Thunderbolt iMac: The perfect compromise

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Thunderbolt iMac: The human factor Desktop manufacturers tend to give short shrift to the human interface essentials: the display, keyboard, and pointing device. PC makers' catalogs are stuffed with upscale peripherals, highlighting the fact that what they bundle with their systems is almost uniformly junk. When comparison shopping, you have to disregard a PC's lowball total system price. Consider instead the true cost of the whole system after you swap out the bits that you see and touch for devices that you actually want to use.

That caveat doesn't apply to iMac. The LED-backlit displays are bright and sharp with accurate color rendition and good dynamic range. The screen on the 27-inch iMac is dreamy, and the plentiful extra pixels give you room to spread out without resorting to a second monitor. The iMac's glossy glass face lets all the light through instead of scattering it the way matte surfaces do, raising the apparent sharpness and deepening blacks.

The iMac's chassis is strictly desktop -- there are no holes for a VESA wall or articulating arm mount. The chassis is balanced on an elegant, one-piece aluminum easel that lets you tilt or rotate the display with one hand. Instead of using sticky rubber feet, the easel has a skid pad that lets you move the iMac easily, but not too easily, around your desk. There is no height adjustment, but the tilt angle range is broad enough to give you a straight-line view from anywhere. And for those times when you need to move the iMac to another room, say, to give a presentation, it's readily luggable, and its one-wire design makes relocation a snap.

If you do need another display (or two, if you have a 27-inch iMac), you can plug a mini DisplayPort to DVI or HDMI adapter into the Thunderbolt port. For resolutions beyond 1080p, make sure you buy a dual-link DVI adapter. When you're planning your iMac system, you can think of the built-in display as your primary or secondary monitor. Your monitor preference kicks in after OS X finishes booting.

When you go online to buy your iMac, you're offered a couple of simple but important choices. The standard keyboard and pointing device are Bluetooth-based and first-rate. The keyboard is a compact layout (the keys are full size) that's familiar to Apple notebook users. If you prefer a full keyboard with a numeric keypad and function keys up to F19, it won't cost you any money, but it will connect via USB. You can't lose either way; Apple's keyboards have the sweetest feel. If you're a keyboard connoisseur, go ahead and sample aftermarket alternatives. You'll come back to Apple.

As with the keyboard, Apple lets you choose between two pointing devices. Here, I implore you to set aside any presumed preference for a mouse, which is what you get by default, in favor of Apple's Magic Trackpad. The touch-sensitive top of the Magic Mouse provides only a small subset of OS X's multitouch experience. While you can get around just fine in Snow Leopard with a mouse, Lion is all about touch.

Once you drop your prejudice and make the switch, you'll discover that Magic Trackpad is brilliantly engineered. It's much larger than a notebook trackpad, yet takes up less desk space than a mousepad. Your fingertips glide across the smooth glass surface, making multitouch gestures -- and noiseless left and right clicks without buttons -- feel natural. Once you try it, you'll be hooked. Magic Trackpad is the only way to drive any Mac.

I'm not much of a Webcam user, but those who are will find FaceTime HD to be a substantial step up from the VGA-format camera in prior iMacs. The wide aspect lets multiple users participate in the video call or podcast without squishing their heads together. For those videos you can shoot in front of your iMac, there's no need for a tripod and a camcorder. A sensitive microphone is built into the chassis, or you can use the mic on either an iPhone-compatible wired headset or a Bluetooth headset.

The iMac's built-in, bottom-firing speakers are marvelous. Once again, very few iMac buyers will find it necessary to spend money on external speakers. If you want to plug the iMac into an amplifier or other sound system, you can feed the system's optical digital output straight into any component that accepts Toslink input. You can also plug an HDMI adapter into the Thunderbolt port for combined video and audio.

As for aftermarket expansion, only the RAM sockets are user-accessible. The 21.5-inch model has two sockets for 1,333MHz DDR3 SO-DIMM modules, while the 27-inch iMac has four. Beyond that, it's best to consider the iMac's chassis sealed. Make sure you configure iMac with the SATA hard disk and SSD options you prefer at purchase time. To add storage you'll have to resort to USB or NAS, or wait a few months for Thunderbolt peripherals to appear. When Thunderbolt does show, if it lives up to specs, external storage will perform as well as, if not better than, internal drives.

For the majority of desktop users, iMac renders the black-box PC obsolete. Prior objections to iMac on performance grounds have been answered by Apple's engineers, who have created a machine that's not only convenient and loaded with extras, but easily rivals the performance of any single-processor, component-based desktop system you could build with a similar budget. Apple's re-engineered iMac could become a desktop staple among professionals and consumers alike.

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This story, "Thunderbolt iMac: The perfect compromise" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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