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2010 Apple iMac 27 Inch Desktop Computer Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

If we could, we’d take points away from this iMac simply because by giving it a 27-inch display Apple threatens our livelihood. You don’t need our input to simply walk past the 27-inch iMac on a store shelf and recognize that it’s the largest all-in-one currently available, and that it has a reasonable price tag relative to its size advantage. Look deeper into this $1,699 iMac and you’ll find a desktop that’s equal parts compelling and polarizing. Some new features, like the SD Card slot, the now-standard wireless mouse and keyboard, and the LED backlight, have obvious appeal. The glossy screen coating, the limited (for now) bidirectional functionality of the Mini DisplayPort, and the absence of both a Blu-ray drive and a quad-core processor all provide openings for criticism. For us, however, and we expect for many others, the screen trumps most of our concerns.

With this most recent update to the iMac, Apple brings the design of its all-in-ones in line with that of its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops. The aluminum and polycarbon body of the old iMac has been replaced with aluminum and edge-to-edge glass over the screen. From an aesthetic standpoint, the new iMac is as strong as ever, and maintains Apple’s lead over other computer manufacturers. Provided you have the room for it, you should feel no shame putting the new iMac in a prominent location in any home or business.

The new screen size makes the iMac the largest ever in Apple’s all-in-one line, but only by an extra 3 inches in its width. The new iMac measures 20.5 inches high by 25.5 inches wide by 8 inches deep. The old 24-inch iMac is only 22.3 inches wide, but otherwise has the same dimensions. The extra inches in the screen have a more significant impact than the changes in chassis size.

In addition to going to a 27-inch LCD, Apple has also boosted the resolution of the display to 2,560×1,440 pixels–up from 1,920×1,200 pixels in the old model–which amounts to roughly 62 percent more screen real estate. Where the old model couldn’t quite accommodate two full-size Safari windows, the new iMac can fit two side by side with room to spare.

Along with bringing the MacBook Pro’s chassis materials to the new iMac, Apple also incorporated some of the same tricks it uses in its laptops to make the display appear so vibrant. An LED backlight amps up the brightness to such an extent that the display in the old iMac seems washed out in comparison. A glossy coating on the display increases the apparent contrast. Unique to the iMac, though, is a technology to boost the viewing-angle range called IPS, short for “in-plane switching.” We don’t have a quantitative way to measure off-angle color shifting, but anecdotally we can’t say we had off-angle viewing issues on the old iMac. Perhaps the benefit of IPS will be more apparent to digital-imaging professionals, but it certainly doesn’t do any harm.

The glossy coating on the screen is one of the flashpoints of criticism for the new iMac. Those opposed cite more intense reflectivity and increased glare from environmental light sources. As the iMac is generally a stationary device, you can’t necessarily move it to a different spot to avoid glare, as you might with a glossy-screened laptop. Unfortunately, Apple offers no way to opt out of the glossy coating on either its laptops or the new iMacs; from a customer service standpoint, however, providing a screen-coating option would certainly add an extra layer of complexity for less savvy buyers.

For now, Apple has taken a stand on glossy screens, gambling that shoppers either prefer it, won’t care, or will suffer through and accept it. The folks at MacMatte and elsewhere are actively working against that decision. Your buying decision should hinge on your own preference, of course, and a trip to a retail outlet that carries iMacs will answer any questions you might have in short order.

We have no ideal Windows-based comparisons for the new iMac, as no Windows vendor has an all-in-one with a screen larger than 24 inches. Of the two most recent large all-in-ones we have reviewed, Gateway’s One ZX6810-01 makes a better match than HP’s TouchSmart 600M. HP leans heavily toward the home entertainment side of the all-in-one equation, while the Gateway and its quad-core CPU and solid-state hard drive make the One ZX6810-01 more productivity oriented.

The Gateway boasts a few features the iMac doesn’t have, namely a TV tuner, a solid-state hard drive, more video memory, and a quad-core CPU. It also costs $300 less than the iMac. In Apple’s favor, the iMac has the larger screen, and a fast 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo chip. The iMac was faster on almost every application performance test, which leaves the Gateway with only a TV tuner, a lower price tag, and marginally better gaming performance. The Gateway might have an argument to make against the smaller $1,199 iMac, but with better performance and its expansive screen, we find that the $1,699 iMac provides sufficient benefits over its Windows-based competition to justify its cost.

Performance brings us to the fact that the new iMac lacks a quad-core CPU, which may be, for some, a major point of criticism. You can see above that the new iMac is faster than its closest Windows-based competition, as well as than the older iMac. The only real difficulty for the iMac is the multitasking test, where the quad-core Psystar Open(Q) works through our QuickTime and iTunes workload about a minute faster.

We can hear the Mac faithful groaning at the mere mention of Psystar, and we concede that even though the Open(Q) costs $699, it lacks the 27-inch display and virtually all of the thoughtfulness that goes into an Apple product. We also anticipate that the 27-inch Core i5-based iMac due out next month will walk all over the Open(Q). For all but a small subset of hard-core users willing to take a chance on the controversial Mac-clone maker, the Psystar is only relevant as an example of what the iMac’s performance might look like had Apple opted for a Core 2 Quad CPU instead of ramping up to the higher-end of the Core 2 Duo family.

We place a high value on our multitasking test, as it reflects how many people tend to work, but on single applications, the 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo chip helps push the iMac comfortably past its Windows-based competition. If you anticipate running particularly demanding multitasking workloads, you may want to consider waiting for the $1,999 iMac when it hits next month. Otherwise, the majority of you should feel confident that the iMac is the fastest all-in-one on the market even at $1,699, and you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream workload (or combination of workloads), that would bog this system down.

The screen and the core features out of the way, we can shift our focus to some of the secondary updates to the iMac. The SD Card slot is one of the most long-asked-for features in Apple’s entire Mac lineup, and its absence thus far has seemed particularly silly given that you can find multiformat media card readers in $300 Windows desktops. Anyone with a digital camera or other SD Card-equipped portable device will obviously benefit from the addition of the slot to the iMac. Popping a card in brings up a screen that shows you the card contents. OS X will then chide you if you don’t hit the drive eject command before removing the card.

More interesting than the SD Card slot is that the Mini DisplayPort on the back of the iMac is now bidirectional. Right now you can find a cable with two Mini DisplayPort connectors, which lets you use the new iMac as a second display with another Mini DisplayPort-equipped Mac. You can hot-swap the cable between different systems without having to shut down, and the display management software is the most intuitive and most flexible we’ve seen. You can switch between extended and mirrored modes, and an icon-based orientation system lets you switch the extended orientation from side to side, up and down, or virtually any other configuration, as long as the two screens border each other. This capability also extends the useful life of the iMac, addressing a long-standing criticism of all-in-ones. Even if you someday demand a faster computer, you can always use the iMac as a secondary display.

Unfortunately, the dual Mini DisplayPort cable from Belkin won’t let you input video from other devices. For that you’ll have to wait until January. Details on what Belkin’s cooking up are scant, so we can’t offer much information about the forthcoming adapter other than that it’s on the way and it does more than connect two Macs. But given that you can output the iMac over HDMI, DVI, and other formats with the Mini DisplayPort adapter cable, we’d expect that any updated input adapter would include those formats as well. Our hope is that, similar to all-in-ones from a variety of PC vendors, the new cable from Belkin will allow you to input video to the iMac from game consoles, cable boxes, Blu-ray players, HD camcorders, and other such devices currently bound to your television. The appeal of such capability should be obvious, but we’ll unfortunately have to wait until the adapter hits before we can test it out.

The wireless mouse and keyboard are the last major additions to the new iMac. Mostly, we’re glad to see Apple switch to all wireless-input devices, as the wired versions always seemed to disrupt the clean aesthetic Apple seemed to be going for with the system itself. Not everyone likes wireless devices, because of responsiveness concerns and intense battery demands, but for the responsiveness in general usage we experienced no difficulty.

We’ll refer you to our review of the touch-sensitive Magic Mouse for our full opinion of Apple’s unique new input device. For now we’ll say that we like the design of the Magic Mouse, and we found the basic functions worked well enough. Clicking and scrolling all worked as expected, and we even appreciated the acceleration detection that speeds up scrolling down longer pages. The multifinger gestures were no replacement for dedicated forward and back buttons, let alone lateral scrolling like you find on Logitech and Microsoft mice. We can’t feel too disappointed in the Magic Mouse as a bundled mouse with the iMac, however, since it has the basics down. We just find it interesting that for all its attention to design and usability in other products, Apple has never really conquered the lowly mouse.

The last point we’ll make regarding the iMac’s features has to do with the lack of a Blu-ray drive. Apple CEO Steve Jobs made his feeling about Blu-ray well known a while back by calling it a “bag of hurt,” but various tech bloggers still speculated that Apple might finally introduce Blu-ray in this round of iMac updates. At this price especially, Blu-ray is common among Windows all-in-ones, and we’ve seen it in midtower desktops going for around $700. The iMac’s giant screen has better-than-1080p resolution, and the iMac’s audio output is decent enough that it would certainly do justice to the format.

Mitigating factors include Belkin’s forthcoming adapter, if it allows for HDMI input via the iMac’s Mini DisplayPort. Of course, in that event, you still incur the added expense of the adapter and a separate Blu-ray player itself. We also understand that you can download HD movies at 720p from iTunes, and we acknowledge that Blu-ray as a format hasn’t demonstrated the same rapid adoption that came with the switch to DVD, thus minimizing the level of consumer interest. We don’t believe that Blu-ray is a must-have for all computers, and we can think of several features we’d rather have instead. That said, leaving Blu-ray off the new iMac gives Windows-based all-in-ones a selling point. Apple’s customers miss out, and would be right to feel disappointed.

Apple’s power efficiency has been among the best in the computer industry, and the new iMac continues that tradition despite its large display and faster CPU. The new features do incur a cost, even despite the supposedly energy-saving LED display backlight, and this new iMac will run you roughly 6 more dollars a year to operate than the older model. We expect that’s a charge most of you can stomach.

Finally, we hate to end a positive review on a negative note, but we continue to find the extra $169 for AppleCare a questionable deal. You get a yearlong warranty with the iMac, which matches the industry standard, and you can also haul your Mac down to one of Apple’s Genius Bars or an authorized Apple service provider. But in order to be eligible for phone support after your first 90 days of iMac ownership, you need to pay the extra $169 for AppleCare. Yes, that gets you a three-year warranty as well, but long-term phone support should be free.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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