We look at the latest iMacs

Let’s face it — the iMac, Apple’s flagship consumer desktop model, was long overdue for a facelift. The thin-display-on-a-solid-foot design first arrived on the scene in August 2004 as the iMac G5, and survived through the Intel transition (the iMac was Apple’s first Intel-based system) in January 2006. Sure, Apple has made some major improvements inside, but it’s been three years since the iMac has gotten any cosmetic enhancements. That’s definitely changed with the latest round of iMac updates.

A new look
Gone is the distinctive snow-white iMac case–Apple’s design team has done some tweaking to the familiar all-in-one computer.

Colour scheme: The latest iMac replaces much of the body, with a solid piece of anodized aluminum–taking a cue from the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro models. The gray Apple logo has become an obsidian-like black, which matches the nearly inch-wide black border around the display. And the entire back is a matte black with a shiny Apple logo.

Apple says the silver and black look appeals to professional users, who are opting for iMacs more and more, but also to consumers looking for something a little more, well, mainstream. The overall look resembles an LCD television you might have in your living room.

Interestingly, Apple decided to keep the gray power cord, white mouse, and white cables for the mouse and keyboard. Also, the keyboard (more on that shortly) retains its gleaming white keys–a design decision, Apple tells us, because it looked better than having black keys. The silvery, black, and white combination feels a little less unified to my eyes than the previous model, but that’s a matter of taste. Overall, the look is pleasantly monochromatic.

Thin design: 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.

Glossy wide screen: 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).
The glass makes the display look bright and crisp. Colours pop, the blacks look rich, and images are very pleasing. I’ve come to enjoy the glossy displays on Apple’s laptop models, but it can be potentially problematic on this larger model under certain conditions. The monitor’s high level of reflectivity means that if your iMac is set up in a place with a lot of light, the display can act very much 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. Some people may find the glossy screen distracting, especially since the 20- and 24-inch displays are bigger than anything you’ll find in Apple’s MacBook line. And unlike with a laptop, it’s not as easy fiddle with the iMac’s position and angle to find the perfect placement (although you can train your eyes to look “behind” the glass and ignore your reflection after a while). It’s really more of a personal preference than a design flaw, so try and take a look at one of the new iMacs in person before you order one to ensure that the screen won’t be a problem for you.

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, I noticed some rather strong shifts in colour and contrast, including colours looking washed out, as I 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 percent 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 I moved my head all around it. (The 24-inch model is also 31 percent brighter than the 20-inch iMac, which, surprisingly, wasn’t as obvious as the much smaller variation in viewing angle.)

How much of a difference this makes will depend on how you use your iMac. For most people who park themselves in front of the screen to work or play, a properly calibrated display will be just fine. If you work in an environment where you have lots of people gathered around your computer to look at mock-ups, for example, then the 24-inch model makes more sense (both in terms of colour stability and overall screen size). At the same time, compared to the older 20-inch white iMac, the new 20-inch version is much brighter and sharper when viewed straight on.

Screen size: The iMac comes in 20- and 24-inch sizes only. Apple abandoned the old-standard 17-inch size, presumably because most customers preferred larger displays. I think that was a good decision, as I’ve considered the 20-inch size to be the sweet spot for some time–big enough to offer 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution, and for the same price as the 2GHz 17-inch model of yore. And with only two sizes, the 24-inch, 1,920-by-1,200-pixel model doesn’t feel like overkill (plus, that size is now USUS$200 less than before).

iSight: This 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-by-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 my voice.

RAM access: 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. Removing the door still reveals two RAM slots, but they’re now placed side by side (rather than stacked vertically) And, borrowing an idea from its laptop models, Apple has replaced the plastic levers with tabs to make removing and replacing RAM easier than before –a nice touch.

Perhaps 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 aluminum that matches the iMac’s body.

As a MacBook owner, I’ve come to enjoy–in very short order, I should add–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. The ports are placed on the sides of the keyboard, and Apple’s included Mighty Mouse comes with a shorter cord because the mouse cable doesn’t have to reach far enough to plug into the back of the keyboard, as in the past. And 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 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. Many companies make keyboards with media controls, but this is the first from Apple, and it puts some useful, nicely labeled features, at your fingertips. And Apple has, once and for all, removed the Apple icon from its Command key and replaced it with the word command, ending the last holdout from the days of the Apple II.

In some ways, I think the keyboard design is more of a triumph than the iMac itself (and for US$49, you can add it to an existing Mac as well), and I highly suggest giving it a chance before writing it off as being too different. For US$50, you can also upgrade to the new Bluetooth mouse and keyboard.

Except for the US$999, 17-inch iMac, all of the previous-generation iMacs were on equal footing in several key areas–and that trend continues here.

All models include 1GB of RAM in a single slot. For many people, that 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) with dual 2GB SO-DIMMs.

The new iMacs include the latest Core 2 Duo processors from Intel in 2.0GHz and 2.4GHz speeds (plus a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo Extreme build-to-order 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).

Hard drive space has improved from 160GB to 250GB on the low-end model, and 250GB to 320GB on the other models. And Apple now offers up to 1TB of storage for the 24-inch model with a single drive (for an additional US$550).

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 like 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-by-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.

Design is an important component to any Mac, but a computer has to do more than sit around looking pretty. In my general usage, all models felt snappy and responsive. But Macworld Lab 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 2.0GHz 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 US$800 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 percent 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.

Speedmark 4.5 scores are relative to those of a 1.25GHz Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.10 with 1GB of RAM, with processor performance set to Highest in the Energy Saver preference pane when applicable. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema 4D XL. We used Compressor to encode a 6minute:26second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes – 4:3 setting, using Apple’s qmaster software to create a two instance cluster to process the job. In iMovie, we applied the Aged video effect to a 1-minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 1GB folder.

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 percent in the Speedmark score. Those new iMacs shaved 11 seconds off the Adobe Photoshop CS3 test (a 16 percent improvement), 16 seconds off our zip archive creation test (11 percent better), and 7 seconds off encoding a CD as MP3 files (also 11 percent 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 3-D 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). But in playing 1080p HD movie trailers from Apple’s Web site, I found no deficiencies when it came to the onboard graphics–and for the record, playing a solo match in Unreal was smooth and enjoyable, so unless you’re a hardcore gamer, you probably won’t miss those extra 2.4 frames per second.

Buying advice
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 a 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 is the most well-rounded of the group. You can save US$300 by opting for the 20-inch, 2GHz model , but you’ll lose a little performance, hard drive space, and graphics power, and probably feel the need to replace your computer that much sooner. But with its new, lower price, the 24-inch model is really the champ. It performs the same as the 20-inch model with the same components, but the larger screen is a joy, offering more pixels and a better overall viewing experience.

— All tests conducted in MacWorld’s labs

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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