My next iMac

Let’s get the aesthetics out of the way first: the new iMac looks really nice. But while an ultra-thin design is a practical selling point for a notebook—and is one of the reasons I love my MacBook Air—it isn’t all that important for a computer that’ll spend the next few years on my desk.

It’s funny that Apple is trying so hard to keep us from seeing the bulge in the back. The photos (or 3D renderings) on Apple’s iMac pages are taken at three angles:

  1. Straight on from the front.
  2. Straight on from the back.
  3. At an angle from the front that shows the edge but hides the bulge.

The only side view is in this “march of history” timeline, where the bulge doesn’t look that big.

IMac history

Source: Apple

Here’s an actual photo taken by Ars Technica during the hands-on session after the introduction. Honestly, the bulge doesn’t look that big here, either.

iMac backside

Source: Ars Technica

It’s as if Apple has spent so much time telling itself that the iMac is only 5 mm thick (OK, 5 mm thin) that it can’t bear to think of it as any thicker.

On to more substantive matters.

The display is said to be 75% less reflective. I don’t know how reflectivity is measured, but I’m sure this is a good thing. By being a cheapskate and holding onto my Macs for a long time, I’ve managed to skip past Apple’s infatuation with glossy glass screens. My 2004 iBook G4 (pre-glass) was replaced two years ago by the revamped MacBook Air (too light to have glass). Soon my 2006 iMac (pre-glass) will be replaced by this new screen. I hate glare. I don’t even like reading glossy magazines. I’ve had no problem with the glass screens on my iPhones, but that’s because the phones sit in my hands, where I can tilt away the glare.

I wasn’t expecting a Retina display, so I wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t arrive. A 30″ monitor at the top end would’ve been nice, but if Apple starts bumping up its screen sizes now, it’ll be that much harder to convert them to Retina in a year or two.

As for the processors, chipsets, and video, there didn’t seem to be any surprises. I don’t keep up with that stuff because pretty much everything that’s sold today is good enough for me. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the RAM can be taken to 32 GB. Not that I’m going to do that right away. I’m currently limited to 3 GB, so the 8 GB that comes standard will seem like a palace. Luxury! But that feeling will fade, and I’ll be looking to upgrade in a year or so. I haven’t seen any detailed photos of the access panel on the back of the 27″ iMac, but what I have seen makes it look like the slots are pretty easy to get at. Assuming there’s no problem with mixing 8 and 4 GB sticks, I’ll probably first add 16 GB to the two open slots to bring the total up to 24 GB. It might take a couple of years before I feel the need to max it out to 32 GB.

Which leaves me with the last item of internal hardware: the disk. There are five choices:

  1. 1 TB standard hard drive.
  2. 3 TB standard hard drive.
  3. 1 TB Fusion drive.
  4. 3 TB Fusion drive.
  5. 768 GB flash drive.

Because you can’t order the new iMac yet, there are no prices for these options, but we can make decent guesses based on similar offerings on other machines.

The 768 flash drive is a $1,000 option on the 15″ MacBook Pro and a $1,300 option on the new 13″ MacBook Pro. There’s no doubt it’ll be too little storage for too much money.

The 1TB Fusion drive is likely to be around $250, which is what it costs on the new Mac mini. This isn’t a bad price for the extra speed flash storage can give, but…

I’ve read the articles at AnandTech and Ars Technica, and I’ve listened to the latest Hypercritical, but I’m still ambivalent about the Fusion drive. The idea behind it is great, but I’m just not sure I want in on a 1.0 device. I’m sure Apple has tested the Fusion out the wazoo; still, this is an iMac, and I can’t just replace it with a regular disk if I don’t like how the Fusion works.

An obvious concern with the Fusion is data loss if something goes wrong during the transfer between platter and SSD. I think that possibility is quite remote. More likely is that the transfer will be done at some inopportune time, slowing down the computer when I’m in the middle of something important.

Again, I’m sure Apple has gone to great lengths to avoid these problems, but do I want to be part of the first mass rollout of this device? Especially in a computer where weight doesn’t matter, where there’s no real likelihood of jostling during a read/write, and where startup time is unimportant because it’ll running constantly? I think I’ve talked myself out of the Fusion, but I still have some weeks to decide.

Update 10/28/12
David Sparks has some fatherly advice for me on the Fusion question. He’s certainly correct that flash drives are on the right side of history. My concern, though, is that history takes time to develop, and Apple has the deserved reputation of getting a little too far ahead of the curve sometimes. I have two timing worries:

  1. The software running the Fusion drive will not work well at first, and it’ll be a while before Apple fixes it. This is, essentially, the concern I described in the original post.
  2. The Fusion drive will be a short-lived transition between spinning platter and SSD, and those who buy into it will be stuck with some sort of Tiktaalik-like freak. It might be better to stay with the fish now and move to the tetrapod later.

But as I said, I still have some weeks to decide.

As for external options, I’ll need a SuperDrive for reasons given last month. Clients are always sending me DVDs, and it’s not my place to disrupt their normal workflows.

I’ll probably get the standard wireless keyboard and a trackpad. The wireless keyboard is almost identical to the keyboard in my MacBook Air, so I should be able to make my special key mappings on the two machines identical. If I feel too confined with the smaller keyboard, I can always return to the wired keyboard I have now. Similarly, I have a wireless mouse I like, so I might as well give the Magic trackpad a go.

Any other configuration options? I can’t think of any. I have considered moving from the iMac to the Mac mini. The specs on the mini are pretty good now, but the RAM ceiling is 16 GB and the hard drive options are more limited. I like the iMac and am sticking with it, even though I’ll have to wait a month longer to get it.