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Thursday, August 05, 2010, 10:20 am PT (01:20 pm ET)

Review: Apple's Core i3, i5 & i7 iMacs (mid-2010)


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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 (when using the 27 inch iMac as an external monitor).
• Gigabit Ethernet with auto-negotiation when using crossover cables.

The new iMacs support audio output over the Mini DisplayPort connector, so you can output both audio and video over the same HDMI cable when using the appropriate dongle.

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, 2.x SDHC cards up to 32GB in capacity, and the newer SDXC (Secure Digital Extended Capacity) cards 32 GB and larger. MiniSD and MicroSD cards require an adapter to use in the slot.

As with recent Mac mini and MacBooks, 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 2.1+EDR and 802.11a/b/g/n wireless networking.

iMac slots


Performance overview: RAM, HD and CPU

The new Macs get massive performance gains from their faster new processors, ranging from 3.06 or 3.2GHz Core i3 or 3.6GHz Core i5 options on the 21.5 inch model (each with 4MB of L3 cache), or a 3.2GHz Core i3 or 2.6GHz Core i5 (both with 4MB of L3 cache) or Quad Core 2.8GHz i5, or Quad Core 2.93GHz Core i7 (both with 8MB of L3 cache) on the 27 inch model.

The iMac's Nehalem chips use Intel's Hyper Threading to virtualize four core performance on two core processors or eight core performance on quad core chips. This technology schedules tasks in such a way to efficiently pack in as much work as possible into the available cores. Essentially, Hyper Threading can enable a two core part to achieve greater performance without actually using any more energy.

At the same time, the CPUs can also do the opposite when there are not multiple threads available to run at the same time, thanks to a feature called Turbo Boost. The chips will effectively shut down idle processor cores and devote its power to the primary, enabling it to increase its clock speed to finish what it has available to do a little faster. This allows the 2.6GHz Core i5 to ramp up to 2.66, 2.8 or 2.93GHz depending on the workload available.

In particular, the new i3, i5 and i7 CPU options excel in floating point math, but the new chips offer significant performance enhancements across the board, leaping up dramatically from the scores of last year's iMac and approaching the high end performance territory of the 2009 Mac Pro. The performance numbers calculated by Primate Lab's Geekbench 2.1 show a much wider span of performance numbers across Apple's current offerings (below). Longer bars are better.

There's also a significant boost from the new iMac's faster new graphics, making the latest models Apple's best option for gamers. While dedicated hardcore video game players are unlikely to be wowed by Apple's iMac specs, the new machines are quite capable of playing modern games at full frame rates. Thanks to the new options available from Valve Software's Steam for Mac, users who enjoy games have the best selection and performance ever available on the Mac OS X platform.

The iMacs all ship with 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 RAM, up from the previous 1066MHz DDR3 RAM used in the previous generation. Faster RAM helps performance all around, as it allows the CPU to communicate with RAM at that faster bus speed. There are 4 memory slots capable of expanding that up to an officially supported 16GB, or 8GB on the 21.5 inch model, although third parties are marketing 12 or 16GB upgrade kits that can work in either model.

Apart from the entry level model with a 500GB drive, the iMacs all ship with a 1TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive, which can be upgraded to a 2TB version, and an 8x dual layer DVD SuperDrive. There's also an additional expansion option intended for adding an additional, fast SSD disk to the 27 inch iMac. Since SSD devices are targeted at notebooks, they use a smaller format 2.5 inch mechanism. That means the iMac SSD mounting bay can't be used to hold a secondary full sized, conventional hard drive. Adding an SSD after purchase requires getting a special enclosure cage bracket and custom cabling, which isn't included if you don't opt to buy one as a factory build-to-order option. Third parties are making these custom parts available to their customers, however.

Users who want to upgrade their own conventional hard drive will discover that Apple is now 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.

Apple currently appears to be using hard drives from only two vendors: Western Digital and Seagate. (Note: readers point out Apple is also using Hitachi drives for the 2TB option). 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 late model 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.

iMac 2010 CPU benchmarks


The new iMacs in Review

The latest iMacs deliver a significant performance boost and better specs overall. If you're in the market for a new iMac, the new model makes a great, well rounded upgrade. Overall, the new iMacs promise to be a popular addition to Apple's lineup, and deliver a great performance to dollar ratio.

The iMac's glossy screen will not appeal to some users, and some critics have noted that the iMac's ports are all facing the back (making them harder to reach) and that the SD Card slot is too close to the DVD slot, resulting in accidental memory card jams in the optical drive. These complaints seem to be the only perceived flaws in the iMacs' design, indicating a very strong overall package.

Unlike many similarly configured generic PC offerings, the iMac lacks a TV tuner and Blu-Ray player features. There are a variety of low cost third party TV tuners for the Mac, but few options for Blu-Ray movie playback. The best option for Blu-Ray playback is currently Sony's PlayStation 3, although it does not allow iMac users to output video to their fancy new screen without a fairly expensive converter box. Of course, Apple doesn't want to sell users a new HD disc format, it wants people to download its own iTunes videos instead, which don't offer the same kind of high resolution experience.

Rating 4 out of 5

4-stars


Pros:
Bright, very high quality screen with (on 27 inch iMac) monitor input feature
Great overall value and reasonably priced upgrade options
Fast new performance options for CPU and GPU, faster RAM and bus speeds
Higher capacity SDXC card slot is a handy convenience
Audio-integrated support for Mini DisplayPort, HDMI output

Cons:
No PC-style TV/Blu-Ray convergence features
HDMI output requires a converter dongle

Where to Buy

iMac
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iMac
iMac
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