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Review: Apple's new 24-inch iMac (aluminum)

The mid-2007 overhaul of Apple's iconic desktop is the first true evidence of a switch in Apple's design direction since the company's switch to Intel processors. But while it represents two steps forward in terms of ergonomics and performance, pro users may find the iMac taking one step backward.

Initial Experiences

The crown jewel in Apple's attention to detail since the return of its chief executive Steve Jobs has been the initial unpacking and setup of its devices. Few, if any, of its customers would disagree that the firm is determined to please first-time users before they've ever launched a program or played a song.

On opening the 24-inch iMac's (fairly large) box and setting up the computer for the first time, it's clear this recent tradition has survived well past the Intel transition of 2006. An almost feng shui approach to packing is still on display: Apple meticulously packs the accessories, software, and the computer itself in a layered fashion that lets you get and what you want and also feels like the reward it should be, instead of the bare minimum effort seen with some PC makers.

Setting up the iMac is also just about as trouble-free as it has been for past iMacs, particularly in the era of near-ubiquitous wireless. Were it not for our need to stop and take photos, we would have had our entire review system ready in just minutes. As with any modern Mac, the new iMac may only require as much as a power cable when it sits on your desk. Our first boot was extremely smooth and guided us through choosing languages, configuring our Wi-Fi connection, and setting up both a user account and registration information in just a few minutes —though as usual, Apple tries to foist .Mac on its customers before the Mac OS X desktop will make its first appearance.

iMac 2007

If there were a complaint to level against the company during the first few minutes, it would be the continued need for a FireWire cable to use the Migration Assistant that eases the switchover to a new system. The need to use a special target disk mode, with a cable the user likely doesn't have, isn't very justifiable when Macs have supported gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0 for years.

Design, the Glossy Display and the Apple Keyboard

Whether or not you believe Apple's claims that the new iMac is more eco-friendly than the white plastic model it replaces, there's little doubt that the all-in-one computer "for the rest of us" has been taken upscale. Both the anodized aluminum and black plastic trim feel and look better-built than before without adding to the overall price —and, conveniently, draw mental associations between the Mac and the similarly-styled iPhone. Some have already griped that the design is ugly, but in our impressions the new design's habit of polarizing opinions works in its favor; better to either completely love or hate the style than to be indifferent.

iMac 2007

And whatever the reaction to the iMac's appearance, the change has done more to help and little to hurt actual usage. Choosing aluminum has lightened the system and makes both carrying it around and tilting its display just that much easier. Those prone to losing their Apple Remote or depending on the sleep light will be disappointed, however. The thick metal prevents the Mac maker from installing either a magnet or a light inside the case, eliminating two minor but appreciated advantages from the past.

Front-and-center in the design is the controversial glossy LCD display. How much you like the display is just as binary as the overall look. Like the 13.3-inch MacBook, the gloss is intended to produce bolder colors compared to the occasionally washed-out look of matte screens. For the average home user more interested in watching movies or presenting a slideshow, the effect is striking and (on a 24-inch model) could fool you into thinking it was a small, high-quality HDTV. In a properly-lit room, reflections are still a fact of life but are seldom distracting enough to overwhelm the positives of the new display. Still, we question the wisdom of a glossy display, especially for the large surface area of our test unit. But it's not the fatal blow some would have expected.

iMac 2007

Ask a professional artist or video editor what they think, however, and you'll likely receive a very different opinion. The same vivid colors that make the screen "pop" also distort the perceived colors for producers trying to judge how well the image will translate to someone's print ad or DVD. Reflections play even more havoc with accuracy by hiding detail and blending into the on-screen colors. Using a fixed color profile mitigates the problem but just shouldn't be necessary for a system being marketed to both home users and pro customers alike.

iMac 2007

The much-vaunted aluminum keyboard should be less contentious. In addition to being extremely compact —a virtue in the small spaces where the iMac may sit —the new design is actually easier to type with in practice. The MacBook-like flat keys have a larger surface area to strike and travel quickly enough that you can move to the next key sooner than you might with the older translucent case. Any doubts that the keyboard might be flimsy have also been erased: the thin slab of metal is absolutely solid. Users might be frustrated by the two extra USB ports, however, as both of them are tucked underneath the metal and require that you lift the keyboard before plugging in a camera or a mouse.

On Page 2: Performance and the Upgrade Question, and Benchmarks.