A few days ago, Apple sent along one of its new 24-inch iMacs for review purposes.
The iMac features a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor, including the Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT video card with 256MB of video RAM, and stuffed with 2GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.
But you can forget all about the inner workings when it comes to pulling this particular all-in-one desktop computer out of the box. The only thing you're going to notice right away will be the screen. As it tugged it out of the box, two or three other online editors popped up to oooh and aaah, and one of Computerworld's graphics gurus - who has a year-old G5-based iMac - admitted flat out that he was "drooling".
And he wasn't talking about the fast Core 2 Duo processor. I haven't seen Mac hardware get this much attention since I pulled out a Mac mini when they were first introduced in early 2005.
Apparently, when it comes to Apple hardware, size matters - whether it's really small or really big. And if you haven't seen the 24-inch iMac, I can tell you, it's really big. And with a screen resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, it's perfect for working with graphics and video in a way that makes smaller computers seem downright puny. (And I'm including my own personal favourite, the 17-inch MacBook Pro, in that latter camp.)
In fact, not five minutes after I pulled it from the box, we were already showing off a co-worker's vacation pictures from Iceland in a slide show that drew even more attention than the initial iMac unveiling.
In other words, if you do go out and buy an iMac, for productivity's sake, don't open it up at work.
In case you missed the 6 September announcement, Apple updated its entire iMac lineup, pushing the envelope at both the top and bottom end of the price universe. At the bottom end is a 17in version that just slips under the magic $1,000 price point by a dollar. And while it's a fully capable entry-level machine, buyers will be hard-pressed not to opt for spending a little more cash on an iMac with a faster processor, twice the RAM, more shared Level 2 cache, a SuperDrive and dedicated video RAM. In other words, if you're seriously eyeing the £679 model, figure out a way to scrape up the extra £120 for the next model up. It's worth it.
Apple also updated the former top-of-the-line 20-inch iMac, and dropped the price on it to £999. If you don't need 24in of screen real estate, this is the best buy in my book.
But if you do need the big screen, or even if you don't but can't resist getting it anyway, the 24in version is absolutely sure to please. It may not have quite the horsepower of the Mac Pro desktop machines, but it's got more than enough for about 90 per cent of users.
"The whole line is faster and more affordable," said Laura Metz, product manager for desktops at Apple. "The Core 2 Duo processor is up to 2.33GHz [and offers] up to 50 per cent faster performance than what was previously available with the Core Duo processor in the earlier iMacs. We want to put more and more performance in a desktop computer."
According to Metz, the new processor - which is not only faster in raw processing power but uses a different architecture and 4MB of Level 2 cache for another speed boost - turns in real-world performance that is between 30 per cent and 50 per cent faster than the previous generation of iMacs. "Whether it's from the moment you turn on the computer to searching the web or doing more intensive tasks on things like Final Cut Pro, it's our nature to want things to be faster," she said.
Indeed, the new iMac feels subjectively faster in terms of surfing the web with Safari, editing photos in iPhoto or working with other universal applications that have been updated to run natively on Intel-based Macs. Startup times from the familiar Mac chime until the desktop appeared averaged about 20 seconds; the iMac also runs a different version of Mac OS X 10.4.7 - in this case, build No. 8K1123. Running Xbench, the iMac 24 clocked in with a speed rating of 135.17.
By contrast, the current 17-inch MacBook Pro - with 2GB RAM, a 2.16GHz Core Duo processor and a stock 120GB 5,400-rpm hard drive - clocked in with a startup time of 35 seconds and an overall Xbench score of 90.36. The major differences, not surprisingly, were in the CPU test, graphics tests and hard drive speed. The Core 2 Duo processor in the iMac, for instance, zipped to an Xbench score of 118.26, while the laptop clocked in with a rating of 74.92. And I thought my MacBook Pro was fast!
In addition to the new Intel processor, this particular iMac comes with the more expensive graphics card offered by Apple, the Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT, with 256MB of video RAM. While the upgrade costs an extra £80, that extra bit of money not only doubles the amount of video RAM, but it also gives buyers "the fastest we've offered in an iMac," according to Metz. "It's a very significant bump." Given the size of the screen and the fact that upgrading video RAM down the road is well-nigh impossible, it's an expense I'd definitely make if I were buying.
As for the 24in display, other than the 30-inch Apple Cinema Display - which is in a league all its own - I've never seen a screen showing off videos, slide shows and photos as nicely as this one. According to Metz, it's 40 per cent brighter than earlier iMac displays, and that extra brightness shows here in the office, where I'm surrounded by windows and bright light from outside. In fact, it makes my 17-inch MacBook Pro look downright dim when the two are placed side by side.
I did note that the resolution, while high, could be even a bit higher given the overall size of the screen. Apple has long been known for trying to keep its screen resolutions to about 100 pixels per inch (PPI). The higher the PPI, the sharper things look - although they also appear smaller. This particular screen has a PPI of 94. So Apple could safely bump the resolution up on future models and still be in its preferred 100 PPI range. (Hey, I can dream, right?)
For now, Apple officials are focused on the model at hand, which Metz said is aimed at keeping with a "faster is better" theme. Bigger is better, too, she said.
"All users, whether it's me at home working with photos or reading webpages, we're all multitasking now," she said. "We're doing more. A lot of pros even add a second monitor to have an extended desktop, so the concept [is] that people want more display size. They want more real estate to work with."
The 24in display offers 30 per cent more screen than the 20-inch model, Metz said, something readily apparent as soon as you pull the iMac from its box. It's the kind of display, she said, that's tailor-made for something like watching DVDs or working with digital graphics. "It is a beautiful system to look at," Metz added. It also sounds darn good, too. As with earllier iMac iterations, this one has downward-firing speakers that point sound at the desktop. The bigger diplay means bigger speakers, and while it's not likely to replace your AV system at home, the built-in sound system uses four 6-watt digital amplifiers offering a noticeable jump in maximum volume and clarity. The sound from the speakers is about the only sound users will hear by the way. It's as quiet as a mouse.
So, if I were in the market for an iMac, is this one the I'd get? Given my penchant for computing speed and size, I'd have to say yes. But I'd likely cut a few corners when outfitting it in an effort to save a few dollars. According to Metts, the speed difference between the standard 2.16GHz and the 2.33GHz chips is linear, meaning most users won't notice a big difference from the extra 170MHz. While I'm all for getting the fastest processor possible, I'd probably stick with the basic chip and the stock 250GB hard drive. Savings: £170.
I'd opt, however, for the faster video card with more video RAM - extra cost £80 - and I might even go ahead and buy the additional 1GB of RAM I'd want from Apple. Here's why: the iMac comes with 1GB of RAM, but it uses two 512MB RAM modules. To buy my own 2GB of RAM, I'd have to ditch the modules that come with the iMac and try to sell them myself. Yes, Apple's RAM tends to be more expensive, but in this case, getting memory on my own from my usual third-party supplier is going to cost more than buying directly from Apple. Total cost for my 24-inch iMac: $£1,549.
I asked Metz how the new iMac is selling, and whether it is meeting Apple's expectations. She declined to get into specifics, except to say: "It has gotten very favourable response."
If the attention slathered on it here is any sign, I'd say there'll be quite a few of these things showing up on desks and in living rooms and offices in the coming months. Just follow the crowd.
Editor's postscript: I had seen reports late last week that Apple's Boot Camp software wouldn't work on the 24-inch iMac. An updated version, Boot Camp 1.1.1, that the company has just released solves that problem. And no, Release Candidate 1 of Windows Vista wouldn't install. So if you're planning to run Windows on a new iMac, you're stuck with Windows XP for now.