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Apple iMac (Winter 2009) review: Apple iMac (Winter 2009)

Apple iMac (Winter 2009)

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

Editors' Note: As of October 20, 2009, the iMac reviewed here has been replaced by 21.5-inch iMac models.


Apple iMac (Winter 2009)

The Good

Best-in-class design; competitive performance in its price range, especially for multitasking; capable mainstream gaming performance.

The Bad

Windows all-in-one vendors offer 20-inch or larger all-in-ones for less; not as well-suited as a dedicated digital entertainment system as some other all-in-ones.

The Bottom Line

A few other all-in-ones make this 20-inch iMac look expensive on a dollars-per-screen-inch basis, but none are as attractive or as capable juggling multiple programs. With a fast dual-core CPU and a strong array of features, Apple's updated all-in-one will slide seamlessly into a variety of roles at home or at work.

One of the things we appreciate the most about Apple's new 20-inch iMac is that it has almost the same core components as the more expensive 24-inch model. Sure the screen is smaller, and the $1,199 default configuration reviewed here has a smaller hard drive and less memory than its linemate. You can also find more affordable 20-inch all-in-ones that offer similar sets of basic features. But thanks to its 2.66GHz dual-core CPU and its lean OS X operating system, the 20-inch iMac is perhaps the best deal going for day-to-day multitasking. If you want an all-in-one PC and, like many people, you spend most of your computing time swapping between programs, the 20-inch iMac is a very strong option at this price.

We won't belabor the design of the new iMac too much, as almost nothing has changed since previous models. It's still one of the prettiest computers on the market. Major additions to the outside include a fourth USB 2.0 port and a mini DisplayPort video jack in place of the old mini DVI output. Mini DisplayPort works natively with Apple's new LED Cinema Display monitors. You can also purchase various adapters from Apple to connect the iMac to standard VGA, DVI, and dual-link DVI-equipped monitors. Because the iMac's all-in-one design doesn't lend it to your living room, we don't miss HDMI as much here as we did on the new Mac Minis.

Apple is no longer alone in the all-in-one PC category, and Dell, HP, and Sony all sell all-in-one computers with 20-inch or larger screens for less than the default 20-inch iMac. HP's TouchSmart IQ500T might be the best all-around deal at $1,149 for a 22-inch touch-screen PC, and Dell's 20-inch XPS One starts at a remarkable $749. We find Sony's 20-inch Vaio JS Series offers the best combination of form and function among Windows systems at this price.

We reviewed a souped-up $1,499 JS190J most recently in July 2008. Newer JS 200-series systems are available now for as low as $999. To compare the 20-inch iMac's default features with those of its primary competition, we've opted for the $1,299 Sony Vaio JS290J. They each have a 20-inch screen and 802.11n wireless networking, but the Sony also has a larger hard drive, and a Blu-ray player. Those advantages give the Sony an edge over the iMac as a dedicated digital media player for a den, a dorm, or the kitchen. Performance is a different story.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iMac (20-inch, 2.66GHz)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iMac (20-inch, 2.66GHz)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iMac (20-inch, 2.66GHz)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering single CPU  
Dell XPS 430-121B
Gateway LX6810-01
Sony Vaio JS190J
Apple iMac (20-inch, 2.66GHz)

We should be clear that we did not review the Sony listed in the features chart above, and the Sony in our performance chart refers to a model we did review, but that's no longer available. The Vaio JS190J was also more expensive than the newer version, at $1,499, and came with a faster CPU. We would expect the slower, $1,299 Sony in our features list would lose a step across the board on performance, and Apple could very well close the gap with that model on our Cinebench charts.

Overall, though, the test results are better for the iMac than on our other recent reviews of Apple's new desktops. The $900 Dell and $779 Gateway PCs in our charts are less expensive than the iMac, but throw in stand-alone 20-inch displays and the price disparity gets smaller. And while both the Dell and the Gateway have quad-core CPUs, that only benefits them on our Photoshop and multicore Cinebench tests. The 20-inch iMac is very competitive on our iTunes tests, and it also has an amazing advantage on our multitasking benchmark. We would recommend this iMac to anyone who wants an all-in-one for general productivity and light-duty digital media manipulation at home or at work.

As with the 24-inch iMac, we also found the 20-inch model a very capable 3D gaming system. Quake 4 has no 1,680x1,024 resolution setting to match the 20-inch model's native resolution, but at 1,280x1,024 with all the detail settings turned up and 4x antialiasing, the game looked great and was extremely smooth. If you were to dual-boot this system and load more demanding Windows games like Crysis or Far Cry 2 on the Windows partition, it might give you trouble, but our gaming experience was a significant improvement compared with that of the older iMacs. We suspect the iMac will let you play the majority of both Mac and PC gaming titles with relative smooth frame rates and at least acceptable image quality.

Apple's new iMacs come with a number pad-free keyboard by default.

There's not too much else to say about the new iMac. We've mentioned that it has 802.11n wireless networking built-in, and Apple also includes a Bluetooth receiver for remote device syncing and a Webcam built into the top edge. The new default Apple keyboard with the iMac is a smaller version than the old model, with no number pad. The pad-inclusive version is still available as a no-cost option on Apple's configurator. Other options include 4GB of RAM for $100 and 8GB for a mind-boggling $1,100, and hard-drive upgrades up to 1TB for a reasonable $175. The useful iLife '09 application suite also comes in the box. Few other desktop vendors can claim to offer a similarly useful set of digital media software for free in their new PCs.

Apple's 20-inch iMac also has the distinction of consuming the least amount of power of the six all-in-one PC's we've tested so far. This system used the fewest watts in each of its four operating states, beating even Dell's 18.5-inch Studio One 19. Considering that Dell beat the 20-inch iMac on only one of our benchmarks, Apple's efficiency claims for its computers seem to hold up.

Juice box
Apple iMac 20-inch  
Off (watts) 0.6
Sleep (watts) 1.08
Idle (watts) 23.2
Load (watts) 83
Raw (annual kWh) 110.849
EnergyStar compliant Yes
Annual energy cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $12.78

Annual energy cost (dollars)

Apple's service and support policies remain one of our disappointments every time we review one of its systems. You only get 90 days on phone support, which for many advanced users might not be the end of the world, but we find it a significant minus for the everyday shopper Apple courts so aggressively. Otherwise, you get the typical one-year parts-and-labor warranty and the comprehensive support resources on Apple's Web site and user forums.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Apple iMac (20-inch, 2.66GHz)
Apple OS X 10.5.6; 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 9400m integrated graphics chip; 320GB 7,200 rpm hard drive

Apple iMac (24-inch, 2.66GHz)
Apple OS X 10.5.6; 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 9400m integrated graphics chip; 640GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive

Dell XPS 430-121B
64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad CPU Q8300 ; 6GB DDR3 1066MHz; 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 Graphics card; 750GB, 7,200 rpm hard drive.

Gateway LX6810-01
64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad CPU Q8200; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 3650 graphics card; 640GB, 7,200RPM hard drive.

Sony Vaio JS190J
64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium SP1; 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8400; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Intel GMA X4500HD integrated graphics chip; 500GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive


Apple iMac (Winter 2009)

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 7Performance 8Support 5