Editors' Note: As of October 20, 2009, the iMac reviewed here has been replaced by 27-inch iMac models.
A bump to the frontside bus and a smidge more L2 cache can safely be classified as a minor update. But even slightly improved specifications, when they come at a lower price than those they replace, are appreciated. Last September, we tested the highest-end 24-inch model, which carried a baseline price of $2,299 and featured Intel's 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme X7900 processor. We're happy to report that the new $1,799 iMac sped past the previous model in CNET Labs, though it features roughly the same specs: a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of faster 800MHz RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and a midrange ATI Radeon graphics card. What's changed is that this model uses a Penryn-class processor that serves up 6MB of L2 cache to the 4MB the previous Merom-class chip provided, while operating on a faster 1,066MHz frontside bus--up from 800MHz. Given its strong application performance and competitive price, we give the iMac a strong recommendation as a mainstream desktop in addition to being best in class in the all-in-one niche.
The biggest upgrade comes with the top-of-the-line iMac, the $2,199 model that sees the iMac top the 3GHz mark with 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo chip. That model also features a 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GS graphics card. The 3.06GHz chip is a $200 upgrade on the lower-end 24-inch model we reviewed here, while the GeForce card adds $150 to the bill.
Contrary to earlier reports, the 3.06GHz chip is not the Core 2 Duo X9100, which is expected out later this summer when Intel launches its Centrino 2 (aka Montevina) platform. Instead, it's another Apple exclusive from Intel, which operates at the same clockspeed and on the same 1,066MHz bus as the forthcoming X9100 chip but at a higher wattage. The updates the iMac received aren't game changing by any means, but they certainly do enough to maintain the iMac's Editors' Choice award and a strong recommendation among all-in-one PCs and mainstream desktops in general. In fact, we rate it higher than last year's model because the 24-inch iMac finally includes a graphics upgrade.
The design remains unchanged from last September's iMac models, which marked a change from the white Lucite design to the brushed-aluminum-and-glass chassis. For more on the design, please see our full review of the 20-inch iMac that introduced the new design last August.
We were impressed with the 24-inch iMac's showing last year in the labs, and this latest update showed marked improvement on our multitasking test as well as with CineBench. We weren't surprised to see iTunes performance stay the same, since it's largely dependent on CPU clockspeed. What we didn't expect was a 22-percent increase on our multimedia multitasking benchmark compared with that of last year's model, which was already way ahead of Dells' and Gateway's all-in-one PCs. (What the Gateway One has going for it is its expansion options, while the Dell XPS One supplies a Blu-ray drive.) On CineBench 10, a 3D rendering test that taxes the CPU and graphics subsystems, the new iMac outpaced the older 24-inch model by 8 percent, which is about the margin we'd expect between two systems released seven months apart. This iMac's faster frontside bus, faster memory, and larger L2 cache each plays a role in its improved performance over last year's model, as does the new version of Leopard (10.5.2), we suspect. (We've experienced some problems with our Photoshop CS3 script recently, on this and other systems, so unfortunately we have no Photoshop results to report at this time.)
We no longer report Quake 4 scores, having moved our 3D gaming benchmarks to more recent games for our desktop reviews. We made an exception in this case, however, and were again surprised to see that this new iMac outpaced the older model by a healthy margin, when both use the same 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics card. Where the older model posted a meager 33.7 frames per second at 1,024x768, the newer iMac achieved a framerate of 86.3fps at the same resolution. And when we bumped it up to 1,280x1,024, we still got a very playable 76.8fps. Better news for gamers is that the iMac now gives you the option to upgrade to a more powerful GeForce 8800 GS card.
Should you be weighing a 24-inch iMac purchase against a mainstream desktop, a quick look at two midrange Dell offerings reveals that the iMac includes a reasonable $150 premium or so. We say reasonable because of the effort (and money) Apple puts into the iMac's design and the inclusion of the iLife software suite. Similarly configured XPS 420 and XPS 630 systems--each with a 24-inch display--come out just above and below the $1,650 mark. Any all-in-one PC carries the usual caveat, however, that your upgrade options are limited, both in terms of internal expansion room and the capability to upgrade or replace the display.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)