In the 10+ years since the iMac was born as Apple's simple computer, it's become visibly less of a computer and more of a display. And what a screen this new iMac has.
But First, Simplicity
This 1998 ad has Jeff Goldblum narrating that there are two physical steps to setting up an iMac. ("There's no step three!") Truthfully, they skipped the mouse and keyboard cable, though, which would bring it to 4 steps. Today, an iMac is set up using just one power cable, depending on wireless networking and bluetooth peripherals to get the rest done. So it's even simpler than it was 10 years ago. And as I said, the screen is becoming more prominent than ever.
The 27-inch iMac's screen is the thing to focus on in this revision. It is practically as bright (and more contrasty) than any of the previous iMacs—even Cinema Displays—and it looks astounding. It's LED-driven so it comes to full luminescence immediately and takes up less power. It also has better side-to-side viewing angle as an IPS tech monitor; like the iMac 24 before it, it goes 178 degrees without much change in color accuracy or brightness. And here's the kicker: Although it has 19% more area of LCD than the old 24-incher, it has 60% more pixels. That makes it more pixel dense than any of the Cinema Displays at 109ppi. And with a 2560x1440 resolution it has 90% of the dot count of a 30-inch cinema display. All these stats are great. They sound great, and they make for a powerful picture. But the actual view of the screen leaves me with a positive—but slightly imperfect—impression.
The default brightness is a bit much, but of course you can turn it down. And the contrast is welcome; even my new 13-inch MacBook Pro looks yellowed and washed out next to it. But at this pixel density, which is sharper than my notebook, it's almost too sharp, requiring me to sit closer than I would ordinarily do with a 27 inch display. I like the feeling of crispness — 16% crisper than the last generation. But my eyes feel like the pictures are being delivered by a land shark holding a laser pointer straight into my corneas, and I can feel the strain within minutes. I would have to jack up as many font sizes as possible or sit as close as I do to my MacBook to make it work for long long periods of time. Maybe I'm just a wimp of a geek, but I've never been sensitive to these sorts of things on any sort of machinery before.
This is the iMac next to a 13-inch MBP and a Dell 2407 24-inch monitor. The iMac's screen puts both to shame in brightness and clarity.
Apple is making a big deal of the fact this screen is 16:9. I think it looks better in this wider iteration, but it's not an epic jump since the last gen was 16:10. You're losing vertical pixel count here, on both the 21.5 and 27-inch models, despite added diagonal inches. Also, the glass cover is now edge to edge, without the thin silver rim around it, on the top and sides. It's still glossy and very very reflective, despite being covered in anti-reflective coating.
I will feel guilty for mentioning this, because it's ever so slight, but I'll feel more guilty if I don't mentioning it to you: The screen, when it's white, has the tiniest bit of blotchiness to it. The backlighting is slightly uneven in my model. It had no impact on viewing quality once the screen was filled with an image other than one of pure white, so don't sweat it.
My previous comparison to the 30-inch Cinema Display wasn't for academic purposes, either. One of the most interesting features on the new iMac is that it can use its Mini DisplayPort (normally an output) as an input; that is, it can become a secondary display for notebooks or other devices. Factor in the near-identical specs to the 30-inch Cinema Display, most notably its updated LED screen, and you have absolutely no reason to buy a 30-inch Cinema Display when you can have this—but not just yet.
That's what two full sized 1080p trailers look like on this screen.
Eager to test this shit and be the first to the internet with an image of an Xbox linked into an iMac ("Worlds collide!" would be the headline, I decided), I ordered a monoprice Mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter. Unfortunately, I discovered that the inputs would not work with a PS3 or Xbox at any res, HD or otherwise. The current adapters on the market are unidirectional, I was told, and so they won't work to take HDMI sources and pipe them into the iMac. I'm sure someone is making a cable as we speak for this very abominable purpose of piping in Microsoft gaming to a desktop Mac—but it's not here yet. (New cables, by the way, will include audio, which the iMac is capable of taking through its connector and the iMac is able to display video sources up to its native resolution.) The issue is, this could take months. That's a long time, so don't buy an iMac planning to use it with a gaming console or Blu-ray player right away.
Using it with a laptop was an interesting situation. Odd, for sure, but a welcome bonus and an obvious use. Here's how it works. You plug in a Mini-DisplayPort-to-Mini-DisplayPort cable to the iMac, which must be turned on (unlike Sony's all-in-one, which works while off.) The iMac flickers for a second and the laptop's picture replaces the iMac's. Here's where it gets sort of weird. When the iMac is acting as a monitor, the keyboard and mouse are all blocked from working, except a few keys: The pause/play, FF, RR, volume controls and brightness keys all work. They won't display the typical volume/brightness/FF/whatever iconography, because you're actually still looking at your MacBook. You can actually then use your iMac as a display for one computer while listening to music on another—but why would you want to? And if you were playing a game with an Xbox, you'd be listening to the game. To toggle between the iMac and the external source, you hit Command+F2.
(*The 21.5-inch iMac is not as sharp or impressive as the 27, but a fine evolution nonetheless; see chart)
Oh, one more thing: The LED display is also thinner than the traditional panel. Even so, when combined with the extra width and height, Apple's designers are given adequate room to play with the layout and thermal properties of the iMac. Which brings us to the chassis and internals.
The iMac's chassis went from all plastic to aluminum and glass in 2007. The first aluminum models were stamped out in car factories because no computer factories could work with aluminum pieces that big. Now, the iMac has even more aluminum in them with bigger cases and a seamless wraparound back made of metal instead of the black plastic cap. Despite the loss of the slimming effect of a black plastic back, the computer's dimensions work in its favor; it's about 1mm thinner and obviously wider, so it still feels undoubtedly skinny.
Oh, and the stand is tapered by 1.1mm on its front (as is Apple's wont), to further hide volume.
Aside from the more flattering aspect ratios, the chin—one of the only giveaways that this is not just a screen but a computer—has shrunk by 22%. It looks much better, in my opinion. The case's bigger size affects its internal layout, too. Apple and iFixit brought several of these details to my attention.
The most important changes are that the GPU and CPU are placed at nearly opposite ends of the case, with their own heatsinks to throw off copious heat with three very quiet fans. (The iMac's sound profile at idle, for a stock build, is still just a whisper, less than 20db.)
Ports: The back of the case has a Mini DisplayPort, 4 USB 2.0 ports, power plug (the machine's only wire), Firewire 800, minijack/optical input and output, and Gigabit Ethernet. There's Bluetooth 2.1 EDR wireless with which the mouse and keyboard interface, and 802.11 N Wi-Fi. Although the entire case is aluminum, the antenna has been cleverly hidden in a plastic Apple logo top center on the back. Reception is a touch stronger than on my notebook.
The iChat camera and microphone (the latter of which is made up of about a dozen closely-grouped pinprick holes, like on the MacBook Pro) are situated on the top of the iMac. And despite the new model's height they sound fine (if not a touch more distant because of the height) when compared to previous models. The top mount for the microphone keeps the sound from the new, more powerful two-way speakers from interfering with it; measured using a song and SPL meter, my notebook came in at 70db and the iMac at 76db at sitting distance. Louder, richer and noticeably so than a laptop, though I didn't have an iMac 24 on hand to compare with.
The larger case allows the iMac to use four sticks of user-serviceable RAM, accessible from the bottom. (That's useful futureproofing now that OS X Snow Leopard is shipping, and programs and the OS in 64-bit can address more than 4GB at a time.)
How About Performance?
The iMac I'm testing is a 3.06GHz Core2Duo processor with 4GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon 4670 graphics. Those are decent parts but not the highest-end quad-core i5/i7 chips or ATI Radeon 4850 GPU that will ship in iMacs in November. More importantly, the machine I have here that is shipping now is about on par with higher-end, custom-order machines from the last generation. The system benchmarks I ran earlier this week indicate that everything performs practically the same. And since we don't have a Core i5/i7 machine to work with, I've included Apple's approximations of how much boost the iMac will get from those parts — obviously, many grains of salt are necessary when reading, especially when measuring value of extra CPU cores as literal multipliers when most software still can't leverage those channels efficiently.
As for 3D, Maclife has some framerate scores from Doom 3 and Call of Duty that are not by any means exact but somewhat representative of the machine I'm using today. But again, the bottom line is that this machine that I have, shipping today, is not faster than machines equipped similarly from the last generation—they're just cheaper for any given performance point.
But again, even if you wait for the higher end machines, there's no guarantee you'll be able to access most of that extra power. Snow Leopard hasn't seen many apps, besides the ones that ship with it that can take advantage of its multicore CPU and GPU technologies. Programs will come, but immediate speed gains aren't guaranteed here if you buy the quad-core machines.
Here's an exception: Those Core i5/i7 chips are also clocked slower than the Core 2 Duo chips on the lower-end machines, but have the ability to run single core applications at a greater clock speed. Since all four cores won't be burning, the chip uses the spare electricity and the extra thermal overhead to dynamically and automatically overclock the core that is working: The i5 chip goes from 2.66GHz to 3.2GHz and the 2.8GHz i7 chip goes to 3.46GHz (with 4 cores that run hyperthreaded for up to 8 virtual cores.)
Sounds fast, but we'll dive into deeper tests in November. For now, you should be aware that if your desktop is less than 18 months old, you'd be somewhat silly to upgrade before the highest end chips from this generation of iMac are out.
What Else You Got?
The iMac replaces its old mouse with the new Magic Mouse, with a multitouch surface and 360 degree scrolling and swiping, almost like the gestures you find on a Macbook trackpad. I've said it before: I primarily use Laptops because I love trackpads. The gestures, fingertip precision and proximity to the keyboard make it a must have, and this mouse fixes some of those issues. (*Jason Chen reviewed the mouse and liked it but it was not without flaws. Read that if you're considering buying an iMac, because it's the only option Apple offers.)
The one detail I found problematic specifically with the Magic Mouse as it pertains to the 27-inch iMac is that even when the pointer sensitivity is set to the highest level, a swipe of the wrist at a moderately fast speed goes only 2/3 across the giant pixel landscape. Only by whipping my hand across my mouse pad can I trigger enough mouse acceleration to get across the screen. They should turn up the sensitivity, frankly. Software update please!
The keyboard is also changed, going from the old wired keyboard, which was stamped out of the screen cutout of the chassis, with a wireless Bluetooth model. Apple states that the keyboard's narrow profile makes it a better fit next to the mouse. I think it also makes sense as a remote control for the computer from afar when watching media, since this is the biggest iMac ever that doubles as a monitor. But it looks a little small and out of proportion with the machine itself, since the Mac got wider and the keyboard got shorter. (Correction: The keypad-less change happened last revision. I just miss that numeric pad keyboard's width from the first generation of Aluminum iMacs. It seemed to fit perfectly.)
Oh, the white plastic remote that used to ship with all the laptops, AppleTV and iMacs has been replaced by an elliptical, aluminum remote with black rubber buttons. It's longer, and shaped like an iPod nano but no longer comes with the iMac. It costs $19. I think when you buy a computer that is this expensive, they should THROW IN THE DAMN REMOTE.
There are other all-in-ones from PC makers, but at the moment, none as large or high-res as the iMac 27. The ones from Sony (like the L) and HP have various extras like IR touchscreens, glowing monitor bodies, TV tuners and Blu-ray drives. Some are pretty decent, like the Touchsmart we just reviewed. If these things matter to you and you are not married to the Mac platform, you might consider them. But that touchscreen functionality is still half-baked, so don't do it for the groping potential.
The sweet spot is the $1200 21.5-inch config. But don't upgrade that model beyond base without seriously considering the big bad 27-incher for $1700. And don't upgrade that one at all without considering the quad-core models; both look very promising at $2000 or $2200. Basically, the custom builds are not a great value until you get to the quads. Go cheapest, 27, or quad. But cautious folks will wait on the quads 'til we test them.
There's another angle here, too. Again, comparing the 27-inch iMac to the old as hell 30-inch Cinema Display makes those standalone monitors look like a pretty bad value when it costs only $100 more for just 10% more pixels—and, hey, it's also not a computer.
Nerds, Sheathe Thy Wallet If You Can
Although the quad core benchmarks aren't here yet, I think you've got enough information here to make an adult decision on whether to go cheap or double your price for something faster and bigger. It's not like those new chips will be slower. But waiting a month on a new internal layout, design and screen is a great way to let Apple shake out whatever inevitable hiccups are there at the start of a new run. Plus, if Snow-Leopard-specific apps make their way to market (hello, <Handbrake!) and some performance scores come out in the meantime, hey, cool.
Big beautiful screen is super high res and bright.
Chassis design evolving to new heights of beauty; less chin.
Faster parts not out yet; current components available in previous generation.
No Blu-ray player, touchscreen or other things that aren't important to me, but may be important to you. Maybe.