The 24-inch iMac, talk about a wow factor

A few days ago, Apple Computer sent along one of its new iMacs for review purposes, offering up the 24-in. version just just released this month. (That's the top-of-the-line iMac powered, in this case, by an upgraded 2.33-Ghz Core 2 Duo processor, including the Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT video card with 256MB of video RAM, and stuffed with 2GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.)

The basic 24-incher offers a 2.16-GHz Core 2 Duo chip, an Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT card with 128MB of video RAM, 1GB of RAM, a variety of peripheral ports -- including a FireWire 800 port -- the standard built-in iSight webcam and a 250GB hard drive. Price: US$1,999. The one looming over everything else on my desk is a build-to-order model designed to show off Apple's hardware and software at its best. With extra RAM, more graphics power, a bigger hard drive and a slightly faster processor, it sells for an upgraded price: US$2,749.

But you can forget all about the inner workings when it comes to pulling this particular all-in-one desktop computer out of the box. The only thing you're going to notice right away will be the screen. As it tugged it out of the box, two or three other online editors popped up to oooh and aaah, and one of Computerworld's graphics gurus -- who has a year-old G5-based iMac -- admitted flat out that he was "drooling."

And he wasn't talking about the fast Core 2 Duo processor.

I haven't seen Mac hardware get this much attention since I pulled out a Mac mini when they were first introduced in early 2005.

Apparently, when it comes to Apple hardware, size matters -- whether it's really small or really big. And if you haven't seen the 24-in. iMac, I can tell you, it's really big. And with a screen resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, it's perfect for working with graphics and video in a way that makes smaller computers seem downright puny. (And I'm including my own personal favorite, the 17-in. MacBook Pro, in that latter camp.)

In fact, not five minutes after I pulled it from the box, we were already showing off a co-worker's vacation pictures from Iceland in a slide show that drew even more attention than the initial iMac unveiling.

In other words, if you do go out and buy an iMac, for productivity's sake, don't open it up at work.

In case you missed the Sept. 6 announcement, Apple updated its entire iMac lineup, pushing the envelope at both the top and bottom end of the price universe. At the bottom end is a 17-in. version that just slips under the magic US$1,000 price point by a dollar. And while it's a fully capable entry-level machine, buyers will be hard-pressed not to opt for spending another US$200 on a version that offers a faster processor, twice the RAM, more shared Level 2 cache, a SuperDrive and dedicated video RAM. In other words, if you're seriously eyeing the US$999 model, figure out a way to scrape up the extra US$200 for the next model up. It's worth it.

Apple also updated the former top-of-the-line 20-in. iMac, and dropped the price on it to US$1,499. If you don't need 24 inches of screen real estate, this is the best buy in my book.

But if you do need the big screen, or even if you don't but can't resist getting it anyway, the 24-in. version is absolutely sure to please. It may not have quite the horsepower of the Mac Pro desktop machines, but it's got more than enough for about 90 percent of users.

"The whole line is faster and more affordable," said Laura Metz, product manager for desktops at Apple. "The Core 2 Duo processor is up to 2.33 GHz [and offers] up to 50 percent faster performance than what was previously available with the Core Duo processor in the earlier iMacs. We want to put more and more performance in a desktop computer."

According to Metz, the new processor -- which is not only faster in raw processing power but uses a different architecture and 4MB of Level 2 cache for another speed boost -- turns in real-world performance that is between 30 percent and 50 percent faster than the previous generation of iMacs. "Whether it's from the moment you turn on the computer to searching the Web or doing more intensive tasks on things like Final Cut Pro, it's our nature to want things to be faster," she said.

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