Apple iMac review: Apple iMac

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MSRP: $2,199.00

The Good Attractive all-in-one design; vivid wide-screen display; great software bundle for home users.

The Bad Little room for expansion; so-so service and support.

The Bottom Line The iMac's 20-inch display makes both work and play a lot easier on the eyes, if not on the wallet.

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7.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Support 7

Review summary

The Apple iMac is getting a swelled head and gaining some weight, but it carries it well. The 20-inch model's $2,199 list price, which is $400 more than the already expensive 17-inch model, is a bit hard to swallow solely for the pleasure of a few extra square inches of display. Unfortunately (for your wallet), if you watch a lot of wide-screen DVDs, work with many-columned spreadsheets, or frequently need to view Web-browser windows side by side, that extra real estate soon feels more like a necessity than a luxury. We wish that Apple had thrown in something--extra memory, better speakers, or a bigger hard drive--simply so that it doesn't feel so much like the company is cynically positioning this model as nothing but an up-sell. But if you have the money, this is a hard iMac to pass up. Though it retains the same arctic-white, hemispherical design as its predecessors, the 20-inch iMac--at a hefty 40 pounds--weighs almost twice as much as the 17-inch version. That makes it a little less dorm-friendly than its smaller brother, which would be easier to move twice a year. That's a pity, too, because the large display lets you place two full-size Web pages side by side, a boon for heavy researchers.

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The iMac's sturdy, flexible arm let's you adjust the display to your heart's (and eyes') content.

The big LCD sits atop a sturdy steel articulating arm, which fluidly rotates and tilts yet still manages to securely hold the display in position. Almost everything looks good on the screen because the picture is very bright and saturated. Otherwise, it's the same old iMac: simple and stylish. The SuperDrive's tray ejects from the front of the almost featureless domed base; the power button, the ports, and the jacks circumnavigate the back.

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Along the back of the iMac's dome, a plethora of ports is hidden.

We do have some minor quibbles: The cords on the bundled Apple Pro Speakers are too short, for example. And like most all-in-one PCs, it lacks expansion flexibility. There's a single empty memory slot, though, and you can add an AirPort wireless card. Aside from the 20-inch, 16:10 aspect display, this model's specs are identical to its 17-inch sibling's. That includes the 1.25GHz G4 processor, the 256MB of 333MHz memory, and the 167MHz system bus. A 64MB GeForce FX 5200 Ultra chip powers the display, which can run at a variety of standard and 16:10 aspect-ratio resolutions. The system feels fast and responsive, and it multitasks well. For instance, we watched a DVD in a background window while developing and running video-encoding tests in another window.

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At 20 inches, the iMac is a DVD-viewing machine. The versatile SuperDrive is the iMac's lone optical drive.

As long as you don't sit too close, you'll have a great DVD-viewing experience; within about three feet, the screen is big enough that aliasing artifacts become quite noticeable. You'll be able to crowd lots of people around it, though, thanks to an extremely wide viewing angle. But even after calibrating with OS X's excellent built-in tool, the display's colors were suitable only for consumer-level photo retouching and video editing.

Like the 17-inch model, the 20-inch iMac comes equipped with an 80GB Western Digital hard drive and Apple's version of the Pioneer DVR-106 DVD-R/CD-RW combo drive, the SuperDrive. As with its little brother, if you plan to store lots of video, music, or image files on the 20-inch iMac, we suggest upgrading the base configuration with a 160GB hard drive, the largest that Apple currently offers for the line. That, or buy a Power Mac G4 with extra drive bays for future expansion.

The system ships with Apple Pro speakers but doesn't include Bluetooth or AirPort as part of the standard configuration. We'd like to see both of these wireless features come standard, given that this system's price puts it in the mid- to high-end range.

Apple delivers its standard, wide-ranging software bundle on this machine. This includes the iLife suite, which has iMovie 3.0.3, iDVD 3.0.1, iTunes 4.1, and iPhoto 2.0, as well as Mail, Safari, and AppleWorks. For non-Apple software, there's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, Deimos Rising, SoundStudio, Quicken 2003 Deluxe, a test-drive of Microsoft Office X, and World Book 2003. Our test system was running Mac OS X 10.3.2.
Application performance
Other than the extra screen real estate and the updated apps and OS, the 20-inch iMac that we tested shares the same configuration as the 17-inch version we tested last year. Both systems run on a 1.25GHz G4 processor with 256MB of 333MHz memory and a 167MHz system bus. So it came as no surprise to find that the 20-inch iMac turned in very similar performance scores as those of its smaller sibling. We attribute its 30-second advantage on our iMovie benchmark to an updated OS (Mac OS X 10.3 vs. 10.2) and more recent iLife apps. On the less-intensive iTunes test, both 1.25GHz G4 iMacs finished in a dead heat, with each system taking less than 1 minute to convert a 10-minute-plus CD track to MP3. Finally, it should come as no surprise to see that the iMac trails the dual-processor Power Mac G5 by a healthy margin.

iMovie  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time in minutes  
Power Mac G5 dual 2GHz (2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
iMac G4 20-inch 1.25GHz (256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
iMac G4 1.25GHz (256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
iMac G4 1GHz (256MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz)
Note: Time needed to compress and export a QuickTime movie to e-mail

iTunes  (Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time in minutes  
Power Mac G5 dual 2GHz (2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
iMac G4 20-inch 1.25GHz (256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
iMac G4 1.25GHz (256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
iMac G4 1GHz (256MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz)
Note: Time needed to convert an AIFF audio file to MP3

CNET Labs uses two different applications (iMovie and iTunes) to test the Apple 20-inch iMac's performance. Through the use of a number of timed tests, CNET Labs is able to roughly determine the performance of a given system.

Quake III
We saw no real change in 3D gaming performance when comparing the 20-inch iMac to its 17-inch, 1.25GHz G4 predecessor. Both systems use Nvidia's budget graphics card, the GeForce FX 5200 Ultra. At 79.3 (fps) frames per second on Quake III, our test system offered a slight edge over last year's 1.25GHz iMac. Any game is playable at anything more than 60fps, but serious gamers will want a more advanced card, such as the Radeon 9600 Pro found in the Power Mac G5.

Quake III  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Frames per second  
Power Mac G5 dual 2GHz (ATI Radeon 9600 Pro)
iMac G4 20-inch LCD 1.25GHz (Nvidia GeForce FX 5200)
iMac G4 1.25GHz (Nvidia GeForce FX 5200)
iMac G4 1GHz (Nvidia GeForce4 MX)

To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Quake III Arena for OS X. Although Quake III is an older game, it is still widely used as an industry-standard tool.

System configurations:

Apple iMac (1GHz G4)
Mac OS X 10.2.3; 1GHz Power PC G4; 256MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 64MB; 80GB 7,200rpm Ultra ATA/100

Apple iMac (1.25GHz G4)
Mac OS X 10.2.7; 1.25GHz Power PC G4; 256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 64MB; 80GB 7,200rpm Ultra ATA/100

Apple 20-inch iMac (1.25GHz G4)
Mac OS X 10.3.2; 1.25GHz Power PC G4; 256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 64MB; 80GB 7,200rpm Ultra ATA/100

Apple Power Mac G5
Mac OS X 10.2.7; Dual 2GHz Power PC G5; 2048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9600 Pro 128MB; 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Apple's one-year parts-and-labor warranty and its 90 days of free phone support remain annoyingly minimal. You can extend the warranty to three years by shelling out another $149 for the company's AppleCare Protection Plan. Do-it-yourselfers will find Apple's online support section, with tons of technical articles and user forums, to be the best source of help.