Family test: Apple's newest iMac packs a wallop

Family test: Apple's newest iMac packs a wallop

When Apple 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 aluminium 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.

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 swivelled over a round base. Then came the all-white pizza-box-on-a-leg models, and most recently, the "aluminium 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). See Apple's iMac tech specs for more details, and for options, check the Apple Store's 24-inch iMac configuration screen.

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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