Until very recently, all-in-one PCs were stuck at Apple's 20-inch iMac or Sony's 19-inch Vaio LS1. We like both products, but neither features a screen that's big enough for satisfying video. Apple's new 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo changes the all-in-one game. Its configuration and upgrade possibilities have shortcomings compared to other desktops on the market (like most all-in-one PCs), but no other system can compete with the baseline £1,349 24-incher for value, ease of use or strength of design.
If you're looking for a system to use strictly for computing tasks, you can find a more powerful system for the money. As a digital entertainment device that also serves up computing capabilities, however, the 24-inch Apple iMac is an unparallelled bargain.
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 -- 24 inches is noticeably more dramatic than even a 21-inch display. Apple has also improved the brightness. We looked at the 24-inch model next to a 17-inch Core 2 Duo iMac (with the old brightness level) and the higher-end screen's image gleamed in comparison.
Considering that Apple's and Dell's 30-inch stand-alone 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.
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 almost 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 for the first time upgrade the graphics chip at the time of purchase. 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, 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 £1,349 iMac, including Dell's 24-inch LCD, and Dell's PC ended up costing £100 more. Take the screen out of the equation -- which is admittedly hard to do with the iMac -- and other manufacturers 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 applications you get with a Mac.
The usual problem with all-in-one PCs -- that the specialised 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, currently there 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 cinema-style player. We love the 24-inch iMac as a current-generation, home-cinema 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 iMac that's supposed to provide a great digital media experience might experience an accelerated obsolescence.
Interestingly, 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 -- 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 66.5fps 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, probably 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.