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  • The Quad-Core 27-inch iMac: The Night Owl’s First Look

    December 3rd, 2009

    So I get a call from MacMall on Tuesday morning informing me that my custom-built iMac with the quad-core Intel i7 processor was still backordered and that I’d have to wait for another week for it to ship. Oh well, I wasn’t surprised since Apple had extended its own delivery promise from five to seven days back to seven to 10 days.

    The next morning, I just happened to check the order status out of habit and found out that the computer had already been shipped and was due for delivery by 3:00 PM that afternoon. It actually arrived closer to 11:30 AM. You can say that I was pleasantly surprised.

    My purchase decision was a long time coming. For many years, I spent a whole lot of money buying the latest, greatest and usually the largest Mac on the planet. I began to wonder, though, whether having a fully equipped Mac Pro, with 16GB RAM, hooked up to a 30-inch display, was more computer than I needed.

    In these troubling economic times, a lot of people are downsizing in one way or another, and it my case, I had to first evaluate my workflow. Would I suffer from selling my existing gear and depending on an all-in-one Mac to handle my work without suffering from any perceived performance disadvantage?

    One matter that pretty much firmed up my decision was the fact that few of the audio apps that I use regularly benefit from more than a single processor core. Sure, I know some of them will ultimately be updated to support Snow Leopard’s Grand Central Dispatch feature, which will surely accelerate some tasks. But would a single quad-core Intel processor, which, according to Apple, has the capability to “Turbo Boost dynamic performance up to 3.46GHz” and supports “Hyper-Threading for up to eight virtual cores” be sufficient to compensate?

    Well, certainly Macworld’s Speedmark 6 benchmarks told a promising tale, that this new configuration was actually faster in their tests than the best of this year’s Mac Pros, and I had last year’s model.

    While the situation would likely change next year, when Intel is expected to release a gussied up processor with six cores that is expected to end up in the next Mac Pro, it sure appeared that I wouldn’t be suffering from much in terms of performance.

    There is the issue of expandability. Yes, the iMac has four memory slots, and can carry four 4GB RAM modules, but since they are of the smaller mobile form factor, the price of admission can be hugely expensive, with current prices from third party retailers coming in at over $900. So I opted to pay Apple an extra $200 for the 8GB setup, containing four 2GB RAM sticks. Maybe as the 4GB variety becomes more prevalent, and higher density chips come online, the price will become sensible.

    However, it doesn’t look as if I’m suffering for any lack of RAM at least so far. An external 1TB FireWire 800 drive, from LaCie, will replace the additional internal drive I had on the Mac Pro.

    But after reading a few troubling reports about the iMacs with Intel i7s arriving with cracked screens, you have to know that I unpacked mine very carefully and slowly. With fingers crossed, I lifted the hefty iMac from its foam housing, discovering to my endless relief that it had evidently survived the trip from the factory in Asia to MacMall’s shipping facility in Memphis and finally to my Arizona home.

    The setup and migration process was pretty typical and uneventful. Earlier that morning, I had run a full clone backup of the Mac Pro’s 330GB contents to that FireWire 800 drive, so I was ready for an easy file transfer. I had expected the process to consume much of the afternoon, but it was over and done with in just shy of 90 minutes.

    The rest of the setup process was also essentially normal. I had to serialize a few of my professional apps again, but my printer drivers were transferred and everything seemed intact, except for iTunes. The first time I launched it, I got a prompt that it was damaged and I had to reinstall. Go figure.

    Yes, it was strange that what is probably Apple’s most important application was the only one that exhibited a problem. Otherwise, the first 24 hours proved enlightening, but no further problems occurred.

    Moving from a 30-inch display to the iMac’s 27-incher turned out to be easier than I anticipated since I am really giving up only a small amount of vertical screen real estate. I was also pleasantly surprised at the gorgeous picture and outstanding clarity delivered by the LED display. And no, my friends, the presence of a glossy screen was barely noticeable in my office.

    It was also incredibly bright and I turned it down roughly halfway before I used the Display preference pane to calibrate the screen. I also noticed that the few reflections I did detect were noticeably diminished once brightness was set at a level more suited to my needs.

    Performance? The Core i7 iMac actually seems to handle those large audio files in a noticeably snappier fashion than with my Mac Pro. Actually saving a streamed file in MP3 format, though, took roughly the same amount of time.

    Just one more thing: I set the standard Magic Mouse aside, and I am currently using my trusty Logitech MX Revolution instead. For now, I’m sticking with Apple’s keyboard — I ordered the standard aluminum model with the numeric keypad. Some things are just too hard to give up.



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