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iMac’s nifty design does little, but guts are great

The new iMac

The new iMac

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Updated: January 12, 2013 6:21AM

Obviously, the new 2012 iMac is thin ... just 5mm at the edge of the screen. It’s a marvelous effect Apple pulled off a true magic trick here; I can crabwalk my chair sideways to the extreme left and the extreme right, and the illusion of a powerful desktop that’s no thicker than a sheet of tempered glass is intact until I’m practically looking at it from the side. Only then does the thick bulge which contains everything that makes a Mac a Mac come out from its hiding place, and Apple’s design team steps forward and takes its bows.

And then there’s the screen itself. “Wow, that’s a pretty display,” you’ll say. “It’s because it’s fully laminated,” I’ll cheerfully explain. “Without the 2mm air gap between the cover glass and the actual display, several surfaces of internal reflection have been eliminated, and ...”

At which point you glare at me, and I will give an embarrassed little cough and agree that the screen’s colors pop, the blacks are deep, and details are crisp even in harsh office lighting. It’s an obvious improvement over the screens found in most all-in-one PCs.

The new iMac looks gorgeous on your desk. And it runs so silently that I had to double-check to confirm that there’s even a fan inside.

But here’s the rub: Unlike the super-slight MacBook Airs, the thin profile and lighter weight of the new iMacs deliver absolutely no practical benefits. Geez, when you’re working and staring at this thing head on, it doesn’t even look any different from the iMac I bought in 2009.

And the drop in physical features is as radical as the change in profile. We can have an intriguing debate about how many iMac users will care about its lack of an onboard optical drive. But please don’t shame yourself by arguing that the iMac’s SD card slot belongs on the back of the display.

Oh, and the 21-inch model features a robust 8 gigs of RAM, but only the 27-inch model has expandable memory. Neither model lets you upgrade the hard drive, and while the 2011 27-inch iMac could be separated from its table stand for use on VESA mounts, the 2012’s stand is on there for life.

These are slightly disturbing facts given the long service life of Apple’s extremely well-made hardware.

We note these things, we shake our heads sadly, and we move on.

OK, well, what about the hardware that’s actually here? There’s plenty to cheer about. You get the latest-generation Ivy Bridge CPUs, paired with graphics chips that use NVIDIA’s new Kepler architecture. I’m seeing a consistent 10 to 20 percent greater speed over the 2011 model, which is best experienced through ripping DVDs through its built-in optic ...

Oh, right. Well, the $79 external Superdrive is a very lovely accessory.

Apple didn’t cheap out on the connectivity. Four USB3 ports, two Thunderbolt ports (which double as external display adapters), and gigabit ethernet ... no complaints, here.

The 19-inch iMac starts at $1,299 and is shipping today. The 27-inch model starts at $1,799 and will be available in January.

Apple has the desktop Mac market all to themselves. They’re free to make exactly the sort of computers they want, to prepare their users for the future as Apple sees it. Still, I hope Apple moves past this “thinner is always better” mindset soon. Consumers with a clear preference for Mac won’t let the iMac’s lack of a built-in optical drive, or its zero expandability, change their allegiances. But for every one of those people, there are more folks who just want a terrific desktop that delivers clear value for money.

“Value” isn’t strictly a matter of a longer feature list, of course. It’s definitely a factor, though. And as with the $2,200 Retina MacBook Pro, I feel sheepish when someone asks me “Why doesn’t this expensive Mac include this basic feature that I can get for free on every competing PC?” and I can only say: “Well, look how thin the Mac is! Nifty, eh?”

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