Since I went to the Apple Store today, and spent over an hour using the new iMac’s and keyboards, I think it is time for a review! Lets start with the new iMac’s.
The latest iteration of the Apple iMac ($1,499 direct, $1,649 with 1GB of RAM) comfortably straddles the worlds of consumer and business. It’s the fourth generation of the popular system, if you count the first as the CRT G3 iMacs, the second as the “Luxo-style” iMac G4, and the third as the white plastic iMac G5 and Intel systems. Though the last white iMac was marketed as the “consumer Mac” (the Mac Pro was the “professional Mac”), the latest iMac doesn’t fall into the pigeonholes of “business” or “consumer.” Its aluminum and black appearance can work in the home, next to your iPhone, or in the office next to your Aeron chair. With its Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows compatibility, it is certainly the “computer for the rest of us,” making good on the promises put forth in the original “1984” Macintosh ads.
Like the white iMacs, the new iMac is a design wonder: a sleek, suspended slab with just the power cord. Though I tested the new iMac with the included wired keyboard and mouse, the new Bluetooth 2.0 keyboard and (same old) wireless Apple Mighty Mouse will work with the new iMac, so you can use the system almost completely wirelessly on your Wi-Fi network.
The new iMac rests on a “foot” base similar to those on the older white iMacs, with a smooth tilting action that lets you find a good angle for working. The foot raises the computer so you can slide the keyboard below the screen for handy, space-saving storage. There’s still no height adjustment, but in practice the tilt is varied enough to support both low sitters and standees. The tilt action is smooth, and unlike some systems with cheaper mechanisms, the iMac stays put after you set the angle of the screen. The new glossy screen lets colors “pop” more than the older antiglare LCDs, but I can see it being annoying in an office with a lot of windows (think: streaming sunlight). Unfortunately, unlike the MacBook Pro, you don’t have the option of ordering an iMac with an antiglare screen. The iMac’s proportions seem improved—either I am getting used to the bezel with its “Jay Leno chin” (the extra metal below the screen), or Apple has shaved a bit of girth below the screen (I think it’s the latter). The black border around the screen is a good thing: Aside from echoing the iPhone, it also provides a good contrast to the aluminum shell, which, to me at least, reduces eye fatigue. Either way, the design is such that I would have no problem working in front of the iMac for extended periods of time.
The new Apple wired keyboard is very much like the MacBook’s in style, with flat, shallower keys. Using it was similar to using the MacBook keyboard, with enough travel and “bounce” to make typing comfortable for me. Made of aluminum and plastic, it’s much thinner than the old all-plastic one, so it may take a little while to get used to the new typing position. It’s no ergonomic “curve” keyboard, but it is quite usable. The optional wireless keyboard lacks a numeric keypad, likely in order to save space and to make lap-typing more comfortable (the wired keyboard comes with all function and numeric keys). The wireless keyboard is as responsive as its wired counterpart, and is a good companion to the iMac.
If you’re one of the first people to get a new iMac, however, make sure you get the “Keyboard Software Update 1.1” off Apple’s Web site, so the Expose (F3), Dashboard (F4), and multimedia function keys work right (it’s part of Apple’s automatic Software Update if it’s not already installed at the factory). The new function keys rearrange the volume, Dashboard, and Expose buttons, marking them with distinct icons. The right-hand function keys (F7-F12) are now the multimedia controls (play, FF/REW, pause, volume up/down), which control iTunes and QuickTime out of the box. The new layout is a switch if you’re an older Mac user that’s used to bringing up the Dashboard with F12, but it’s fairly easy to get used to, as long as you’re not going back and forth often from an older Mac to the new iMac. If you prefer it, the old Apple keyboard plugs in readily and works fine, too. One notable improvement is that the new metallic wired keyboard has two USB 2.0 ports on the back (something the wireless keyboard lacks), an improvement over the USB 1.1 ports on the back of the older Apple Keyboard. I verified their speediness by connecting a USB 2.0 hard drive to the keyboard. Data transfers were at full USB 2.0 speed. In addition to the USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 ports await camcorders and external hard drives as well. The faster FireWire 800 is a new addition to the iMac family, available on all modelsThe iMac I reviewed came with a “2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo” processor (Apple doesn’t use Intel’s model numbers), but booting in Windows Vista identified the processor as a Core 2 Duo T7700, a 2.4-GHz notebook-class CPU. This is no surprise, since the latest 15-inch MacBook Pro also uses the T7700. Though Apple used a notebook-class processor to save power usage and reduce heat, the T7700 is certainly powerful, capable of performing multimedia tasks with the help of the 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 PRO graphics chipset (in other words, you’re not missing much by not using a hotter running desktop-class processor). The iMac comes standard with 1GB of 667-MHz DDR2 SDRAM (my review system came with 2GB, which makes it a good candidate for Windows Vista using Apple’s still-beta Boot Camp software or a virtual-machine program such as Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion). Configure-to-order customers can upgrade to a 24-inch iMac with a Core 2 Extreme processor and up to 1TB of drive space (my review system came with a 320GB hard drive) The iMac supports up to 4GB of memory, so it’s a good choice for light-to-moderate professional uses such as photo editing and semipro enthusiast activities such as “making movies” with iLife 08 (more on that later).
The iMac’s 20-inch display has a resolution of 1,680-by-1,050, so it’s optimal for displaying 1,280-by-720 HD content at full resolution, though 1,920-by-1,080 HD content needs to be scaled down. This will bother only the most exacting of users, but it is worth noting. Playing back QuickTime-encoded movie trailers at 480p, 720p, and 1080p full-screen was smooth and stutter-free. The LCD display is clear and bright, with colors that “pop” off the screen, but as with other built-in displays, I did see some noise on large swaths of solid colors from extreme angles. This shouldn’t bother most users, but there is a mini-DVI port on the back if you need to hook up another monitor (you’ll need a separately available adapter to use it, and you need a separate audio cable if you decide to use an HDMI adapter). If you’re hypercritical, the full-size desktop Mac Pro is still available, as are professional workstations from Dell and HP.
The new iMac is a smidge faster than the last one, running our Adobe Photoshop CS2 test in 1 minute 25 seconds, compared with 1:43 for the last Core 2 Duo iMac (24-inch) I tested. Performance on Photoshop CS3 was even faster: a blazing 42 seconds. CS3 is optimized for Intel processors (finally), and we’re going to be using both CS2 and CS3 to test Macs for the time being. You can see the improvement when you compare these scores with those of the PowerMac G5 Quad from two years ago, which cost almost $10,000 and took 57 seconds on CS2.
Okay, the new iMac doesn’t quite achieve perfection, but it does reach a height that the other all-in-one PCs strive for. It is a design benchmark for the industry and definitively answers the question “why do I need this ugly box hooked up to my LCD monitor anyway?” The newest iMac proves you can buy a computer that makes few compromises on design and performance.