Reviewing the New iMac: A Week’s Worth of Impressions

It’s sleek, slim, and just a wee bit sexy.

I know that I’ve written about getting a new computer several times over the past couple of years. However, as my wife will readily attest, I’m pretty much all hot air when it comes to making large purchases of this sort. Much of it has to do with simple anxiety over dropping a couple thousand dollars on something that will be, for all intents and purposes, obsolete within 3 weeks. And so I make those silly little posts about this or that new machine, speculating on whether or not it will magically appear on the desk of Opus HQ. Meanwhile, I pore over technical specs, ponder the pros and cons of various configurations, scan through forums for the latest news and rumors, etc. And all for naught.

That is, until Apple’s recent MacWorld in January, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first Intel Macs. As soon as I saw the iMac on that list, something inside me clicked, and I knew that this would be my brand new machine. Obviously, there were some misgivings — the first round of any new Apple technology is a bit of a crapshoot, and given the fact that Apple had released the Intel Macs 6 months ahead of schedule did make one wonder if they skimped on anything to reach that deadline. However, I’m no purist: I had no misgivings whatsoever about getting an Intel Mac if one indeed turned out to be the best choice. Perhaps I swallow the Apple PR hook, line, and sinker, but I’ve been jazzed about the Intel deal ever since it was announced.

Obviously, though, there was still some anxiety about purchasing a new computer, and the first version of a brand new, untested model, at that. However, initial reports were encouraging. First off, the new Intel iMacs were fast. Maybe not quite as fast as Apple was making them out to be, but still pretty fast nonetheless. And more importantly, they were stable, silent, and did I mention fast? The reviewers had some reservations about “Rosetta” — the software that the Intel Macs use to run software that hasn’t been optimized yet for the new processors — but all in all, everything seemed encouraging.

And so, two weeks ago, with credit card in hand, I ventured through the Apple Store… for real this time. And for the past week, I’ve been absolutely loving my new iMac — the first new computer I’ve bought in almost 5 years. I’ll spare you time trials and other such performance measurements. There are plenty of those already out there. The following is just a list of my (admittedly non-scientific) impressions of this machine. If you’re looking for super-technical breakdowns, scientific experiments, and whatnot, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If not, then by all means, read on…

First off, the reviews are all right. This thing is fast. So-called “Universal Binary” programs — programs that have been optimized for the new Intel processors — practically scream (this includes Apple programs such as Safari and iPhoto). But even non-native apps such as Adobe’s Photoshop — a notorious memory and resource hog — are pretty snappy on the new iMac.

Photoshop was my biggest concern. It’s one of those “desert island” apps. I use it everyday and there’s no way I could effectively do my job without it. Most of reviewers noted that Photoshop performance was anywhere from sluggish to abysmal. However, I have a feeling that a lot of those reviewers were also coming to the Intel iMac from relatively recent machines, such as the previous G5 iMac and the Power Macs (which are still using G5 processors). If that’s the case, they’d obviously notice some slowdown.

However, for someone like me, who is used to running Photoshop on a 500Mhz iMac DV SE that they bought almost 6 years ago, slowdown is less of an issue. Or, to put it another way, I haven’t experienced any slowdown whatsoever. Photoshop on my new iMac even feels as fast as, if not a wee bit faster than the dual 1GHz Power Mac I use at work. It certainly doesn’t hurt that I upgraded the iMac’s RAM to the 2GB, the max amount. I’m sure that if I hadn’t done that, I’d notice some sluggishness in Photoshop, but that’s precisely why I did it in the first place.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the new iMac without mentioning the screen — I bought the 20″ version, which gives me a plenty-big 1680x1050 resolution. Indeed, it’s the first thing everyone notices. I initially set up the iMac on our dining room table, which immediately stopped people in their tracks upon entering our house, and the first words out of their mouth were usually something along the lines of childlike babbling. That’s how beautiful this screen is.

In all honesty, I’ve never worked on a screen that’s this bright and crisp. It’s so good that it’s almost painful going back to my old iMac or my 21″ monitor at work; compared to the iMac’s display, they both look like they’ve got vaseline smeared all over them.

And then there’s the computer’s simply gorgeous industrial design. If you’ve seen any of Apple’s glamor shots, you’ll notice the streamlined, ultra-minimal design aesthetic. Not surprisingly, the same team that designed the iPod designed this version of the iMac case, as it does look something like an overgrown iPod. The front of the computer is completely sleek. All that’s there is the iSight camera (at the top of the machine), the gorgeous screen, and the Apple logo (which hides the IR receiver for the included remote control).

All of the ports — USB, Firewire, headphone, etc. — are in a nice little row on the back of the computer. Admittedly, this does require you to turn the computer around slightly should you ever want to plug in a peripheral. But in all honesty, how often do you do this? Once you’ve plugged in the keyboard (and plugged the mouse in the keyboard), you’ve satisfied 90% of your peripheral requirements. The power button can be a bit hard to find at first — if you don’t read the directions, that is — but it’s also on the back, and with a slightly bevelled surface that distinguishes it from the rest of the computer’s surface (and feels quite nice to the touch, I might add).

The SuperDrive (which can read and burn CDs and DVDs) is located on the side of the machine, and is accessible via a vertical slot. In all honesty, I was a little skeptical when I first saw this configuration on the G5 iMacs. I’m still not sure if it’s crazy, or a sign of genius. However, I’m not really sure where they could have put it without really screwing up the computer’s design. Inserting the disc is easy enough — stick it in most of the way and the computer does the rest of the work, pulling it in the rest of the way.

I know some folks have misgivings about getting an all-in-one configuration, and understandably so. If one thing breaks, the whole computer is worthless. However, it certainly does make for a very easy system to manage, move, etc. For a machine this size, it takes up very little space on my desk, which leaves room for plenty of mess (e.g., stacks of CDs, cans of Dr. Pepper). The other (understandable) concern that folks have with an all-in-one machine is the lack of expansion. But this has never been an issue with me.

Maybe I’m not quite the power user I think I am, but I almost never have any desire whatsoever to dig around in my computer’s innards (and apparently, Apple has taken steps to make this even more difficult). The only thing I’ve ever had any reason to upgrade has been the RAM, and since I ordered this with the maximum amount of RAM it can hold, that’s a rather moot point now. I also bought the best graphics card I could, which might cause gamers to snicker (it’s an ATI Radeon X1600 with 256MB of VRAM), but it’s proven more than adequate for my needs (gaming or otherwise).

A few other random points…

  • The iMac is very, very quiet. In fact, I sometimes have to double-check that the thing is actually on. I mean, it makes almost no noise whatsoever. The only time I ever heard it make any unusual amount of noise — aside from the noises involved with inserting/ejecting discs, etc. — was when I was doing some video compression. Other than that, virtual silence.
  • It generates very little heat. It gets a little warm to the touch, but nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, this was one of the reasons why Apple moved to Intel in the first place — their chips could run faster at cooler speeds.
  • I haven’t really had a chance to play with “Front Row,” Apple’s software for turning your iMac into a home media center. (I’ve been too busy with real work.) In all honesty, I can’t really see myself using this program all that much, other than as eye candy (the Front Row transitions really are quite cool), as I have no intention of putting my iMac in the living room, etc. The remote control that comes with the iMac just hangs there on the side of the computer via a tiny magnet — which looks pretty sweet while being unobtrusive.
  • The only complaints I’ve had so far are not with the iMac, but rather with the mouse and keyboard that came with it. As much as I like the fact that Apple now ships a two-button mouse, the Mighty Mouse just doesn’t quite cut it for me. It looks nice, but it feels a bit on the flimsy side, and the all-in-one dual button sometimes leads to clicking on the wrong mouse button. As for the keyboard, some of the keys have a been a little on the sticky side. However, this might work itself out with continued use. And if not, I am eyeing one of those Kensington SlimType keyboards.

As you can tell, I’m pleased as punch about the purchase. Obviously, it’s only been a week, so time will ultimately tell. But so far the iMac has been solid machine — plenty fast and perfectly suited for my needs as a web designer and blogger who occasionally does video work (and plays a game every couple weeks or so). It’s sleek, slim, and just a wee bit sexy.

And did I mention how beautiful this 20″ display is? Because if not, it is. It really, truly is. If the only major complaint I have with a computer is that I feel like I’m going to be swallowed up by a gorgeous flat-screen display every time I look at it, then I’d say that’s a pretty darn good computer.

I’ve created a Flickr photoset of all of my iMac photos. And no need for snarkiness, I realize how geeky that is. Just deal with it…

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