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  • The iMac and Instant Gratification

    July 8th, 2011

    You have to consider how far the iMac has come. Back in 1998, it was an offbeat looking entry-level all-in-one computer. In fact, I was a member of Apple’s Customer Quality Feedback group at the time, which consisted of regular people who evaluated Apple’s hardware and software products. During the last few months in which I was a member of the program, I actually got to beta test an original Bondi Blue iMac.

    Now there is no such program today, for obvious reasons. Apple trusts no one outside the company, other than selected partners, parts suppliers and contract factories, to see new prerelease hardware, and then under deep cover.

    But cute as it was, I didn’t expect that the iMac would herald a revolution that would restore Apple’s prominence. It was also very much an entry-level box, deriving many of its parts from a PowerBook. Performance was leisurely, and it was a royal pain to replace RAM, since you had to take it almost completely apart. Alas, Apple hasn’t learned much about user-friendly upgrades on consumer gear, although replacing RAM on all Macs these days is pretty simple.

    As the iMac went through color and form factor changes, I doubt many suspected it would become a powerhouse, one fully capable of serving the needs of many content creators who would traditionally buy a Mac tower, such as the Mac Pro. As Apple stuffed speedier chips inside, it got fast enough for most consumers, until the fall of 2009 heralded a huge upgrade.

    What seemed a slightly ambitious model refresh actually changed the iMac for good, putting it into uncharted territory. Up till then, some Mac journalists — and yours truly — speculated about a headless iMac, something with the guts of the iMac, sans display, with space for a second hard drive. Macworld’s Dan Frakes dubbed the concept, the “Mythical Midrange Mac Minitower,” perhaps imagining a modern day concept of the Macintosh IIci. For those who weren’t using Macs in those days, that model was a pint-sized alternative to the super-expensive Macintosh IIx, with much of the power of the more expensive blend, but less room for expansion.

    Apple decision was to stick with the all-in-one form factor, but they improved screen size and display quality. But, alas, not the glossy surface; there’s no matte display option in the tradition of today’s MacBook Pro. But the biggest change was to use higher grade graphics chips and some of the fastest multicore consumer-grade processors to be found in Intel’s parts bin. It was fast enough out of the box, but if you clicked the Customize option at your favorite Apple reseller, you could get your 27-inch iMac equipped with an 2.8GHz Intel quad-core i7 processor, supporting hyperthreading, making four cores simulate eight, and all the other performance goodies. That’s the one I bought, and I was replacing a 2008 Mac Pro.

    In the end, selling a fairly well equipped Mac Pro, and a 30-inch display, got me enough money to buy a tricked out 27-inch iMac, a 1TB FireWire 800 backup drive, and leave me with $300 change. Not too shabby.

    I have never felt slighted of performance. Everything seemed snappier; that is, until I visited a client this week to set up his new iMac, a 27-inch model from the current generation. He optioned it to a fare-thee-well, with the 3.4GHz Intel quad-core i7, 16 GB RAM and, to boost performance even further, he had Apple install a 256GB solid state drive, in addition to the stock 1TB mechanical drive.

    After adding Microsoft Office 2011 and other odds and ends, he ended up with a package costing well north of $3,000. But that’s not the real story.

    He took his new iMac out of the box, but didn’t hook it up until my arrival, so I could guide him on migrating his content from a 2004 vintage Power Mac G5.

    I could see an incredible speed boost at the first startup, where it took less than 15 seconds to open to the Setup Assistant. After migrating data from the old computer — and the Migration Assistant wouldn’t support his old box, so we had to bring everything over manually — I spent some time testing performance with a number of apps, to get a real handle on the advantages of SSD.

    Understand that, in raw computing power, a 2011 iMac is a fair amount speedier than the 2009 version. That’s a given, having gone through two more processor generations. I knew of SSD’s potential, but watching the startup process take a fraction of what it did with a regular hard drive was the eye opener. Many disk-related tasks were near instantaneous, and even slugs such as Microsoft Word seemed far snappier than I’ve ever seen them.

    Sure, SSD isn’t cheap. If you check most of the extra hardware offered, the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac’s price of admission scales from $1,999 to $3,649, done by taking my client’s configuration, upping the traditional drive to 2TB, and enhancing the graphics card to 2GB. That takes the iMac well into Mac Pro territory, but the latter can be configured in ways that move it well above $10,000, so you’re still way ahead.

    With the arrival of Thunderbolt peripherals, it may be possible for creative pros to buy a fully outfitted iMac, the necessary external gear, and be able to be quite as productive as most Mac Pro users. They will also pay a whole lot less money, which means that Apple may actually sell far more units to customers who ordinarily upgrade only when the old hardware is way past its prime.

    While I still expect to see new Mac Pros for a few more years, I doubt I’ll ever need to buy one.



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