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

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Apple's latest iMacs retain the same external design while moving to faster RAM, more capable Core i3, i5 and i7 CPU options, improved graphics performance and an enhanced SD Card slot.

Position in the Mac family

The latest iMacs advance Apple's consumer flagship with Intel "Nehalem" Core i3, i5 dual and Quad Core CPUs and Core i7 Quad Core options, dropping the Core 2 Duo CPUs formerly used at the low end of the previous generation of iMacs.

The new processors jump into 3GHz territory, 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 a Quad Core 2.8GHz i5 or Quad Core 2.93GHz Core i7 (both with 8MB of L3 cache) on the 27 inch model.

Previous Core i5 and i7 iMacs were clocked at 2.8GHz or below, but still outpaced the 3.33GHz Core 2 Duo, thanks to the Nehalem QuickPath memory architecture, which includes a direct memory controller on the CPU rather than having the processor talk to RAM via its external chipset. Quad Cores and more onboard CPU cache RAM also speed up the performance of the chips independent of their clock rate.

The new Nehalem microarchitecture also ends Apple's former strategy of using NVIDIA's integrated 9400M across the board to provide its Macs with both standard chipset functions (such as providing a memory controller, SATA, USB, PCIe, audio, and networking functions) and graphics features.

All of the new iMac models offer ATI Radeon HD dedicated graphics processors:

The low end 21.5 inch iMac uses an ATI Radeon HD 4670 with 256MB of GDDR3 memory.
The higher end 21.5 inch iMac uses ATI Radeon HD 5670 with 512MB of GDDR3 memory.
The dual core 27 inch iMac uses an ATI Radeon HD 5670 with 512MB of GDDR3 memory.
The quad core 27 inch iMac uses an ATI Radeon HD 5750 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory.

Comparable Windows PCs often pack on even more graphics RAM. For example, Acer's similarly equipped Gateway One supplies the same ATI Radeon HD 4670 with 1GB of dedicated graphics RAM. This primarily benefits video games, as it allows the game to load texture maps and other data into graphics RAM for optimal performance. Apple's iMacs are designed more to be digital media hubs running iLife and other creative apps, which aren't as hungry for graphics RAM. The company still touts video game play on its iMac systems, but hardcore gamers are not likely to be shopping for Macs given that most games are tied to Windows. However, the iMac's new options for 512MB or 1GB of graphics RAM should help out users who plan to run Windows PC games natively using Boot Camp.

Base models of the iMac ship with 1TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drives and offer an identical 2TB upgrade option (apart from the entry level 21.5 inch model, which ships with a 500GB hard drive). All models also ship with 4GB of RAM, expandable to an officially supported 16GB (8GB on the 21.5 inch models). Prices are unchanged from the previous models, and range from $1199 or $1499 for the 21.5 inch iMac to $1699 or $1999 for the 27 inch model.

CPU upgrades cost a $200 premium, the video card bump costs $150, while the 2TB disk upgrade has dropped from a pricy $250 option to a more reasonable $150. Both models provide four RAM slots, giving users the option to upgrade incrementally without having to throw away RAM to make room for new parts.

The iMac's expansion potential positions it clearly ahead of the compact, entry level Mac mini, which is now easier to access but still offers little potential for serious future upgrades. The Mac Pro continues to deliver even greater upgrade options, with room for 4 hard drives; dual optical drives; two six-core processors; a double-wide, 16-lane PCI Express 2.0 graphics slot and two 4-lane PCI Express 2.0 slots; up to 32GB of installed RAM; and additional Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports. Of course, the Mac Pro is also significantly more expensive even without a display.

Mac family mid 2010

On page 2 of 3: The glossy LED-backlit display, keyboard and mouse.