Design & Hardware: stylish and minimalist
There's been no change in the iMac's overall design—even as time goes by this design just doesn't seem to age. However, we still don't like the super-shiny screen and the glossy bezel that picks up the slightest finger and palm print.
The keyboard hasn't changed a bit. It's the same size as the keyboard on a MacBook Pro, and it's fairly pleasant to type with—even if we think it would be a little more comfortable if it was slightly bigger. As it is though, gamers (oh yes, you can play games on a Mac) will no doubt prefer to invest in a different model, particularly because the Fn key is to the left of the Control key, so you may end up pressing the wrong one by accident. Note that when ordering your iMac, you can instead choose a keyboard with a numeric keypad, for an extra charge, although this is wired rather than wireless.
The Apple Magic Mouse included is just horrible to use. Although it's already pretty rubbish for office computing, it's likely to have gamers tearing out their hair. For a bit more cash, you can upgrade to the Mighty Mouse although, to be honest, that's not much better. A different manufacturer's model is the only real solution if you want a decent mouse for your iMac.
The webcam (1280 x 720 pixels) gives good-quality results. The exposure is decent and movements are followed and recreated well. In lighter areas the image is very detailed but in darker areas of the scene a certain amount of detail is lost, as is the case with most webcams. That said, this webcam is still perfectly fine for day-to-day use.
As with previous generations of iMac, Apple's new all-in-one is very quiet, both when idle and when working hard.
If you bring your ear up to about 30 cm away from the iMac, you'll hear a slight buzzing, but this is no longer audible when you move further away.
Hot air is released from the top right of the rear casing. The overall temperature is kept in check nicely though, and we've got no complaints on that front.
Temperature readings from the 21.5" iMac with the components working hard. Readings taken with the Fluke Ti25 camera.
Like the previous iMac, this 2011 version has a FireWire 800 port, four USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader (on the side), an RJ45 port (Ethernet) and two optical mini-jacks (in and out). The only change to the connections is that the mini-Display Port has been replaced by a Thunderbolt port. This can be used to connect compatible external storage peripherals or an extra monitor.
Although it's not the first time we've seen this, we still don't like the fact that Apple has chosen not to include any of the more common video connections, such as DVI or HDMI ports. That means that if you have any monitor other than Apple's LED Cinema Display, you'll need an adapter (also sold by Apple) in order to connect it to your iMac.
On the lower edge of the screen, a compartment held closed with three screws houses four RAM slots. To gain access to the rest of the components you'll need to take the screen apart, something we do not recommend you do ... even if behind the shiny screen front there's a matte panel that's just dying to get out.
||DVD drive and SD card slot
Processing Power: an effective CPU
In its most basic configuration with no optional extras, the 2011 iMac has an Intel Core i5-2400S (4 cores) processor clocked at 2.5 Ghz. Although it has four cores, this processor doesn't perform as well Core i7 processors with applications like Handbrake and iMovie, which are designed to spread out their processing needs over the processor's various cores. In fact, hyperthreading compatibility allows the Core i7 system to create a virtual core for each of the processor's physical cores (4 cores x 2 = 8 virtual cores), thus sharing the workload between them when possible.
In spite of this, the 21.5" iMac still does a very good job. Its Core i5 processor keeps day-to-day computing and multitasking smooth and fluid. Similarly, for more power-hungry applications like video editing software or 3D modelling programs, you won't have to twiddle your thumbs for too long when the iMac gets to work. For example, in our tests, it only took 5 minutes 40 seconds to convert 100 RAW photos into JPEGs, which is similar to the what we saw with the 15" MacBook Pro and its Core i7-2670QM processor.
Below are the results of the Xbench benchmark test for this year's iMac compared with older models. These show that the main components have all gained power, except the hard drive, which is a bit less speedy than its predecessors. However, that has no significant impact on the responsiveness of the machine.
3D Gaming: a mid-range graphics card
The AMD HD 6750 graphics card in this 21.5" iMac is also used in the 15" and 17" MacBook Pro laptops. It can run a wide selection of games in the screen's native resolution. With some more heavyweight 3D games though, you will need to switch the graphics detail down to 'medium' or lower (Crysis, Metro 2033, Colin McRae: DIRT 2).
Audio: very good
The sound output hasn't changed much in this new iMac. Then again, with a headphones output that can easily reach a 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio and with no crosstalk issues, it was already pretty impressive. The line-in is of the same calibre too.
The speakers are located on the lower edge of the computer screen and they work well, with an output that's crisp and clear. Beware though, as the output can be affected by where you choose to position your iMac.
Finally, an optical S/PDIF input and output are available too.