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

Apple iMac (spring 2011)

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
8 min read

Editors' note (October 23, 2012): The 2011 iMac reviewed here has been replaced by an updated 2012 model that offers an all-new superthin design and improved hardware specs (Ivy Bridge CPU, Thunderbolt port, USB 3.0).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

The Good

As the most-affordable iMac, the <b>Apple iMac 21.5-inch</b> 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.

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)
Apple iMac 21.5-inch (2.5GHz Core i5 2400, Spring 2011)

You get a clear picture of the 21.5-inch iMac's performance superiority from our benchmarks tests. The iMac is faster than Dell's $1,149 Inspiron One 2035 on all of our benchmarks. It's also faster than last year's $1,149 iMac. The $949 HP Omni 200 gives the iMac some difficulty on our Photoshop CS 5 test, which we suspect is due to the fact that the HP has twice the graphics memory of the iMac. The two are also close on the multithreaded CineBench test, likely due to the HP's higher CPU clock speed, despite being a Core i5 CPU from Intel's previous chip generation.

Two other performance notes we should point out: First, as evidenced by its Call of Duty 4 performance, the new iMac is a far more capable gaming system than the previous entry-level iMac. Second, the Gateway FX6850-51u, a traditional desktop available for $999, illustrates that if you don't care about looks, you can still generally get better performance for your dollar from a standard midtower computer.

If the HP is competitive in performance with the iMac on certain tests, it does not offer the same design as the iMac, nor does it have an input comparable with the iMac's Thunderbolt port. Those may be small considerations for some, and in keeping with the HP's $250 cost savings. They may also argue for an apparent performance boost if Apple were to add a graphics chip option to the iMac that allowed for 1GB of video RAM. Overall, and particularly for the performance-inclined who will take advantage of the iMac's Thunderbolt port, Apple's most affordable all-in-one provides strong performance for its price category.

The iMac's other new features are relatively straightforward. The built-in Web cam now supports Apple's FaceTime video chat software, and will let iMac users chat with iOS-device owning friends. Its other ports remain the same as on previous models. You get four USB 2.0 inputs, a FireWire 800 port, two audio ports, and an Ethernet input. The Thunderbolt port can act as a Mini DisplayPort input and output, although you can't currently use the new iMac as a second monitor, at least not with a Mini DisplayPort cable. Whether you can use it as such with a Thunderbolt cable when they become available remains to be seen.

Juice box
Apple iMac 21.5-inch (2.5GHz Intel Core i5 2400, Spring 2011)  
Off (watts) 0.36
Sleep (watts) 1.19
Idle (watts) 33.85
Load (watts) 95.89
Raw (annual kWh) 148.03962
EnergyStar compliant Yes
Annual operating cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $16.80

Annual power consumption cost
Apple iMac 21.5-inch (2.5GHz Core i5 2400, Spring 2011)
Gateway FX6850-51u (3.4GHz Core i7 2600, Spring 2011)
Apple iMac 21.5-inch (3.0GHz Core i3 540, Spring 2010)
HP Omni 200 5380qd (2.8GHz Core i5 760, Spring 2011)
Dell Inspiron One 2305 (2.4GHz Phenom II X4 610e, Winter 2010)

Apple used to dominate our power efficiency charts, but Intel's own efforts to reduce its CPU's energy consumption have enabled others to stand out on our power draw tests. The AMD-powered Dell is the only outlier, and the difference is remarkable, and a little depressing for AMD considering the Dell's similarly poor performance on our benchmark tests.

Apple's phone support receives high customer satisfaction ratings, but, as always, we wish it were available to customers beyond the first 90 days of purchase without having to pay $169 for an AppleCare coverage plan. Apple's network of in-person help via its Genius Bar and its authorized service providers remains unique as well, but for desktop customers in particular, extended phone-based help would be far more convenient.

The 21.5-inch, $1,199 iMac does not offer the same clear advantage over its Windows-based competition as Apple's 27-inch model. Still, the entry-level iMac offers enough speed, and the unique potential of its Thunderbolt port, to warrant anyone in need of a relatively affordable all-in-one for digital media creation or performance-sensitivity giving it serious consideration.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
Apple iMac 21.5-inch (2.5GHz, Summer 2011)
Apple OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.7; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 2400; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750 graphics card; 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive

Apple iMac 27-inch (3.1GHz, Summer 2011)
Apple OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.7; 3.1GHz Intel Core i5 2500; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB ATI Radeon HD 6970M graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Apple iMac 21.5-inch (3.1GHz, Spring 2010)
Apple OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.7; 3.0GHz Intel Core i5 540; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB AMD Radeon HD 4670M graphics card; 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive

Dell Inspiron One 2305
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz AMD Phenom II X4 610e; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB ATI Radeon HD 5470 graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive

HP Omni 200 5380qd
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i5 760; 6GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 5570; 1TB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive

Gateway FX6850-51u
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 2600; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1.5GB Nvidia GeForce GT440 graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive


Apple iMac (spring 2011)

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 7Performance 7Support 5