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Apple’s new 21.5-in. iMac packs a punch for the price

Last month, Apple updated its iMac all-in-one desktop computers, revamping the internal architecture and refining the look of what was an already stylish design. Externally, the biggest change for the iMacs lay in the move to larger 21.5-in. and 27-in. LED-backlit screens and a 16-by-9 aspect ratio.

While early attention focused on the 27-in. model — rightfully so, according to Computerworld's Ken Mingis, who found the bigger iMac “stunning” — the base 21.5-in. model is attractive in its own right. The entry-level model comes with a powerful 3.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and the same Nividia 9400M video card that shows up in many of Apple's laptops and the Mac mini. Recession-crimped holiday shoppers will want to note that it starts at $1,199 — $500 less than its big brother.

First impressions

First impressions are often lasting impressions, and my first impression of this iMac was: “Wow, what a screen!” While obviously not as massive as the 27-in. version, Apple's least-expensive iMac packs a bright high-resolution screen fully capable of displaying full 1080p HD video (1920 x 1080 pixels, virtually the same as the 24-in. iMac I reviewed in March). That's a 17% improvement over the 20-in. model it replaces and means the pixels are more densely packed, providing an exceeding sharp image. Another improvement: the new LED display features in-plane switching (IPS), which ensures uniform brightness across the screen and consistent color reproduction, no matter the viewing angle.

The new iMac is wider and less tall than previous models, and Apple trimmed its “chin,” putting the focus on the gorgeous screen and what's on display. The screen is encased in glass, which itself is housed in a streamlined, aluminum body that now carries over to the back of the unit.

Not surprisingly, the new iMacs are made using the unibody process Apple introduced last year on its portable lineup — to great effect. The new look is the most basic and fundamental iMac design in years: you won't find flashing lights or unnecessary stickers or hardware buttons here. The lines on the iMac feel fluid and organic, and the overall look is simple and elegant; the fit and finish oozes quality.

Two 21.5-in. models

The basic model and a pricier $1,499 are twins, except for a few internal tweaks. They use the same processor, the same Superdrive optical disk burner/reader, and the same display. The iMac now supports up to 16GB of 1066MHz DDR3 memory; both 21.5-in.models come standard with 4GB, more than enough to run Mac OS X Snow Leopard without any problem.

The differences between the two iMacs are the hard drive capacities and the graphics cards. The $1,499 iMac comes with a 1TB drive, offering twice the capacity of the basic model, and uses the ATI Radeon HD 4670 video card with 256MB of discrete video RAM. The Nvidia card in the $1,199 model relies on 256MB of shared system memory. Both cards support the technologies introduced when Snow Leopard was released in August. Those technologies, called Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL, use all available processing cores, whether those cores are CPU- or GPU-based. Put simply, it means that the operating system squeezes every bit of power out of whichever Mac it's on, insuring longevity and value — the iMac should actually become faster at some tasks as third-party software developers utilize these new APIs and update their apps.

Magic Mouse a plus

At the same time that Apple rolled out the new iMacs, it introduced its new Magic Mouse, Apple's first redesign of the mouse since 2005. The mouse features a swoopy-but-squat design that accepts gestures and multi-touch input. It's also wireless — as is the keyboard – and both connect to the iMac via Bluetooth.

With this new mouse, you can scroll 360 degrees using a single finger and gestures, set up ambidextrous secondary-clicking , and even use two-finger swipes across the top of the mouse to flip through photos in iPhoto, or to go back and forth when browsing Web pages.

I like the Magic Mouse; I like it so much that I have already replaced the mice on every Mac I support at work. While the two-finger swipes can be problematic (apparently, my hands aren't flexible enough to swipe with two fingers while keeping the mouse in place), I'm totally sold on the scrolling support. Preiovusly, the Mac users I support used Apple's old Mighty Mouse, and the 360-degree scroll ball on it is quite finicky after a few months of use. Apple's implementation of scrolling on the Magic Mouse looks to remedy that issue.

Like any Mac, the iMac comes bundled with Snow Leopard and software such as iChat (for video conferencing, text messaging and screen sharing), Mail and iLife suite (an organization and creation suite for photos, movies, music, and Web content). The iMac performed strongly when running the built-in applications, just as you'd expect.

Playing 1080p HD files on this computer was a treat, so much so that it really is a shame that Apple hasn't offered a Blu-Ray drive, at least as an option. The iMac was just made for hi-def video, given the screen's brightness and vivid color saturation.

It's fast, too

Best of all, the iMac is fast — not as fast as the Core i5 and i7 models that finally shipped a couple of weeks ago, mind you, but impressively so for an entry-level unit. I found that out by duplicating a complex iMovie 09 video project I first created and edited on the 24-in. iMac back in March, and exporting that project using the review machine. The 50-minute project was exported using Apple's “Large” settings in iMovie, resulting in an h.264 m4v file with a resolution of 960×540.

On the 24-in. iMac, the export took two hours and 15 minutes; on my own 2.53GHz MacBook Pro, it took two and a half hours. The same project took an hour and 49 minutes to export on this machine, cutting out 25 minutes of waiting time; again, this is on Apple's entry-level iMac.

Want a bit more speed from your iMac? On both 21.5-in. models, you can upgrade the 3.06GHz chip to a 3.33GHz processor. It's one way of future-proofing the iMac for the years ahead, and will cost you an extra $200. That, and extra RAM, will be helpful if you plan to run Windows using virtualization software like VMWare's Fusion or Parallels.

I did notice after all that digital video work that the aluminum case can get really hot after several hours of work, especially in the rear (where there's a slit for ventilation that probably shouldn't be covered). No doubt the aluminum helps radiate some of the heat from inside. But the iMac's ambient noise level didn't change. I had to lean in close to hear the telltale whisper of a fan blowing. If you're looking for a machine with little to no ambient noise, the iMac is a winner.

And if you're looking for something with good sound, the same is true; the internal speakers sound great. The iMac has three speakers that are located behind the iMac chin and they face downward; sound bounces off the table or desk on which the iMac is sitting. A friend who stopped by while I had the iMac running didn't even realize for a while that the music I was playing wasn't coming from the living room sound system. That being said, internal speakers are no substitute for a dedicated 5.1 surround sound system, but the iMac filled the room with music that was surprisingly full, both on the low end and the high end.

One caveat: Apple's included wireless keyboard lacks the number pad found on most other keyboards. This doesn't bother me, but I don't spend the day inputting numeric values; for those of you who do, this is something you should be aware of. If you need the number pad, you'll want to order up a different keyboard. If you're buying from Apple online, you can get a wired keyboard with the number pad at no extra cost.

Final thoughts

What a difference six months makes. Apple's latest entry-level iMac is faster than the 24-in. iMac I reviewed, and starts at a price that's $300 cheaper. With the new iMac, you get a better, more vibrant LED screen that offers HD resolution in a smaller and sleeker chassis, the wireless Magic Mouse, a standard wireless keyboard, an SD card slot and updated internal components. If you're looking for a desktop machine that's reliable, fast, energy-efficient, stylish and featuring best-of-class bundled software, this iMac should be at the top of your list.

About the Writer:

Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges and Apple, and in the biopharmaceutical and graphics industries. He has also worked as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.

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