updated 11:00 pm EST, Fri November 30, 2012
Faster and better overall, with some mild annoyances
Reviews are starting to come in on both the new 21.5- and 27-inch iMac models, with the general consensus that both are lightning-fast (faster, in fact, than any comparable 27-inch Windows-based machine), offer much less reflectivity and a better display, and are gorgeous to look at. They also note some changes, such as the relocation of the memory ports (which are upgradable), and a reduction in quality of the built-in speakers (likely a sacrifice to the thin design). Though considered pricey, the new iMac is still thus far seen as being the best AIO computer around.
Both CNet and The Verge have offered full reviews, with a handful of other sites adding first impressions, teardowns or unboxing pictures. As has been the consensus with previous models, the new iMac is praised as one of the best all-around computers available (though those wishing for more of a home-entertainment hub may be better off with the Mac mini or a Windows-based rival). Most mentions of the new version make a point of contrasting the removal of the optical drive (which makes the design radically thinner and continues to open the door to external Blu-Ray drives Apple never added) with Apple's clever implementation of a hybrid SSS/HD drive, known as the Fusion drive.
The Fusion drive is more than just a 128GB SSD bolted onto a 1TB (or more) hard disk; it is intelligently self-managed by the OS so that the system and a user's most-frequently accessed apps and data are on the SSD portion, with storage of less-used files relegated to the hard drive. The clever part is that the system adjusts the management according to changing usage patterns, without the user's intervention -- a typically elegant Apple move, and one that makes the entire system feel dramatically faster than the previous model.
CNet compared the 27-inch iMac to a closely-matched Dell XPS One 27-incher and found the new iMac outperformed it on every test, making it the fastest non-workstation 27-inch available. The Dell did offer HDMI input (allowing its use as a television) and two more USB 3.0 ports, and costs between $300-$400 less, but lacks the quality of the new lower-reflective display or the better video card. If the display is the main reason you want a 27-inch machine, then the choice is tipped in favor of Apple.
As The Verge notes, the new version is also significantly lighter than the previous model, losing an astonishing eight pounds in the 21.5-inch version and 9.5 pounds for the 27-inch version. The review also notes that the speakers now have "zero" bass response, though mids and highs are good, but calls it a definite step backward from the previous versions' speakers. In terms of performance, the new iMac scores about 25 percent higher than the summer 2011 model using Geekbench, but actual speed improvements vary in different areas. Adding the optional Fusion drive makes a huge difference in overall feel and file access times.
Both reviews take pains to mention that the iMac isn't 5mm thin at all points -- despite Apple clearly showing this both in its public debut and in pictures on its web site. The reviewers miss the point of the entire iMac line, right the way back to its beginning: hide the computer. The new iMac does the best job yet of this, making the machine appear impossibly thin from every angle a user is likely to ever look at it from in normal use. Most previous models of iMac also had a thicker middle than edge, particularly in the last few iterations.
The obsession with the design means that some changes had to be made, including relocating the openable RAM panel to the back of the machine -- but overall Apple has significantly improved the iMac in every important way while losing 40 percent of its previous volume. Buyers will appreciate the speed, the much-improved (but still mobile-class) graphics, the screen quality and of course the advantages inherent in Mountain Lion. What they won't like is that the models cost $100 more than their predecessors, and continue to offer add-ons at more-expensive-than-retail prices.
The iMacs' use of Thunderbolt technology is for now an under-appreciated advantage over competitors, and though the Fusion drive upgrade is frankly overpriced (at $250, and only available in some configurations of the iMac), those who opt to spend the money will see a big performance jump on top of an already fastest-in-class processor. Even the box has been redesigned for the new iMac -- emphasizing the design through a sloping top-to-bottom opening.
The machine itself continues to be almost as quiet as the box it came in, with clearly better heat and fan management than anything available from Windows-based competitors. Combined with the less-glossy and well-calibrated display and the other technologies inherent in a Mac -- the integration of FaceTime and the camera, the noise-cancelling mic system, the ubiquity of Messages and iCloud integration -- the iMac is a somewhat pricey but clearly standout option for those who still want a desktop computer, particularly for productive and profitable use. [photos via CNet, Techcrunch]