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Brand-new iMacs always provoke the same response -- awe mixed with more than a little bit of gadget lust -- and the latest installment of Apple’s flagship desktop is no exception. On the outside, the 2011 iMacs look exactly the same as their predecessors: brilliant, glossy, edge-to-edge screens; that lovely 16:9 aspect ratio (just like an HDTV); and Apple’s signature brushed aluminum. But it’s what’s on the inside that truly sets the latest iMac apart.
Unfortunately, the new iMac’s most-asked-about feature is also one that doesn’t do much good -- for now. Following the lead set with the newest generation of MacBook Pros released earlier this year, Apple packed this iMac with Thunderbolts. Based on both PCI Express and DisplayPort, this next-gen port offers amazing transfer speeds of up to 10GB/s. Of course, at present those amazing speeds are, uh, severely limited by the total absence of Thunderbolt drives. But once they start hitting the market a little later this year, those cries of joy you’ll be hearing will be the video editors and pro photographers who are floored by the iMac’s lightning-fast transfer speeds.
Maybe with Thunderbolt, four USB ports will finally be enough.
Along with zippy data transfer, Thunderbolt can also transmit audio and video signals. The 27-inch models sport two Thunderbolt ports (each capable of driving a display up to 2560x1600 pixels), while the smaller iMacs have one. Using Target Display mode, you can use an iMac as an external display -- with a huge caveat. While it’ll work as an external display, it’ll only work “via a Thunderbolt cable, when the source is another Thunderbolt-equipped computer,” according to Apple. Put more bluntly, it’ll work great with the 2011 MacBook Pros, but you can forget about using your new iMac as a screen for a gaming console, Blu-ray player, or anything else. Yes, even adapter cables that convert video-output formats like HDMI won’t work…ouch!
Drive two additional displays (or a ton of storage) with two Thunderbolt ports.
The new iMac also sports Apple’s new FaceTime HD camera, first introduced a few months ago in the MacBook Pros. That’s right, you can make FaceTime calls in 720p HD, although in order to do so, both you and your video-chat partner will have to be using late-model Macs with FaceTime HD cameras. Everyone else using iPhones or older Macs will get regular, non-HD FaceTime.
But new ports and cameras don’t really tell the story of the new iMac. This time around, Apple offers four stock models: 21-inchers with quad-core 2.5GHz or 2.7GHz Core i5 processors, and 27-inch models with 2.7GHz or 3.1GHz processors. Additionally, Apple offers build-to-order options, bumping the 21-inch 2.7GHz model to a 2.8GHz Core i7 for an additional 200 bucks. They’ll also let you bump the high-end 27-inch iMac to a 3.4GHz Core i7 for $200 over the $1,999 sticker price. Whether it’s worth the additional cash will depend largely on what you do, but our 27-inch 2.7GHz Core i5 machine made quick work of our battery of tests.
If you order directly from Apple, you can choose between a Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad. There’s still no matte screen option, though.
Using GeekBench, the iMac posted an overall score of 8647, with individual tests ranging from 26 to 47 percent faster than the Core i3 iMacs we benchmarked last year. To test the mettle of the AMD Radeon HD 6770M, we fired up Call of Duty 4. The iMac scored an impressive 87.2 frames-per-second in our benchmarks, besting the 21-inch 3.2GHz Core i3 we tested in the Nov/10 issue by nearly 13 percent. But judging speed is about more than just benchmarks. In our real-world tests using iTunes and iPhoto, the 2.7GHz iMac also excelled, completing our iTunes conversion test in 48.3 seconds, 32 percent faster than the i3 iMac. The i5 also crushed the last iMac in our iPhoto benchmark, completing the test in 8.2 seconds, compared to 20.6 seconds last time around.
The bottom line. The new Core i5 iMac represents a significant performance boost over the last generation of machines. Especially for graphics and video use, the performance gains are significant -- not to mention the killer I/O speeds of Thunderbolt. But of course, to take advantage of that, you’ll have to wait a bit longer until some Thunderbolt peripherals actually exist.
27-inch 2.7GHz Core i5 iMac
2.7GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM; 6MB shared L3 cache; 1TB 7200rpm hard drive; AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics processor with 512MB of GDDR5 memory; 2560x1440 glossy 27-inch LED-backlit display; Apple Wireless Keyboard &
Magic Mouse; 2 Thunderbolt ports; 4 USB 2.0 ports; 1 FireWire 800 port; FaceTime HD Camera, 802.11n Wi-Fi networking; Gigabit Ethernet; SDXC card slot; audio in/out; Bluetooth 2.1+EDR; IR receiver
Gorgeous 16:9 screen. Two Thunderbolt ports. FaceTime HD camera. Two empty RAM slots.
No Thunderbolt devices yet. Video input only works from other Thunderbolt devices. We’re still waiting for a matte screen option.