The highlight of the 24-inch iMac really is the size of its screen, but the new Core 2 Duo chip is a close second. Twenty-four inches is a noticeably large amount of screen real estate, much more dramatic-looking than even a 21-inch display. Apple also amped the brightness. We looked at the 24-inch model side by side next to a 17-inch Core 2 Duo iMac (with the old brightness level) and the higher-end screen's image gleams. Considering that Apple's and Dell's 30-inch standalone LCDs are now roughly the same price as this 24-inch all-in-one desktop, it feels like the computer functionality is almost secondary. It's not, of course. Apple has included a powerful collection of parts in the update to its iMac line, especially compared to older iMacs.
Our default 24-inch model comes with a 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7400, 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a 250GB hard drive, a 128MB Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics chip, and a DVD-burning SuperDrive. That's enough power to perform most any productivity task and comfortably consume, produce, or edit most types of digital media. Apple has also expanded the upgradability of the iMac, letting you upgrade the graphics chip at the time of purchase for the first time. You can also add more memory, but Apple's upgrade prices are more expensive than the competition's.
While other desktops in the iMac's price class--namely, the Dell's XPS 410 and Gateway's FX510--start with 2GB of memory, offer a wider range of hard drive and graphics card options, and include TV tuners and media card readers, the iMac provides a limited number of configuration choices. It becomes a surprisingly good deal, however, when you look at the system as a whole--monitor and software included. We configured a Dell XPS 410 as closely as we could to the $1,999 iMac, including Dell's 24-inch LCD, and Dell's PC ended up costing $200 more. Take the screen out of the equation--admittedly hard to do with the iMac--and other vendors have better deals for the computing hardware. Then again, we haven't seen a PC that comes with a software bundle that can rival the apps you get with a Mac.
The usual bugaboo about all-in-one PCs--that the specialized internal design and the conjoined display limits upgrading--becomes especially poignant for the 24-inch iMac when you consider Blu-ray and HD DVD capability. Apple offers no option to upgrade to an internal drive in either format; there currently are no external HD optical drives on the market; and with no HDMI input, it's impossible to connect the iMac to an external home theater-style player. We love the 24-inch iMac as a current-generation, home-theater PC, but HD video content will only become more prevalent. Unless Apple makes an announcement about downloadable HD movies (at which point, we might need to update this review), your $2,000 iMac that's supposed to provide a great digital media experience might experience an accelerated obsolescence. Interestingly though, neither Apple nor Nvidia would comment on whether either of the graphics chip options for the 24-inch iMac come with HDCP support enabled, which would make the iMac a viable link in HD video's copy-protected chain. HDCP support is an option for those GPUs, which makes the fact that we couldn't get an answer intriguing.
Performance-wise, the 24-inch iMac fared about as well as the Velocity Micro ProMagix E2010, an equivalently configured PC that costs $1,299 but whose price doesn't include a display. We found few surprises in its results. Photoshop on the Mac OS X still suffers from the fact that it has to run in a special emulation mode, but the iMac's mobile Core 2 Duo chip and the added memory help things along. Macs are still the kings of iTunes encoding performance, and we were even encouraged by the iMac's Quake 4 scores; its 66.5 frames per second at 1,024x768 (a solid, if forgiving resolution) means that you actually can have a respectable gaming experience on the iMac. Dell's XPS 410 won on many tests, likely because of its higher-end processor and graphics chip, but compared to the nearly identical Velocity Micro system, the iMac held its own. You won't be disappointed with its day-to-day performance.
The large screen, the updated GPUs, and the expanded online configuration options are the major added features of the 24-inch iMac. Of the new models, it's also the only one to include a FireWire 800 port, which Apple hopes will make it appealing to professional designers who need fast access to external hard drive data. Apple also expanded the audio output to support both analog and digital connections. As with past iMacs and Mac Minis, the 24-inch model comes with the latest version of OS X, Front Row and the accompanying remote for navigating your digital media, and the iLife '06 software suite for organizing and manipulating your digital photos. Before making a purchase, you might consider that Leopard, Apple's next version of its operating system, will come out in the spring of 2007, but we don't find that pending release a deal breaker.