Benchmarks: 'Ultimate' iMac gets boost from PCIe flash storage, faster CPU

By James Galbraith, Macworld |  Hardware, desktops, iMac

The new 2013 come in four standard configurations, two 21.5-inch models and two with 27-inch screens. As with most Macs, though, these new iMacs can be configured to order (CTO) at the time of purchase with an assortment of storage, processor, graphics and RAM options. Macworld Lab has an "ultimate" configuration iMac that combines most of these upgrades, promising higher performance for those willing to pay the price.

Our CTO 27-inch iMac takes the $1999, high-end configuration and upgrades the processor from a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i5 processor to a 3.5GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, a $200 option. The memory stays at 8GB, though 16GB and 32GB upgrades are available through the Apple Store for $200 and $600, respectively. Our ultimate iMac also upgrades the standard 1TB, 7200-rpm hard drive to a 3TB Fusion Drive, a $350 upgrade. Finally, our iMac has the upgraded graphics card as well, opting for an Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M with 4GB of video memory over the standard GTX 775M with 2GB of RAM. With these $700 in upgrades, the retail price of our CTO iMac came to $2699.

And just what kind of performance improvement can you expect if you spend the extra dollars? Unfortunately, we don't have the current $1999 model to use as a baseline, but we did have the 2012 Ultimate iMac, as well as last year's top-of-line, standard configuration iMac.

In our system performance benchmark suite, Speedmark 8, the new CTO iMac was 6% faster, overall, than last year's custom iMac, a 27-inch model with a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i7 (Ivy Bridge) processor, 1TB Fusion Drive, 8GB RAM, and Nvidia GeForce GT 680MX graphics with 2GB of video RAM. The new custom iMac was 48% faster than last year's top of the line iMac and 57% faster than the new entry-level 21.5-inch iMac.

Much of the performance differences we see when comparing the new CTO iMac to the old standard configuration models are due to the custom system's fast Fusion Drive. Fusion Drive marries a speedy 128GB flash storage drive to a roomy hard drive, giving Fusion Drive the high capacity of a hard drive, but the performance of an SSD. Copying 6GB of files and folders from one spot on the drive to another took nearly two and a half minutes on last year's high-end iMac with 1TB 7200 rpm drive. The new CTO iMac with a 3TB Fusion drive took 35 seconds to complete the task. The flash storage on the new CTO iMac is connected via PCIe, which Apple says can deliver up to 50% faster performance. Our file copy test was 14% faster on the 3TB Flash Drive in our new custom iMac than on the 1TB Flash Drive in last year's CTO iMac.

We ran Blackmagic's Disk Speed Test on both new and old CTO iMacs and saw that write speeds were similar, 312MB per second on the new iMac versus 306MB per second on the old iMac. The reading score, however, was 43% faster on the new system, with the PCIe-connected Fusion Drive reading data at a very impressive 581MB per second.

The premium GeForce GTX 780M graphics in the new CTO iMac helped the system achieve a 29% higher frame rate than last year's iMac in the Cinebench r11.5 OpenGL test. Interestingly, the new CTO iMac's frame rates in this test were only 10% faster than the Iris Pro integrated graphics found in the entry-level iMac, which outperformed both of last year's 27-inch iMacs with their discreet graphics.

During the course of our testing, Maxon updated their Cinebench benchmark to version r15. The updated tests in the new version take advantage of new features and technologies, and they show the new CTO's GeForce GTX 780M in a much more favorable light, with frame rates nearly doubling from version r11.5 to r15. The new entry-level iMac with its Iris Pro integrated graphics didn't fare as well on the version of the benchmark, dropping its frame rate by 26% in r15 versus its r11.5 results.

Also interesting were our Portal 2 test results. In our standard Speedmark Portal 2 test, which we run on everything (including five-year-old MacBook Airs), the new CTO 27-inch iMac had 11% higher frame rates than last year's custom iMac. The new CTO was also 23% higher than last year's high-end standard configuration iMac and 36% higher frame rates than the current low-end 21.5-inch iMac. Cranking up Portal 2's quality settings and resolution to 2650 by 1440, we saw frame rates on both the newer and older CTO iMacs drop. The new model's frame rates dropped further, though, allowing last year's custom iMac to post about 6% higher frames per second.

We also ran the Heaven and Valley graphics benchmarks on our iMacs and found that at 1920 by 800 resolution, last year's CTO iMac was 9% and 6% faster, respectively, than the new CTO model, but between four and five times as fast as the 2013 21.5-inch entry-level iMac. At full screen resolution and higher quality settings, last year's custom iMac again surpassed the new CTO iMac by a frame or two per second.

In terms of CPU performance, the new Haswell quad-core 3.5GHz i7 was about 8% faster than the 3.4GHz Ivy Bridge quad-core i7 from last year's custom iMac, 30% faster than last year's high-end iMac, and 35% faster than the new 21.5-inch iMac in the Cinebench CPU test. Again, Cinebench results showed a higher performance gap than other tests. Handbrake tests, for example, showed the new custom iMac to be just one percent faster than last year's CTO model, 5% faster than last year's high end, and 21% faster than the new 21.5-inch low-end iMac. Mathematicamark was half of a percent faster on the new custom iMac than on last year's similar model and 8% faster than the new low end iMac.

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