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ATPM 17.04
April 2011




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Hardware Review

by Wes Meltzer,

iMac (21.5-inch Core i5)


Function: All-in-one desktop computer.

Developer: Apple

Price: $1,699 (new, with upgrade to 3.6GHz Core i5); $1,499 (new, standard 3.2GHz Core i3); $1,399 (refurbished, approximately, subject to availability); USB keyboard and corded mouse available as free upgrades; upgrades to RAM, hard drive, etc., available at additional cost.

Requirements: None

Trial: None

My reaction to the very first iMac—can you believe it’s been 13 years?—was that it looked like a toy, not a Serious Computer. I mean, it came in Bondi blue, not beige or black. It had only USB, no serial or parallel ports. Its internal components were going to be a bear to replace, too. But I think the thing that really condemned the original iMac in the eyes of the technorati was the color.

(I eventually found out firsthand how hard that was, when my high school newspaper’s computer lab ordered more RAM for upgrades. There are still scars on my left hand from where I cut myself on the plastic cases.)

Now, I’ve owned some silly-colored things in my time, like a green car and a burnt-orange mountain bike, but my electronics are all white, black, or metal.

Today’s iMac is a far cry from that original model. It’s almost strange to call it by the same name as that fluorescent-colored, plastic-bodied model with the 15-inch curved CRT; or, for that matter, the design that looked so much like Pixar’s Luxo Jr., although Steve Jobs says it’s based on a sunflower.

In January, I ordered a refurbished model: 21.5-inch display with a 3.6GHz Intel Core i5 inside. That’s two cores, each of which runs at 3.6GHz, in case you’ve ever wondered how these multi-core machines stack up. Not too shabby at all as an upgrade from an early Core 2 Duo white MacBook.


Now, I could go on and on about how wondrous the computer’s performance is and fill a whole review that way. And it really is remarkable: programs launch three times as fast, and even the slowest-launching applications like Word or InDesign take only a few seconds, as opposed to the better part of a minute. I love watching MenuMeters in the menu bar, because even an extremely CPU- and RAM-intensive task like rendering the OpenStreetMap road grid for the state of Florida in QGIS only takes about 25% of total CPU.

But we’re talking about an iMac here, and I’m sure that if you do really computing-intensive tasks, you’re using a Mac Pro.

The thing that is most remarkable about the iMac is that it is though a computer has been reduced down, through simmering or alchemy, from a large desktop tower all the way down to a thin sliver behind the monitor. (This is the remaining part of a longer, much more complex cooking analogy, involving raw tomatoes and marinara sauce, which I have chosen to spare my readers.)

When my little MacBook became too feeble for what I was asking of it, I decided the time had come to put it out to pasture. A colleague had shown interest in buying a used computer; his personal-computing needs, mainly checking e-mail and Web browsing while traveling, were much better suited to a four-year-old computer than to my own computing habits.

So I told him I’d sell him my MacBook, as soon as I identified a replacement.

Then it became time to figure out what to replace the MacBook with. My MacBook almost never went anywhere—my company issued me a MacBook Pro not long after I bought the MacBook—and I already have the EeePC I wrote about in ATPM 16.09, and an iPad. So I didn’t particularly need a laptop. At the same time, I certainly didn’t need a Mac Pro; besides, that would have just moved the clutter off my desk and under it, rather than eliminating it.

And therein lies your answer. There’s no other computer that does quite so good a job at eliminating wires as the iMac. It comes with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and if I weren’t such a data nut, with scanner and three external hard drives and a USB-connected, GPS-enabled sports wrist watch and heart-rate monitor, the only cord extending from my iMac might’ve been the AC power.

That takes us back to the aforementioned cooking metaphor. Each generation of the iMac was smaller and more minimal than its predecessor, but this one is like the final batch of marinara sauce that’s left behind after cooking all those tomatoes: it’s only slightly larger than the standalone 20-inch Cinema Display I used to have on my desk, and yet it houses a full computer. If you’d never seen an iMac before, you might think the rest of the computer were somewhere else, and that this was just the monitor.

So let’s talk about the iMac in the more specific ways that computer reviews tend to elicit.

Bottom line: you will not regret having this device on your desk. I know I don’t.

Reader Comments (1)

Yacko · April 3, 2011 - 17:58 EST #1
When you have FW800 drives, place the FW400 at the end of a chain and you will have FW800 speed up to the point of the FW400 drive. Just don't place it first or early in a daisy-chain of FW800 drives, otherwise you lose 3 pins of signal and speed.

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