New iMac has a need for speed

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“More power. Thinly disguised.” So says Apple’s front page in reference to the new iMac models rolled out Monday. The update marks the first revision to the aluminum iMac since its August 2007 unveiling, putting the time between updates at 265 days. While this latest iteration falls into the category of a minor speed bump, the changes to the iMac should be more than welcome to those who like to get the most for their dollar.

Under-the-hood changes are the name of the game with this release. Most prominently, the iMac’s Core 2 Duo processors took a jump from the 2.0GHz and 2.4GHz—the once high-end 2.4GHz option now powers an entry-level iMac, while the other models feature processor speeds of 2.66GHz, 2.8GHz, and 3.06GHz. That high-end model marks the first time any consumer Mac has ventured into the 3GHz range that was previously the sole provenance of the Mac Pro. Gone, however, is the choice of a 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme processor; all of the new chips are Intel’s Core 2 Duo family. (The Core 2 Extreme’s major advantages at the time were higher clock speeds and the fact that it was easier for enthusiasts to overclock.)

In addition to the better processor, Apple improved the processor’s support systems, upping the L2 cache on the new machines from 4MB to 6MB, and jacking up the frontside bus to 1066MHz from 800MHz.

On the memory front, the new iMacs support faster RAM that runs at 800Mhz as opposed to 667MHz, but more importantly, all configurations except for the entry-level 20-inch 2.4GHz model ship with 2GB of RAM by default. That’s good news these days, when 2GB has started to become the de facto bare minimum for memory. The 4GB ceiling for RAM remains the same, though as usual, maxing out your RAM via Apple will cost you: The company charges $200 for the upgrade, though third-party kits cost only about half that, at most.

Apple also slightly upgraded the iMac’s Bluetooth module; it now supports Bluetooth 2.1, which supports stronger security for paired devices, and potentially lower power consumption as well.

The only other major changes you’ll find in these latest iMacs involve the video card. The previous models had only had the ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT and ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro as options; Apple now adds the 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GS to the mix as a standard feature on the 3.06GHz model and a $150 build-to-order option on the 2.8GHz model. With the Nvidia card offering twice the VRAM of the Radeon HD 2600 Pro, it seems likely that this is the best consumer Mac for gamers yet.

When it comes to getting the best bang for your buck, there’s good news up and down the whole iMac line. While the first three models all have been improved, their price points remain the same as their predecessors at $1,199, $1,499, and $1,799, respectively. And the highest end model has actually dropped $50 from $2,249 to $2,199.

What do all of these changes mean to your average Mac user? As always, it’s speed, speed, and more speed. Faster processors, RAM, and system buses should bump up performance across the board, and the availability of the Nvidia graphics card ought to provide a nice boost for those who need its higher-end capabilities as well. If you were considering buying an iMac before, then they just got even harder to resist.

Macworld has already gotten its hands on all four standard configurations. Look for benchmark results from Macworld Lab as well as any additional information we uncover about these upgraded iMacs.

[Updated 4/28, 7:44 p.m. PT to clarify that the top-of-the-line iMac appears to be available in Apple Stores, not simply as a build-to-order configuration, owing to the fact that we went into an Apple Store and bought one.]

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