Pity the poor iMac. In an ecosystem that boasts iPad 2s, MacBook Airs and iPhone 4s, Apple’s all-in-one desktop stalwart looks like the old stand-by. It’s had a few design changes over the years, going from a plastic enclosure to aluminum and getting that glossy edge-to-edge glass display, but it’s never been quite as sexy as the other offerings in Apple’s product lines. Cupertino-built handhelds make you want to pick them up and lick them. If you did that with an iMac, you’d probably get a hernia.
But new iMacs have arrived and the most radical thing about them is what’s on the inside. Apple’s introducing Intel’s quad-core SandyBridge chip architecture to the iMacs for this year and at first blush, that decision’s a bit of a head-scratcher. If a person wanted all that processing power, the Mac Pro towers were previously the way to go, since the iMac all-in-ones have traditionally been marketed as student or family-friendly options. So, is this new souped-up iMac for you? Let’s run it down and see.
Pricing and Package:
The new iMacs come in two sizes: 21.5″ and 27″. As these things go, the more screen real estate you get the more coin you shell out. The 21.5-inch starts at $1,199, which gets you 2.5 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, AMD Radeon HD 6750M for graphics and 500GB hard drive. As for the 27-incher, a starting price of $1,699 gets you a 2.7 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, AMD Radeon HD 6770M and 1TB hard drive. You can special-order faster i7 processors, SSD storage and more RAM at extra cost, too. But the baseline configurations in both sizes are a very good buy for your money.
It’s been standard that you get a wireless Bluetooth keyboard and Apple’s Magic Mouse with the latter-day iMacs and that’s still the case here. (If you’re buying online and want the Magic Trackpad as your input device, you can choose that at no extra cost.) There’s a handy SD card slot right next to the disc opening, too. OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard comes pre-installed. You also get their iLife lifestyle software suite with iMovie, iPhoto and iTunes, along with the addition of the Mac App Store that was announced last year.
Simply put, this thing is fast, quiet and pretty. Applications launch instantly, with hardly one bounce in the Dock before they’re ready to go. The kinds of everyday tasks that I used to dread doing on my old iMac and that would cause my MacBook Pro to get dangerously hot–editing video or importing tons of pictures at once–get handled without breaking a sweat.
One of the more significant changes is the Thunderbolt I/O port. Thunderbolt’s a new supercharged connection protocol, that allows for simultaneous upload and download channels at speeds up to 10
GB Gbits/second for each stream. This means that, for example, if you’re editing video off of Thunderbolt-connected storage, you’re hardly seeing any appreciable lag. The form factor of the Thunderbolt port is just like the DisplayPort but the beefier capability lets you pump out video to three displays. But, new connection protocols mean new hardware and there’s just not a lot out there yet that will let you take advantage of Thunderbolt. There will be, though, and it’s an enticing proposition for the power user looking for a new desktop machine. It should be noted that the 27-inch iMac like the one I tested comes with not one, but two Thunderbolt ports, so you can go crazy with all you Thunderbolting needs.
The new Facetime HD camera comes with a wide-angle lens, which easily captures a broad field of view for those video chats with the entire family. Since it’s Facetime, you can do video calls to iPhone 4 and the latest iPod Touch models, too.
The display sports a 2560 x 1440 resolution, meaning that images and video pop. The backlit screen shows off hi-res pictures amazingly well, letting you pick out individual strands of hair in photos. That glossy glass screen does throw off tons of glare, though, and no anti-glare option is currently available. Point ye olde iMac away from any windows if you want to get any work done. The heavy lifting’s being done by an AMD Radeon HD 6970 graphics processor and it delivers surprising performance for a GPU in an all-in-one. Downloaded from Steam and without turning any sliders down, Portal 2 runs like a dream on this iMac. It’s not going to supplant a custom-config Alienware or Maingear gaming tower but it’s a better-than-respectable option for PC gamers who just happen to be OS X lovers.
The 2011 iMacs deliver a whole lot of computer for their asking price. With Intel’s quad-core i5s or i7s on board, it’s almost more than a middle-of-the-road user would need and handles basic usage smoothly. That said, would-be purchasers should note that the rockbottom configuration at $1,199 isn’t terribly configurable. If you want more oomph, you’re going to have spend more. The most intriguing aspect of the new all-in-one is how it could be used as a perfectly competent A/V rig for all those Final Cut, Aperture and GarageBand jockeys out there. The screen doesn’t skimp on brightness or detail and the GPU is second only to AMD’s 6990. Dreams do come true: you won’t get laughed out of the room if you mention you’re playing games on a Mac. Thunderbolt’s really too new to say how much of a game-changer it’s going to be. But, the flexibility and capability it provides–for displays, for data transfer and whatever other implementations come down the pike–means that these iMacs won’t feel obsolete or under-powered anytime soon.