The Bottom Line
The 2011 21.5-inch iMac represents a sound update. Apple dropped the original Intel Core-i processors, and moved to the latest generation of Intel's Quad-Core i5 and i7 Sandy Bridge processors. The speed improvement the new processors bring is exciting, especially if you're upgrading from one of the Core-i3 or Core 2 Duo models used in previous generations.
The 2011 21.5-inch iMac also benefits from a remarkable boost in graphics, and Thunderbolt, the latest high-speed I/O.
All in all, the 2011 21.5-inch iMac is one of two great choices for your desktop; the other is the 27-inch iMac.
- New Sandy Bridge-based i5 and i7 processors.
- AMD Radeon 6750M and 6770M graphics processors.
- Memory is easy to upgrade.
- Thunderbolt I/O provides very high-speed interconnect.
- Best looking all-in-one design.
- Limited upgrades.
- Hard drive isn't user serviceable.
- 2.5 GHz and 2.7 GHz Intel Quad-Core i5 processors
- 2.8 GHz Intel Quad-Core i7 processor (build-to-order)
- 4 GB RAM, user expandable to 8 GB (third-party RAM up to 16 GB)
- 500 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB hard drives
- 256 GB Solid State Drive
- AMD Radeon HD 6750M or AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics
- Thunderbolt, USB 2, FireWire 800 ports
- SDXC card slot
- AirPort 802.11a/b/g/n Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
- Ethernet 10/100/1000
Guide Review - Spring 2011 iMac Review - Review of the 21.5-inch 2011 iMac
Apple's latest version of the 21.5-inch iMac brings updates to the processor, graphics card, memory, and I/O. That would seem to make this update a bit more than a speed bump, and it certainly is.
The iMac's sleek chassis remains essentially the same; only the sharpest of eyes will be able to tell the 2011 models from their predecessors by looks alone. But I think that's a good thing, because the iMac chassis remains one of the best of the all-in-one designs.
2011 iMac Processor
Apple chose to use the all-new Sandy Bridge-based Intel processors, which are the second generation of the Core-i processors used in most of the Mac lineup. Sandy Bridge processors offer a nice boost in performance, and in the case of the 2011 iMac lineup, Apple went with 2.5 GHz or 2.7 GHz Quad-Core i5 processors for the stock iMacs. The build-to-order version adds the choice of a 2.8 GHz Quad-Core i7.
All of the Intel Quad-Core i5s support Turbo Boost, which can raise the processor speed of an individual core. In addition, the optional i7s also support Hyper-Threading, which allows each core to run two threads at once, making a Quad-Core i7 appear to be an 8-core processor to the Mac's operating system.
Apple suggests the new i5 processors can provide up to 1.7 times the performance when measured against a baseline i3 2010 iMac.
2011 iMac Graphics
The 2011 iMacs also received new graphics processors; either an AMD Radeon HD 6750M or AMD Radeon HD 6770M, depending on which processor you select. Both graphics processors include 512 MB of dedicated graphics RAM, and are a very nice upgrade over previous iMac offerings, especially the AMD Radeon 4670 used in the baseline iMac in 2010.
As expected, Apple put the new Thunderbolt I/O capabilities in the new iMacs. The 21.5-inch model gains a single Thunderbolt port that can be used to drive an external display, as well as to connect external peripherals, such as external hard drives and video and audio gear.
Thunderbolt offers speeds up to 10 Gbps; that's a whopping increase over the FireWire 800 (786 Mbps) and USB 2 (480 Mbps) ports. Thunderbolt peripherals aren't available in great numbers yet, but by the end of this summer, I expect to see many new offerings. In the meantime, the Thunderbolt port will handily drive any external display that uses DVI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, or other digital connection systems (adapters may be required).
Apple raised the bandwidth of memory to use 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM. The iMac still has four RAM slots. The stock memory configuration is 4 GB, using two 2 GB RAM modules, which leaves two of the memory slots open for expansion. Apple says the iMac will support up to 8 GB of RAM, although it has already been found to easily accommodate 16 GB.
A 500 GB hard drive is the default for the baseline 21.5-inch iMac; options include a 1 TB hard drive, a 2 TB hard drive, and a 256 GB Solid State Drive, either in place of or in addition to a hard drive. The internal hard drive isn't considered a user-serviceable part, so you should select your target hard drive size when you order your iMac.
Any configuration of the 21.5-inch iMac will be an excellent performer for just about any user. If you lean toward the high end of video, audio, photography, or design endeavours (or high-end gaming), then the build-to-order iMac with the i7 processor and high-end graphics is a great choice. Either of the stock i5 configurations can more than handle routine tasks for home, school, or office use.
There have been some complaints about the hard drives in the new iMacs being slightly proprietary, keeping DIYers from being able to upgrade the drive on their own. I believe DIYers will find a way around this issue. For most iMac users, this won't be an issue at all, because by design, iMac drives were never considered a user-serviceable part.