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A Meager iMac Wish List

Yes, I realize that most of next week’s attention will be on the iPhone 5. It’s obvious that’s the model name, because of the faded number five on Apple’s invitations to the media. Most of the expected specs have been published, the usual leaks of raw parts from Chinese component makers have given you a rough idea what it’ll look like, and there are essential features that are fairly obvious, such as a larger screen and LTE support.

I suppose Apple could come up with a few unexpected goodies for the iPhone 5, such as a haptic keyboard, which gives makes you feel your keystrokes, as if you were using a physical keyboard. But there’s no point speculating since I’ll either be wrong or right in just a few days, and all the advance handicapping has become somewhat tiring. The actual iPhone 5 launch may seem an afterthought after all the publicity.

Instead, I’m going to consider another product that is long overdue for an update, and it’s still a key tool in a Mac user’s arsenal, the iMac. Now let me put my cards on the table: In the 1990s, before my position as a tech journalist made participation impossible, I was a member of a consumer testing program for Apple, known as Customer Quality Feedback (or CQF). Among the items I tested, in addition to operating systems, was an occasional piece of hardware. Once I tested a Power Mac prototype that never made it into production. I don’t know why, but I was also asked to return the unit to Apple for disposal. Seriously.

I also tested the very first iMac, the famous Bondi Blue model. The testing supervisor at Apple said I’d be able to keep it, after installing a final firmware update. But the update bricked the iMac, and so I was asked to return the unit. I bought a later model for my son.

The original iMac was strictly a relatively low-cost consumer computer. Performance was similar to a PowerBook, with which it shared many parts, and upgrading RAM was a very user-hostile process that involved taking everything apart except for the base and the CRT. But Apple kept working over the iMacs, following up the original pear-shaped design with a model featuring an articulated arm supporting a flat panel display. The current version, which closely resembles a display in an aluminum case, has been around for a while. Beginning with the late 2009 version, where the 27-inch model was first introduced, the iMac became a lot more than a basic home computer.

My iMac is equipped an optional quad-core 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor, and 8GB of RAM. It is a powerhouse, with benchmarks that a Mac Pro only beats on apps that support multicore processors, thus taking advantage of six, eight or twelve.

Since 2009, the iMac line has undergone two more refreshes, with more powerful processors, beefier graphics cards and, in 2011, a pair of Thunderbolt peripheral ports. Apple even lets you order one with two drives, a solid state device, and a traditional hard drive. It’s the sort of installation you cannot do yourself without lots of care, though some third-party peripheral resellers will handle it for you.

The 2012 model seems late. The current generation of Intel Ivy Bridge chips have been on the market for a while, so why the delay? Some suggest Apple wants to rejigger the form factor, making the case sleeker. Maybe Apple will ditch the optical drive to help slim the unit, but I can’t see that as being much of a factor.

Yes, the 2012 iMac, when it arrives, will have more powerful hardware. But I’d really like to see an easier method to add or replace hard drives. Two drive bays ought to be easily accessed, so you can buy one with the smallest drive, and add mechanical or SSDs yourself. This one change might even make the iMac a more suitable substitute or replacement for the Mac Pro for many content creation uses. Certainly the Thunderbolt ports make it possible to add the sort of peripherals you would install internally on a Mac Pro, such as a RAID drive assembly.

The other open question is the Retina display. I suppose it makes sense for a computer where you look at the display close up, such as in a MacBook Pro. I keep my iMac roughly 20 inches away, which is my comfort zone. At that distance, I don’t think that an expensive Retina display would offer a significant improvement. It would be somewhat noticeable, I think, but would it be worth the cost? I suppose, as display technology improves and component costs decline, you’ll see one. Maybe Apple might even offer Retina as an optional extra, but the price bump would be at least several hundred dollars, and the gain may not be worth the pain.

Regardless of how Apple upgrades the iMac, I expect you’ll see it by October at the very latest. That would be three years after the debut of my iMac, and I suppose it’s time to save up for something new.