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27-inch iMac Review: Big Screen, and the Muscle to Master It

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As demonstrated in my video unboxing and hands-on last week, I’ve purchased the most recently updated 27-inch iMac(s aapl). I’ve been using it as my primary machine, for work and for play, for about a week now, and I’ll never look back. The new iMac is a huge improvement over its predecessor, especially considering what you get for the money.

First, let me clarify that the machine I’m coming from is a 2008 20-inch iMac, built before the last time Apple changed the external looks of the machine. It closely resembles current models, but has a black plastic back and the bezel around the screen doesn’t fully extend to the edges of the computer’s front surface. That iMac served me well, but this one serves me much better.

Performance Improvements

The new 27-inch iMac is a huge improvement over my old machine. With a quad-core 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5 (s intc) processor, it handily beats my old machine’s 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo on all measures. But it’s also a big step up even from the previous iMac, released in mid-2010, which boasted only a 2-core 3.2 GHz Core i3 processor on the entry-level model. In my usage, it’s even been better (generally faster and more responsive) than my father’s 2010 27-inch iMac, which he outfitted with all optional bells and whistles.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to use one of the 27-inch iMacs for any length of time, you’ll probably initially be most impressed by the screen real estate available to you. Jumping from a 20-inch screen to a 27-inch one makes a world of difference, and I find that I can accomplish many tasks that used to occupy two screens on only one. This includes watching a video while working (I had opportunity to do this when covering the recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on mobile privacy), and even editing photos or videos while browsing the web or managing Steam downloads.

Screens Upon Screens

But if you are a glutton for extra screen space, the 27-inch iMac delivers much more than just its own monitor. Thanks to two Thunderbolt ports with DisplayPort support, you can plug in two extra monitors with no additional equipment or drivers needed (beyond Mini DisplayPort adapters). After years of odd quirks and frequent updates with DisplayLink USB drivers, this is a very welcome addition.

And the iMac has the power to make multi-display workflows very smooth, even in cases where you might require a lot of muscle. For instance, just today I was running Civilization V, while also preparing this post, running about 20 tabs in Chrome, editing a few documents in Photoshop (s adbe), and controlling my HTPC Mac Mini via Apple’s Screen Sharing app. Not to mention iTunes, Twitter, Mail and the Mac App Store were all open as well, and all of the above were spread across three monitors (the iMac’s own monitor and two Dells (s dell), a 20-inch and a 23-inch). Animation in the windowed Civ V remained smooth, and I experienced nary a stutter in my interaction with other open apps.

Thunderbolt and FaceTime HD

I haven’t yet tested out any actual Thunderbolt devices (they’re hard to get hold of currently), but eventually, it’ll be a great thing to have, especially for anyone who works with video and audio. And though the FaceTime HD camera has been nice to use with Skype, and on the one occasion I actually got to try it out with a FaceTime HD-enabled MacBook Pro, it alone isn’t worth an upgrade if you’re happy with your machine in other regards. It does come in handy if you’re recording video along with a screencast using a tool like ScreenFlow, however, so if that’s something you do regularly, it could sway your decision.

Bottom Line

This iMac may look the same as the last one, but the aesthetic similarities hide a major change under the hood. Even my stock entry-level 27-inch model at $1,699 seems to be able to handle whatever I can throw at it, and hasn’t yet choked up the way my old iMac had a tendency to do under the heavy crush of tabs and apps left open for days that makes up my usual workflow. If you’re looking for a machine that eliminates the technical hurdles of your daily grind, while delivering more than enough power to make your leisure-time activities much smoother, too, this is it.

2 Responses to “27-inch iMac Review: Big Screen, and the Muscle to Master It”

  1. I just upgraded from a previous Gen ( 2007 24′ 2.4 C2D ) to my current mid 2010 27′ 2.8 Quad Core i5 iMac and WOW the difference is night and day.

    Love it, You are 100% right this machine is a beast and these 2011 models are even better im sure.