iMac Review

Let’s face it – the iMac, Apple’s flagship consumer desktop model, was long overdue a facelift. The iMac G5 arrived in August 2004, and 2006’s Intel iMacs looked identical to that model. Now though, the iMac has been given a complete makeover, and a performance hike to boot. Gone is the distinctive snow-white iMac case – the latest iMac replaces much of the body with a solid piece of anodized aluminium – taking a cue from the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro models.

Another thing you’ll notice right away when looking at the iMac in profile is that it looks thinner than the old design. Looking down from the top or from the sides the case looks very sleek, but since the back of the iMac bulges a bit more than before, the overall depth is about the same – it’s somewhat of an optical illusion, but a very effective one.

Putting some gloss on
Until now, all iMacs have had matte screens. The current lineup features a piece of glass covering the front of the display, which gives it a much more reflective quality (similar to that of the MacBook and glossy-screen MacBook Pro).

Opinions on the glossy style of screen remain very much divided. The glass makes the display look bright and crisp. Colours pop, the blacks look rich, and images are very pleasing. On the other hand it can be potentially problematic under certain lighting conditions. The monitor’s high level of reflectivity means that if your iMac is set up in a place with a lot of light (by a window, for example), the display will act like a mirror – especially where the screen is dark or black, say, when you’re watching a letterboxed movie or looking at a black and white image.

But that brings up another issue – the colour shift that happens as you move your head to more extreme viewing angles. Especially on the 20-inch models, we noticed some rather strong shifts in colour and contrast, including colours looking washed out, as we viewed the screen from above and side to side. Apple says the 20-inch model has a viewing angle of 160 degrees (both up and down and side to side), which is 10 per cent less than the 24-inch model’s 178 degrees.

The difference was very noticeable when viewing the two sizes next to each other, with the 24-inch model retaining much better colour and contrast as you move around it. The 24-inch model is also 31 per cent brighter than the 20-inch iMac, which, surprisingly, wasn’t as obvious as the much smaller variation in viewing angle.

The iMac comes in 20- and 24-inch sizes only. Apple abandoned the old standard 17-inch size, presumably because most customers bought larger displays anyway. We think this is a good decision, because we’ve considered the 20-inch size to be the sweet spot for some time – it’s big enough to offer 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution, and at the same price as the 2GHz 17-inch model of before. And, with only two sizes, the 24-inch, 1,920-by-1,200-pixel model doesn’t feel like such an extravagance (plus, that size is now £200 less than before).

The new iMac includes a new iSight camera that blends almost perfectly into the black screen border – fixing the one blemish on the front of the previous model. As with other iSights, Apple’s software limits its resolution to 640 x 480 pixels, which provides good quality video and stills. The microphone is now located at the top of the display, and has eight tiny laser-cut holes for picking up sound. It looks elegant, and the person on the other end of a video chat had no problem hearing us talk.

The RAM access door is still located at the bottom of the iMac. But there are a few differences in this model. The new iMac uses a single screw (instead of two) to attach the RAM door – which Steve Jobs says
is the only external screw on the entire computer.

Thin is in
The most radically redesigned element to the new iMac – and the most controversial – isn’t part of the computer itself, but rather the keyboard that accompanies it. The new keyboard uses the same type of keys (with identical spacing) as the MacBook, but placed atop a thin piece of aluminium that matches the iMac’s body.

As MacBook owners will testify, you do quickly come to enjoy these new keys. And they carry over well to the iMac’s keyboard too. While they don’t provide you with the same degree of tactile or auditory feedback as the previous iMac keyboard, the keys feel soft and comfortable.

The keyboard’s thin design also gives it a sleek, modern look. But more than that, the fact that the front edge is only about one-third of an inch high means that it keeps your wrists and hands in a more natural, arched position (something piano players learn early). That hand position is generally considered more ergonomic, and doesn’t require a wrist rest.

This keyboard is also the first from Apple to include USB 2.0 ports built-in (previous keyboards have been limited to slower USB 1.1) speeds. Apple also tells us that the keyboard acts as a USB 2.0 hub, giving enough power to plug in one USB device (iPod, iPhone, digital camera, and so on) so that it will work the same as plugging it into one of the three USB 2.0 ports on the iMac’s back.

Apple has also changed some aspects of the keyboard configuration. Most of the first 12 function keys (there are now 19) serve double duty, with dedicated keys for brightness control, Exposé and Dashboard activation, system volume, as well as iTunes controls for play/pause, previous track, and next track.

In some ways, we think the keyboard design is more of a triumph than the iMac itself (and for £29, you can add it to an existing Mac), and we highly suggest giving it a chance before writing it off as being too different. For £33.99, you can also upgrade to the new Bluetooth mouse and keyboard.

Technology boost
Except for the £679, 17-inch iMac, all of the previous-generation iMacs were on equal footing in several key areas – and that trend continues here.

All models tested here include 1GB of RAM in a single slot. The top-end Core 2 Extreme 2.8GHz model (£1,459) will be tested by Macworld at a later date.

For many people, 1GB of RAM will be enough. But as a system that’s now geared to appeal to both consumers and pros alike, Apple makes it easy to add RAM in the free slot. And the iMac can now address 4GB of RAM (up from 3GB in the previous versions) with dual 2GB SO-DIMMs.

The new iMacs include the latest Core 2 Duo processors from Intel in 2GHz and 2.4GHz speeds (plus the aforementioned 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo Extreme option). The previous models ranged from 1.83GHz to 2.16GHz in the standard configurations. Those new chips include a faster system bus as well – up from 667MHz to 800MHz, which theoretically speeds up the line of communication between the iMac’s processor and the main memory (although the RAM still runs at 667MHz, so the benefit isn’t noticeable right now).

Driving seat
Hard drive space has improved from 160GB to 250GB on the low-end model, and 250GB to 320GB on the oher models. And Apple now offers up to 1TB of storage for the 24-inch model with a single drive (for an additional £350).

There are still three USB 2.0 ports on the back, but Apple added a neat feature that lets you charge an iPod from one of these ports even when your iMac is sleeping. Previously the computer had to be both on and awake to charge your iPod. Plus, a FireWire 800 port comes standard on all iMac models (previously only the 24-inch model had one). That means 20-inch users lose one standard FireWire 400 port to make room for the FireWire 800 support. For tasks such as plugging in a backup hard drive, that extra data bandwidth really comes in handy – yet another nod to the pro user.

The mini-DVI port lets you connect to an external monitor of up to 1,920 x 1,200-pixel resolution (the same as Apple’s 23-inch Cinema HD Display) for either mirroring what’s on your screen or extending your desktop to another display.

The built-in speakers (located at the bottom of the case; audio comes out through holes on the side of the RAM access door) sound very good, meaning you don’t necessarily need to buy an external speaker system to enjoy music, movies, or games on the iMac.

All models also include an 8x CD- and DVD-burning SuperDrive, but dual-layer writing has increased from 2.4x to 4x speeds since the last round of iMacs.

Under the hood
Design is an important component to any Mac, but a computer has to do more than sit around looking pretty. In our general usage, all models felt snappy and responsive. Our labs also ran all three models through our standard suite of tests to see how well they perform, as well as how they compare to the best of the last generation of iMacs. The internal changes between old and new iMacs are minimal, but the latest crop does show some improvements. The current 2GHz 20-inch model eked out one more point than the previous high-end system, the 2.16GHz 24-inch in our Speedmark suite – virtually the same performance for £550 less. The one area where the new model really lagged was in Unreal Tournament 2004 frame rates; the graphics processor in the 2GHz 20-inch model managed 21 per cent fewer frames per second than the top of the line (at the time) video card in the older iMac, which had twice the graphics memory.

As you might expect, the two new 2.4GHz models performed nearly identically (the only difference between them being the display size). Each bested the old high-end model by almost 10 per cent in the Speedmark score. Those new iMacs shaved 11 seconds off the Adobe Photoshop CS3 test (a 16 per cent improvement), 16 seconds off our zip archive creation test (11 per cent better), and 7 seconds off encoding a CD as MP3 files (also 11 per cent improvement). So you can expect very modest speed gains over the previous generation of iMacs.

The new iMacs use ATI Radeon HD series graphics processors. The graphical performance of both the Radeon HD 2400 XT and the Radeon HD 2600 leaves the new iMac in the mainstream performance category when it comes to games and 3D applications, but it also paves the way for future capabilities. The Unified Shader Architecture touted by Apple and ATI/AMD will make it easier for game developers and others to show off fancy new special effects in their software. The new chips can also perform 128-bit High Dynamic Range (HDR) rendering, which will give games more intense, realistic lighting and shadows. As with the low-end model, the only place where the faster iMacs really fell behind was in the Unreal Tournament test (albeit only slightly), illustrating that the new graphics have a lot of future potential that’s not showing up in our tests – which will make your iMac last longer before becoming outdated (a very big concern in the tech world).

OUR VERDICT

With large displays, room for a lot of internal storage and RAM, and a striking new design, the latest iMacs are a nice step forward – and good value to boot. Performance gains are minimal over the last iMacs, but as computers that straddle the line between consumer and professional systems, they offer enough to people on both ends of the spectrum to be worth serious consideration. The two biggest changes – the glossy display and new keyboard – may have more of an impact on your buying decision than anything inside the iMacs.If you’re looking for a performance-for-the-price model, then the 2.4GHz 20-inch iMac (£949) is the most well-rounded of the group.

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