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Apple’s iMac is a sight to behold

The new iMac boasts of the biggest screen in the entire cosmos of computers. And yet it doesn’t pass for the perfect media device. Where does it fall short?

tech reviews Updated: Feb 23, 2010 17:55 IST
Jamshed Avari

Apple’s latest iMac is a sight to behold. With a 27-inch screen, it’s the largest all-in-one PC we’ve seen. Whether this is excessive for a home PC will depend on your requirements, but there’s always the 21.5-inch version for those with space and budget constraints.

Screen shine
The screen will completely capture the user’s attention. Sitting in front of a 27-inch iMac fills up a large part of your vision, and it’s almost difficult to focus on the entire thing at once. You’ll have to lower the brightness a bit compared to most other monitors since it’s shining in your face!

Apple uses high-quality IPS panels and LED backlighting, and the colours are amazing. The resolution, at 2650 x 1440, is comfortably larger than today’s HD panels. Viewing angles are also spectacular, with no colour distortion till you’re staring at it sideways. This is also the first time Apple has used a 16:9 panel in the iMac line.

Photographs jump to life, movies are a treat, and Apple’s wallpaper images really shine. If you use professional applications such as Photoshop and Aperture, or if you work with design and content creation, you’ll never want to go back to anything else. Initial concerns about cost and practicality are soon replaced with joy.

Looks
The black glass around the screen is now edge to edge, but it’s still reflective — you’ll need to twist around and tilt the iMac to get comfortable under fluorescent lights.

Apart from its screen, the iMac looks only slightly different from the previous generation. The entire body is now aluminum, and the metallic “chin” in front is less obtrusive than before. The DVD drive on the right edge now has an SD card slot for company, while all ports are still at the back.

We would have loved to see at least the headphones socket and a couple of USB ports on the side for convenience now that the ones on the keyboard are gone.

Features
Our review model came with a 3.06 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 4 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, 8x DVD RW drive, and an ATI Radeon 4670 graphics card with 256 MB of RAM.

A 21.5-inch model with the same specs had the same configuration, while the lowest-end one has an onboard Nvidia 9400M graphics and half the hard drive space. Interestingly, you can custom-order a 27-inch model with Intel’s new Core i5 or i7 CPU, giving you high-performance quad-core options for the first time — for hefty premiums though. All models come with Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, WiFi N, a 1.3-megapixel webcam, inbuilt speakers and a microphone.

However, Blu-ray drives are absent from all models, which is a massive letdown when you have the huge 27-inch screen at your disposal. With no official online source of HD material in India, it’s a huge waste of this device’s potential.
The selection of ports is interesting: audio in and out (analog/optical combo), four USB ports, FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, and a mini DisplayPort video output. Mini DisplayPort will require an adapter for pretty much every TV or projector out there, which you’ll have to buy separately.

But there’s a hidden trick: on the 27-inch model that we reviewed, this port can also be used as an input! The required cable isn’t on the market yet, but once available, you’ll be able to connect a DVD or Blu-ray player, game console, or any other video source to make even better use of the panel.

For those worried about the environment, the new iMac claims to be energy efficient, highly recyclable, and free of toxic chemicals including arsenic, mercury, and lead.

Usability
Probably the only sore spots are the bundled keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is totally wireless and uses Bluetooth to communicate. It’s meant to be used from across a room, but it’s quite uncomfortable that way.

For starters, it’s just too small and dumps not only the number pad but also the nagivation keys (Page Up/Dn, Home, End, Ins, Del) that most laptops pack in. You can choose the older style wired keyboard at the time of purchase, but bundling this shrunken keyboard by default is a very strange decision indeed.

The mouse is Apple’s new Bluetooth Magic Mouse, claimed to be the first one in the world with a multitouch surface. Again, it’s too flat and narrow to be comfortable in the palm; Apple envisions that people will push it around with only their fingers on the surface. The gestures are also limited to flicks for scrolling and two-finger swipes for page navigation, not the full range that’s available on the current Macbook’s glass trackpad.

Mac OS X looks wonderful, but it’s actually easy to lose the mouse cursor from time to time on such a high-definition screen. The iLife apps, especially Garage Band, are good fun, and using Photoshop and Illustrator was never more pleasurable. However, for Windows 7 users, the new iMac doesn’t play nice without a few extra driver downloads.
Your iMac screen will simply go blank midway through the installation. We spent a fair amount of time diagnosing the fault, which turned out to be a missing video driver.

Driver disorder
Further investigation revealed that we had to download the correct driver (100 MB approximately) from Apple’s website and unzip it to a USB pen drive, which has to be left plugged in during installation. Windows will search through all available devices and then install the driver, after which you’ll be good to go.

After installation, you’ll also need to install an update to the Windows Boot Camp utility (another 380 MB download) even though official instructions say nothing of the sort. Without the new version, you won’t be able to use the Magic Mouse. However, the update caused severe colour banding on screen as the colour depth dropped from 32 bit to 16 bit. So we had to roll back the graphics driver.

This is quite a hassle considering Boot Camp has worked so smoothly on previous Apple machines. All we’re unhappy about is the absence of instructions that might have prepared us for this ordeal. The new iMac is not ready for Windows 7, but if this is not what you’re buying a Mac for, there’s no need to worry.

Performance
Installing Windows allowed us to run our benchmark suite, and the results were quite fair. We scored 5269 overall in PCMark Vantage, and 2651 overall in 3DMark Vantage. These aren’t the best scores for gaming, but the iMac should handle some pretty heavy multitasking as well as most heavy productivity and creative programs with ease.

Similarly, our audio and video compression tasks took 1 min 7 sec and 47 sec respectively, which are pretty respectable scores. You’ll be able to play even fairly recent games at low settings, but don’t expect earth-shattering frames at the screen’s native 2560 x 1440 with the default graphics card.