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Buying Guide: Apple’s New iMac

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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.

27 Responses to “Buying Guide: Apple’s New iMac”

  1. Hi Adam, thanks for the great article… Finally what I
    have been looking for. I would like to purchase the 27″ as you specified, my only concern is when will Apple launch it’s new upgrade? I don’t want to spend good money and they upgrade a few months later.

  2. Crazy,

    I’ve been using my G5 for years now that still runs a PowerPC processor. I’d say this is a testament to Apple’s engineering. With small upgrades here and there such as HDD and RAM it’s been an excellent investment. I’m looking to upgrade now and still weighing the options on the packages because I used production software. Logic or Protools still runs fine on this machine but I’m excited to see how it operates on a new machine. Thanks for you in depth review, it’s definitely cleared things up for me.

  3. $2,549 for the iMac in the UK the same spec would cost £2,089.00 or $3,326.37 Don’t really understand why it’s almost $800 more expensive, it’s totally insane, for a severely limited computer that will be obsolete in 6 months (1 firewire 800?!! no USB 3 no eSATA).

    I recently bought the standard model iMac i5 but returned it after a couple of weeks as it was too slow for video editing and DVD burning nowhere near the speeds advertised. Now considering a second-hand Mac Pro and a 32″ HD LED TV. Meanwhile I’m still on a Powerbook G4 from 2002.

  4. How easy/difficult is it to upgrade the RAM on these iMacs? I’m currently using a 2006 macbook where upgrading the hard drive and RAM is a simple DIY job, same on my homegrown PC. This is my biggest concern with any all-in-one machine. What is involved with upgrading components on these iMacs?

    • Sorry for the dumb question…just looked on and replacing the RAM looks pretty simple. Replacing the hard drive, however, looks to be another story.


  5. Erik (Sweden)

    Hey! Nice article. You know your stuff!

    I’m thinking of getting the 27 inch i7. Only thing I’m pondering is whether to get the 8 gigabytes of ram instead of 4. I am not doing any heavy image or video editing right now but rather looking to play games in high resolution (Counter-strike:source, Portal, Civilization 5, to name a few). I also do multi-tasking with apps like iWork, iPhoto, Google chrome and PASW statistics. I like my computers fluent under pressure. Will probably install Windows 7 (boot camp) for gaming. Perhaps this will require more RAM than Snow leopard?!

    Would you recommend the additional RAM for these needs, or do you think I should wait a while for memory prices to drop? Thanx in advance :)

    • Adam Jackson

      Hi Erik. You’re too kind. Thank you. A few things to consider. If you’re going to get a slower CPU just so you can get more ram, don’t. Get 4 gigabytes of ram and try to get the fastest CPU you can afford.

      If you are deciding whether to go out to dinner twice this month or get more ram, I’d go with the ram upgrade.

      Generally, with Aperture, iTunes and the standard mac apps (netnewswire, mail, twitter, chrome, textedit and skype) I’m at 4 gigabytes.

      Upon deciding to do any video ripping I’m paging out to the hard drive. Also, with more ram, the system is just more stable. I keep it running for 30 days at a time and never feel sluggishness and never have to close applications.

      Today’s games, 4 gigabytes is fine. Tomorrow’s games, 8 gigabytes will be better. Check prices on before upgrading from Apple. You may be able to save a few dollars.

  6. Thanks Adam, that’s helpful. I’m curious though, if I am going to spend the extra $200 to upgrade to the 3.6 i5, is it worth it to spend the extra $100 and get the 2.8 quad-core i5?

    • Adam Jackson

      Good question but that’s something that applies for anything. “well the seat warmers in my civic were $150 and for $50 more I can get floor mats oh and for $50 more I can get auto windshield wipers”

      Soon you have a $40,000 civic cause it was all just “$100 more” ya know?

      No one was ever fired for buying a “better computer” unless it was out of budget. I’ve always bought what I could afford and if that meant a $1199 MacBook one year and a $3,500 MacBook Pro w/ SSD the next year, that’s what I did.

      Personally, I have the fastest iMac from last year (Core i7 w/ 16Gbs of ram) and it screams when I’m encoding movies but gaming and photoshop only take advantage of the first 2 out of 8 cores. Even Aperture doesn’t use all 8 cores so unless you’re doing pro-app editing I’d pass.

      However, if this iMac is gonna be in your house for 3+ years, Mac OS 3 years from now may take advantage of the quad-core w/ hyperthreading so you’re buying a machine for the future or save your money now and buy the latest in 2 years. If you do plan on keeping a Mac for more than 1 year, get AppleCare. When that LED dies or hard drive dies and Apple quotes you $800 for repairs + parts, you’re gonna wish you had paid $249 for applecare.

      good luck!!!

    • Adam Jackson

      Hey Shane. Go for the processor is my gut reaction but it really depends on your needs. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t allow you to yank out the CPU and upgrade it later on so the processor is there for the life of that machine.

      On the other hand, you can upgrade ram any time. $200 for an i5 is a huge improvement over the i3 chip. You get quite a bit for that $200 bump and the machine is equipped with 4 gigabytes of ram which is more than most people need if you’re not rocking out photo / video editing or loading up a huge game.

      Here are the current ram prices from Crucial for that model iMac – So that $325 for 8 gigabytes is pretty high but a year from now, it’ll be much less but that Core i3 you decided to get is gonna be stuck in there forever. Processor over ram.

      Here’s an apple support doc on how to install ram in the 27″ iMac. Easy as pie!

    • Michael

      Yes, most of Apple’s products do have a high price tag but I guess we pay for the entire engineering. I own a late 2009 24 inch iMac and it’s running perfectly fine. Sure there are new iMac’s out but I don’t really think about upgrading yet. It will take a couple of more years till I’ll consider buying a new one.

      But if you want to buy a Mac and you happen to be a student like I am, you can get a discount.

  7. I can’t believe it, I brought a new 27 inch imac about 3/4 weeks ago and now they have updated them. They told me on the phone they were not expecting an update for a while! Is there anything I can do?

  8. Mac Matte

    It’s a big disappointment that Apple did not bring back the matte, anti-glare screen, in spite of a substantial minority of people needing such screens for the work, or for those who are susceptible to eyestrain from the glare. All those who need matte screens need to add to the growing petition at – the aim is for a hardcopy of that petition to be sent to Steve Jobs, so please contribute to the 1,000+ petition.

  9. Ended up having to buy a new computer a couple weeks ago since my computer that I mainly play games on was over 3 years old and just not cutting it. I ended up buying a PC for $1200 after tax and it is as follows:

    24″ LCD
    AMD Phenom II X6
    4 GB DDR3 1600Mhz
    1GB DDR5 Radeon HD 5850
    dual 500GB harddrives in RAID 0
    Plus liquid cooling and USB 3.0

    Kind of no comparison there with the iMac specs. Granted it is a different kind of computer aimed at a different market. Now if only Apple would lower their prices a bit by using AMD processors.