Thunderbolt iMac: The perfect compromise

Apple's blazing-fast, elegant, and economical everything-in-one goes where ordinary desktops can't

Pundits have predicted the death of the desktop for years. I wish it could be so. No technology is more deserving of retirement than the sheet-metal black box and tangle of cables that is the standard PC.

Notebooks and tablets have undeniable appeal: There's only one item to buy, no pieces to plug together. They're silent and power-efficient. They emerge from the box ready to work. But portable devices have limitations that can make them inconvenient if portability isn't your primary consideration. Their displays are too small. The need to run on batteries, and the cramped confines of a compact chassis put a tight limit on memory, storage, and performance. When you reposition the display, the keyboard and pointing device (real or virtual) move, too. Making computers portable also makes them expensive. As long as portables have these strikes against them, the desktop will live on.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need" | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Technology: Apple newsletter. ]

Apple thinks it's possible to have it both ways, to cross the convenience and efficiency of a portable with the performance and ergonomics of a desktop. Like other manufacturers, Apple has long toyed with this formula with varying degrees of success. The latest generation of iMac, Apple's all-in-one desktop computer, gets it completely right.

Occupying the equivalent desk space of an LCD monitor and requiring only one cable (power), iMac is a fast, capable desktop with a very un-Mac-like price tag. Apple's redesign equips all iMac models with second-generation Intel Core i5 quad-core desktop CPUs, faster RAM, gamer-grade AMD Radeon HD 6000M-series discrete graphics, Thunderbolt I/O, a Bluetooth keyboard and pointing device, a FaceTime HD camera, and marvelous speakers. A 21.5-inch (visible), LED-backlit HD display graces Apple's two value-priced models, while buyers of the 27-inch iMac are treated to a much higher-resolution display (2,560 by 1,440), a faster CPU, an upgraded GPU, room for up to 16GB of RAM, and a pair of Thunderbolt ports.

Traditionally, Apple has aimed iMac at consumers, steering commercial and professional buyers toward the much faster, more expandable Mac Pro. The iMac is still priced like a home computer, but for the first time, iMac's performance is as prominent as its design, in league with top-shelf single-processor desktops. If Apple's best stock configuration still isn't fast enough for you, you can upgrade to a Core i7 CPU and an AMD Radeon HD 6970M GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 video memory, enough to satisfy a power user.

The 27-inch iMac can actually accommodate two external dual-link DVI displays, each with a resolution of up to 2,560 by 1,600, creating a three-headed dream machine that still has room to connect to the next generation of ultrafast Thunderbolt peripherals. This isn't just new territory for the iMac, but for all desktop PCs outside the workstation class.

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Test Center Scorecard
 
  25% 25% 25% 15% 10%  
Apple iMac (Thunderbolt) 9 9 9 7 8

8.6

Very Good

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