Apple iMac (spring 2011) review: Apple iMac (spring 2011)

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.6
  • Design: 10.0
  • Features: 7.0
  • Performance: 7.0
  • Service and support: 5.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good As the most-affordable iMac, the Apple iMac 21.5-inch offers competitive speed, the unique potential of its Thunderbolt port, and Apple's trademark design leadership.

The Bad The 21.5-inch iMac isn't the best all-in-one for home entertainment, and its performance competitiveness suffers without an option for more video memory.

The Bottom Line Apple's $1,199 iMac doesn't offer the same home entertainment features as Windows-based all-in-ones, but its speed, looks, and the future utility of its Thunderbolt port make it a strong choice for performance-sensitive professionals.

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Editors' note (October 23, 2012): The 2011 iMac reviewed here has been replaced by an updated 2012 model that offers an all-new superthin design and improved hardware specs (Ivy Bridge CPU, Thunderbolt port, USB 3.0).

Apple's 27-inch iMacs stand out largely because they offer bigger displays than any other all-in-one. The newly updated 21.5-inch iMac has always had a harder time persuading buyers thanks to the glut of 23-inch Windows-based all-in-ones in the same price range. A fast new Core i5 processor helps the most affordable new iMac make a strong case for its performance, and we expect OS X-loyal professionals will appreciate the iMac's added speed and, eventually, its new Thunderbolt data port. Consumers will be less convinced, especially given the iMac's lack of home entertainment conveniences.

As we said in our review of the new 27-inch model, the design of Apple's iMacs remains the most aesthetically pleasing in the industry. The 21.5-inch model has a smaller footprint than the larger one, coming in at 17.75 inches high and 20.75 inches (compared with 20.25-inches high and 25.5-inches wide on the 27-inch iMac), which could make the smaller-screen version one better suited to tight spaces.

Along with featuring the smaller screen among the two iMac varieties, the 21.5-inch model also has a smaller screen than price-comparable Windows all-in-ones. Dell's Inspiron One, HP's TouchSmart 610-series, the Gateway One ZX6000-series, and others all boast 23-inch displays, and some, like Dell's all-in-one, can be had for under $700.

Admittedly, the iMac's display gives up only a diagonal inch-and-a-half in its physical measurements, which is hardly enough to cause a dramatic degradation in its user experience. You could argue that the more compressed pixels will make for crisper image quality, at least when you're sitting up close. The Windows side of the debate might similarly point out that larger screens lend themselves to better viewing from a distance, which you might want from an all-in-one designed, as many Windows all-in-ones are, for home entertainment. Both sides have a point, and the arguments of the screen-size debate extend through to the 21.5-inch iMac's features comparison as well.

Apple iMac 21-inch Dell Inspiron One 2305
Price $1,199 $1,149
Display size/resolution 21.5-inc, 1,920x1,080 23-inch, 1,920x1,080
CPU 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 2400 2.4GHz AMD Phenom II X4 610e
Memory 4GB 1,333MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,33MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics card 1GB AMD Radeon HD 5470
Hard drives 500GB, 7,200rpm 1TB, 7,200 rpm
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner Blu-ray/DVD burner combo drive
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless
Operating system Apple OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.7 Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

The Dell Inspiron One 2305 we reviewed in November is now six months old, but it remains Dell's highest-end all-in-one offering, with the same specs as when we first wrote about it. Aside from its all-in-one form factor, the Dell and the iMac couldn't be more different.

The Dell's large touch screen, its Blu-ray drive, and its HDMI input make it well-suited to serving as a digital entertainment kiosk. You could set it up in a den, a bedroom, or on a kitchen counter and use it to consume almost any kind of digital media. The HDMI input in particular lends the Inspiron One great versatility, letting you use it as a standalone display for a game console or a cable box. With the help of an extra, expensive adapter you can use the new Thunderbolt port on the iMac the same way, but you still don't have a touch screen to simplify media controls, and the lack of a Blu-ray drive in the iMac potentially gives you another device you must connect to replicate the same streamlined digital media hub.

On the other hand, the iMac makes a far superior computer for producing digital media or tackling any other performance-dependent task. The iMac's new Intel Core i5 2400 processor is a generation ahead of the AMD Phenom II X4 chip in the Dell. The iMac also has a faster, more recent AMD graphics chip. The Thunderbolt port, which replaces the old iMac's MiniDisplay Port, will be important also, when compatible storage arrays, video hubs, and other devices debut this summer that take advantage of its fast, bi-directional data transfer capabilities.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

CineBench 11.5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Time demo (fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,080  
Apple iMac 21.5-inch (2.5GHz Core i5 2400, Spring 2011)
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Where to Buy

Apple iMac 27-inch (3.1GHz, spring 2011)

Part Number: imacspring2011

MSRP: $1,999.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Graphics Processor AMD Radeon HD 6970M
  • OS Provided Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion
  • Installed Size 4 GB / 16 GB (max)
  • Video Memory 1 GB GDDR5 SDRAM
  • Monitor Type LED