Buying Guide: Apple’s New iMac

Apple updated its iMac and Mac Pro desktop line today with little or no design changes, but the technical specifications of these two machines are finally in line with what you can get from their Windows-running counterparts.

Let’s take a look at these two machines side by side for anyone looking to upgrade or switch.

First of all, if you’re looking to buy one of those shiny new 27″ Apple Cinema Displays to go with a new iMac, wait to make your purchase as those won’t be available until September. In my opinion, Dell’s monitor offerings are priced very competitively to Apple’s, but you lose out on that Apple touch such as an aluminum enclosure and built-in MagSafe adapter. I have a 30″ Dell LCD hooked up to my 27″ iMac and it performs perfectly with Apple’s Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter.

The 27″ & 21″ iMac Side by Side

For nearly every user reading TheAppleBlog, Apple’s new iMac is the perfect machine both in performance and price. It will make your wallet happy compared to the Mac Pro and is a versatile machine with a small footprint and speeds that most users have never experienced. It also uses far less energy than the Mac Pro, which is good for your electric bill. Here’s my recommendation for a top of the line Core i7 iMac:

  • 27″ Monitor
  • 2.93GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7
  • 8GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 4x2GB
  • 2TB Serial ATA Drive
  • 8x double-layer SuperDrive
  • ATI Radeon HD 5750 1GB GDDR5 SDRAM
  • Magic Mouse

Final Price: $2,549

For this, you’re getting eight total cores since the quad-core i7 processor has hyperthreading and the 8GB of RAM is far from the max of 16GB that the new iMac can handle while still being more than enough for most users. Remember, the MacBook Pro can take a max of 8GB of RAM. I’d recommend 16GB to any aspiring filmmaker, CGI artist or science geek doing complex computations that require a ton of RAM. Besides, you can add more RAM a couple of years from now as the price drops and your needs grow.

The lowest-end iMac I’d recommend would be the following:

  • 21.5″ Monitor
  • 3.60GHz Intel Core i5
  • 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2x2GB
  • 1TB Serial ATA Drive
  • ATI Radeon HD 5670 512MB GDDR3 SDRAM
  • 8x double-layer SuperDrive
  • Magic Mouse

Final Price: $1,699

This is a great machine for people who don’t need a spacious monitor or the performance gains of 8 CPU cores. There is a cheaper Core i3 available at $1,199 but jump to this model if you can for a machine that will keep up with your day-to-day activities a year or more down the road. The Core i5 is a dual-core machine with hyperthreading so you get a total of 4 cores. Of note, the clock speed on this machine is much higher than the i7 but comparing the Core i5 and the Core i7 is night and day when it comes to performance.

CPUs Compared

The most notable difference is that the Core i5 has 4MB of L3 cache while the Core i7 has 8MB for twice as much memory per core and a faster front side bus. This article may be a bit dated but PCWorld had an excellent run-down comparing the two chips that is worth a read. The short story is that the Core i7 is much faster in nearly every aspect.

[inline-ad align=”right”]Remember, more cores isn’t always faster. It’s easy to say the Core i7 has 4 physical and 4 virtual cores so it’s better than the i5, but so many applications don’t even know the other cores are there and I have some apps that max out one or two cores but leave the others alone. Snow Leopard’s Grand Central Dispatch makes it easy for devs to take advantage of those cores, but the extra time involved doesn’t make a task manager or note taking app move any faster. Apple’s page showcasing discrete graphics and more cores is convincing but don’t get caught up in its sales pitch when choosing the machine that’s right for you.

In actuality, it’s the i7’s faster front side bus, enhanced memory architecture, larger cache and features like TurboBoost that truly make for a worthy upgrade.

SSD & HDD Available

Another observation that Apple didn’t spend too much time highlighting is that you can have SSD and HDD drives in the new iMac. The previous model only supported a single 1 or 2 terabyte hard disk drive. Now, buyers on can configure a new iMac with a 1 or 2 terabyte drive in addition to a 256GB SSD. If you can afford it, do it. My 15″ MacBook Pro has an HDD but my MacBook Air is SSD and the speed and overall performance of having an SSD is phenomenal. Apple is letting users have their cake and eat it too because SSD is still very expensive so you have to choose performance over storage capacity. Now, you can have the speed of SSD and the storage of a 1+ terabyte drive in the same machine but you’re playing an additional $750/$900 for the privilege. This option is only available on The 27″ iMac.

The Value Proposition for Switchers

To understand the true value of this new machine, let’s compare it with a similarly equipped Dell. With the 27″ iMac, you’re getting a $999 monitor built into the machine. Subtract that number from the price tag and you’re getting a blazing fast Core i7 machine with 8GB of RAM for just over $1500 which will beat any similarly configured Dell Desktop. The Studio XPS 9000 desktop from Dell had a $1,799 price tag pre-tax after I configured it as similarly as I could to Apple’s 27″ iMac – and this is before adding a Dell monitor. Apple’s iMac is so competitively priced that it’s a no-brainer considering you can install Windows 7 on it, if you want.

The Magic Trackpad

We’ve already provided a run-down of the Magic Trackpad here on TAB but I wanted to emphasize that this is a big deal. Apple is bringing the tech that makes its notebooks so much better than other PC notebooks and making a standalone input device that everyone can enjoy. In my post discussing the Trackpad two weeks ago, I said:

“A Bluetooth trackpad that I’ve eloquently dubbed “MagicPad” (Magic Mouse = Trackpad) would be Apple’s next step into a buttonless world that it so desperately is striving for. The Magic Mouse has fewer buttons than the Mighty Mouse and this would be one button as the entire trackpad is, exactly like we are used to on Apple’s notebooks.”

I still agree and it’s a $69 add-on when buying your new iMac. But I say go for it; there’s always eBay if you really don’t like it. Apple notebook owners will see this as a no-brainer way to interact with the desktop computer. My friend, who does graphic design, loves the trackpad over a mouse and she’s already ordered one of these for her iMac.

Final Thoughts

The iMac is the most affordable iMac ever as it blows the pants off any previous desktop Mac under $3,000. If you can afford it, the top model I recommended is perfect and will function as a capable Mac for the next 3+ years without buyer’s remorse. The Mac Pro has its place but it can’t compete in price and packaging with the iMac. Even the normally affordable Dell machines can’t compete in price and that makes this machine perfect for home users, pros and switchers in a way that no other Mac has before.