Running changes to the Apple iMac bring it right up to date in its components, putting it a step ahead of the mainstream Windows competition in more respects than the usual Mac touchstones of comfort, security, style and ease of use.
Apple was the first company to sell laptops with Sandy Bridge processors, in its mobile MacBook Pro line earlier this year. And now, with the inevitable update to Intel’s second-generation Core processors for the desktop line, Apple has also managed to snaffle the first run of a new supporting chipset, the Intel Z68.
In contrast to the disjointed PCs we test for our monthly Top 5 Charts, the iMac is the lounge-friendly face of computing. Where those machines deliver the fastest possible performance at the lowest possible price – overlooking such fripperies as build quality, quiet operation and useful pre-installed software – the iMac is instead tuned to many home or office users’ actual needs.
Straight from the packing box, the iMac is ready to go, wireless keyboard and mice ready-paired for Bluetooth – there’s even a power cable in place, so you just need to find one mains socket.
Upon startup, there’s a quick initial registration process (which can be skipped), then you’re at the Mac OS X desktop and ready for action.
The iMac won’t nag you to use short-lived trials of anti-virus software, nor bug you to make a backup disc of your C drive; you get two DVDs in the box for OS and iLife, in case you ever need to reinstall.
There'll be no frustrating searches to find all the drivers you need – they’re already in the OS. The Apple iMac is mercifully free of all the bloatware that top-tier Windows PC makers now load for the unprepared buyer.
The iMac is an all-in-one design of course, a concept Apple returned to with its first iMac in 1998. This makes for a very neat, self-contained solution, with the absolute minimum in unsightly cables. The downside?
With so many components shoe-horned into a relatively small space, servicing and user upgrades are not at all easy. Memory is the limit of accepted user servicing, reached through a hatch at the screen bottom.
All-in-one vs partly-in-one
Where most PC systems comprise computer, screen, keyboard and mouse, maybe desktop speakers, the iMac goes that bit further.
Out of the box, there’s a webcam built into the screen bezel, which can be used for webchats using the FaceTime app to reach out to other Apple users, or to anyone with cross-platform Skype. An uprated camera here is not just better in resolution – we found it also benefits from improved low-light performance.
The Intel Z68 chipset unlocks some hitherto unavailable features of the Sandy Bridge CPU. The main asset here is real-time video encoding using Intel’s integrated graphics processor. So while a new line of AMD graphics cards take on screen rendering and games, the Intel HD graphics look after FaceTime HD video, leaving the CPU to focus on other duties.
Many Windows PC vendors forget about audio, expecting you to find your own speakers or use the squeaky ones built into budget LCD panels. The iMac includes hidden stereo speakers, capable of decent sound levels and respectable quality. For small to medium-sized living rooms, the iMac provides good enough sound to clearly accompany film and television viewing.
There’s no need to find extra dongles or screw-in PCI cards to get full wireless coverage. The iMac has great Wi-Fi facilities available with its dual-band coverage, as well as Bluetooth for desktop accessories. To control the iMac like a media centre from across the room, an IR receiver will take commands from an optional remote control.
A key point is the best full-colour IPS screen of any consumer PC, 2560 x 1440 pixels, if sadly glazed with reflective glass.
Prices start at £999 for the smaller 21.5in iMac, which differs only in screen size and CPU/GPU/HDD configuration - all other accessories are still on board.
The 27in is available from £1399 with 2.7GHz Intel Core i5 and AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics. We tested a sample with AMD 6970M and 1GB GDDR5 memory, and build-to-order 3.4GHz Core i7, which sells for £1809.
A useful feature for the future perhaps, the iMac now sports a Thunderbolt port, two on the 27in. This promises to break down the current limit on PC speed, its I/O transfers. We’ll know more when Thunderbolt devices become available this year.
For the moment, though, you can use those Thunderbolt ports as Mini DisplayPort video connections, and hook up two more displays to the 27in iMac.
Set against the performance of £1000+ Windows PCs, the iMac we tested – a top-spec model with build-to-order configuration of Core i7-2600 processor – is a little behind the curve. And so long as you don’t need a PC for bleeding-edge gaming, it really does not matter.
Modern PCs have reached the point where processor speed is no longer limiting our ability to use them. Whether we type in a word processor or colour correct a folder-full of snaps, we rarely must wait for the PC to catch up with our actions. Only when rendering large video files will most users notice the difference between a PC scoring 100 points and another hitting 150+.
That said, Windows PCs have one processor-intensive task that benefits from much faster chips – to run anti-virus scans without slowing the computer so much.
For the sake of benchmarking, we installed Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, to see how this iMac compared to its Windows peers. In WorldBench 6, it scored 155 points, enough to make mincemeat of any daily duty.
And so to gaming, traditionally the Mac’s weakest point. In our full-HD test of Stalker: Call of Pripyat using DirectX 11, this iMac reaped 63fps at Ultra detail setting. We also tried at native screen resolution of 2560 x 1440, where it still showed a very smooth 44fps.
In the lab’s Crysis test of Very High detail at 1680x1050, we saw 31fps, still very playable.
On the Mac side, venerable Xbench gave the machine a workout of processor, RAM, graphics and disk, and pulled in an average of 280 points; that’s around 2.5-times the score of our workhorse laptop, itself no slouch.