Apple's latest iMac looks great, even faster

Remember the old ad campaign for Miller Lite? "Tastes great, less filling."

The latest update to Apple's iMac line, which rolled out in May, in a way reminds me of that. Apple left unchanged the minimalist aluminum-and-glass design while switching to Intel's Sandy Bridge processors, AMD graphics chips and adding the new Thunderbolt port for high-speed connections with peripherals.

The new iMac still looks great, and it's even faster.

That sums up what Apple has done with its all-in-ones, with the biggest change being the introduction of Thunderbolt, a technology that's definitely still ahead of the curve but could prove to be quite popular down the road.

Specs and prices

Like the previous generation, this iMac lineup starts at $1,199 for a 21.5-in. model with a 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution screen and $1,699 for a 27-in. version, which sports 2560-by-1440-pixel resolution. There's also a high-end $1,999 model, which comes with a 3.1GHz quadcore i5 processor; this is the model Apple provided for my review.

All iMacs feature Intel's Core i5 quadcore processors (and you can upgrade to an i7 if you need more speed), a 720p wide-angle FaceTime camera for high-definition video chats, 4GB of memory, and at least 512MB of video memory. The entry-level model uses an AMD Radeon HD 6750M video card with 512MB of RAM; the pricier iMacs rely on the AMD Radeon HD 6970M with 1GB of video memory. (You can double that to 2GB on the 27-in. iMac, but it'll cost you $100.) The $1,199 model has a 500GB hard drive; the rest come with 1TB of storage, which can be expanded to 2GB or combined with a solid-state drive for a more responsive machine.

All of the changes Apple made to the lineup match the company's past practice of beefing up hardware while leaving prices intact, yielding a thoroughly modern all-in-one computer, with a sharp, bright screen that's perfect for editing movies, organizing/editing photos, watching streaming video or making your own presentations. Best of all, the iMacs come with Apple's iLife suite of apps -- iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand, iDVD and iWeb. I still haven't found any software quite as intuitive -- or as easy to use -- on the Windows side that beats the iLife suite.

For the environmentally conscious, the iMac meets Energy Star 5.2 requirements, and is rated EPEAT Gold in the U.S. and Canada.

The iMac still comes in the unibody form factor Apple rolled out several years ago. The main iMac chassis is carved from a single slab of aluminum for solid, seamless, quality construction. The design is an instant attention-getter, and this iMac was a draw no matter who was visiting, regardless of technical proficiency. The silver of the aluminum and the black framed-glass remains striking; it's minimalism at its best, while still incorporating needed functionality. For instance, the deep black border around the screen hides the HD FaceTime camera and a green LED, which lights up when the camera is on.

Enter Thunderbolt

The iMac has the same retinue of ports and wireless networking as before, with one very important addition: the inclusion of the new Thunderbolt port.

Thunderbolt was developed by Intel and implemented as the DisplayPort connection on Apple products. (If you've purchased a new MacBook Pro since February, that port you've been plugging your display into is a Thunderbolt port.)

The best way to describe the benefits of Thunderbolt is to compare its theoretical speed with current standards: USB 2.0 tops out at 480Mbps, FireWire 800 tops out at 800Mbps, USB 3.0 hits 5Gbps and Thunderbolt maxxes out at a theoretical 10,240Mbps, or 10Gbps. For every connection, there are two bidirectional channels that carry data over a 10Gbps pipe -- each way -- which means you can transfer a lot of data fast.

You can connect a wide variety of peripherals to a Thunderbolt port, from hard drives to displays, daisy-chaining up to six peripherals per port. In fact, it's possible to take a 27-in. iMac and flank it with two 30-in. displays, streaming multiple 1080p hi-def videos from connected RAID enclosures, without hiccups in the data stream. There are a number of real-world examples of how this works.

In addition to serving as a high-speed peripheral port, Thunderbolt can be used for Target Disk Mode and the new Target Display Mode. Target Disk Mode -- you have to hold down the T key while booting up -- has been around for years. It allows you to connect your computer to another one, with the Target Disk Mode machine serving as a hard drive. It allows for quick and easy data retrieval between machines, and being able to do so using Thunderbolt should speed things up considerably.

One more benefit: ThunderBolt is bidirectional, and with these new iMac models Apple has introduced Target Display Mode. In this mode, an iMac can serve as a stand-alone monitor, even if it's still processing tasks. Say you're exporting a large iMovie project using the iMac, but you want to use the iMac's screen as a second display connected to a MacBook Pro. With Target Display Mode, you can do that. This only works with hardware released this year.

Or, rather, it will work. Soonish. Unfortunately, very few Thunderbolt cables and hard drives are shipping, though they're expected to be on the market sometime this summer. (Apple finally released a $49 Thunderbolt cable on Tuesday, as well as an FAQ detailing how it works.) If ThunderBolt delivers on speeds as promised, IT pros who choose to use it will spend far less time waiting for transfers.

Daily use

Theoretical Thunderbolt performance aside, this iMac performs very well under everyday, and even extenuating, circumstances. In a month's worth of use, the iMac I tested never crashed.

iMovie breezed through projects that choke my own Core i7 MacBook Pro (with 8GB ram and a 1TB hard drive). Specifically, I have a complex iMovie project with hundreds of edits. On the MacBook Pro, iMovie's real-time rendering results in garbled audio and long pauses between changes. (In iMovie's defense, however, this is a project that took four hours to render on the iMac, yielding more than an hour of high-definition video in a 5GB h.264 file.) The iMac handled the project without breaking a sweat, a great showing of the raw horsepower of the new Sandy Bridge processor.

I've been reviewing Macs for some time now, and for consistency's sake, I have a complex, 50-minute iMovie project that I like to render on every Mac I review. (The iMovie file was exported using Apple's "Large" settings, resulting in an h.264 m4v file with a resolution of 960 by 540 pixels.) Last year's high-end iMac -- a 2.8GHz quadcore i5 -- rendered the movie project in an hour and eight minutes. The iMac I tested did it in just 48 minutes.

What a difference a few months makes. Of course, that kind of speed boost is less apparent when doing more mundane work like checking email, surfing the Web or watching videos full-screen. And while the HD webcam is nice for video chats, it won't do any good unless the person you're chatting with also has a recent Apple computer with the same camera. Sure, you'll look great to the other person. But you'll see them in regular definition video.

Trackpads and keyboards

It was interesting going back to using a desktop machine, because I've grown accustomed to the large trackpad built into MacBooks. All iMacs come standard with Apple's wireless, compact keyboard and wireless Magic Mouse -- and it became clear the Magic Mouse may not be the best option if you plan to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" when it is released later this month. Lion offers more in the way of gestures, which work well on a touch screen or trackpad, but don't translate well when you're using a mouse.

You might want to use Apple's available Bluetooth "Magic Trackpad," which is easy to set up on your desk and provides a stable platform for using sweeping gestures or intricate mouse movements. I've used the Magic Trackpad, and I'm really impressed by it; given that Lion really takes advantage of the multitouch technology and incorporates swiping, pinching and other gestures, you should consider getting one to go with an iMac.

On the other hand, the keyboard -- while large enough for most users -- may feel a little cramped for larger hands. It's by no means netbook-small, but the overall size makes it feel that way. (Apple did away with the extended number pad found on most keyboards a while back, so be forewarned if you expect the extended keyboard.) I never had a problem with the battery life of either the mouse or the keyboard, but if you want a full-size keyboard, a full-size aluminum keyboard -- with number pad -- is also available, though it's not wireless. You can choose it, instead of the Bluetooth keyboard -- or the Trackpad instead of the Magic Mouse -- at no extra cost when ordering the iMac from Apple's online store.

Options to consider

Upgrade options abound: As noted earlier, you can bump the processor on the $1,999 model to a 3.4GHz Core i7 quad-core processor. Memory can be upgraded to 8GB on all models, or to 16GB on the high-end models (for $600 -- ouch); and you can add a 256GB solid-state drive for $500. In fact, you can combine the SSD with a 1TB or 2TB hard drive disk for both speed and storage space. The last option is expensive, adding $750 to the iMac's price, but you can't beat the dramatic increase in responsiveness.

Choose wisely regarding storage. You should plan on having whichever drive you get until the iMac dies. Apple is now using an unconventional proprietary hard drive, one with a built-in temperature reader for more accurate heat dispersion control. This means that only Apple -- or Apple-certified support techs -- have access to the parts necessary for hard drive swaps; even the bravest technophiles can no longer open up the iMac to replace the hard drive with a larger, off-the-shelf alternative.

Customers have always been discouraged from replacing iMac hard drives, since the procedure will void the warranty. But now it's technically not possible. Caveat emptor.

Final thoughts and recommendations

If I were to recommend any changes to the configuration out of the box, it wouldn't be RAM or processor upgrades -- although both are useful if you need the extra horsepower. What I would recommend is swapping out the Magic Mouse for the Magic TrackPad. Gestures are one of the big advances built into Lion, and the switch from mouse to trackpad is worth the swap. If you're ordering an iMac from the Apple store, you can pick either the Magic Mouse or the Magic Trackpad for no charge. Or you can get the Magic Trackpad in addition to the stock Mouse for $69.

Thinking of moving from a Windows machine to an iMac? Remember, you can run Windows on a Mac using one of several virtualization apps like Parallels or VMWare. (You have to supply your own copy of Windows.) Currently, my Mac can run Windows XP and Windows 7 -- at once, if I want. It's a great solution if you want a Mac and your job requires Windows-specific software.

To sum up, Apple has delivered a solid update to what was already a popular and successful line. The Sandy Bridge chips add a speed boost, Thunderbolt offers the promise of peripheral heaven in a few months, and the iMac design itself remains current. It's equally at home in the boardroom or the living room, and the range of sizes, prices and build-to-order options means it should be easy for most buyers to get exactly the machine they want.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

This story, "Apple's latest iMac looks great, even faster" was originally published by Computerworld.

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