Mac Musings

The Late 2009 iMac Value Equation

Dan Knight - 2009.10.21 - Tip Jar

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Yesterday's introduction of new consumer Macs included some expected developments and some surprises: iMacs got bigger, the MacBook got a bit lighter, and the Mac mini got a bit faster.

Of the three, I'd have to say that the iMac got the biggest change, physically larger, higher resolution displays topping the list. The polycarbonate MacBook got its first redesign since the line was introduced in May 2006, and the mini's changes are all under the hood.

Display Size

I've argued against 16:9 computer displays in the past, because in my work I've found that having enough vertical pixels makes a much bigger difference than having an overabundance of horizontal ones. The first Macs had a 3:2 aspect ratio, and until the Titanium PowerBook was introduced in 2001, almost every Mac display had a 4:3 aspect ratio. (The Mac Portable and many early PowerBooks had a 640 x 400 display - a 16:10 ratio - and most PowerBook users found the 400 pixel screen height limiting.)

The Titanium PowerBook introduced the "megawide" display to the notebook world, with its 1152 x 768 screen (3:2 aspect ratio). Except for the 12" PowerBook and the iBooks, that ratio became the norm for Apple notebooks - and with the 17" iMac G4 in 2002, it came to the desktop Mac world as well. It had a 1440 x 900 pixel display, which I find just short of adequate.

I've worked in the world of desktop publishing, where the higher the resolution, the better, because you'd often be working with 9 point type in footnotes that could be quite fuzzy on a traditional CRT display. At Low End Mac, I went from a 1280 x 960 display on my SuperMac J700 to a G4 PowerBook (1152 x 768) to an eMac (1280 x 960) to a Power Mac G4 with a 1280 x 1024 Dell flat panel display.

It's hard to go backwards, especially to a display with less vertical pixels. Using the eMac as 1280 x 960 or my WallStreet PowerBook or"Mystic" Power Mac server at 1024 x 768 (the highest resolution at which the old Micron monitor refreshes at more than 60 Hz, a low enough rate to induce headaches) just feels tight after 1024 vertical pixels.

The first iMac to have sufficient vertical pixels for the way I've become accustomed to working was the 20" iMac G4, which has a 1680 x 1050 display. Every subsequent 20" iMac has had exactly the same resolution - and 26 more vertical pixels than I'm used to.

Not that I have anything against horizontal pixels. I've been working at 1280 pixels horizontally for 10 years now, and I'd very much appreciate more width. My work style is to have documents on the right and left sides of the screen (usually NetNewWire, Camino, and Firefox on the right, Claris Home Page and/or KompoZer on the left) so I can reference a page on the Web while writing or editing. There's always significant overlap.

I've played with the 15" MacBook Pro, which has a nice 1440 x 900 display. For things like Geni, a nice genealogy site, the extra width makes it easier to navigate family trees, as they tend to be tall and very, very wide. Of course, you can hardly have enough pixels for graphical family trees. The 1680 x 1050 of the 20" iMac would pretty much be perfect for my needs - and now Apple goes and increases that to 1920 x 1080!

Heaven. I'm in heaven....

Work Style

We all have different work styles. Ask six people to build a spreadsheet with certain fields and calculations, and you'll end up with six somewhat different spreadsheets. Ask two dozen Mac lovers to give their opinion of the newest iMacs, and you'll get two dozen opinions because each of use has different needs and wants.

For me, any Intel Mac has more power than I can wrap my mind around. My production machines are dual processor G4 Power Macs from 2001 (upgraded with dual 1.6 GHz CPUs) and 2002 (dual 1 GHz). Faster would be nice, a dual- or quad-core Power Mac G5 would be wonderful, and the power of Intel Core technology would be awesome simply because my "vintage" Macs are more than adequate for the work I do.

As I said, for me the screen is the most important part of the keyboard, particularly the resolution. Give me 1280 x 1024, and I'm comfortable. Give me 1440 x 900, and I lose more than I gain. Give me 1680 x 1050, and I will be thrilled. Boost that to 1920 x 1080, and I'll be blown away.

The Late 2009 iMacs are optimized for serious work. At a minimum you get two 3.06 GHz cores. For a bit more power, you can boost that to 3.33 GHz (about 10% more processing power) for US$200. If you really want some power, there's the 27" quad-core iMac running a 2.66 GHz Intel Core i5 CPU - and for the ultimate iMac, US$200 gets you a 2.8 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU - and the i7 supports HyperThreading, while the i5 does not. (Another way the quad-core iMac boosts performance is with an 8 MB L3 cache shared by all four cores. The dual-core iMacs get by with a 3 MB shared L2 cache.)

At the top end, the iMac now has as much power as the entry-level Mac Pro, and the Nehalem-based i5 and i7 CPUs used in the top-end model have the same Turbo Boost technology as the Mac Pro, allowing individual cores to run well above their rated speed. As Tim the Tool Man would say, "More power!"

500 GB and 1 TB 7200 rpm SATA drives are standard, and there's a 2 TB option. As someone content with partitioned 400 GB drives, my mind boggles.

The Late 2009 iMac Value Equation

The entry-level 21.5" iMac has a dual-core 3.06 GHz CPU, 4 GB of RAM (with room for 16 GB), a 500 GB hard drive, as 1920 x 1080 display, and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics. It retails for US$1,199. I imagine almost anyone looking for a desktop computer would be completely satisfied. It's not a killer game machine or video production machine, but except for a few areas, the fast processor and the GeForce 9400M GPU should be more than adequate.

The biggest difference between this and the step-up model is that the more expensive 21.5" iMac has ATI Radeon HD 4670 graphics with 256 MB of dedicated video memory. (The GeForce 9400M in the base iMac uses 256 MB of system RAM.) You gain a bit of free RAM, and the Radeon 4670 GPU should make it a much better gaming system. For video work, OpenCL might also provide a boost by taking advantage of the more sophisticated graphics processor. Whether it's worth $300 more for a better graphics card and a larger (1 GB) hard drive is your call, but I think the vast majority of users are going to be thrilled with the $1,200 base model.

The 21.5" iMacs have HDTV resolution. The 27" blows that away with an astounding 2560 x 1440. That goes well beyond Blu-ray quality. The market for such a high resolution display includes gamers and production work - applications such as desktop publishing, video editing, sound production, CAD, and a few other high-end, demanding areas. For most Mac users, this goes well beyond their needs to satisfy their cravings for more pixels - or maybe just a great iMac for watching movies without being tied to a relatively small 20" or 21.5" screen.

The brilliant new feature in the 27" iMac is video input using Mini DisplayLink. You can connect your Blu-ray player, your gaming console, your cable box or DVD, or another computer to the iMac and have that device use the display. I think Apple just killed the argument for including Blu-ray in Macs, at least until the prices of hardware come down and the demands of the market can justify it. It's a shame the 21.5" iMac doesn't allow video input like the 27" version does.

If you need the incredibly resolution of this display, the US$1,799 price is easy to justify - it's exactly the same price as Apple's 30" Cinema Display, which has a 2460 x 1600 resolution. You could buy a 27" iMac just to use it as a display for a Mac mini, assuming you planned to use a $1,800 display with a $600 computer.

Then comes the ultimate iMac, the 27" quad-core model. It has four 2.66 GHz cores (or 2.8 GHz for $200 more) and even better graphics with an ATI Radeon HD 4850 that has 512 MB of VRAM. The CPUs use Intel's Nehalem architecture and support Turbo Boost, putting this iMac in Mac Pro territory. And it retails for US$200 less than the model it replaces.

The 2.66 GHz quad-core Mac Pro offers a bit more processing power and a slightly better graphics card (the optional Radeon HD 4870) at a 25% higher price - and it doesn't include a display. Bang for the buck, this is going to really eat into the low-end Mac Pro market. (Yes, low-end and Mac Pro don't usually go together.)

Seriously, you could buy both versions of the 27" iMac for less than the cost of one Mac Pro and a 30" Cinema Display. It boggles the mind, assuming you can justify that level of computing power.

I know that I would be more than satisfied with the $1,200 entry-level 21.5" iMac, and my guess is that it and the quad-core 27" will be Apple's hottest sellers among the four configuration.

Late 2009 vs. Early 2009 iMacs

The good is the enemy of the best, and for Mac users, it's never been more true than now. Close-out prices on the March 2009 iMacs seem to be settling at $999 for the 20" 2,66 GHz model, and $1,499 for the 24" 2.93 GHz.

If, like me, you're using a "hopelessly underpowered" PowerPC Mac, getting the 20" 2.66 GHz model for $200 less than the new 21.5" isn't a bad deal at all. Sure, you get 15% more power, 100% more RAM, and 55% more drive space for that $200, so it's not hard to justify the expense, but if the budget's tight, you'll be blown away by the Early 2009 iMac. Better yet, Apple has refurbished units for US$849 shipped, including the same one-year warranty as a brand new iMac. At $350 less, it's an even more tempting proposition. Unless that 1920 x 1080 display means a lot to you, the 20" iMac with its 1680 x 1050 resolution should make you very happy while saving you a big chunk of change.

The real deals are on the 24" close-out iMacs. As noted above, the 24" 2.93 GHz model will save you $300 over the new 27" 3.06 GHz one for a minuscule difference in computing power. The big difference is the display - an impressive 1920 x 1200 vs. the awesome 2460 x 1600 of the new monster iMac.

Apple has great deals on refurbs:

  • 24" 2.66 GHz, 4 GB RAM, 640 GB hard drive, $1,099
  • 24" 2.93 GHz, 4 GB RAM, 640 GB hard drive, $1,279
  • 24" 3.06 GHz, 4 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive, $1,349

Compared with the new models:

  • 27" 3.06 GHz, 4 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive, $1,799
  • 27" 2.66 GHz Quad, 4 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive, $1,999

There's really no other way to say it: You're not really comparing apples to apples here. The old 24" has the same horizontal resolution as the new 21.5", although 10% less vertically. In that light, the prices on refurbished 24" iMacs are competitive.

But compared to the 27" iMac, it's a whole different thing. You get 25% more horizontal pixels and 33% more vertical ones, putting the big iMacs in a different market. The 27" iMac is a high-end computer, even if it is technically part of Apple's consumer line.

All thing considered, I'd say the best iMac value today is the refurbished 20" 2.66 GHz model at $849, followed by the new 21.5" 3.06 GHz base iMac at $1,199 (and possibly a bit less one all the online dealers start listing it). The close-out 24" iMacs are a good value, but not a great one, and for the small difference in price, the quad-core 27" iMac offers power users a stunning level of power along with a stunning display. I'll call that the third-best value at present - although the best for those who need that kind of power or that big a display.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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