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Friday May 13, 2011 2:24 pm

Apple iMac 27-inch (2011) review

iMac 27-inch review

The Apple iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1,999 list) is the newest top-of-the-line iMac, and it adds second-generation Intel Core i processors (aka, Sandy Bridge) to Apple's class-leading all in one Mac desktops, along with Thunderbolt ports first seen on the new MacBook Pro laptops. It has that huge, beautiful high-resolution screen, killer (if aging) design, and it is fast, fast, fast. Your "Mac OS or die" art director already wants one. Still, it's not enough to unseat the HP TouchSmart 610-1065qd as our high-end all in one desktop Editor's Choice, given that the latter offers quad-core power, a touch-screen display, and an innovative screen reclining feature, all for about $200 less. That said, read on for our full review of the 2011 27-inch iMac with Thunderbolt.

On the outside, the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) looks just like its aluminum and glass predecessors. It has the same huge 27-inch 2,560-by-1,440 resolution display, which is formatted with a 16:9 aspect ratio and is higher resolution than the 1,920 by 1,080 required for true 1080p HD. The display is so bright that Apple added a new ambient light sensor to auto-dim the screen, so users in brightly lit studios can keep their eyes from straining when a cloud obscures the sun or if someone draws the drapes over the window. The glass panel protecting the LED-backlit LCD display is glossy, one of the few nits against the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt). I'd like to see a matte finish option for graphics professionals who want it. Speaking of graphics professionals, Apple color calibrates each display before shipping it to the final user. Color calibration won't necessarily be a big consideration for the average consumer, but it's a boon to the graphics artist who makes her living with the iMac.

The desktop comes with a 1TB, 7,200rpm internal hard drive, though well-off speed demons can also add an optional 256GB SSD for an additional $600. Combinations, including a single 256GB SSD (by itself) and/or 2TB hard drive upgrade, are available on Apple's website. The system comes with Apple's wireless keyboard and your choice of either Apple's Magic Mouse (which our review unit came with) or Magic TrackPad (which used to be a $60 option - see our Magic Trackpad review). I personally like the TrackPad, since it has more multi-touch functions than the mouse. The 27-inch iMacs come with 4GB of memory standard, and support up to 16GB maximum. Like previous iMacs, the system memory is the only easy-to-access internal upgrade you can do on the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt): further internal expansion requires specialized tools, familiarity with electronic repair techniques, and much intestinal fortitude. Most users will upgrade their system via external ports.

The iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) comes with four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, audio in/out, Gigabit Ethernet, a SDXC card slot, and—new for 2011—two Thunderbolt ports. Thunderbolt is the currently shipping implementation of Intel's "Light Peak" interconnect, which uses the same shaped plug as mini DisplayPort, though the Thunderbolt connector is capable of so much more than simple display support. You could, in the future, connect many different peripherals to the Thunderbolt port, like hard drives, Fiber Channel SAN arrays, video interfaces, and adapter cables for HDMI, DVI, etc. But for the time being, you can only use the Thunderbolt port for video: You can connect one of the newer MacBook Pro laptops with Thunderbolt and use the iMac as an external monitor. Or you can use the two Thunderbolt ports to connect up to two external mini DisplayPort monitors so you can extend your workspace on three monitors (including the internal display).

Thunderbolt is theoretically capable of 10 Gbps bi-directional throughput, so you can support multiple peripherals per port, which is twice the speed of USB 3.0. Thunderbolt can be daisy chained, so the same two ports on the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) can, for example, support dual displays and multiple external hard drives simultaneously. Hard drive and peripheral manufacturers like LaCie, Promise Technology, and BlackMagic have announced other peripherals for Thunderbolt, but you'll have to wait at least until Summer 2011 for those. Apple has reportedly come out saying (via Macworld) that you need a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac desktop or laptop to use the iMac as an external monitor: older mini DisplayPort equipped Macs (like the Mac mini and older MacBooks) won't be able to use the new iMac as an external display. Though this won't affect too many users at this point, it does count as a nit against the new technology. More annoying is the fact that the new iMac needs new (as yet unreleased) Thunderbolt-to-HDMI input adapters if you want to plug in a HDMI (or DVI or DisplayPort) device like a DVR or another PC. This is one case where other all-in-one desktops like the Editor's Choice HP TouchSmart 610-1065qd (with its two HDMI inputs) outshines the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt).

Another nit is Apple's shunning of Blu-ray technology. Internal Blu-ray drives are not an option on any iMac. Apple doesn't view Blu-ray optical discs as a replacement for data DVDs, and would rather you bought your HD videos from the iTunes Store rather than on Blu-ray. Blu-ray won the High-Definition wars long ago, especially for movie buffs, so that omission is still puzzling.

iMac Thunderbolt ports

Like other recent Macs, the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) comes with the familiar Apple iLife '11 software suite and Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard operating system. The iLife suite is one of the most integrated consumer grade multimedia (photo, video, music) packages on the market, and is one of the best ways to enhance your use of iOS devices like an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Speaking of iPad and iPhone, the new iMac comes with FaceTime HD video chat software, which lets iMac users video chat with others via MacBooks, other iMacs, and iOS devices like iPhone 4, iPad 2, and the latest generation of iPod Touch devices.

Aside from those packages, there really isn't any other software on the iMac. That essentially means no bloatware. The desktop comes with the Mac App store (think like the iTunes store, but for Mac software), which lets you search for, purchase, and download software. The Mac App store uses your Apple ID, so its purchases are linked with the info you have in iTunes and the iOS app store. For most users, "one-stop shopping" is a better alternative to having separate purchasing agreements, as with Windows PC app, music, and movie stores. If you must use both Mac OS and Windows, the iMac is Windows-compatible thanks to its Intel Core i5 processor. Just install your own copy of Windows 7 using the Boot Camp utility, and you have a dual-booting Windows-Mac OS PC. Apple includes a driver disc with the desktop, or you can download the latest drivers from Apple during the Boot Camp setup procedure. We tested the iMac under both Windows 7 Enterprise 64-bit and Mac OS X 10.6.

The iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) is a power user's dream machine. It has a quad-core, true desktop-class Intel Core i5-2400 processor (compared with the lower powered Core i5-2400 CPUs in the Asus All-in-One PC ET2400IGTS-800SE. As such, it was able to run rings around the Asus ET2400IGTS in all tests. The iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) completed the Handbrake video encoder test in a quick 1:38 in Windows and 1:28 in Mac OS. This is even faster than the massive (and expensive) Apple Mac Pro (Xeon E5620), which took 2:22 in Windows and 1:55 in Mac OS on the same test. Add a speedy external Thunderbolt hard drive, and you'll be able to replace some of your video producing Mac Pros with more economical iMacs. Likewise, the new iMac is an excellent Photoshop CS5 machine: It took 3 minutes 17 seconds to complete our CS5 test in Windows, and 4:26 in Mac OS X. Again this is faster than the Mac Pro (4:42 in Windows; 4:59 in Mac OS). The Mac Pro does excel in one test, however: the more workstation-like CineBench test score in Mac OS (8.69) was higher that that of the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) (4.86) due to the Mac Pro's ability to throw multiple processing streams at the CPU-intensive test. The Mac Pro has more pure CPU-based number crunching power than the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt), but the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) was faster at day-to-day tasks that use other components like the hard drive and graphics. The new iMac is one of the fastest ever tested with Futuremark's PCMark Vantage test, which measures day-to-day performance in Windows: The iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) scored 10,006 points, while the HP TouchSmart 610-1065qd was slower at 9,165 points (which is still pretty darn good).

Thanks to the new iMac's AMD Radeon HD 6970M graphics (laptop-class, but still pretty powerful), the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) was powerful enough to play 3D games in Windows. The desktop was able to get mostly playable scores at Crysis (95 fps in Medium quality, 42 fps in Very High quality) and at Lost Planet 2 (24 fps High quality). The iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) couldn't sync to the usual Middle quality/1,280 by 720 setting in Lost Planet 2, but it returned a very playable 66 fps at a "harder" Middle quality/1,280 by 768 graphics setting. This shows that the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) is perfectly happy running DX10 and DX11 games. During Apple's demo, Portal 2 for Mac OS showed smoothly playable frame rates at the display's 2,560 by 1,440 resolution as well. None of the other all-in-one PCs was able to match the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) on the game grid. The HP 610-1065qd was closest, with a smoothly playable 57fps score at Crysis in Medium Quality and a somewhat playable 25 fps score at Lost Planet 2 in Middle quality (It returned unplayable single-digit scores at the higher quality settings). Essentially, to be faster on the game grid than the new top-of-the-line iMac, you'll have to get a specialized gaming rig.

If all you care about is "speeds and feeds," the Apple iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) is your all-in-one desktop. It has the muscle to power through all but the most esoteric and specialized graphics and scientific tasks, and it has the biggest, most beautiful screen on the market. Your art director or senior graphics artist will thank you for the rest of the year if you get him a new iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt). But for the rest of us, including most power users, the HP TouchSmart 610-1065qd holds on to its Editor's Choice for being more innovative and pushing the use of its touch interface to the next level. The HP 610-1065qd has more entertainment options, including Blu-ray and, for better or worse, has alternatives to the iTunes Store. At about $200 cheaper, the HP 610-1065qd still has quad-core power for most tasks and has more bang for the buck. The iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) is an improvement over its predecessor, to be sure, but it's still just a speed and feature bump, while the HP 610-1065qd takes more chances and is (gasp!) more innovative than Apple's flagship all-in-one desktop.

Read More | iMac Thunderbolt

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