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iMac (mid 2010) Core i3 review

iMac (mid 2010) Core i3 review
Nilay Patel
Nilay Patel|August 2, 2010 5:30 PM
There's nothing outwardly different about the new iMacs Apple just released last Tuesday, but the hardware underneath that familiar aluminum chassis has gotten faster -- particularly on the low end, where a new 3.06GHz Intel Core i3 processor and discrete ATI Radeon HD 4670 graphics chip have taken over for the previous gen's 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo and integrated NVIDIA GeForce 9400m. That's a big boost -- Apple claims the new version is some 50 percent faster -- and so we actually turned down the hot-rod 27-inch 2.93GHz Core i7 iMac in favor of a stock $1,199 21.5-inch Core i3 when it came time to pick up a review unit. We wanted to see just how much bang Apple's delivering for the entry-level buck, and we weren't disappointed when the tests came back. Read on for the full review!


Externally, the new iMac is exactly the same as the previous generation -- a more squared-off riff on the aluminum and glass iMac design Apple's been using since 2007. The 16:9 21.5-inch IPS display continues to impress with frankly stunning viewing angles and excellent color reproduction, although there's just no getting around the glare from the hyper-glossy screen -- and, as usual, Apple deflected our questions about any possibility of a matte option. We can't help but find that confusing: we're sure most people will be happy with the glossy display, but there's no harm in offering the option to people -- Apple does it on the MacBook Pro, after all.

Around back you'll find a fairly average selection of ports: audio in and out, four USB, FireWire 800, mini DisplayPort, and Ethernet, along with a Kensington security slot and the power jack behind the integrated stand. Having all the USB ports on the back makes swapping things like USB flash drives and camera cables in and out a little more awkward then necessary -- we wish Apple would put at least one port on the side, especially since the wireless keyboard has replaced the wired keyboard and its easily-accessible extra USB ports in the standard config. Oh, and unlike the larger 27-inch iMac, the mini DisplayPort on the 21.5-inch model doesn't double as a video input, so you can't use the display for console gaming or anything like that.

Yeah, oops.

Speaking of the side, the right side holds the slot-loading 8x DVD burner -- no Blu-ray here -- and an SDXC card slot. The SD slot is obviously welcome, but putting it directly under the DVD slot of the exact same width is a recipe for disaster -- we've accidentally stuck an SD card into the DVD drive of our daily driver Core i7 iMac more times than we can count. Apple really needs to move the SD slot farther away from the DVD slot -- fishing around in your shiny new iMac's optical drive for a lost SD card with a butter knife is not a recommended leisure activity.

As far a peripherals, Apple packs in its tiny wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse standard -- you can switch up to the wired keyboard with numeric keyboard and / or the wired mouse for free, but you'll have to pay an extra $69 for the Magic Trackpad and another $29 to score Apple's new battery charger and to have all the peripherals pre-loaded with rechargeables. Note that you can't replace the Magic Mouse with the Magic Trackpad -- Apple says that while some users will set the mouse aside entirely, it expects most people to use both input devices on the desktop. We've reviewed the Magic Trackpad separately, so we won't linger on it too long -- all we'll say here is that we wish we could swap the Magic Mouse for the Trackpad entirely at no cost, since we generally use a third-party mouse anyway.

Of course, the biggest news is inside the case, where the new 3.06GHz Intel Core i3 sits on a 1,333MHz DMI bus with 4GB of RAM and a new discrete ATI Radeon HD 4670 graphics chip with its own dedicated 256MB of RAM takes over from the integrated NVIDIA GeForce 9400m in the outgoing model. Apple promises the new chip is a huge upgrade from the old 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo -- up to 50 percent in some situations. So... is it? Let's look at the numbers.


We've always known that Intel's Core 2010 processors provide excellent bang for the buck, and the dual-core Clarkdale Core i3-540 in the new iMac is no exception. We clocked a Geekbench score of 5789, which is far higher than the 3385 put up by the new Mac mini's 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, and actually pretty respectable compared to the 8217 posted by the 2.80GHz quad-core Core i7 in our previous-gen 27-inch iMac. In fact, the i3 iMac outguns a 2.66GHz dual-core Core i7 MacBook Pro's 5101, and holds up rather respectably to the previous Core i5 iMac's score of 6513.

Of course, those numbers don't mean anything without some real-world results, and the Core i3 iMac more than held its own doing everyday tasks -- we obviously had no trouble doing some writing while browsing, IMing, and playing some music. Playing back a 1080p video on the 21.5-inch display was quick and painless, and we were able to encode a 30-second 720p H.264 video in around 25 seconds, which is more than solid.

The combination of the Core i3 and discrete ATI Radeon HD 4670 also made the iMac a reasonably credible gaming system -- we averaged between 30-60fps at full 1920 x 1080 resolution and average detail settings in Half Life 2: Episode 2, and 60-70fps at the same settings in Portal. That's not bad at all -- as usual, we don't think hardcore gamers are going to flock to the Mac at these numbers, but you're not going to be unhappy if you're just looking to have some fun. (Playing any of these games with the Magic Mouse will make you tear your hair out and light your skull on fire, however, but that's a different story.)

All in all, the Core i3 and Radeon HD 4670 more than lived up to their billing here -- they provide a noticeable performance boost over the familiar Core 2 Duo / 9400m setup that was Apple's standard kit for so long, and we doubt the average iMac buyer will run up against any performance limitations. In fact, if you're considering a Core i7 MacBook Pro and you can live without portability, an iMac might even be the better bet.

The iMac line has long been a pinnacle of refined and elegant desktop computing, and nothing about that has changed with the new models. What has changed is that the low-end model now offers great performance at an extremely competitive price: the not-yet-shipping HP 200xt runs around $1,100 similarly configured, the Lenovo A700 offers a slightly bigger 23-inch screen with touch support but a slower 2.26GHz i3 and far worse integrated graphics for around $1,100 once you add in the wireless peripherals, and the Sony VAIO J clocks in at $1,100 with a touchscreen and the same slower processor and integrated graphics as the Lenny but adds a Blu-ray drive to the mix. We'd call that a wash, especially since none of this takes operating system preference into account -- an extra Benjamin to run OS X on a machine as well-designed and executed as the iMac isn't the worst tax Apple's ever demanded of its users, and the insane quality of the display and packed-in peripherals (if you can stand the Magic Mouse) certainly eases the sting. We just wish the screen wasn't quite so glossy, and the SD slot not quite so accident-prone, but apart from these minor quibbles the entry-level iMac is an impressive update to an already-winning formula.