Apple iMac i5 2011 review

4.5 out of 5
£1399

For

Design, powerful internal options, display, build quality

Against

No Blu-ray option, Thunderbolt currently lacks devices,

The new Apple iMac (May 2011) starts off in a strong position. It builds on an already powerful all-in-one, in an already gorgeous design, so doesn’t hold too many surprises in store. The changes are internal, aside from the addition of the Thunderbolt ports on the rear. But is there something missing from the new iMac? 

Classic design

Try as you might, it’s difficult not to like the design of the iMac. It’s the same design as we’ve seen for the last couple of years, but that doesn’t make it dated. When it comes to computer design, we still think that Apple leads the way. Sure, all other PC manufacturers are trying to tap into this chic design, but when it comes to all-in-ones, Apple is streets ahead of the competition.

The 27-inch Intel Core i5 model we have on review here, the entry spec for this size of iMac, measures 51.74 x 64.97 x 20.72cm. It’s big as dicatate by that huge 27-inch display. The display is lovingly set in the aluminium unibody, so it is free from unsightly joints or panels. It is one seamless structure that looks great and feels solid.

Around the back the only details are the ubiquitous Apple logo, the minimalist stand and the connections. There is a lock slot in case you are worried about someone snaffling your iMac away, but this and the power connection, are placed behind the stand so as to remain out of sight. The result is a computer that looks good from all sides, so you don’t feel the need to place it against a wall to hide the messy reverse.

Cables be gone!

Of course, Apple would like you to never connect any cables. The placement of the ports across the back leave the front face free of clutter. Perhaps you are one of these people who lives in a home totally clear from adornments. If you’re forever adding and removing accessories (as reviewers are wont to do) then you might find that having all the connections out of sight is something of a pain. 

Apple provide you with a Gigabit Ethernet connection, two Thunderbolt ports (which incorporates DisplayPort), four USB 2.0, FireWire 800 and 3.5mm audio ports (optical and analogue). This is complimented with Wi-Fi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1. Around the edge of the iMac you’ll find an SD card slot and a slot-loading DVD writer.

Of course, we’re impressed with the performance of Thunderbolt from what we’ve seen in demos but at the moment we don’t have a Thunderbolt device to test it with. The four USB 2.0 connections are welcomed for accessories, but there may well be those who find themselves wanting to use USB 3.0 devices with the iMac. Apple like to lead the way with connectivity (Apple always talked up DisplayPort over other display connections too) but if others don’t follow we’ll always arrive at that point where many people will be searching for adapters to use the widest array of devices.

As we’ve mentioned HDMI, we also can’t help feeling that HDMI would have been a nice addition to allow an HDMI input for example. Sure, you might not want to turn your iMac into a glorified display, but being able to hook up other inputs would increase the universal nature of the iMac. It could then replace your TV, making it the perfect dorm room centrepiece. As it is, you can connect additional displays to your iMac using the Thunderbolt port. 

Whilst we are complaining about eschewing the mainstream, we feel compelled to raise the issue of the reluctance to embrace Blu-ray. This is a very capable computer system costing £1399. Rivals at this price - and much less - will offer you a Blu-ray drive and with a stunning better-than-Full HD display, it’s begging to be let lose on your existing HD optical discs. Blu-ray isn’t exactly niche any more.

Power house

Aside from those niggles, which are mostly fuelled by our lust for an all-in-one entertainment device as much as anything else, the real changes that 2011 has brought to the iMac is a new generation of Sandy Bridge Intel processors, Core i5 across the range with Core i7 options as a step-up for those who want to take it further. 

Our review model was equipped with the Intel Core i5 2.7GHz quad-core processor, with 4GB RAM and 1TB HDD. That’s an impressive loadout (the same as the step-up 21.5-inch iMac) and can be boosted with an option for a 3.1GHz i5 or 3.5GHz i7 and up to 16GB RAM. There is also a 256GB SSD option and you can load in two drives, so you could have both HDD and SSD.

On the graphics front, Apple have turned to AMD, with our review model shipping with the AMD Radeon 6770M card with 512MB GDDR5 memory. Again, there is a step-up graphics option to the 6970M with 2GB GDDR5. If you ramp up the options you’re not only looking at just shy of £3000, but also performance that you previously could only get from the Mac Pro.

The proof of the pudding

But even at the basic level, the iMac packs in impressive performance. The power on offer means that everyday multitasking won’t cause a hiccup. Given the 27-inches of display on offer, multitasking is what you are going to be doing on the iMac. We’re regularly putting webpages alongside documents and that’s what the screen space affords you - a full webpage and a full A4/Letter page to be typing on. That's easy on the processor, but playing Full HD videos, whilst simultaneously capturing HD video, asks more of the iMac, but it doesn't falter.

The screen resolution of 2560 x 1440 (with a 16:9 aspect) means that you can easily play a typical Full HD video clip in a window whilst working on something else. The high resolution is also essential for resolving fine detail at close range given the size of the screen. As such it can still offer you sharp text where a 1080p display would look fuzzy on your desk. As an IPS display it offers up great viewing angles and the stand makes for easy angle adjustment to suit your desk. 

Working with images is an absolute joy thanks to the space available and the power on offer, meaning that working on larger collections of images doesn’t involve the slowdown you’ll often find on lesser machines. The colours from the screen are bright and punchy and there is plenty of brightness on offer to counter the effects of lights, although reflections can be something of a problem. The screen will adjust to the light conditions in your room, although if you are working with images, you might find you want to turn that option off.

The grunt on offers means that the iMac doesn’t struggle with your HD video and in a world where we’re capturing HD video on phones and cameras, it means that everyone wins, from those who just want to quickly play back their high bitrate camcorder footage, to those that need to edit those video. Even at the basic level, Apple tell us that there has been a 3x improvement in graphics performance, meaning the latest generation of iMacs is better than ever. It’s a pleasure to use as some of these irritating pauses on application launching are gone and the iMac sets itself up ready to exploit the growing number of gamers on OS X. 

The iMac runs near silently, although disc spinning when you load in a data disc or DVD can be a little noisy. As a result we found that the top of the iMac became noticeably warm. You’ll be cuddling up to it on frosty mornings, but even when not performing power hungry tasks it is warm to the touch.

Completing the picture

Built into the bezel of the display is the HD camera, which Apple call the FaceTime HD camera. This is wideangle, offering you 16:9 footage (at 1280 x 720), so you can record yourself or talk to friends and get a wider aspect. FaceTime is ok within the Apple world as it is now available across iPhone, iPad and Macs, but it’s more likely you’ll use something like Skype to call your buddies with PCs globally. In our quick screen recording tests the result were good, and ably supported by the mic for the audio track.

The stereo speakers in the iMac are set into the underside of the display, so they fire downwards. They are reasonable enough in performance, but if you are planning to use your iMac regularly for music then you’ll want something that offers a little more bass to give your music a more rounded and authentic result.

Accompanying your Mac you’ll find the bundled wireless keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is well built, but follows the minimalist ethos so is pretty small overall. The typing action is positive however and Apple have retained a level on consistency across their keyboards, so if you switch across from a MacBook Pro, you’ll find the key spacing, placing and sizing is the same.

The Magic Mouse we’re not too sold on. The touch elements work well enough, but we can’t help thinking that the trackpad gives you a much wider range of options and you can opt to swap them around at the point of purchase.

Verdict

The May 2011 iMac update is very much a refresh of the hardware specs, but it builds on an all-in-one computer that is already very competent. Should you rush out and upgrade your existing model? Probably not. This isn’t a revolutionary upgrade except for those who find that they need more power. 

The addition of Thunderbolt is yet to be exploited. We know there are a number of devices coming, but at this time compatibility may be an issue. USB and FireWire will keep the iMac happy with your existing devices, but like the lack of Blu-ray, there are some things the iMac won’t do. We appreciate Apple’s drive to consumerise new technologies, but set in contrast with the reluctance to adopt Blu-ray or HDMI (in general) does annoy.

The tried and tested design is still to be bettered and the performance upgrades mean the investing in an iMac will see you good to handle your computing needs without fearing a lack of power. The pricing remains the same as last year too, which is a good thing, as the iMac seems more affordable, especially the sub-£1000 21.5-inch model. 

Overall the iMac hangs on to its lead position as a powerful and highly desirable all-in-one.