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Review: Apple's 27" big screen iMac (late 2009)

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Wireless Apple Keyboard and Magic Mouse

The new iMacs now come standard with a Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard and multitouch Magic Mouse. These can be traded for a compact or full sized (with numeric keypad) USB keyboard and/or a standard USB Apple Mouse (the same model that was formerly referred to as Mighty Mouse).

Apple's Bluetooth keyboard is virtually identical to the MacBook's built-in keyboard, and is slightly modified from Apple's original 2007 Bluetooth keyboard in that it now only uses two AA batteries and has moved the wireless receiver to the center of the back panel. Users on a desktop system might want to opt for the full size USB keyboard instead, as Apple's unframed Bluetooth keyboard almost seems too small; while the key spacing is no different than Apple's popular MacBooks, the tiny keyboard feels undersized in relation to the vast screen. Why not have a numeric keypad and the extra function keys if you have the desk space for it anyway?

Typing on the super low profile keyboard feels as comfortable as a MacBook; attempts to try using a conventional keyboard with a deeper physical key movement now feels clumsy. The actual typing experience between the wireless and USB keyboards shouldn't be any different; the only real difference is the availability of additional keys. Interestingly, Apple now offers a small keyboard without the extra keys in a wired version. All keyboard and mouse options are priced identically.

Late 2009 iMac

The new Magic Mouse was reviewed separately. All Magic Mouse interactions with the new iMac, which ships with the driver software ready to go, felt natural and worked without issues. While setup and use of the new Magic Mouse seemed flawless, the Bluetooth keyboard also seemed to lose its connection too often, although this may have been related to our test environment, which has multiple Bluetooth and WiFi devices all contending for use of the same bandwidth. Apple provides some additional information on environment issues that can impact wireless performance.

It's nice to have the wireless options provided at no extra cost however, and users who decide they don't like the Bluetooth keyboard won't face much expense in buying their own third party keyboard to fit their own particular preferences. Users who plan to run Windows XP/Vista/7 on their iMac natively using Boot Camp must install an update for Windows, which handles the wireless devices differently than Mac OS X does. An Apple support document explains more about this.

Expansion ports

The iMacs present a familiar array of expansion ports:

  • Audio out supporting both headphone-style analog output and digital optical mini S/PDIF output. The headphone jack also supports iPhone-style headphones with an integrated mic input and volume and playback control buttons.
  • Audio in supporting both line-in analog input and digital optical mini S/PDIF input.
  • Four USB 2.0 ports, all of which are available when opting for the default Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
  • One FireWire 800 port.
  • Mini DisplayPort with support for VGA, DVI/HDMI, and DisplayPort output as well as DisplayPort input (for use of the 27" iMac as an external monitor).
  • Gigabit Ethernet with auto-negotiation when using crossover cables.

    The new iMacs apparently still provides no support for audio output over the Mini DisplayPort connector (which is technically supported in the DisplayPort specification), so unlike Apple TV there's no way to output both audio and video over the same cable in the manner of HDMI. That necessitates either using a hybrid Mini DisplayPort plus USB cable for driving an HDMI display with audio, or using a separate audio cable from the iMac's audio output using an analog cable or digital optical toslink cable for audio.

    For more information on audio and DisplayPort features, see: Inside the new MacBooks: Audio and Video
    For more information on iPhone-style headphone jacks, see: Using iPod & iPhone Video Out: Background and In-Depth Review

    On the right side edge, the iMac presents its optical drive slot and a new SD card slot (below), which also works with MMC memory cards and 2.x SDHC cards up to 32GB in capacity. MiniSD and MicroSD cards require an adapter to use in the slot. As with the new MacBooks released over the last year, inserted SD cards stick out far enough to unplug without any physical ejection mechanism, but must be ejected in software prior to pulling them out, just as with any other Mac-mounted disk volume. The slot is only an SD card reader, and does not work with SDIO cards, which provide other features such as WiFi or Bluetooth wireless, GPS, or other features designed for devices with SD expansion-oriented slots.

    The new iMacs also include an IR receiver for use with an Apple Remote (not bundled; the new aluminum remote is a $19 option), a built-in iSight camera and microphone, pretty decent built-in speakers, Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g/n wireless networking.

    Late 2009 iMac

    Performance overview: RAM, HD and CPU

    The base model iMac ships with 4GB of 1066MHz PC-8500 DDR3 RAM and supplies 4 memory slots capable of expanding that up to 16GB. It also ships with a 1TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive, which can be upgraded to a 2TB version, and an 8x dual layer DVD SuperDrive.

    Users who want to upgrade their own hard drive will discover that Apple has started using embedded hard drive temperature sensors to monitor disk heat buildup. This is potentially more accurate and reliable than the previous method of attaching an external sensor on the outside surface of the drive. However, third party hard drive manufacturers haven't agreed on a standard for building temperature sensors into their drives, so users attempting an upgrade will have to find out what drive their iMac shipped with and buy a replacement drive from the same manufacturer.

    According to Other World Computing, Apple currently appears to be using hard drives from only two vendors: Western Digital and Seagate. System Profiler, which can be launched from the "About this Mac" in the Apple menu, will identify your installed hard drive by serial number, and designates its manufacturer by the first two letters of that number, either WD or ST. Because each vendor supplies a unique thermal sensor connector, upgrading users of the "Late 2009" iMacs will need to buy the same type of hard drive in order to use the same included cable installed inside their iMac. If another drive mechanism is installed, the system will not be able to sense the drive's temperature and will subsequently send the system's fans spinning into overdrive.

    The iMac we reviewed operated in almost complete silence. However, when it entered partial sleep mode it began making a very irritating noise that seemed to come from the upper left hand corner. When completely asleep, the machine again made no noise at all. This may have been a problem isolated to our review model, as there were no other complaints on this subject we could find on Apple's support pages.

    The 21.5" iMac and entry level 27" iMac offer a similar CPU/GPU and RAM specifications as the high end MacBook Pros: a 3.06GHz Intel E7600 Penryn Core 2 Duo CPU with 3MB of onboard cache RAM or 3.33GHz Intel E8600 Penryn Core 2 Duo CPU with 6MB of onboard cache RAM, paired with NVIDIA's MCP79MX controller with integrated GPU, which Apple calls by its marketing name: the 9400M. That chip also provides chipset controller functions (such as RAM, PCIe, SATA, and USB interfaces). Apple uses faster DDR3 "PC3-8500" RAM, which runs at 1067MHz along with the FSB for communications between the CPU, RAM, and the integrated GPU.

    The 27" iMac offers options of a 2.66GHz Intel Core i5 (750) with 8MB on-chip L3 cache or a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 (860) with 8MB on-chip L3 cache. These Nehalem models sport Intel's Direct Media Interface, which replaces the conventional chipset Front Side Bus with a high speed PCI Express x4 derived interconnect that directly connects to RAM and the CPU's external Southbridge chipset, which supports other peripheral interfaces outside of the memory controller. This new Intel design also prevents NVIDIA from competing in the CPU-supporting chipset business, as it had just begun to do with the 9400M.

    The performance numbers presented by Primate Lab's Geekbench 2.1 show the entry level 3.06GHz iMac performing incrementally faster than previous iMacs and the iMac mini, but far behind the more expensive Mac Pro. We did not have i5 or i7 CPU options available to test (below). Longer bars are better.

    iMac 2009 CPU benchmarks

    On page 3 of 3: Performance overview: 64-bit Snow Leopard; The New 27" iMac in Review; Rating; Pros; and Cons.