Apple's new 21.5-in. iMac packs a punch for the price

Even the entry-level model of Apple's updated desktop is well outfitted

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Last month, Apple updated its iMac all-in-one desktop computers, revamping the internal architecture and refining the look of what was an already stylish design. Externally, the biggest change for the iMacs lay in the move to larger 21.5-in. and 27-in. LED-backlit screens and a 16-by-9 aspect ratio. (The earlier 20-in. and 24-in. models had a slightly squarer 16-by-10 ratio.)

While early attention focused on the 27-in. model -- rightfully so, according to Computerworld's Ken Mingis, who found the bigger iMac "stunning" -- the base 21.5-in. model is attractive in its own right. The entry-level model comes with a powerful 3.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and the same Nividia 9400M video card that shows up in many of Apple's laptops and the Mac mini. Recession-crimped holiday shoppers will want to note that it starts at $1,199 -- $500 less than its big brother.

First impressions

First impressions are often lasting impressions, and my first impression of this iMac was: "Wow, what a screen!" While obviously not as massive as the 27-in. version, Apple's least-expensive iMac packs a bright high-resolution screen fully capable of displaying full 1080p HD video (1920 x 1080 pixels, virtually the same as the 24-in. iMac I reviewed in March). That's a 17% improvement over the 20-in. model it replaces and means the pixels are more densely packed, providing an exceeding sharp image. Another improvement: the new LED display features in-plane switching (IPS), which ensures uniform brightness across the screen and consistent color reproduction, no matter the viewing angle.

The new iMac is wider and less tall than previous models, and Apple trimmed its "chin," putting the focus on the gorgeous screen and what's on display. The screen is encased in glass, which itself is housed in a streamlined, aluminum body that now carries over to the back of the unit. (The black plastic that was used on the back of earlier iMacs is gone.)

Not surprisingly, the new iMacs are made using the unibody process Apple introduced last year on its portable lineup -- to great effect. The new look is the most basic and fundamental iMac design in years: you won't find flashing lights or unnecessary stickers or hardware buttons here. The lines on the iMac feel fluid and organic, and the overall look is simple and elegant; the fit and finish oozes quality.

Two 21.5-in. models

The basic model and a pricier $1,499 are twins, except for a few internal tweaks. They use the same processor, the same Superdrive optical disk burner/reader, and the same display. The iMac now supports up to 16GB of 1066MHz DDR3 memory; both 21.5-in.models come standard with 4GB, more than enough to run Mac OS X Snow Leopard without any problem. (You can order extra RAM from Apple, but you're better off getting it from a third-party firm. It's cheaper that way, and easy to install.)

Apple's 21.5-inch iMac screen
Apple's least-expensive iMac (left) packs a bright, high-resolution 21.5-in. screen that can display full 1080p HD video. (The larger 27-in. model is on the right.)
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