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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  • mianmian - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    It can.

  • Lonyo - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    No negative comments about the pathetic 1TB HDD that ships on a $2000 computer?
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link

    What's pathetic about it? There aren't any larger 2.5" drives out there, that's as big as they get.
  • Wurmer - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    You are correct by saying that no one buys a Mac for the specs. I use both Mac and PC and just bought a new rig similar to yours. I also use a mac book and and IPad that I very much like. I fine that those product each satisfied different needs. Next year maybe, I'd like to get and IMac but I am not completely sure yet. I am not arguing against what you said but there something that many people take out of the equation and it's the screesn included in the iMac. A 27'' of that quality cost a pretty penny, I am not current with actual prices but I guess that something around 800-1000 is pretty much in the ball park. I am not a fan of Apple but I like their products.

    Anyways, that said, those changes are welcome but I'd have liked more up to date hardware. USB 3 and eSata are pretty much necessary with the huge HHD capacity available to use for storage...
  • rs2 - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    A company as large as Apple hasn't worked out how to deploy new products into their online store without bringing the entire site down in the process? Epic fail.
  • ggathagan - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    I would suggest that they do that on purpose to add a little drama to the roll-out event.
    It's the online equivalent of standing in line for the new iPhone at the Apple store.
  • Exodite - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    Am I to understand that the connector is exclusive to Apple until 2012? As in no other company may license or make use of it until then?

    I must have missed that part in the Thunderbolt article, or at the very least glossed it over.

    Don't get me wrong, for obvious reasons I'm all but impressed with Thunderbolt but talk about making sure it'll be another Firewire or mini-DP.
  • mianmian - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    I do not think Intel would allow Apple using it exclusively. With the large base of USB devices, I think only Apple "dare" to use thunderbolt instead of USB3.0.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - link

    Thunderbolt is not exclusive to Apple. According to Intel it is at the discretion of PC builders as to when they implement it. Hopefully they will show up in PCs and motherboards later this year.
  • Exodite - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - link

    I hope that's true, the comments in the article made me rather wary.

    Keeping an entirely unproven connector technology exclusive to one vendor would be an excellent way to nip it in the bud, so to speak.

    Not that I expect PC motherboard vendors to jump at the chance to implement it, seeing as it requires extra hardware and eats up 4 PCIe lanes. The latter you're hard-pressed to find available for love or money.

    I'd probably be less surprised to see it adopted on graphics cards than I would motherboards.

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