BOTTOM LINE: Casual Mac users will love the new iMac (Intel Core Duo), but professional users or anyone who uses graphics apps like Adobe Photoshop and video-editing software (such as Final Cut Pro) should wait until those tools are updated.

PROS: Intel Core Duo dual-core processor. Mini-DVI port for true dual-monitor usage. Front Row software is now peppier.

CONS: Many applications that are not optimized for Intel will run slower. Classic OS 9 environment no longer available.

COMPANY: Apple Computer Inc.

SPEC DATA:
Price: $1,799.00 Direct
Type: All-in-one, General Purpose, Media, Business
Processor Family: Intel Core Duo
Installed RAM: 1024 MB
Hard Drive Capacity: 250 GB
RAID: No
Graphics Card: ATI Radeon x1600
Primary Optical Drive: Dual-Layer DVD+/-RW
Monitor Size: 20 inches

EDITOR RATING: Four and a half out of five stars

On the outside, the new Apple iMac (Intel Core Duo) ($1,699 direct, $1,799 as tested) looks no different than the previous PowerPC-based iMac G5 (iSight).

The differences are all under the hood. The 20-inch new iMac combines a dual-core Intel Core Duo (formerly Pentium M or Yonah) processor with the Mac OS X experience.

Casual Mac users, switchers from Microsoft Windows, and iPod aficionados will love the new iMac; however, professionals and people who use graphics apps such as Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro should hold off until the critical app is updated to work smoothly with the Intel processor. For these people, we recommend holding on to your current G5-powered Mac, at least for now.

Apple left well enough alone and obviously used the design of the iMac G5 (iSight) as the prototype for this iMac. Inside, Apple installed a 2.0-GHz Core Duo T2500 processor with a version of the Intel 945GM chipset.

Like the previous iMac G5, it comes standard with AirPort Extreme 802.11g wireless networking, Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, an iSight camera, a dual-layer DVD-burning SuperDrive, and a 250GB SATA hard drive.

The iMac's bright and brilliant 20-inch widescreen LCD is the same panel as the iMac G5 (iSight): an easy-on-the-eyes high-res display.

Apple claims that the new iMac is even quieter than the iMac G5, and we'd tend to agree. You almost have to put your ear up to it to hear the fans in it (at least in an office environment).

Ports on the back panel are the same (USB, FireWire, audio in/out, Ethernet) with one exception: Now that the iMac has a fully functional mini-DVI port, you can now take advantage of true dual-monitor; an improvement over the video mirroring setting in previous iMacs.

The mini DVI port is compatible with a VGA adapter, and there is an optional S-Video adapter as well. With an extended desktop, you can, for example, keep three to four full-size Web pages or two 2-page spreadsheets open at once.

Front Row Media

Front Row and the Apple Remote were introduced in the last version of the iMac G5 (iSight), and it was kind of sluggish in that iteration. There was a noticeable lag in the reaction time of the remote.

Thanks to the Core Duo processor, the new iMac is much peppier. Front Row is now a totally natural user interface and has less of the irksome pauses we saw in the last iMac G5. You still have to load iTunes/iPhoto/video content manually in their respective programs, but now the content comes up smoothly and almost instantaneously.

Viewing movie trailers, which was a somewhat painful process previously, is now a snap. And of course, with the increasing TV content on iTunes Music Store, the iMac is again the perfect base station for an iPod.

Other programs, such as the QuickTime player, show a marked improvement. Before Core Duo, you really needed a PowerMac G5 dual or Quad tower to view 1080p high-definition movie trailers without the annoying audio or video stutters seen on the original iMac G5.

On the new iMac, 1080p QuickTime 7 HD videos play smoothly without a hiccup. The "Superman Returns" and "King Kong" movie trailers look phenomenal on the new iMac.

The new features of iLife '06 are also pretty cool. The new podcasting features in GarageBand make mixing boards unnecessary, especially for a solo podcast or a podcast where everyone is in the same room.

iWeb makes posting content to a .Mac account iLife-easy, and since every Mac comes with a 60-day .Mac subscription, you can try your hand at a blog, a podcast, a "photocast," or even a simple Web site for keeping your family far away up to date.

The iLife '06 apps did feel a bit snappier than the iLife '05 ones, though we will continue to investigate to see if it's the programs or the new Intel architecture that gives the extra oomph.

We hope to do an intensive iMac G5 versus new iMac Core Duo comparison in the coming weeks, but so far, our current benchmark tests show why professional users need to stick to using G5-powered Macs.

History Repeating

If you were a Macintosh user in the early 1990s, you'll remember that Apple moved from the 680x0-based processors (Motorola 68000, 68030, and so on) to the PowerPC 601 processor in 1994.

During that transition, developers had to compile "fat binaries," which had the code for both 680x0 and PowerPC processors. PowerPC-only programs became the norm after a few years. 680x0 programs could run in emulation on a PowerPC-based system, but performance suffered because most apps optimized for 680x0 ran slower.

Now that Apple is moving from PowerPC (G4, G5) to the Intel x86 platform with the Core Duo processor, that extra translation step will have to happen again.

Apple calls the translation technology "Rosetta," and it is built into Mac OS X 10.4.4. "Universal Binary" programs, on the other hand, do not need Rosetta to run on both platforms. Those that do utilize Rosetta, such as Aperture, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, and Quark Xpress, cause the new iMac to take a performance hit, as you'll see in our chart Apple iMac (Intel Core Duo) benchmark test chart.

Several third-party shareware programs have already been recompiled to Universal Binary since Apple announced plans to move to Intel in mid-2005. The Mac OS X operating system and the new iLife '06 (included with the new iMac) and iWork 06 are also Universal Binary; however, many graphics programs such as Aperture, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, and Quark Xpress have not been recompiled as of press time. Since most Mac programs are multithreaded, Rosetta may introduce defects such as audio/video sync problems into Final Cut Pro projects.

Because of the necessary Rosetta translation, Photoshop CS2 performance on the new iMac took 2 minutes 43 seconds to perform our 10-filter test. Though adequate for casual use, it is much slower than it is on both the 2.7-GHz PowerMac G5 Dual (1:14) and other mainstream PCs like the Velocity Micro Vision GX (1:50).

Doom 3 performance is doubly doomed: The game was never truly optimized for Mac OS X on PowerPC systems, but Rosetta slowed it down even more.

The Radeon X1600 graphics card in the new iMac is newer and should be more powerful than the Radeon X600 in the iMac G5 (iSight), but the new iMac Core Duo only musters 17 frames per second versus the previous iMac's 20 fps on our Doom 3 tests.

We'll revisit gaming performance once Doom 3 goes Universal Binary.

Apple is using the introduction of Intel CPUs in Macs to burn a bridge to the past: The OS 9 ("Classic") environment will no longer be available.

This is for practical reasons, since adding OS 9 support to Rosetta would be a monumental endeavor that would serve relatively few users. Doing away with the Classic OS 9 environment could also be a push for users to finally upgrade their software to OS X–compatible versions.

Sadly, this means that aficionados of Bungie's classic game Marathon (the grandfather of Halo) will not be able to play the game on new Macs.

But just because the new iMac has an Intel processor does not mean that you can install and run Windows on the iMac. Apple has taken steps to ensure that this won't happen for the time being.

Mac OS X was designed with the possibility of using x86 processors (at least since the OS X 10.2 Marklar project), but since the iMac doesn't use a Windows-compatible BIOS, Windows XP and Vista aren't supported (yet).

Microsoft has committed to bring out a Universal Binary version of Virtual PC, and we're sure some intrepid hacker will figure out a way to run Vista on the iMac.

Next-Generation Computing

The move to Intel processors, as our media peers love to point out, was inevitable. The G5 processor was reaching impracticality for consumer desktops, and Apple never produced a PowerBook or iBook G5.

The dual-core G5 in the Apple Power Mac G5 Quad proves that the platform still has some life in it, but we surmise that a dual-core G5 would've run way too hot to put into an iMac or Mac Mini chassis.

Several desktops in the Windows world use the Pentium M processors, now known as Intel Core Solo and Intel Core Duo, and reviews have shown that using these processors result in a quiet, energy-efficient desktop that perform on a par with desktops that use traditional desktop processors (such as the Pentium 4 or Athlon 64).

Aside from cooler cases, another benefit of running dual-core on Mac OS X over Windows is that in a Windows environment, you must run security software (such as antivirus, antispyware, and a firewall). Though dual-core processing helps speed up general performance even with such software running in the background, you are still diverting processor cycles.

With Mac OS X, such security software is not necessary, so you're getting more processing power dedicated to apps you're actively using.

The closest all-in-one desktop rival to the iMac is the Sony Vaio VA-series.

The Vaio VGC-VA11G is quite a bit more expensive ($2,200) and bulky, though it does have a TV tuner, more hard drive space (320GB) and Windows MCE for TV and PVR recording. The VA11G has a single core Pentium 4 processor, as opposed to the iMac's dual core Core Duo processor.

For those that would rather download TV programs from iTunes, Front Row is a much simpler interface than MCE's Media Center. However, MCE does have quite a bit more online content to choose from, with plugins like Napster, MovieLink and MTV Overdrive.

Both navigate their respective "10 foot interfaces" quickly. The VA11G is more of a TV/PVR-centric all in one, while the iMac is more of an "iPod with a huge screen" device. Both will do similar jobs, while the VA11G has more content to choose from, the iMac is a simpler device to learn.

Though the iMac still lacks a TV tuner, the TV content on iTunes and video podcasts make the iMac more of a digital media hub than it was before. It is still the perfect companion to an iPod (including the 5G iPod, iPod nano and previous models), because Mac OS X and iLife are optimized for the iPod (not to mention that an iPod just looks slick docked next to the iMac).

The design is unchanged from the previous iMac G5, and the dual-core Intel Core Duo processor ensures that the iMac is ready for the next era of desktop-based computing..

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.