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Fast, quiet, and skinny: A quick look at the new 27" iMac (Late 2012)

When Apple announced the new iMacs a few months ago, I paid attention. My "old" iMac was three years old and was in need of either a total reload of Mountain Lion, or an exorcism.

The old machine was acting pokey, probably due to numerous OS and app installs and uninstalls, and there were those modern interfaces -- USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt -- that it lacked. Well, the day ordering opened up for the 27" iMac, I jumped on the chance to order one. Here's my first-few-days look at the latest big all-in-one from Apple.

First, a bit about the specs on this unit. I ordered it with the 3.4 GHz Intel Core i7 (quad-core) CPU, 16 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM (which I'll upgrade to 32 GB once my credit card recovers from the shock), the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680MX graphics card with 2048 MB of RAM, and a 1 TB Fusion Drive. It has four USB 3.0 ports and two Thunderbolt ports, and can support other displays (DVI, dual-link DVI, VGA) through a proper Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt adapter.

The machine being replaced was no slouch -- it had a 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, 8 GB of 1067 MHz DDR3 RAM, and a 1 TB 7200 RPM HD. Port-wise, it had one FireWire 400/800 and four USB 2.0 ports.

Now here's the funny part: from the front, the two iMacs look identical. They're sitting on my desk near each other, and there's very little that is visibly changed as you face them. Look at them from the side, however, and you see a major change. The old iMac is about an inch wide on the edges, the new one only 5mm thick at its thinnest point. Here's a bit of unboxing loveliness to look at:

There are other noticeable differences. The new iMac is completely silent. I can hear the hard disk in the old one rattling away (and perhaps that's because it is one of the Seagate drives that has been recalled...) and the fan makes a wee bit of noise. The new one? Doesn't make a peep. There's another audio change that became apparent last night when I was a guest on Chuck Joiner's MacJury podcast last night -- although I couldn't seem to route the sound to my headphones so that everything was actually still coming out of the iMac's speakers, it does an amazing job of noise cancellation so that there was no echo.

Although the two displays are identical (according to iFixit's teardowns of the new iMac), Apple has been able to reduce reflection by 75 percent on the new iMac. The LCD sits right next to the glass on the display, and the other day when looking at the iMac when walking up to it, I noticed that the various layered windows looked almost three-dimensional.

One other nice feature -- this iMac runs much cooler than the older model. The old unit would get quite hot; a quick reading today showed that it was at 103° F while in display sleep mode doing nothing, while the new unit was a cool 83.4° F.

The boot time is amazingly fast. Timing it with a stopwatch from hitting the power button to the login screen took 11.6 seconds. Launching frequently used apps like Mail and Google Chrome is virtually instantaneous, since they're all loaded automatically onto the SSD part of the Fusion Drive. If I have one recommendation to TUAW readers, it's that you should get a Fusion Drive if you're getting a new iMac. [Not everyone agrees with me from a price/performance standpoint, however.]

As you'd expect with the latest Intel processor powering this computer, the iMac is fast. I ran Geekbench on both my three year-old iMac and the new device for comparison. Here's the raw Geekbench score for both computers:

  • iMac 13,2 (Late 2012): 14181
  • iMac 11,1 (Late 2009): 9913

Yep, the new iMac has 43 percent more raw performance than the model from three years ago. That's not entirely surprising, but it is nice...

The numbers were similar when looking at the detailed performance figures:

  • Integer Performance (Late 2012): 12275 (40 percent improvement)
  • Integer Performance (Late 2009): 8771
  • Floating Point Performance (Late 2012): 21474 (37.5 percent improvement)
  • Floating Point Performance (Late 2009): 15613
  • Memory Performance (Late 2012): 7569 (56.4 percent improvement)
  • Memory Performance (Late 2009): 4841
  • Stream Performance (Late 2012): 8552 (108.3 percent improvement)
  • Stream Performance (Late 2009): 4105

As fast as this new iMac is, it still can't hold a candle to the 12-core Mid 2012 Mac Pro, which lights up Geekbench with a top score of 25465. Then again, that Mac Pro configuration starts at $6,199 with two 3.06 GHz 6-core Intel Xeon CPUs and a low end RAM capacity of 12 GB...

Is there anything I'm not thrilled about? Well, the location of the headphone jack and SDXC slot on the back of the device makes it difficult to plug in headphones and cards. And I wish that Apple had gone with a 1080p FaceTime HD camera in the iMac. iMac buyers shouldn't have to buy a third-party HD webcam to get better video input.

There's one other little issue I've run into: a bus-powered external drive that I'm using won't power up when connected to one of the USB 3.0 ports. I have a funny feeling that I'll be buying one of Apple's $29 Thunderbolt to FireWire adapters in order to get my data moved over to the new iMac... or just buy a cheap and speedy USB 3.0 drive.

While I'm still setting up the new machine manually rather than using Apple's Migration Assistant (more about that in a post by Erica Sadun), I'm finding the late 2012 iMac to be a worthy successor to its old office mate. That older iMac? My wife gets it to replace an old MacBook Pro.

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