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Review: Make an iMac your next desktop

  • Story Highlights
  • New iMac the most complete and most attractive desktop on the market
  • It dominates on Photoshop and on multimedia multitasking
  • No word on means of upgrading to Apple's new Leopard OS when it's released
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By Rich Brown
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CNET.com

(CNET.com) -- As reader "dechah" wrote in response to our blog covering the announcement of Apple's new iMacs, Apple's is not the first all-in-one desktop with a glossy screen, an ultrathin keyboard, and a trim profile.

art.apple.imac.jpg

But unlike Sony's, HP's, and others' all-in-one efforts, no other vendor comes close to Apple's near-seamless aesthetic. And as the new iMac design impresses visually, so do its features and overall performance compete against other, similarly priced desktops.

The usual iMac caveats of the truncated upgrade path and the less-than-stellar support apply, and we also have questions about about the lag between the iMac's release and the launch of Apple's new Leopard operating system two months from now. Aside from those relatively minor concerns, Apple's new iMac is the most complete and most attractive mainstream desktop on the market, all-in-one or otherwise.

Apple sent us its 20-inch wide-screen iMac with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700 mobile processor. It also doubled the default memory to 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM, bringing our review model's price to $1,649, up from the standard $1,499 for the 2.4GHz model.

Our review unit also includes a 320GB hard drive, Apple's SuperDrive dual-layer DVD burner, a new wide-bandwidth 802.11n wireless adapter, a 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics chip, and wired versions of the Apple Mighty Mouse and the brand-new thin Apple keyboard. Apple still doesn't offer an HD optical drive, although we can't say we're all that surprised.

Overall, its specs are up-to-date enough. Be wary of customizing further, as Apple charges more for hard drive and memory upgrades than the industry averages.

At least as far as the internal hardware, the iMac hasn't changed that much. The new CPU and graphics card are only generational updates, but they help Apple bring strong performance.

Now that the Intel-compatible Mac version of Photoshop CS3 is out, Apple can compete on a level playing field with Windows desktops. And as expected, the new iMac dominates on Photoshop and on multimedia multitasking, and it also does very well on iTunes and CineBench, the latter as much a measure of overall multicore processing power as it is an indicator of a system's ability to process movie files.

Compared to a wide range of competing mainstream desktops, the new Apple iMac more than holds its own, with one typical exception: gaming.

Despite its new ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics chip, the iMac still isn't very well suited to playing 3D games. On our Quake 4 test, at a forgiving 1,024x768 resolution, the iMac turned in an only marginally acceptable 39 frames per second. We were surprised by that, since Quake 4 sits on the tail end of what we consider current 3D games. Comparable Windows PCs from Dell and Velocity Micro perform much better. You should be able to play less-advanced 3D games on the iMac, but we're still disappointed that Apple doesn't want to take gaming seriously.

The biggest improvement, specs-wise, is in the iMac's 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter, which is enabled right out of the box (unlike the older iMac and its $2 charge for the firmware update to turn 802.11n on). 802.11n gives you roughly twice the range and between two and three times as much practical data bandwidth as the older 802.11a, b, or g standards. Of course, you'll need a compatible wireless router to get the benefits of 802.11n, and because the Draft N standard hasn't been completely standardized yet (which is why you'll see it referred to as "Draft" N), your best bet is an N router from the same manufacturer as your N Wi-Fi adapter.

Fortunately, Apple's Airport Extreme router is 802.11n-based, and it also received an update to Gigabit Ethernet, sweetening the pot. For our own testing, we successfully connected the iMac to an older 802.11b router, but your mileage may vary, depending on the make and model of your networking hardware. 802.11n was a deciding factor in awarding Apple an Editors' Choice award. If you spec out a system from any other PC vendor, you'll get within $100 or so of a comparable iMac, but of all the major computer vendors, only Apple offers Draft N wireless in a desktop.

In addition to 802.11n wireless, Apple also increased the bandwidth of wired data transfers, thanks to a FireWire 800 port on the back of the unit. No Windows PC offers this, either. FireWire 800 should particularly benefit digital video editors who need to transfer HD movies via a digital camcorder--or really, anyone that needs to move large amounts of data from an external device. FireWire 800 was formerly an exclusive to Apple's Mac Pro, but by bringing it to the iMac, Apple makes its mainstream desktop even friendlier to professional customers.

After the hardware specs, then, the rest of the updates to the iMac are mostly cosmetic, but they make a significant impact on the overall appeal of this desktop. The brushed-aluminum, glass, and black plastic chassis sets the iMac apart visually from any other desktop on the market. Apple even went so far as to include a black chamois cloth in the box to wipe off fingerprints from the glossy exterior. We found that the system gets very hot to the touch after using it for only a few minutes, so you'd be smart to store it in a well-ventilated area.

Alongside the new chassis, Apple also updated the design of its bundled keyboard. We received the wired model, which comes with a USB input on either side. Apple tells us that the wireless version is still a few weeks off, and that it will be a $30 upgrade when it hits. But tethered or no, the new keyboard shines for its combination of hyperminimalized design and solid build quality. When we saw the first pictures of the keyboard, we thought that it wouldn't be substantial enough to stay in place while you typed on it.

But due to either the aluminum case or the extra weight added internally, we had no trouble with the keyboard sliding around. The MacBook Pro-style key mechanics also have a smooth response that make it a pleasure to type on. Our only complaint is that the hot keys sit on the top edge, rather than along the sides. We've found the latter design provides easier access, although the included Apple Remote gives you the long-distance control capability to make up for it.

The rest of the new design tweaks to the iMac are minor. Apple went to extra effort to hide the built-in iSight video camera and microphone, to the point where the tiny pin pricks on the top edge that reveal the microphone are barely noticeable. We can't say we found the original design that obtrusive. We're sad to see that the new model has no power indicator light, though. We found the softly pulsing white LED underneath the skin of the old iMac comforting as it kept its steady beat.

Apple also included its new iLife '08 media software suite, which gives you all manner of tools for organizing and editing digital photos and videos. We'll let our standalone reviews of iLife and the new iWork suite get into the specifics of those applications, although we will say that the robust suite of iLife apps was another deciding factor in awarding this system an Editors' Choice.

We have reservations, though, about the iMac's operating system. Our biggest complaint with this new system is that, even though Apple's new Leopard operating system is only two months away, Apple hasn't deigned to inform anyone about its upgrade plans. We find that oversight irksome and inconsiderate, especially since in the past, major operating system updates have run $129. As much as we like this system, we think you'd be smart to wait until October to buy one, when the new OS would presumably be included at no extra cost.

Our other gripe, that Apple's support is lackluster, is far from news. That you get only 90 days of phone support with an Apple always feels like a slap in the face when we read it. At least the year-long warranty for parts and labor meets the industry standard. Apple's user community has also proven itself a useful resource, and you can find tons of helpful troubleshooting tips on Apple's forum. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, CNET.com and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.

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