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Apple iMac 5th Generation review: Apple iMac 5th Generation

Apple iMac 5th Generation

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home | Windows PCs | Cooking (sometimes) | Woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
6 min read

We've already shown our affection for Apple's highest-end iMac, but with back-to-school shopping season in full-swing, the time felt right to fill in a gap in our review database by covering the lowest-end, $1,200, 20-inch model. What we find is that the most affordable iMac has the usual content-creation strengths we've come to expect from Apple. And, while some of its features stand out from the competition, we're disappointed by others. Overall, we recommend the 20-inch, 2.4GHz iMac if you have a budget between $1,000 and $1,500 for a desktop that you'll use for digital media editing.


Apple iMac 5th Generation

The Good

Industry-leading design; best all-in-one overall for its price; strong digital media performance; broad range of connectivity options; easy-to-use operating system.

The Bad

Smaller screen than some newer all-in-ones; puny hard drive for its price; disproportionately expensive memory upgrades; lame 90-day phone support.

The Bottom Line

Apple's smaller-scale iMac remains our favorite all-in-one. And while its looks, its ease of use, and its performance are all selling points, Windows PCs are starting to catch up (at least with the latter). A few components could also stand an update, but in general you'll find the 20-inch iMac a remarkable computer for its price.

By now, Apple's iMac design should look familiar. The 20-inch model is a scaled-down but otherwise identical copy of the higher-end, 24-inch iMac we reviewed a few months ago. Both use the revamped brushed silver and glossy black chassis that Apple rolled out last year to replace the all-white original design. The screen tilts with an acceptable range of motion on the stand, and you should be able to place the system comfortably in most standard desk-and-chair situations.

Depending on the kind of system you'd like, and whether you're operating system agnostic, the iMac competes with a handful of Windows-based all-in-ones. HP's revamped TouchSmart, Dell's XPS One, and the lesser-known Averatec All-in-One, all have similar prices and specifications, and they also have larger, 22-inch displays. If screen size is the biggest differentiator for you, the 20-inch iMac loses. But keep in mind that while it has a bit less real estate, Apple's display does have the same 1,680x1,050-pixel resolution as those other systems.

  Apple iMac Gateway FX4710
Price $1,200 $1,150
CPU 2.4GHz 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory 1GB of 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM 6GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics 128MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT 512MB Nvidia Geforce 9800 GT (overclocked)
Hard drives 250GB 7,200 rpm 640GB 7,200 rpm
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner dual-layer DVD burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet; 802.11n WiFi; Bluetooth 10/100 Ethernet, modem
Operating system OS X 10.5.4 Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)

And if we say that the iMac's display accounts for about $200 of its price (based on the going rate for a standalone 20-inch LCD), it is then fair to compare the iMac with standard desktops that cost about $1,000. Desktops in that price range tend to offer large hard drives, decent midrange 3D cards, media card readers, and occasionally HD-optical drives; all things the default $1,200 iMac lacks. As always with all-in-ones, the iMac can't offer the same level of upgradeability as a desktop.

What the iMac can do, among other things, is dominate its competition on our digital content and multitasking benchmarks. First, it simply destroys the Windows-based all-in-ones across the board. The Averatec system makes a respectable challenge on our iTunes encoding test, but overall the iMac is the clear productivity winner among other all-in-one PCs.

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

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
Gateway FX4710
Maingear Prelude
Apple iMac
Averatec All-in-One
HP TouchSmart IQ506

The desktop to all-in-one comparison is a little different. The Gateway FX4710 is actually a bit more expensive than our $1,000 target, coming in at $1,150. It's the closest in price of system's we've tested, though, and it still shows some interesting points. It outperforms the iMac handily on Photoshop, but it also needed three times the RAM to achieve those scores. The Gateway also has a small edge on our iTunes test, and with the iMac's dual core CPU, we expected it would fall short of those quad-core desktop on our multithreaded CPU benchmark. Notice, though, that the iMac still surpasses the Gateway on our multitasking test. It also does much better against the $1,500 Maingear Prelude than it did against the Gateway. Overall we find these scores are a testament to the iMac's relative prowess as a desktop for editing and manipulating digital media.

Depending on your needs, the iMac might start to lose a bit of sheen when you compare its features. Of all the systems in our comparison, the iMac has the smallest capacity hard drive, and the least amount of RAM. Given that we've seen $700 desktops with 500GB hard drives, the 250GB model in the iMac feels especially skimpy. Apple offers 320GB and 500GB options as upgrades, for market prices, but we'd like to see 500GB come standard--in keeping with the competition.

The iMac's memory is a more specialized concern. Having only 1GB of RAM doesn't hurt the iMac's performance relative to competing Windows PCs, so, in practical terms, it's not an issue. But you might feel a slowdown if you were to install Windows Vista onto a second hard drive partition. We won't ding Apple for only including 1GB of RAM here, but we do take issue with the cost to upgrade. Apple charges $100 to go from 1GB of 800MHz DDR2 RAM to 2GB. Dell and HP each charge half that.

On the other hand, the iMac also offers integrated Bluetooth, fast, wide-bandwidth 802.11n wireless networking and FireWire 800 support--features which no other system can match at this price. Many people also find OS X itself a major advantage for Macs in general. You may already have a Mac or Windows allegiance, but between iTunes, Front Row, Spaces, Time Machine, and the bundled iLife suite, Apple's systems have a strong list of applications and tools that can make your computing life easier. Windows Vista is a powerful operating system in its own right, but OS X does a much better job of exposing the tools it comes with due to its well-organized icons, short cuts, and plain-language notification text.

Finally, the iMac does come with a wired mouse and keyboard. We like the look and feel of the trim, minimalist keyboard, and we hate the mouse for its imprecise scrolling nub and stubborn single-button design. If you'd like to preserve the clutter-free iMac design, Apple will sell you a wireless mouse for $20 and a wireless keyboard for $30, both of which are fair prices.

Apple's support remains the least exciting aspect of its products. The one-year, parts-and-labor warranty is on par with the rest of the industry, but, as always, the paltry 90-day phone support feels like an insult each time we read it. You can always pay for extra, but you shouldn't have to. Online, the Apple Community Forum is likely your best bet for problem solving, as the passionate fan base is also a wealth of useful information. You can find various manuals, FAQs, and other product information on Apple's Web site, too.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Apple iMac
Apple OS X; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 1GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics chip; 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive.

Averatec All-in-One
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4600; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS graphics chip; 320GB, 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive.

Gateway FX4710
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300; 4GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GT graphics card; 640GB 7,200rpm hard drive.

HP TouchSmart IQ506
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5850; 4GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS integrated graphics chip; 500GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive.

Maingear Prelude
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1; 2.5GHz AMD Phenom X4 9850; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; (2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards; 500GB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive.


Apple iMac 5th Generation

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 8Performance 8Support 5