New iMacs: Pretty, But Not Worth The Upgrade

No other all-in-one computer looks as cool and modern as the "mid-2007" iMacs, but unless there are problems with your existing hardware, you might as well as save your money.
Welcome to my column. A couple of times each month, I'll be writing about Macs from the perspective of someone using them in small businesses and midsize companies. While I'm a very longtime Mac user and enthusiast (since the old SE/30 days), and currently use a MacBook Pro as my primary computer, I'm also a realist.

So, while I prefer the Mac and believe it's a superior desktop PC to those running Windows XP or Windows Vista, I live in a heterogeneous world. There's also an AMD Opteron-based workstation running Windows XP on my desk, as well as a Sun Solaris workstation. My company's infrastructure includes Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft Exchange Server.

Sometimes the Mac isn't the right answer. Sometimes workarounds are required to function in a Windows-dominated culture. And sometimes Apple gets it wrong. Whatever the case, I'll tell it to you straight.

Pretty, And Pretty Cool
The new Macintosh desktop computers released in early August are gorgeous! In updating its iMac product line from white polycarbonate slabs to all-aluminum cabinets, Apple continues to set the style bar. No other all-in-one computer looks as cool and modern as the "mid-2007" iMacs, as Apple calls them. And beauty is not just skin deep: These are the best iMacs ever, thanks to a few subtle improvements in the hardware.

However, for business users at small and midsize companies, the challenge is that the improvements are either cosmetic or subtle. While your employees might be clamoring for the latest and greatest, the truth is that for most users of previous-generation Intel-based iMacs, there's little or no reason to consider an upgrade. Even if your company has people using first-generation Intel-based iMacs -- or even older Apple desktops based on PowerPC processors -- upgrading still isn't a slam dunk. If you were already considering an upgrade, this might be a good time. But unless there are problems with your existing hardware, you might as well as save your money.

Here are the details: Apple released new 20- and 24-inch iMac desktops in early August. The machines use the 2.0-GHz and 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors. The 20-inch model comes with hard drives ranging from 250 Gbytes to 750 Gbytes, with prices starting at around $1,200. The 24-inch model has drives from 320 Gbytes to a whopping 1 Tbyte (that's 1,000 Gbytes!) beginning at $1,800. Both models have FireWire 400 (good for external storage) and FireWire 800 ports (good for connecting video cameras). Both support up to 4 Gbytes of memory and can drive external monitors, including 30-inch flat panels like the expensive ones from Apple and less-expensive ones from other vendors.

Those specs add up to a very powerful desktop computer, able to handle just about any application a smaller company might need, from Web browsing and e-mail to running Microsoft Office and Photoshop to desktop publishing with Quark. Because these Macs use the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, which is a 64-bit chip, they'll run superfast when the Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" operating system comes out, because it's a 32-bit/64-bit operating system. The current version of Mac OS X, 10.4 "Tiger," is 32 bit only on Intel chips.

The Song Remains the Same
Let's get some perspective, though. When you look at the key factors of processor, display, storage, and connectivity, these specs are virtually unchanged from the first Intel Core 2 Duo-based iMacs. Compare the specs for these mid-2007 models with those from the late 2006 models. Both generations use the same-speed processors and support 4 Gbytes of RAM. The newer models have a slightly faster bus, come with larger hard drives, and have newer graphic chips. But that's it. None of those changes is worth shelling out for an upgrade. Save your money.

There are some advantages when you compare the new models against the first-generation early 2006 iMacs equipped with Intel Core Duo (not Core 2 Duo) chips. Those 32-bit-only processors were significantly slower. They'll work with the upcoming Leopard OS, but only in 32-bit mode, so they won't get the huge speed boost that the new operating system promises for later machines. Those earlier iMacs were also limited to only 2 Gbytes of RAM; the new iMacs support 4 Gbytes of RAM, which can make a real difference in performance on some of the most demanding tasks facing small businesses. So, if your IT folks are fielding complaints about your slow first-generation iMacs, or your power users are bumping up against memory limitations, the new iMacs will make a noticeable difference. But if performance isn't an issue for your company, there's no reason to upgrade right now.

What's Old Is New Again
On the other hand, if your company is still using PowerPC-based iMacs, the new machines are better in every way.

All of the several generations of PowerMac G5-based iMacs that came out between 2004 and 2006 use processors considered poky by today's standards. Even if your company still uses old PowerPC-based software, these apps should still run significantly faster on a modern late 2007 Intel-based iMac. Your Mac users will enjoy access to more memory, much better displays, way bigger hard drives, built-in Bluetooth (great for using with wireless keyboards that help create clean, stylish workstations), a built-in video camera (not present in any but the latest G5 iMacs), and much more.

Just as important for companies operating in a mixed environment, the new iMacs offer much better tools for running Windows applications. If some of your company's users are trying to run Virtual PC on a PowerPC-based iMac, you can make them much more productive by letting them run Parallels on new Intel-based iMac. Also, all Intel-based iMacs let you use two monitors at once, both internal and external. I've found that dual monitors can also lead to a noticeable productivity improvement.

With that said, we all know that most standard business applications are far less sensitive to system performance than are multimedia apps such as photo editing, video manipulation, and sound processing -- or watching movies or playing games. Unless your Mac users are pushing the limits of their current machines -- or they're in the public eye and you want to make a good impression on customers -- there's probably not much of a business case for upgrading to the new iMacs.

The good news, of course, is that if you were planning to upgrade anyway, the awesomely sexy new iMacs are cheaper than the ones they replaced. And if you ask me, they're a good choice for replacing Windows machines, too!

Alan Zeichick is a technology analyst, writer, and consultant based in the San Francisco area. Check out his blog a

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