Well, it’s happened again – Apple’s online store went down briefly this morning, meaning that the secretive company was stocking its virtual shelves with new product. As expected, when the curtain was pulled back, we all had new iMacs staring us right in the face, and they brought with them the customary slew of incremental upgrades over last year’s models. If you were paying attention when Apple refreshed the MacBook Pro earlier this year, a lot of this is going to be familiar to you.

There were two major improvements in the MacBook Pros that made most of the headlines: an upgrade to Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors, and the introduction of the new Thunderbolt port in place of the former Mini DisplayPort. Formerly code-named Light Peak, this Intel-developed port enables two-way 10Gbps transfer speeds between a variety of devices while also maintaining compatibility with existing Mini DisplayPort dongles and cables.

To see more about the particulars of Thunderbolt, you’ll definitely want to read the extensive write-up we did about the technology when it launched in the 2011 MacBook Pros – everything written there is true of the port in the new iMacs. You’ll definitely see Thunderbolt crop up in other Macs as the year goes on, and you may start to see it pop up in PCs as well depending on how quickly people jump on the bandwagon. Until then, use of the port in peripherals is and will probably continue to be rare, so the more immediate concern for us is the hardware upgrades in the new Macs.

2011 iMac Lineup
  21.5-inch (low-end) 21.5-inch (high-end) 27-inch (low-end) 27-inch (high-end)
Dimensions (inches) 17.75 H x 20.8 W x 7.42 D 17.75 H x 20.8 W x 7.42 D 20.4 H x 25.6 W x 8.15 D 20.4 H x 25.6 W x 8.15 D
Weight 20.5 lbs (9.3 kg) 20.5 lbs (9.3 kg) 30.5 lbs (13.8 kg) 30.5 lbs (13.8 kg)
CPU 2.5 GHz quad-core Core i5 2.7 GHz quad-core Core i5 2.7 GHz quad-core Core i5 3.1 GHz quad-core Core i5
GPU AMD Radeon HD 6750M (512MB) AMD Radeon HD 6770M (512MB) AMD Radeon HD 6770M (512MB) AMD Radeon HD 6970M (1GB)
RAM 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (16GB max) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (16GB max) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (16GB max) 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 (16GB max)
HDD 500GB 7200 RPM 1TB 7200 RPM 1TB 7200 RPM 1TB 7200 RPM
Display Resolution 1920x1080 1920x1080 2560x1440 2560x1440
Ports Gigabit LAN, Firewire 800, Thunderbolt, 4x USB 2.0, SDHC slot, separate audio in/out jacks Gigabit LAN, Firewire 800, Thunderbolt, 4x USB 2.0, SDHC slot, separate audio in/out jacks Gigabit LAN, Firewire 800, 2x Thunderbolt, 4x USB 2.0, SDHC slot, separate audio in/out jacks Gigabit LAN, Firewire 800, 2x Thunderbolt, 4x USB 2.0, SDHC slot, separate audio in/out jacks
Price $1,199 $1,499 $1,699 $1,999

All iMacs now come packing quad-core Sandy Bridge processors, dedicated graphics with 512MB or 1GB of memory (the high-end 27” model can also be configured with a 2GB 6970M), Thunderbolt (one port in the 21.5” model, two in the 27” model), and an HD Facetime camera (which supplants the previous generation’s iSight camera, making the white MacBook Apple’s last product to carry the iSight branding). Update: Reader emails have alerted me to an iFixit teardown of the new iMac, which reveals that they're shipping with the new Intel Z68 chipset. We wrote a little about Z68 earlier this year - no word on whether OS X supports or plans to support any of its unique features at this point.

It's too bad to see that all iMac models across the board still come with 4GB RAM installed by default, and Apple's upgrade prices for memory remain ridiculous (bumping it up to 8GB across two 4GB DIMMS costs $200; market value for 8GB DDR3 kits is about $80). At least these iMacs continue to offer four RAM slots, versus the two slots on older iMacs - if 4GB is not a suitable amount for you, adding another 4-8 GB is easy and relatively inexpensive if you don't pay Apple's prices.

All of these internals are packed into a case that’s virtually identical to the aluminum unibody iMac design introduced in 2009, which itself was a gentle retooling of the aluminum iMac introduced in August of 2007. The point being, this refresh is all about the hardware inside: you’re not getting anything drastically thinner or lighter, and if you’ve seen an iMac in the last three or four years, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re buying.

CPUs: The iMac Gets Sandy Bridged

Prior to the MacBook Pro refresh (and excluding the Mac Pro), the iMac was Apple’s only product line to transition completely away from Core 2 Duo processors to newer Nehalem-based Core i3, i5, and i7 processors – the white MacBook, the Mac Mini, and the MacBook Air lines continue to use the Core 2 Duo along with nVidia chipsets to save space and energy, and to get around using Intel’s previous-generation integrated graphics processor.

So the iMac wasn’t as far behind in CPU architecture as some of Apple’s other products, but the switch to quad-core processors across all models and price levels should give new customers a healthy speed bump over the previous generation. As we saw in our review of the Sandy Bridge MacBook Pros, Apple makes use of Intel’s Turbo Boost feature to make up for the quad core parts’ lower clock speeds relative to dual core parts in single-threaded applications.

The Sandy Bridge and Thunderbolt upgrades are more or less known quantities at this point – what impressed me most about the new iMacs was the GPU upgrade, especially in the entry-level iMac and the high-end iMac.

GPUs and Preparing for Lion
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  • akm3 - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    Umm, what you just bought does NOT match the specs the iMac, you only have a 1080p display, and it's only 23". That 27" 2560x1440p IPS display costs quite a chunk of change from Dell for example.

    Overall though, your point stands.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    The problem is that your specs do not match.

    Replace the LG 1080 display with a 27" 2560x1440 IPS display. They are $1000 from Apple, $1100 from Dell, or $1400 from NEC. Also don't forget to add the cost of the operating system.

    I reckon that going with the display in the 27" would close the price gap quite considerably.
  • iwod - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link

    You need a 27" Screen
    A LED Backlight - Many of them are still CCFL
    H-IPS , some of them are still E-IPS

    You haven't included the Ultimate version of Windows 7
    A Decent Keyboard and Mouse.

    Your spec doesn't have Bluetooth and WiFi.

    Your Spec isn't very Green, No EPEAT Gold and Energy Star 5.2.

    You haven't included Casing, Please Add a decent Aluminum Case.

    Please add a decent pair Speakers in.

    You spec computer is 5 times larger in Volume compare to an iMac.

    There, a list of difference, if dont care about any of the above and value other things. Then by all count take a PC.
  • psychobriggsy - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link

    Well done, so your home built system turns out to be cheaper, and have different specifications. No bluetooth keyboard/mouse though.

    If you buy an iMac, the 27" is the one to go for. A 27" 2560x1440 monitor costs over $800 on its own, making the rest of the computer cost far more palatable, and in the long run it can be used as a monitor too, increasing its longevity.

    And whilst you might not care, many people do care about aesthetics, and the iMac does look better than a pile of components plugged together on a desk (you didn't buy a case it appears).
  • alent1234 - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link


    a 27" LCD is another few hundred dollars, the top of the line iMac is a 6970, comes with an OS that rivals Win 7 Ultimate since it has AD connectivity and other features that Home Premium doesn't have and comes with software that will run you $200 or so

    apple is just taking the revenue for itself instead of offering software from others and doing a classic upsell by gimping the lower end iMacs
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link

    And what you have is a hodge-podge of components from multiple vendors. An iMac is a totally different type of computer.
  • darwinosx - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link

    Heh, nobody cares what you just bought.

    But enjoy Microsoft's latest mediocrity of an OS. No service or support. Substandard monitors etc.
  • Casper42 - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    Its a Mac, of course you are getting ripped off.

    Perhaps one of these days they will start charging more for OSX and less for the hardware and let other people play in their sandbox.
  • Spazweasel - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    When it comes down to where they make their money, Apple is a hardware company, not a software company. Having OS/X run only on Apple hardware sells Apple hardware. Why in the world would they want to change that? Why would they add the burden of having to support every piece of random hardware that Joe' Sound Card and Floor Wax Company produces? Why would they want to go from being a company with half again Microsoft's market cap to one tenth?

    Apple's customers are happy. They're not "stupid" or "in a reality distortion field". And they are most certainly not being ripped off. They buy Macs because Windows and the chaotic PC hardware vendor market is a drain of time and effort. Time spend crawling PC hardware sites, windowsheadaches.com, updating drivers, periodically reinstalling their operating system and dealing with compatibility issues is something Apple users see as a waste of time and efftort. Apple users would rather spend doing what they bought the computer for in the first place. Apple users are not interested in the metatask of managing the computer or the operating system.

    A car that needs to spend a weekend per month in the shop and periodically have an engine rebuild is not better than one you just drive for a year between oil changes. Same principle applies to computers, and to Apple users, that's worth some extra money up front. Sitting on the sidelines yelling "YOU'RE NOT AS HAPPY AS YOU THINK YOU ARE!" doesn't make it so.
  • Dex1701 - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    Lol...you just did the same thing by WAAAY over-exaggerating the amount of work and headaches that go into owning a PC. I'm not taking sides...both the PC and Apple markets exist for different types of people. Just wanted to go ahead and point out the "YOU'RE NOT AS HAPPY AS YOU THINK YOU ARE!" hypocrisy of that post. My Windows machines don't require any more maintenance or babysitting than my Macbook does. The fact is that most PC hardware isn't priced at as much of a premium as Apple hardware usually is. That's fine...they make some pretty sexy hardware, but for someone that has a good amount of hardware tech experience there's no reason to shell out for it unless you're hellbent on running MacOS.

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