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Modest refresh but an eye-catching machine

Modest refresh but an eye-catching machine

The 24-inch iMac is Apple's first refresh to its all-in-one desktop line. Despite tweaks to the design and specs, this is a modest iMac update. Even so, the striking system will make users look twice.

We tested the retail-store configuration of the 24-inch iMac: it comes with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700 processor, 1GB of memory, a 320GB Serial ATA drive, ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics card with 256MB of GDDR3 memory, and a slot-loading SuperDrive DVD burner.

Online, users can configure the 24-inch iMac to carry up to 1TB of storage, 4GB of memory, and a 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme processor. Connectivity gets a boost in this redesign, too: In addition to gigabit Ethernet, the iMac has AirPort Extreme 802.11n (draft) wireless networking (a boost from the previous version's 802.11g), integrated Bluetooth 2.0, and an infrared receiver (for use with the included remote control).

We used Apple Boot Camp 1.4 to load Windows Vista Home Premium onto the iMac. On our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 benchmark test suite, the unit turned in a respectable score of 82 - about 20 per cent behind the average power desktop score of 103. The performance number may partly reflect our iMac's use of a mobile processor. Still operations such as navigating around photos in iPhoto and Web surfing felt swift.

The PC World Test Centre put the iMac through our formal graphics tests. On our Doom 3 tests, the iMac pumped out 92 frames per second (fps) at 1280 x 1024 resolution, and 47fps second at the same resolution with anti-aliasing enabled. On our Far Cry tests, the iMac churned out 86fps at 1280 x 1024 resolution, and 41fps with antialiasing enabled. Those results are average.

Sleek elegance
As for looks, this iteration of the iMac dispenses with the previous version's glossy kitsch in favour of glossy elegance. The polycarbonate plastic chassis of the earlier-generation iMac line is gone, replaced with a sleek anodised aluminum chassis and the glass screen has a tasteful black bezel. The finish is in keeping with Apple's Mac Pro, MacBook Pro, and iPhone.

Though the physical dimensions of this new iMac differ only slightly from those of its predecessor, the changes make a tremendous difference in appearance. The design is both simple and seamless, with air vents at the back of the screen and beneath it to facilitate airflow (The unit does get a bit toasty after it has been on for a while, but according to Apple that's to be expected, given the aluminum chassis). The only screw on the entire chassis is beneath the screen; removing the screw gives users easy access to the memory slots. A 640 x 480-resolution Web cam and microphone are subtly built in to the screen.

Accompanying the new iMac is a redesigned matching keyboard with two USB 2.0 ports. These have enough juice to handle devices that draw up to 500mA, including an iPod and some portable external hard-disk drives. Unfortunately, the ports are inset, one on each side at the rear of the keyboard; and the keyboard itself is so low-slung that only one out of six flash memory drives we tried - each in a different case - actually fit the USB port without affecting the keyboard's balance.

Despite having a key height of 0.33mm (down from 0.89mm on the previous version), the keys were distinct and crisp to the touch, and they felt roomy enough to accommodate fast-flying fingers.

The 24-inch, 1920 x 1200-resolution, glass-covered display improves on the earlier version: the glass gives images better contrast and sharpness than its plastic predecessor could support. Apple said the glass is treated with anti-reflective and strengthening coatings that cut glare and make the glass scratch- and break-resistant.

Though the new iMac doesn't come with a next-generation Blu-ray Disc drive, the integrated graphics on the 24-inch model we tested can decode high-definition (1920 x 1080 pixel) H.264, VC-1, and MPEG-2 video streams of the type used by Blu-ray. Consequently the iMac may be able to support an external Blu-ray disc option, when a drive and playback software ship for the Mac.

Also new to this iteration of the iMac is a FireWire 800 port, for faster data transfers between the iMac and devices that offer that interface, such as external hard drives. Apple's decision to include FireWire 800 on its latest line of iMacs indicates the company's continued support of the FireWire 800 interface over External SATA (ESATA), which many PC motherboard manufacturers are backing. The FireWire 800 port replaces one of the two FireWire 400 ports found on the previous iMac. On the back, alongside the FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 ports are three USB 2.0 ports.

A new, more compact, wireless Bluetooth keyboard is available at an extra cost; as well as a combination of this keyboard plus a wireless Mighty Mouse. The wireless keyboard is closer in size to a typical notebook keyboard, and it lacks the multimedia playback keys, 19 function keys, and other display control buttons that the larger wired keyboard houses.

Regrettably, the glossy white Mighty Mouse now looks out of place next to the new aluminum chassis and keyboard. The system's integrated sound includes 5.1-channel audio support, with optical digital audio output/headphone-out and optical digital audio input/line-in jacks. A 24-watt digital amplifier gives the built-in stereo speakers surprisingly loud sound. But music aficionados may want to supplement the iMac with a dedicated set of speakers anyway: music tracks lacked depth, and vocals sounded a bit thin.

The new iMac comes preloaded with iLife '08. This is the first major revision of Apple's digital life management software since iLife '06, and it has some new components, such as completely redesigned iMovie and Web Gallery elements for use with a .Mac account. The iPhoto component has been improved as well.

Svelte and appealing though the new iMac is, with the Leopard OS slated to ship in October, we recommend against purchasing a new iMac right away. At some point Apple presumably will announce what, if any, plan it will offer to buyers of the first wave of new iMacs for upgrading to Leopard. And if not, users can just wait until Leopard - and buy a unit with the new operating system pre-installed.


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