Opinion

Review: Apple iMac 20" Core Duo

Right ho then, this review is right on schedule. What I will try to do is to review this iMac as just a new computer and not like some 437th Mac that I've reviewed, because I'm a normal computer user and not a magazine editor.

First of all, here is the system configuration for this iMac (it's a slightly custom model):
  • Processor: 2GHz Intel Core Duo (2 cores); 2MB L2 Cache at 2GHz; 667MHz Bus
  • RAM: 1GB PC2-5300 (667MHz) DDR2 (1 SODIMM)
  • Storage: 250GB 7200rpm Serial-ATA Hard Drive (Maxtor)
  • Graphics Subsystem: ATI Radeon X1600 (PCIe) with 256MB of GDDR3 memory
  • Display: 20" TFT LCD at 1680x1050 (16:10); Viewing Angles: 170º/170º
  • Optical Drive: DVD±RW Drive; Writes Dual-Layer discs; 2.4x/8x/4x/8x/24x/8x/24x
  • Communication Subsystem: 802.11g (54Mbps) Airport Extreme Wireless; Bluetooth 2.0+ (EDR); Gigabit Ethernet
  • Audio: Built-in Stereo Speakers; Headphone/Optical Digital Out; Line Input; Built-in Microphone
  • Expansion: 2 FireWire 400; 3 USB 2.0; 2 USB 1.1 (Keyboard)
  • Misc: Built-in iSight Camera; Mini-DVI output port with support for DVI, VGA, S-video, and composite video connections; Support for external display in extended desktop and video mirroring modes
  • Input: Apple Wired Keyboard, Apple Mighty Mouse, Apple Remote
I marked the custom aspects in italics. Anyhow, now that you know what the raw configuration is, I can talk a bit more about the actual computer, its past and present. This iMac was manufactured in China (PRC) and the shipping from Shanghai to Stanford took 8 days (Oh those 8 long days). The iMac's packaging was quite neat. There's no point describing it here except for the sight mention that it was really fun and exciting to unpack that computer and everything was laid out in the most elegant and beautiful way - just like those 1G, 2G and 3G iPod boxes which were a real pleasure to open up - royally decorated. This is one place which Dell &co. simply don't think is important enough. Hence the dull brown boxes with indifferently positioned innards.

OK, as far as setup goes, the iMac is really, really, really, really easy to setup. You open the box, remove the keyboard and mouse, then you see the iMac. Simply pick it up and place it on your desk. Take the power cable - which is just a cable, mind you, not a cable-power brick-cable combination. Plug one end of that cable into the iMac and the other end into the power point, attach the keyboard to the back of the iMac, the mouse to the keyboard, and you're done. Boot it up and you see a nice Tiger musical video introduction which then cubes out and takes you to a wizard where you can choose which country you live in and if you have an older Mac to transfer stuff from. For the first time I did have a temporary Mac to transfer stuff from. So, I followed its instructions, which were extremely simple, hooked a FireWire cable between the two Macs and data was flying away from the iBook to the iMac. Once that finished, the iMac was basically a mirror image of the iBook, with all the applications installed and all the data in its original place. So I had the same account name, password, preferences, &c. and when I logged in, I was in a totally familiar setting, with even the icon positions on the desktop being intact.

Start-up and Firmware


OK, so let's get to the good stuff. This thing takes 21 seconds from Apple logo to login window and 4-5 seconds from login window to usable desktop. Pretty fast. Also, since the switch to Intel processors, they've changed a bit of the firmware. When you press the Option (alt) key during start-up to see the boot menu, for example, that selfsame boot menu is now in 16-bit colour and is really sweet looking (with cool animations). Same with the FireWire Target Disk mode. Unfortunately, the Apple Hardware Test still looks like Mac OS 9. Lazy bastards! :-)

Speed


Also, may I mention that this computer is extremely fast. Everything launches in one or two Dock Bounces (standardized unit of course). Everything is instantaneous, there are no delays, no lags, no jitters, no stutters - everything is fast and fluid. This seriously is Mac OS X on afterburners. Also, since I have two cores on this thing, I've done DVD to DivX conversion simultaneously while doing anything else, i.e., high-performance gaming, without experiencing any kind of speed issues. For the curious, Handbrake conversion of a DVD movie into MPEG-4 goes at about 40-45fps, compared to 50fps on a Dual 2GHz Power Mac G5, and this is really respectable because Handbrake isn't even optimized for Intel processors yet, although it is Universal.

More Speed


The Xbench results aren't all that spectacular and some of them are just counterintuitive. For example, the iMac scored a mere 15 where a Dual 2GHz Power Mac G5 scored a 100. So forgive me if I don't exactly trust them all that much because it looks like Xbench is not yet fully optimized for Intel. According to Xbench, the iMac scored a 76.43 on the processor test (all Power Mac G5 comparison scores are 100). On the Thread Test though, the iMac seems to blow the G5 away, scoring 199. I have posted the full test details here: http://db.xbench.com/merge.xhtml?doc1=155647&doc2=1. Maybe we'll have some better benchmarking with Xbench 1.3.

Rosetta


For those who aren't "in the know", since the switch to Intel processors, all the old Mac software will now run under a "translation mode" called Rosetta, and so it'll run, say, at about 50-80% of the speed as compared to running in "native mode". The only kind of software that is mostly excluded from needing to use Rosetta is Dashboard widgets which are generally coded in HTML, CSS and JavaScript and are processor architecture agnostic. Software like Microsoft Office runs smoother than it did on a 933MHz iBook (yeah, that's really old school) but just can't match the smoothness that you get on a dual-processor G5. However, this should be soon remedied, as the Universal Binary version of Microsoft Office is released. A little birdie told me to expect it to come out sometime this April, but that would be being too optimistic. If it does though, I won't be one to complain. I use Photoshop 7 and it runs really smooth on this machine. Again, when Photoshop CS3 (or maybe they'll call it Photoshop 10?) comes out later this year, it'll run a lot smoother. So, basically, as far as software goes, faithful Mac developers (those who don't intend to leave this platform) should update their software for Intel compatibility, and for software which doesn't get updated to Intel, there's always Rosetta. Some things that do not run under Rosetta are System Preference Panes, Kernel Extensions and lots of drivers. Printer drivers, incidentally, do work, though I'm curious to see if scanner drivers will do the same.

Rosetta Performance


When talking about running PowerPC applications on these new MacIntels, the translation engine has to be taken into account. This thing actually converts blocks of code from PowerPC to Intel and then caches them in RAM so that it doesn't need to reprocess them. In computer science, as probably know, there is always a balance between processing time and memory usage, known as time complexity and space complexity respectively. So, to reduce the time complexity of Rosetta, Apple went for a slight hit in the space complexity region, the result being that if an application usually takes 128MB of RAM, it will take up 192MB under Rosetta - an increase of 50%. This extra bit of RAM is where the cached code goes. Basically, applications which repeatedly use the same chunks of code will get less of a performace hit in Rosetta than others which don't; and another reason as to why Warcraft III performs so well might be because it depends heavily on the graphics subsystem.

Games


As for games - yeah, now we're rubbing our hands in delight - I got Unreal Tournament 2004 to test it out and patched it with the recently released Universal Binary update. It really runs like a champ. I maxed out all the settings - oh yeah and when you do this, the game says "Holy Shit" in the same voice that you're probably familiar with for saying "Megakill" &c. I played all the campaigns and I have to say that the game runs incredibly smooth. No slowdowns ever, not even close. I don't know how to enable the framerate display in the game but it's probably more than 30fps. The only other game I've tried on this is Warcraft III, which runs under emulation, but surprisingly it runs really fluidly and I haven't noticed any performance glitches in it, although it's probably not as smooth as UT2004.

Display & Front Row


One of the best ways to show off this computer is its enormous 20" display and Front Row... enhanced, of course, by the Apple Remote which looks a lot like an iPod Shuffle and also works exactly the same way - keeping the Play button pressed for 3 seconds puts the iMac to sleep. I also get kicks out of telling people that the infrared sensor is located behind the Apple logo on the front. Meanwhile, Front Row is really one of the coolest things most people have seen on a computer (including me). It takes the iMac from being just a computer to a complete home entertainment system. A 1680x1050 display also gives me ample space to do a lot of things at the same time because there's simply more space. 1024x768 feels positively cramped now.

Sound


Regarding its speakers, although I was skeptical at first, I needn't have feared, because the speakers on this machine are quite awesome. They're not loud enough for any kind of serious party, but they're just the right loudness for a music lover who lives in a dorm. The other reason why they're so cool is because they're tucked away neatly at the bottom of the computer where no one can really see them and so the music seems to be coming out of the screen.

Keyboard and Mouse


Although the keyboard that ships with this computer is excellent in both looks and working, the mouse is only good in the former department. I'll tell you this - if you play Warcraft with the Mighty Mouse, you will lose! Here's the fundamental problem - although it's the most elegant looking mouse, to perform a right-click, you have to lift your finger off the left-click, as it determines which button you want to click by a touch-sensing method. If you have both your fingers on the mouse and you click, then it defaults to a left-click. Basically, I'm using my Microsoft Starck mouse, which is pretty, silver and shiny not to mention it's two distinct left and right clicks. The Mighty Mouse has been relegated to my Windows laptop.

Bluetooth


If you have a Bluetooth headset lying around, like I do, it makes something really convenient. For example, you can start an audio conversation on iChat and not be restricted to sitting in front of the computer. There's a convenient Bluetooth button in every iChat Audio and Video Chat window which instantly switches input and output to a Bluetooth device.

Wireless


Apple's claim is (and it's quite realistic) that the only cable you'll need with the iMac is the power cable. Internet is through Wireless, you can buy an Apple (or a non-Apple) Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse and you're all set. Since the iMac comes with a 250GB internal drive, most people won't require an external hard drive. Plus, you can custom order the iMac with a 500GB disk as well, if you need to.

Universal Fun


Most people would probably hate to be right in the middle of a transition like this one, but I love it, because everyday, more and more software becomes Universal Binary and I try it out. Like Delicious Library, which now runs fantastically on the iMac, but was literally unusable under Rosetta.

If I have missed out on something important that you'd like to hear about, drop me a line in the comments and I'll add more stuff. 

Comments (17) Posted on at  

  • » Ah. The much awaited iMac Core Duo's review. The best computer out there just got better, well other than

    "Apple Hardware Test still looks like Mac OS 9. Lazy bastards! :-)"


    Getting more and more universal releases almost everyday must be really fun.
  • » Hi Karan. I ama bit bothered with this:

    Why do people, mostly who are involved in jobs like programming robots, microcontroller programming etc., always say that Macs are not 'engineer -friendly', and that they are not good for 'programming purposes'. Is this true to any extent?
  • » True words, Rungta.

    Well, Sid. Here's the thing. From my experience of working in a Robotics Lab, when you're working on fairly primitive projects, you sometimes use a Parallel or Serial port for communication between your computer and your robot. Now, none of the Macs (except Xserve) since 1998 have these ports, so it makes that aspect really hard although the operating system, FreeBSD Unix, has full support for these things. So, I guess Apple's hardware is not friendly for such things although the OS is fully capable. If they mean anything else besides this, I don't know.

    Thanks for your insightful comment.
  • » Looks like you've given it a 9/10 rating. Now, how about comparing a PC with Vista Beta and your iMac? Windows PCs are becoming better, Vista definitely runs more smoothely than the previous OSes of Microsoft. I think Microsoft does think about competition, and I'm sure they'll be doing something to outsmart those new iMacs.
  • » I'll compare Windows Vista with Mac OS X whenever it comes out. I have Vista Beta 2 and I have personally discovered so many bugs that I am disillusioned. So I don't want to make any bad impressions unnecessarily. I will wait for the final thing.
  • » This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  • » Yeah exactly, I observed the same thing at my school's robotics lab. But it makes me wonder why Apple doesn't put a serial port in there - just for the heck of it.

    I think MS unsurprisingly already did a bad job with the IE 7 BETA (1 & 2), for I almost got to the point of restoring my hard disk.. until I figured out how to uninstall IE7. It has led my hopes down for Vista to be "competetive" at all.
  • » Well, Apple probably won't put the serial and parallel ports into its computers because it was the one that went through the whole process of phasing them out from 1998 to the present day. Apple is a strong proponent of universal ports like USB and FireWire which you can use to connect a vast array of devices. In fact, if some kind of USB 3 is released with 1Gbps speeds, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple computers just started coming with 6 USB ports instead of both USB and FireWire. You can also see an example of this feature of Apple's mentality in having only a mini-DVI/VGA output port on the iMac and the MacBook Pro. It reduces all the video output ports to one and it makes the job for a home user easier because he knows that anything that has to be output extrernally must go through that one port. Of course, since, in the video industry, we have a bunch of standards like VGA, DVI, Dual-link DVI, S-Video and RCA, this means that there will be a lot of connector cables. However, the back of the computer looks more simplistic and elegant.

    I believe you can find USB to Parallel and USB to Serial converters out there somewhere, although their utility is limited to some very esoteric Robotics labs. You could probably also get PCI cards that added a Parallel or Serial port to a Power Mac.
  • » this is sid from india and not the fellow "sid " who has posted above ,

    Karan did you have those video glitches in front row before 10.4.5 ?

    and is this a good time to get a macbook pro or should i tell my dad to wait it out , cause apple seems confused with all the upgrading before shipping thing.
  • » Yeah I did have the video glitches and I was a regular poster on the Apple Discussion forum regarding that. However, I promptly went to the Stanford Bookstore and asked them to make me a copy of the 8G1165 discs which did not have the bug. Day before yesterday, Apple released 10.4.5 which is build 8G1454 and officially squashes the bug. Overall, there's nothing to worry about. The problem was specific to 20" iMacs with VRAM boosted to 256MB and lasted barely two weeks.

    Now that the MacBooks have a 2.16GHz maximum processor, I wouldn't hesitate in buying one if I had the dough. Performance on these things is phenomenal. You will not be disappointed.
  • » Sid, as for your question, why macs are not engineering friendly, read this journal entry "OS X May cause Nuclear Disaster" on 9th Feb...

    http://nak.journalspace.com/
  • » That's very funny. It used to happen, in 10.2 and before, that if you did: 1-0.9 and then did -0.1, instead of getting 0.0, you used to get some garbage values. They fixed that in 10.3 as far as I know, with an arbitrary-precision calculator. Also, when I tried 5.05*2 in Calculator, it worked fine. Funny, though.
  • » This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  • » Yes, it worked well on my powerbook too. Perhaps, He was making his mac work very hard! :), But still it doesn't explain it. I think apple programmers are not so stupid to have their calculator's internal variables at int type. Even float type can easily handle 5.05 * 2.

    And this reminds me, a same thing happened during my board computer practical. I got Dynamic Stack Question with Float value as data type. After I wrote the program, it did same thing as Nak's G5 did. I entered float value as 25.5 and when I called pop operation it showed as 24.44444444444446. All non-floating values were working, infact some values like XX.8, XX.5 etc were not working, but XX.2, XX.6 were working. It is very weird, I mean float data type can easily handle Single Digit Precision. I don't know what was causing it??? The program was all right.

    But point it "Mac OS X 10.4 SLA", states that

    "THE APPLE SOFTWARE IS NOT INTENDED FOR USE IN THE OPERATION OF NUCLEAR FACILITIES, AIRCRAFT NAVIGATION OR COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL SYSTEMS, LIFE SUPPORT MACHINES OR OTHER EQUIPMENT IN WHICH THE FAILURE OF THE APPLE SOFTWARE COULD LEAD TO DEATH, PERSONAL INJURY, OR SEVERE PHYSICAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE. "


    What i don't get is why apple is not so confident about their system, I mean they have the best hardware, best software then What is the problem??

    infact Windows XP EULA has no restriction. There software is attacked most, has more loop holes than any other OS and also it is very risky to have Windows system in critical areas stated above. If microsoft, after all this, hasn't restricted XP to running in Nuclear Facilities, then Why Apple is stopping itself ???
  • » I have two guesses: one is that Apple's Mac OS X has still not been approved officially by the government for being secure enough for use in Government Agencies like DoD. Hence, Apple cannot sell to DoD, etc. I guess, Apple might be able to sell it to the aforementioned areas when the government approves it.

    My second guess is that Apple just doesn't care because the market is negligible; however, if something bad happens, a lawsuit like that could seriously tarnish them.

    And, by the way, I severely doubt that any "NUCLEAR FACILITIES, AIRCRAFT NAVIGATION OR COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL SYSTEMS, LIFE SUPPORT MACHINES" do actually use Microsoft Windows.
  • » I think those new Core Duo Vaios with 6800GTs(with upgrade) will be "Kick Ass!" powerful. Games, they are the only things, that aren't available for us poor mac users. Hey MacSoft, we want more.
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