Lab tested: 27-inch Core i7 iMac/2.93GHz quad core with SSD

Ladies and gentlemen, the fastest Mac we’ve ever seen is currently sitting in the Macworld Lab. It’s the 27-inch 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac, equipped with a solid-state drive (SSD). This built-to-order (BTO) model posted the highest Speedmark 6 score of any iMac we’ve tested—for now.

The 27-inch 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac with SSD isn’t one of the four standard configurations Apple offers, and Macworld doesn't mouse-rate BTO models. To get the Core i7 CPU and SSD, you have to customize a 27-inch 2.8GHz quad core Core i5 iMac ( ) when ordering through the online Apple Store. Upgrading to the 2.93GHz Core i7 adds $200 to the $1999 base price. Substituting a 256GB SSD for the hard drive adds another $600. So the total price of the iMac we tested (with 4GB of RAM) is $2799.

We used our Speedmark 6 test suite to gauge the performance of the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac and to see how well it performs compared other current iMacs. Overall, the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac with an SSD is impressive, posting a Speedmark 6 score of 254, currently the highest Speedmark 6 score posted by any Mac. (We just received two of the three new Mac Pro models, and we'll test them and provide results soon. We think that the new Mac Pros will beat the Core i7 iMac, but the story will be how much of a performance difference there is.)

Compared to the standard configuration 27-inch 2.8GHz quad core Core i5 iMac with a 7200-rpm hard drive, the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac is 17 percent faster overall. We saw the most dramatic improvements in our Aperture, iMovie, iPhoto, and Unzip Archive tests, which weren’t surprising since these tests tend to write files to disk, and the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac with its SSD provides a speed benefit.

Interestingly, the one test where the 2.8GHz quad core Core i5 iMac wins by a wide margin is in our HandBrake test. The 2.8GHz quad core Core i5 iMac was nearly three times faster than the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac. This result wasn’t much of a surprise, though; as we’ve experienced while testing DVD ripping on the new iMacs, some iMacs (like the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac we tested) come with Hitachi-LG SuperDrive mechanisms that have riplock, which slows down the SuperDrive during movie playback to reduce noise from the drive mechanism. Other new iMacs we tested came with Pioneer SuperDrive mechanisms that produced faster results. Apple doesn’t specify what SuperDrive mechanism is being installed when you order your iMac.

We also compared the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac with another BTO iMac, the 27-inch 3.6GHz dual core Core i5 iMac ($2499 with SSD instead of a hard drive). With both models using an SSD, we found the extra $300 for the 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac gets an 11 percent boost over the 3.6GHz dual core Core i5 iMac. The Core i7 iMac showed big boosts in our Cinebench, MathematicaMark, and Compressor tests, where the software can take advantage of the additional cores provided by the Core i7.

Booting from the SSD also provides a benefit that really can’t be measured by hand. The general snappiness of the SSD iMacs gave the impression of a faster machine. Windows, documents, and programs felt like they opened much quicker than when booting from a hard drive. Even starting up the iMac in our test configuration (we try to limit the items that launch at startup to only what’s necessary) felt shorter, though it was too fast for use to time with a stopwatch.

27-inch Core i7 iMac/2.93GHz quad core with SSD (BTO) benchmarks

Speedmark
6
Adobe
Photoshop
CS4
Cinebench
R10
Mathemetica-
Mark 7
Compressor
3.0.4
Aperture
2.1.4
iMovie
'09
iMovie
'09
iTunes
9
Call of
Duty 4
Finder Parallels
WorldBench 6
Handbrake
0.9.3
iPhoto
'09
OVERALL
SCORE
SUITE RENDER SCORE MPEG
ENCODE
IMPORT IMPORT
ARCHIVE
EXPORT MP3
ENCODE
FRAME
RATE
UNZIP
ARCHIVE
MULTI-TASK
TEST
RIP
DVD
CHAPTER
IMPORT
27-inch iMac 2.93GHz
Core i7 quad core
BTO (SSD)
254 0:37 0:54 10.4 5:04 1:25 0:52 0:47 0:53 88.4 0:25 3:46 2:49 0:13
27-inch iMac 3.6GHz
Core i5 dual core
BTO (SSD)
228 0:37 1:23 7.19 6:00 1:34 1:22 0:55 0:49 82.1 0:24 4:05 2:51 0:19
27-inch 3.6GHz
Core i5 dual core BTO
(7200-rpm hard drive)
203 0:38 1:23 7.2 5:59 1:38 1:32 0:59 0:56 82 0:41 4:08 3:02 0:23
27-inch 2.8GHz
Core i5 quad core
217 0:40 1:09 10.1 5:36 1:47 1:17 0:57 0:58 88.1 0:44 4:03 1:01 0:22
27-inch iMac 3.2GHz
Core i3
188 0:42 1:37 6.2 6:58 1:59 1:42 1:05 0:59 81.4 0:44 4:45 1:37 0:27
Mac Pro 2.66GHz
quad core
203 0:38 1:00 11.13 6:17 1:36 1:09 1:18 1:10 49.3 0:44 4:27 1:15 0:27

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics.

How we tested. Speedmark 6 scores are relative to those of a 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook, which is assigned a score of 100 (higher scores are better). Call of Duty score is in frames per second (higher is better). MathematicaMark is a performance score (higher is better). All others are in minutes:seconds (lower is better). All iMacs were tested with OS X 10.6.4 and 4GB of RAM. The 2.66GHz Mac Pro was tested with OS X 10.6.1 and 3GB of RAM. We duplicated a 1GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files and then unzipped it. We converted 90 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. In iMovie ’09, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes using the Mobile Devices setting. We ran a Timedemo at 1024-by-768 with 4X anti-aliasing on in Call of Duty 4. We imported 150 JPEGs into iPhoto ’09. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We used Compressor to encode a .mov file to the application's H.264 for video podcast setting. We ripped a DVD chapter to the hard drive. We recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors in Cinebench. We ran the Evaluate Notebook test in MathematicaMark 7. We ran the WorldBench 6 multitasking test on a Parallels 5 VM running Windows 7 Professional. We timed the import and thumbnail/preview creation time for 150 photos in Aperture.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, McKinley Noble, Blair Hanley Frank, and Chris Holt.

Though the SSD-equipped 2.93GHz quad core Core i7 iMac is impressive, we suspect that it won’t hold the title of World’s Fastest Mac for very long. Two new Mac Pros (the $2499 quad core 2.8GHz Xeon model and the $3499 eight core 2.4GHz Xeon model) just arrived in the lab. And we’re expecting the $4999 12-core 2.66GHz Xeon Mac Pro later this week. Expect benchmark results and a full review of the new Mac Pros coming soon.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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