4 USB 2.0 ports, Firewire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, minijack audio in, and audio out.
There is an SD card slot on the machine’s right-hand side – an essential inclusion for me. I use it all the time for uploading digital pictures.
Piping Hot Performance
The iMac I’m testing is a 3.1GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 with 4GB of RAM (two 2GB sticks) and a 1TB hard drive. It has an AMD Radeon HD 6970M graphics card with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory.
All of this all upgradeable: the chip can be upgraded to a 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7; the RAM boosted to 8GB on all models and 16GB on select machines; and the hard drive to 2TB plus a 256GB solid-state drive; and the GPU’s video memory can be upgraded to 2GB.
Thanks to the quad-core Sandy Bridge architecture, Apple has managed to significantly boost the iMac’s performance without raising the price. The iMac lineup cost the same as last year’s models, but Apple says they are up to 70 percent faster than their predecessors.
Independent benchmarks don’t score quite as high, but do show significant improvement. Early Geekbench scores collected by Primate Labs show they are across-the-board 25% faster than predecessors, and 70% faster than the 2009 Core Duo 2 models.
For example, the 27-inch 3.4Ghz Core i7 iMac scored a Geekbench score of 11602, beating the score of 9124 for the mid-2010 iMac (2.93Ghz chip).
However, the tests exclude some high-end configurations that are not yet available, and ignore the effects of SSDs and the improved GPUs, so real-world performance is likely to be much better.
There’s a dramatic jump in graphics power. The iMacs are based on AMD’s high-end GPUs, the Radeon HD, which offer 3x better performance than previous machines, Apple says. They are capable of running the latest, most-demanding games at the highest detail settings.
I found that the 27-inch iMac’s AMD Radeon HD 6970M card is capable of delivering HD video to 3 large-format screens simultaneously.
Here are some simple real-world tests I performed:
  • Startup: 30 secs
  • Converting 735MB .AVI movie (The Warriors) to MP4 — 15 mins 59 secs.
  • Converting 10 album tracks from WMV to AAC (Radiohead’s The King of Limbs) — 59 secs
  • Converting 2hr DJ mix to AAC – 2 mins 20 secs
  • Compressing 735MB file — 40 secs
Perhaps the best upgrade is 250GB SSD drive, which Apple will preload with the operating system and applications. The SSD makes the iMac almost instant on, and programs like Adobe Photoshop load instantly, according to reports.
If Apple didn’t have a 4-6 week wait on the SSD option, I would have taken it. It is possible to add a SSD yourself at a later date. It’s an involved procedure, but not too difficult.
Even without the SSD option, the machine can fly. CNet found that the new iMac is the best all-round performer among the current crop of all-in-ones, compared to machines from Sony, Dell and HP.
Lots of Slots
Another big change under the hood is the inclusion of a pair of Thunderbolt ports.
Developed in conjunction with Intel, Thunderbolt is a new protocol for connecting high-speed peripherals and HD monitors. It offers simultaneous 10Gbps throughput for both data and video, and will greatly simplify the connection and variety of peripheral devices.
It is up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and twice as fast as USB 3.0. It’s a single cable that consolidates almost all existing ports, from FireWire to USB to Mini DisplayPort to eSATA. This is one cable to rule them all.
Multiple high-speed, data-intensive devices and multiple displays can be daisy chained to the same port without using a hub… and without reducing performance.
The first Thunderbolt peripherals won’t ship until the summer, so it’s not possible to test performance. However, as you see above, the ports do power a pair of external monitors. The monitors tie up both two ports, of course, but when Thunderbolt monitors ship they’ll be able to daisy chain peripherals.
Some critics have questioned whether Apple should have opted for USB 3 instead of Thunderbolt. There may be a marketplace battle between USB 3 and Thunderbolt, and the iMac could be in the cold if USB 3 takes off for consumer devices, and Thunderbolt is restricted to pro markets like high-end video and multimedia.
Another omission that’s vexing critics is Blu-ray. The iMac comes with 8x slot-loading SuperDrive CD/DVD player/burner, but no Blu-ray drive.
For a machine with such a great screen, it seems kind of a shame it can’t be used to watch Blu-ray movies. Neither can it be used as an external monitor for Blu-ray players. Apple says it can be used as a target monitor for Thunderbolt peripherals (which aren’t out yet), but not over Mini DisplayPort (or HDMI, which it also lacks).
Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad?
The iMac ships with either the Magic Mouse or the Magic Trackpad. Previously, customers could pay an extra $69 to get the Magic Trackpad as an option. It can now be bundled with the iMac instead of the Magic Mouse – or both for an extra $69.
I’ve been a dedicated Magic Trackpad user for several months. It’s great, intuitive and easy to use — by far the best replacement for a mouse ever. Get the Magic Trackpad.
FaceTime HD camera
The built-in FaceTime camera has also gotten an upgrade. It now records in 720p, making videocalls in unsettling high-resolution. (Luckily, I’m not the one who has to see my spotty face in HD). It can be used to make free FaceTime calls to other Intel Macs, the iPad 2, iPhone 4, and the latest iPod touch.
The FaceTime HD camera sits in the middle of the top screen bezel. There’s a small green camera-indicator light, which glows when the camera is on.
The microphone sits on the top of the iMac to minimize feedback from the speakers, which are on the bottom of the screen enclosure, pointing down. Despite looking like a small group of pinpricks, the microphone is surprisingly sensitive. It carried my voice fine as I paced around the room while making Skype calls. The speakers too are adequate for the machine, transmitting fine sound detail and producing a hefty bass punch.
Don’t Forget the Software
Apple’s machines come standard with a great suite of software – a fact that’s often overlooked. It includes best-of-breed applications like iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand for making music. Another bonus is that there’s never ever any crapware.
Downsides
  • No Blu-Ray.
  • It gets hot – very hot. Not too hot to touch, but getting there. You can feel the heat on your face if you get within 18 inches. Great if you live in a cold country, not so good in the tropics.
  • It’s not cheap. You can buy an Asus Eee Top all-in-one from Walmart for $889 – less than half the price of the iMac. But trust me, it’s a POS (I used an earlier model for a while. Not even the kids would take it as a hand-me-down). The iMac’s not cheap, but it is money well spent.
  • The GPU is the 6970M, a mobile graphics card, rather than the full 6970. Space and cooling is likely the limiting factor.
  • All the ports are on the back. It makes for a nice neat front, but you have spin the machine around to plug anything in.
  • No USB 3.0 or HDMI.
  • The keyboard is tiny and there’s no forward delete button, which drives me nuts. It looks comically small cowering beneath the monster screen.
Conclusion
Rating: ★★★★½ 
The iMac is a great all-in-one desktop machine for a reasonable price. The entry-level iMac starts at $1,199 and the cheapest 27-inch iMac is $1,699. If you stump for the i7 chip, available as a build-to-order option, it’s a performance beast.
For now, the iMac is the fastest, baddest box in Apple’s desktop line. That’ll change when Apple updates the Mac Pro with Sandy Bridge and Thunderbolt. But until then, the iMac can’t be pipped in performance – and definitely not in looks and overall package.
If you push pixels or video all day, the higher-end iMacs offer everything you need: plenty of muscle and a gorgeous big screen. Plus with Thunderbolt, you’ll always be able to add storage that’s as fast as anything inside the case.
  • Beautiful high-density main display, and up to three screens.
  • Screaming fast GPU that can handle the latest games on the highest detail settings.
  • Fast, capable, and a ton of fun to drive.
  • Built-in HD webcam that makes free video calls.
Any Questions?
Please leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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