Not your Father's iMac
Was it only about ten years ago that the iMac was Apple's cheap computer, for those who couldn't afford anything better?
Now the little guy has grown up. He's all big and polished and stainless steel, designed by Jonathan Ive to the usual flawlessly sleek standards that define the brand. In fact, many have noted that he's actually faster than the top of the line Mac Pro in many cases, and sports a gorgeous display fit for a King, or at least a high-powered executive.
So even though I wanted a new notebook, quite honestly the notebooks were still stuck in dual core land, and I wanted one of the new, super-fast quad core processors. And I really wanted the 27" display.
So instead of a Macbook Pro, I bought an iMac. And the little guy's grown up. But is he good enough for someone used to a massive $3,000 tower system as the only sensible desktop?
In a word, yes.
16 December 2009: Update on keeping performance optimized.
15 December 2009: Update on the wireless keyboard and mouse battery life.
This is a hardware review
This review assumes that you want a MacOS X-based computer and are wondering whether this premium-priced, premium-quality machine is worthwhile. It does not address the MacOS itself, because writing that review would double the size and be no news to a very high percentage of the people reading it. It seems fair to admit that this is far from my first MacOS X computer and so it can be taken as given that I greatly enjoy the Apple software experience.
You've probably seen the benchmarks, which show that the quad-core iMac is about as fast as a Mac Pro, if not a little faster. This model, the Quad-Core i5 processor, was benchmarked as having raw speed just a shade faster than the fastest Mac Pro, and the i7 is about 8% faster. (I didn't get the i7 because it's available only via mail order, and I don't like trusting an expensive new computer to mail order. Some i7s have been reported as arriving DOA or even seriously damaged.)
The real-world results are, if anything, even more astonishing. My quad core machine simply will not bog down. Even while processing 12 gigabytes worth of high-definition AVCHD video, it plows through while remaining totally responsive. The four CPU indicators are pegged to the max, but while they are churning, you can browse the web, read your email, and even page through thousands of image files in Aperture, a program that in my previous computers has the performance of a particularly placid bovine.
I also used my dual core laptop to process AVCHD files of the same type, and it totally bogged down the computer to the extent that it was almost completely unusable - for anything, let alone Aperture. The new iMac doesn't even seem to notice it. This is a huge difference, and a huge win for anyone who needs to process those pesky files.
During my first week of using the machine (uptime: 8 days, 5 minutes), there were only two areas which could use improvement.
The first problem is that Safari, the web browser, slows down dramatically if you keep it running long enough. I have a habit of leaving large numbers of browser windows and tabs open, and that causes memory use to go sky high, which eventually kills performance. We talk more about this in the next section.
The other problem is when you use Spaces or Expose. They create thumbnails of all your windows, and it regularly takes a second or two for the animations to work. Sometimes, when the system is under load, they are a bit choppy. This only happens the first time you use Spaces after a while. Subsequent animations are perfectly smooth.
That's it. Everything else is shockingly fast, even operations requiring heavy processor use. It's a little surprising mundane applications like the web browser and spaces would take up more power than transcoding video and scrolling hundreds of photos! But if you simply restart Safari about twice a week, you won't see any significant problems.
Making sure your super-fast computer stays fast
My previous computers would run for about two weeks and then suffer from a general system slowdown that affected virtually all applications. Once it got to that stage, I would reboot and performance would be restored.
This computer is unusual in that even after 18 days of extremely heavy use, a general system slowdown has not appeared. However, individual applications have slowed down due to their overuse of memory. The solution is to simply quit and restart the offending application individually. Once restarted, its performance is fully restored to the normal super-fast level.
This happens most often with Safari, because Safari will consume unlimited amounts of RAM until it gobbles up the entire machine. For example, about a week into using my shiny new computer, Safari had grown to 1.3 gigabytes, and it was starting to be a little sluggish to type inside Safari text windows. The rest of the machine was perfectly fine. To fix the problem, I simply restarted Safari.
When I quit, free memory went from a few hundred megabytes to 2.6 gigabytes, indicating that browser plugins, run as separate processes, were also taking sizable amounts of memory. Oddly enough, other functions such as pulling up or selecting new browser windows, which are sometimes sluggish on lesser machines, continued to be fast even with Safari at that size.
It happened again with the TextMate text editor. I had run the application for two weeks straight, and I started noticing that it would beachball for a little while when I changed documents. I restarted it and changing documents once again became instantaneous.
It is worth noting that this probably won't happen with people who do not subject their computers to extremely heavy use. My computer is pretty much my life - I spend all day on it working and playing at various times, and when I start applications I usually keep them open in the background even if I am not continuously using them. If you are a light computer user, you will never face problems like these, but then again, you will probably think spending $2,000 on a computer is madness.
I don't know why I am so reluctant generally to stop and restart applications - mainly, no doubt, because I have a lot "invested" in the specific window arrangement and documents already loaded. But stopping and restarting applications periodically improves performance enormously.
So far, it doesn't seem like you need to stop and restart everything at once - just restart applications individually when they feeling a little slow.
I must emphasize that the machine's performance is still amazing, and the computer has fully earned its five-star rating. These are things you need to bear in mind to keep up the performance of any computer, even this super-fast monster.
Disk Space and Memory
Only a generation or so ago, one of the problems with Apple computers was a strange reluctance to offer reasonable amounts of disk space and memory on their machines. I remember when Apple was offering 256mb machines when Windows computers came with more. Only last year, my MacBook Pro came with a laughable 200GB drive. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. The iMac comes with an awesome 1TB disk capacity, and 4GB RAM. This is as much as the total memory capacity of my old MacBook Pro!
It is such a relief to have all the disk space I will need for a while. It's often a big pain to have to take things on and off the system disk, and now everything's delightfully spacious. Neat!
Apple used to have the world's most expensive memory, and as a result I would always shake my head and buy through third parties. It was not at all uncommon to see memory marked up 3-6 times what you could buy for it elsewhere.
Recently, however, this has started to change. If you buy it with your Mac, I started noticing that it didn't cost much more to buy Apple memory than mail order RAM and install it yourself. For some computers with particularly exotic RAM requirements, such as the Mac Pros and 17" MacBook Pro, Apple's memory was often the cheapest choice.
In the case of this iMac, I was able to upgrade from 4 to 8 gigabytes for $200. This is a hair under double the going rate, but the new memory is fully warranted, you get it right away and there are no tiresome mail order hassles. They just kept the computer for about half an hour after I bought it and when I came back after a nice lunch in the mall, all was well. I felt the convenience was well worth the price difference.
You may find someone trying to sell you an upgrade from 4gb to 8gb for over $800! This is not a fraudster; this is someone selling you 4GB chips instead of the much cheaper 2GB chips. Since there are four memory slots in the iMac, you can accomodate either 4 2GB chips, for 8GB, or 4 4GB chips, for 16GB. Since it would cost you over $1,600 to upgrade to 16GB of 4GB chips, this is not something you do unless it will help you enormously. That's almost doubling the price of the computer!
As it happens, running Apple's Activity Monitor application shows that I did indeed finally hit the sweet spot of the computer. When I have all my applications running, I still have about 2gb free, meaning that the terrifyingly expensive upgrade to 16gb would not have resulted in significant performance differences.
To give you an idea of what that means, right now I have Terminal, Numbers, Pages, Mail, Safari, FireFox, TextMate, Aquamacs Emacs, Photoshop, Aperture, Activity Monitor, iTunes, Preview, System Preferences and Palm's Palm Pre emulator (Sun's VirtualBox) all running on my machine. I am using 5.41gb RAM, with 2.58gb free. Unless your application footprint is enormously greater, you should need no more than 8GB RAM.
Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly) enough, the application actually using the most RAM is Safari, with a whopping 814 megabytes! Then iMovie with 459 MB, Mail (343.2), VirtualBox (333.7), Aperture (275.4), Photoshop (187.8), FireFox (114.2), Flash Player under Safari (105.1, iTunes (94.6), etc.
The system remains outstandingly fast with this load, although some of the animations with Expose/Spaces can be a little choppy. But everything comes up fast and easy, which is very impressive. My previous computer, a 2.5ghz MacBook Pro, would often bog down trying to run Photoshop or Aperture. This one is extremely fast for all of them, and that alone makes it well worth the price.
After 18 days of use, an update: I have now used almost my entire 8GB at various times, but I feel no particular urge for the extremely expensive upgrade to 16GB. As discussed in the previous section, I simply quit applications when they start to get slow, and 8GB is still ample for my (extremely heavy) system usage.
When I took my iMac home, I was able to use the Migration Assistant to get my data from a Time Capsule backup of my laptop. I goofed up the password and so the normally smooth installation process didn't work. For some reason once I typed in a password, it didn't want to let me type it in again. Fortunately, you can run the Migration Assistant separately from the initial setup process.
So I completed the setup and ran the migration assistant when the computer was up and running. This is actually a better way to do it since you can play around with the computer while it's grinding away getting your data. However, when you are asked to create a user account in the initial setup, don't use the same name as any of your accounts on the old machine. Instead, make something up and delete it once your data is transferred. Otherwise you will have to make up another account in order to use the Migration Assistant.
If you are using a Time Capsule, remember to connect it to your new machine through an Ethernet cable for the transfer; this will speed things up significantly.
Do not be worried about truly bizarre time estimates during the transfer. My system started saying I would take 4 hours, went all the way up to 10 hours and then suddenly dropped to three. It actually took about two and a half hours for me to transfer the contents of my completely full 200gb disk on my old MacBook Pro to my new machine.
The data transfer worked perfectly. My desktop was as it was when I shut down the old machine. All the logins, passwords and so on transferred perfectly. The only glitch was that I had to delete the Aperture's machine ID because it would not accept my serial number until I did. Other than that, everything "just worked" and overall the transition was exceptionally smooth.
An amazing display
The 27" display is truly spectacular and does a superb job at filling my field of vision as I look at it. It is a jumbo wide screen display and you can look at two full-width browser windows at once, plus a good-sized terminal/text editor window too. This makes it ideal for web page design, video editing, programming and any other specialty that is helped by a large screen.
If you are somewhat farsighted and have trouble reading the relatively small and tight display of a notebook, you will find the iMac's display a wonderful breath of fresh air - even tiny type is tack sharp and easily legible.
Some people don't like the reflective nature of the glossy display, but I find it extremely easy to read. I can see my face reflected in it when I enter the room and it is black, but once the screen springs to life the image is so bright and vivid that it overwhelms any reflection.
After a prodding from lovers of matte displays, I ran a little test. I dimmed my display to the point where I could see glare. That's about 40% of full brightness. Anything over 40% and glare was completely invisible. I was probably helped by the fact that I don't have bright florescent overhead lights, which are evil glare creators, but if you are in a typical content creator environment, you won't have any trouble with glare, and the display is magnificently bright and crisp.
As our eyes get older, we tend to get more farsighted and less able to read text and other things placed very close to us. This gives the desktop computer an enormous readability advantage over the laptop. You can always get an external display for the laptop, but few displays come even close to the quality of the one built into this iMac. So if you've switched to laptops and your eyes are not enjoying the experience, a computer like this iMac might be an excellent move for you.
Some have noted that the base 27" iMac is just a touch cheaper than Apple's long-standing 30" Cinema Display. True, and you get a free computer! It is slightly lower resolution, but the LED backlight and glossy screen are more attractive than the aging Cinema Display, and there is a DisplayPort input that you can use to hook it up to another computer, such as a laptop. Hopefully they will update that display for Mac Pro fans, but to tell the truth this iMac is so good I expect demand for Mac Pros (and standalone displays) to decline dramatically.
Some gripe that the iMac is a poor purchase because displays tend to have far longer lives than computers, since they do not become functionally obsolete as fast. This is true. I have a 23" Cinema Display that I bought over seven years ago that is still very usable. In fact, it was my primary desktop display before I bought the iMac. So you might say that it's very wasteful to have the display integrated with the computer as it is with the iMac.
However, the 27" iMac can actually be used as a display. I can plug another MiniDisplayPort supporting computer into it and it will work as a display. I have not done this yet because I do not have such a computer, but apparently it can be done without grief.
Of course since the 27" iMac is likely to be replaced with another iMac, this might not be relevent. It's possible that when I get a new iMac a few years from now I will simply use this iMac as an external display for it. Or I will use it as an external monitor for a more powerful laptop. At that point the new iMac will no doubt have an even nicer display.
Although the displays continue to function even after the original computers supporting them are functionally obsolete, Apple's displays keep on getting better and better. At the price being charged for a new iMac, I suspect I won't regret getting a beautiful new display when I get a new system.
Bluetooth Keyboard and Magic Mouse
Apple has made the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse standard throughout their iMac line. I expected to not really take to them, since it seemed silly to use disposable batteries to power the keyboard and mouse instead of reliable wires. But the freedom you get when not having cables all over the place is amazing. I'm really enjoying being able to type with the keyboard on my lap, or on the table, depending on my mood.
The new Magic Mouse uses Apple's multitouch technology, first seen on the iPhone, to scroll. The smooth scrolling with momentum takes some getting used to but has a very appealing feel. If you don't like the momentum feature, as I did not at first, you can turn it off. But there is a charm and style to it and so I have left it on for now. After about a week of ownership, I find I now prefer the scrolling with momentum and have left it as is.
One thing for sure: The scrolling is much better than the scrolling on any other mouse or trackball I have used. I prefer my Kensington Expert mouse as a mouse, but that would require going back to wires. So at least for now the new mouse appears to have found a place on my desk. I'll update this review to give a long-term opinion.
Many people with Bluetooth keyboards and mice have actually thought their computer suffered from a major breakdown, when the problem was their mouse's battery going bad. The problem has baffling symptoms, such as disappearing mouse cursors, that look alarmingly like serious problems! Fortunately, Snow Leopard's system preferences has a charge indicator for both keyboard and mouse, so you can check up on your now tail-free friends.
One thing that was confusing when I unpacked the machine was that there were apparently no batteries for the keyboard or mouse. I looked and they were nowhere to be seen! This is because the nice folks at Apple install them for you and pair the keyboard and mouse to your computer. All you need to do is turn on the keyboard and mouse, and you're set when you switch on the computer. This bizarrely considerate behaviour on the part of Apple was downright disconcerting ... we customers don't expect to be treated so well!
The keyboard has a superb, crisp feel, and it's effortless to type on due to the short key travel. Although it is nothing like the classic IBM Model M clicky keyboard, I find it just as pleasant to type on - and since it is softer it's less hard on the fingers.
The diminutive size of the keyboard is particularly strange when compared to the enormous screen. I really would have preferred the old style keyboard with the numeric keypad, and sometimes I do reach for the missing PageUp and PageDown keys. But the Magic Mouse does such a nice job with scrolling that my hands are learning the new tricks needed to deal with the new age of scrolling instead of paging.
Keyboard and Mouse Battery Life
My computer has now been running for a bit over 18 days, so it's about time for a battery life update on the cordless keyboard and mouse. The keyboard batteries are still 60% full, but the mouse is just 18% full. So it looks like my mouse batteries are unlikely to last for a month of admittedly heavy use. Fortunately, AA alkaline batteries are extremely inexpensive and so the wireless keyboard and mouse is a pretty cheap habit.
I have really been enjoying the freedom of not having a keyboard and mouse tangled in wires, so it looks like I will keep them despite the relatively high operating cost. If I was not very lazy, I could substantially increase battery life by turning off the keyboard and mouse when not in use, but to be honest, well, I am too lazy to do this.
It's worth noting that since the keyboard probably only transmits when you're typing, it really uses very little power. The mouse has to keep its tracking light on at all times and so it's enormously more power hungry. Unfortunately, it's also the device you move the most and therefore you benefit more from its wirelessness.
I said in my last review that you should keep a spare set of batteries handy, or a USB keyboard and mouse, so that you are still able to use your computer when the batteries die. Clearly that's excellent advice!
It is very nice to have four USB ports on the back and not have to use any of them for the keyboard and mouse! I can keep my printer, Palm Pre, iPhone and camera all attached and happy, without worrying about USB power issues. It is a slight inconvenience that the ports are on the back since it's a pain to plug them in, but since there are so many you can just leave the cables plugged in and waiting when you remove the devices. And of course this retains the flawlessly clean look of the computer.
There is a SD card port on the side. It would have been nice to have a Compact Flash card port for my Nikon D300, but I know that format has been on the way out and Apple likes to be on top of trends. No matter; I can hook up my camera to the computer with USB and it's probably easier to stick with that. The D300 has excellent battery life (I have never even come close to draining the battery) and so one of the main advantages of using a separate USB reader is not an issue.
Great speakers are a nice bonus
I remember when computer speakers were tinny and just plain bad. The built-in speakers are so good you really don't need to upgrade to external units. I'm picky about my audio and I can say they have crisp and exceptionally clean sound even with the volume punched up. At maximum volume they can easily fill a small room.
Heat and Noise
The iMac is virtually soundless other than the click of the keyboard and whatever great music you are playing through the aforementioned speakers. When I tried turning off my music, I could not distinguish any sounds it made from background noise in the room.
It does get very hot on the top edge of the display when you have run it for a while. This doesn't appear to bother the system, but it's worth noting. Remember that the aluminum of the computer works as a heat sink to divert heat from the components. The typical MacBook Pro is just as hot when you have it on your lap or touch one of the components while it's been running under heavy load, and yet my MacBook Pro continues to work fine.
Should you replace your Mac Pro with an iMac?
For the overwhelming majority of users who do things like Photoshop and video editing, the answer is that you can, and won't notice any performance deficit.
On the board for users of RED Digital Cinema cameras, who are about the hardest of hard-core performance-hungry users, many people are asking about use of this machine to handle RED footage. So far the consensus is that it should do just fine and more than a few are planning to downsize from Mac Pros to this system or the similar i7 processor. New Mac Pros should be changing this equation soon, but for the time being you lose nothing but slots by getting an iMac instead of a Mac Pro.
Hard-core RED users buy a $5,000 RED Rocket(tm) card that optimizes RED processing, and they are stuck with the Mac Pro because it needs a slot. But unless you want and can afford a $5,000 card to optimize your video, there's really little reason to get a Mac Pro anymore.
Another advantage of the Mac Pro for heavy video users is that you can add internal drives, which in my experience are much faster than the external units you need to expand the iMac. If you have massive, multi-terabyte storage requirements, the Mac Pro still has advantages, both in speed and cost.
For all the rest of us, the gorgeous monitor and cheaper price are huge incentives to go iMac.
Macs are expensive, because they are premium machines using premium components. No other mainstream computer maker, to my knowledge, makes a computer with such an enormous, high-resolution built-in display. So it is very difficult to compare it to the competition, since in one sense there isn't any.
However, we can try by noting that Dell makes a system with the same 2.66 ghz quad core processor for $750. Then, add a 27" monitor for $930 and you have a $1,680 machine, which is only a hair cheaper than the iMac. But it has 1980x1200 resolution instead of 2560x1440. You can get a Del 30" 2560x1600 monitor but it will cost $1,700. Add $750 and Dell's solution is actually more expensive than the iMac, and not nearly as designer-attractive.
In short, if you adjust for similar components the 27" iMac is very close in price to what Dell would have to charge for a similar machine. If there is a "Mac Tax" for this machine it's very small.
And of course that's before you consider the most important difference, the much loved Macintosh operating system instead of Windows. I'm willing to spend a few extra bucks to stay out of the Windows gulag, and I also get a higher quality display, the bluetooth keyboard and mouse and superior service from Apple retail stores.
So when push comes to shove, this system looks like phenomenal value for the money, even compared to very aggressive competitors that are thought of as cheap.
And there is no question that the iMac feels like an extremely expensive, luxurious product.
As I've been working on various drafts of this review, the clock has spun and I now have had my first one day, 2 hours and three minutes with the new system. So far it's taken everything I've thrown it it far better than any computer I've ever owned.
I think it's reasonable to say that if you can afford this machine, and if you work on high-powered applications like programming, video editing or Photoshop, you'll love this machine and the speed and power it provides.
Like a box of chocolates, the iMac is addictively good ... delicious, and no calories! With all the problems of the world, that is surely something worth celebrating.
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Amount Paid (US$): 1899
Operating System: Macintosh
Processor speed: over 1000
RAM: More than 256
Internal Storage: DVD
Hard Drive (GB): Over 50