Newest Apple iMac is a great deal

When Apple Inc. recently sent along one of its new iMacs — a sweet 24-inch model with a 2.8GHz Penryn processor — I agreed to take it home and give it a dose of family testing at the Finnie household. And with three kids aged 3, 6, and 16, that’s saying something.

I barely had it set up before the younger two were locked in a battle to gain control of the wired Mighty Mouse and svelte aluminum keyboard. The 16-year-old nonchalantly leaned over and pushed the On button, which is located in an out-of-the-way spot behind the one-piece computer’s screen on the left side. Even though it’s the first iMac in this house, it clearly wasn’t his first iMac experience. (By the way, when you have a three-year-old, trust me, a concealed power button is a blessing.)

Apple’s popular iMac line has gone through radical changes since it emerged in 1998 as the all-in-one Mac that helped turn around the company financially. The “gumdrop” models gave way to flat-screen versions that swiveled over a round base. Then came the all-white pizza-box-on-a-leg models, and most recently, the “aluminum and glass” iMacs introduced last August.

The current line-up, updated in April, looks just like the iMacs released last summer; the modest-but-welcome changes are all on the inside. Apple currently offers two 20-inch models and two 24-inch models. Prices start at US$1,199 for the entry-level iMac with a 2.4GHz chip and run up to $2,199 for the top-of-the-line 24-inch version with a 3.06GHz processor.

The new iMac starts with the recently introduced Intel 45nm Penryn Core 2 Duo processor, which offers larger Level-2 caches and greater energy efficiency. Because of the Penryn and its chipset, the new iMacs now sport 6MB of shared Level-2 cache and a faster 1066MHz front-side bus.

My 24-inch test model offers the best blend of power and price, with a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, a 320GB 7200-rpm serial-ATA hard drive, an 8x double-layer SuperDrive, and ATI’s Radeon HD 2600PRO video with 256MB of memory. Compared to the previous generation iMac, you get twice as much RAM and the next-generation Core 2 Duo processor at 2.8GHz instead of 2.4GHz for the same price: $1,799.

It’s possible to upgrade the new iMac 24 to a 3.06GHz CPU ($200), 4GB RAM ($200), and to Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GS video with 512MB of memory ($150). Hard drive upgrades include 500GB ($50), 750GB ($150), and 1TB ($300).

The 24-inch model offers a richly-saturated and bright LCD screen with a resolution of 1920-by-1200 pixels, meaning it doubles very nicely as a DVD movie player should you be looking to use it for that. (The 20-inch model offers a slightly lower resolution: 1680 pixels by 1050 pixels, but the screen should be equally crisp and bright.)

As far as speed is concerned, the iMac chugged through a variety of daily tasks — surfing the Web, e-mail, text editing and viewing digital photos — without a hitch. Its performance was generally on par with the 2.4GHz 17-in. MacBook Pro I use, though, not surprisingly, it boots up a bit faster. It certainly offers all of the performance most users will need for the foreseeable future. The only upgrade I might consider at some point would be doubling the RAM to 4GB. As always, I’d check out prices for that memory at a third-part reseller; 4GB costs around $118 at current prices. Apple, by contrast, charges $200 to upgrade the RAM to 4GB.

As in the past, I love the relatively small footprint the iMac requires, which is true for both the 20- and 24-in. models. From a hardware perspective, the only weak point was Apple’s Mighty Mouse, which has a scroll ball that tends to get gummed up. I quickly replaced it with Logitech’s wireless VX Revolution, and was perfectly happy.

Were I to buy a new iMac (and the kids insist that’s something we have to do) after the review unit goes back, I’d buy exactly the unit Apple sent. To save money, I might consider the 20-inch 2.66GHz model, but the $300 cost difference just isn’t enough to make that smaller one a better value.

Sure, you can buy a less expensive Windows machine for home or office desktop, but as Macs go, the new iMac is a great deal. And by using Apple’s Boot camp software or Parallels or VMware, you get the best of both worlds: You can install Windows XP for full application flexibility, giving you essentially two computers in one.

Scot Finnie is editor-in-chief of Computerworld.

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