27-inch iMac buying advice: processor, video card optiions
July 30, 2010 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Advice on choosing between the two 27-inch iMac options at the online apple store.

I am in the market for purchasing a new 27-inch iMac. I have used macs for many years (and am relatively computer savvy, but less familiar with the intricacies of processors and video cards), mostly laptops, but now feel less of a need for a laptop. My wife and I will share this computer for management of our iPhoto and iTunes libraries (we have a NAS), as well as web browsing, skyping, watching movies, and use of MS Office. We do not plan on using the computer for gaming. We would like to buy as much computer as possible for the above uses, as far as is reasonable, with the goal to have as much value while at the same time preventing obsolescence for as long as possible.

On the apple store, the 27-inch model comes in two flavors. Both have the following specs in common:

2560-by-1440 resolution
4GB (two 2GB) memory
1TB hard drive
8x double-layer SuperDrive

Differences are as follows:

$1600 model
3.2GHz Intel Core i3 with ATI Radeon HD 5670 with 512MB of memory.

$2000 model
2.8GHz Intel Core i5 ATI Radeon HD 5750 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory.

My questions:
1. processor - is there a reason we should purchase the i5 vs the i3?
2. video card - if we are not gamers, but do plan to watch movies on the machine, do we need the 5750 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory?

I'm leaning toward the $1600 model, but we can be persuaded to purchase the more expensive model if a good argument for this exists.

Thanks in advance for everyone's comments.
posted by cahlers to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
The sole reason you may find yourself wanting the i5 is if you begin to do substantial video (or even photo) editing. Other than that, everything you do will be fine on the i3. Having said that, once you start shooting and playing with HD video (which almost everything shoots these days), you'll be glad of the faster chip.
posted by The Bellman at 3:17 PM on July 30, 2010

The $2000 model will be "current" longer. That is, it will start showing its age later. Whether it will be youthful for 25% longer... hard to say. Certainly possible. Both will seem just as fast initially, and they are in the same chip "generation", so it's unlikely that, say, Mac OS 10.9 would run on the i5 and not the i3.
posted by supercres at 3:21 PM on July 30, 2010

Also, the i3 is $1700, not $1600, right?
posted by The Bellman at 3:22 PM on July 30, 2010

Response by poster: yes, i3 is $1700, correct.
posted by cahlers at 3:29 PM on July 30, 2010

You could also consider the refurbished i7 (previous model) which is also $1700.

It's the computer I have now, which I love - you get the i7 which will future proof better even than the i5, and it's 512MB graphics card is not too much slower than the one in the i3 model.
posted by birdsquared at 4:31 PM on July 30, 2010

Response by poster: birdsquared, good idea, but the card is 4950 vs 5750 for the new iMac.
posted by cahlers at 4:36 PM on July 30, 2010

FWIW, I do have the 2.8 i7 27" iMac, and am very satisfied with it. The card, incidentally is 4850. Frankly, in the case of the 4850 vs the 5750 it's a case of 'six of one half a dozen of the other' - slightly better in some ways, slightly worse in others - it's a lateral move, not a horizontal. I do watch movies on mine, both DVDs and streaming through netflix and a lot of photoediting in lightroom. It blazes. I don't believe the graphics card should even be a factor in this decision. I'd go for the older 27" refurb. There are only two things which are nice in the new ones - more RAM bandwidth and a SDHX reader. Unless you are doing extremely high throughput work, you can ignore the RAM issue, and I have one of those "all in one" readers for my SDHX cards, so it's not a biggie. Incidentally, from what I can gather, geekbench scores are only a tiny bit better on the new iMacs compared to the old ones (to be expected, given the tiny speed bumps on the processors).
posted by VikingSword at 4:49 PM on July 30, 2010

For all the tasks that you want to use it for, I don't think you'll notice the difference in the graphics card. The more powerful processor will be far more consistent, IMO, with your objective to get "as much computer as possible".
posted by birdsquared at 4:50 PM on July 30, 2010

I just bought the 27" 2.6 GHz Core i5 refurbished, it rocks!
posted by tommasz at 5:17 PM on July 30, 2010

the refurb i7 is the way to go - the relatively minor difference in the video card is made up for more in the rather a lot more capable processor. the Core i3 processor has two cores and 4MB cache - the Core i7 doubles this and gives you the Turbo Boost thing, which means it can turn off some cores and run at a higher clock speed if that's what you need at the time. this is more important than having a slightly newer video card you, honestly, won't really use if you're not playing games on it. (pretty much anything but the absolutely lowest-rent video cards now can deal with whatever video you throw at it, and, if it can't, the CPU can always help out too.) you honestly won't really be able to tell the difference between the i3 and the i7 with your workload, but the i7 is more computer, and you'll get the same warranty on an Apple-refurbished last-gen iMac that you will on a new one.
posted by mrg at 6:57 PM on July 30, 2010

+another for the i7; it's a beast. If your interest is not gaming, and getting the most longevity for the money, this one is going to stay "fast enough" longer than the i3 or i5.
posted by nonliteral at 10:18 PM on July 30, 2010

Oh, also on video card vs. watching movies -- the Radeon 4850 in the i7 is far beyond good enough to do 1080p (most anything current will be fine for that). Youtube still stutters a bit, but that's life with Flash on OS X.
posted by nonliteral at 10:21 PM on July 30, 2010

The best way I've figured to describe how much of a jump it is going from the Core 2 Duo (which morphed into the i3, more or less) to an i7 is that.. Maybe you can remember back when ripping your own CDs first started to get to be a reasonable proposition. It went from being something your 486 would spend half the day doing to something you could do in an hour or so and suddenly it kind of made a bit of sense. (Eras picked by feel more than anything else, bear with me.)

The i7 transition is like that but for video. If I want to convert a DVD to watch on my iPhone, it happens in better than real time - the 120 minute movie converts in 40 minutes. If you're using iMovie and converting the video to other formats, you don't have to start it up before you go to bed and work with the finished output when you wake up - it'll finish while you wait. And the best part is that with 4 cores and 8 threads, you can still do everyday computing while it's compressing the video. Heck, I play World of Warcraft while my 2009 27" i7 iMac is chewing its way through a video.

I can't recommend it highly enough, and it's a steal for $1700 refurbished.
posted by Kyol at 10:31 PM on July 30, 2010

And if you aren't interested in gaming, I don't know of anything particular that needs much more than whatever base level GPU every Mac comes with. I suppose you could find yourself doing something that is OpenCL capable that Grand Central Dispatch will farm out to the GPU, but for the most part video acceleration in desktop applications is more than sufficiently handled by every discrete video card.

Flash still sucks eggs in OSX. Maybe next year?
posted by Kyol at 10:54 PM on July 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's responses so far. It looks like going the refurbished route may be a consideration.

So what does Apple do when it refurbishes a computer?
posted by cahlers at 6:38 AM on July 31, 2010

Refurbs can be anything from major component replacement to simple "dust off". My iMac looks absolutely new, there were no scratches, no dirt, nothing that would make you think it wasn't brand new. YMMV, but I wouldn't hesitate provided they have what you want.
posted by tommasz at 8:57 AM on July 31, 2010

As tommasz says, there is no way to know what specifically was wrong with a computer that led to it being refurbished, but the way I look at it is this: Any new computer goes through some basic testing to try to ensure it is not DOA (all components have a non-zero risk of being crappy), but a refurb goes through more extensive testing to ensure that it has been returned to as equivalent to a completely new state as possible, thus for less money, you're getting a machine that has been more thoroughly tested. My refurb still had the new computer smell (/joke). In fact, the only way anyone would know that it's a refurb rather than brand new is that it comes in a plain white box instead of a pretty iMac picture box.
posted by birdsquared at 11:58 AM on July 31, 2010

Response by poster: Any opinion on adding a 256 GB solid state drive (flash memory, no moving parts) to the configuration, in addition to a 1TB traditional drive? The idea is to keep applications on the solid state drive, increasing speed, and freeing up the traditional drive for documents. However, this configuration (both SSD and traditional in one comouter) does not come as an option with the i7 refurbished iMac, and is a $750 option for the new iMac.
posted by cahlers at 12:36 PM on July 31, 2010

Yes, it might be useful to have the SSD option. However, three major caveats. First, the price disparity between regular HDD and SSD is huge, and I suspect it will be quite a while before you can buy a large SSD for a reasonable price - today you can get 1TB HDDs for like $60 - meanwhile a 1TB SDD (like the Colossus) is more like $3000. Second, the split drives solution - having both the HDD and the SDD - is a bridge toward eventually going all the way to SSD drives a few years from now. Personally, I'd just prefer to wait until I can just have one affordable drive instead of the split solution. Third, at least for now, OS X is really not equipped to take full advantage of SSDs - "the most advanced operating system on the planet" apparently does not support TRIM; now some will argue that with new drives the importance of TRIM has declined, but that's not quite true - it still matters. So from my point of view, I'll ride the i7 for a few years, and by the time I'm ready for a new computer, hopefully OS X comes with TRIM, and SSDs are a fully baked technology and are reasonably priced standard default storage.
posted by VikingSword at 12:49 PM on July 31, 2010

Seconding the i5 refurb suggestion. FYI, the price just dropped significantly. I got my i5 refurb about a month ago. So far, solid, no issues, you'd never know it wasn't new.
posted by robabroad at 4:31 PM on July 31, 2010

For (some) assistance on the graphics card aspect of things, this site says the 4850 is not far off from the 5750 in terms of power, though obviously the additional 512MB of DDR5 will make some difference, at a higher price.

As for the option to get the new iMac so as to purchase the 256 GB SSD drive, I would recommend against it. Today, I just bought an external 250GB (non-flash based) HDD for under $80 CDN, so you can see the huge price premium you'd be paying, and frankly, for ALL of your planned uses - hard drive speed is NOT going to be your bottleneck. Much better to spend that money on a 3rd party RAM purchase, with the advantage of waiting a bit to see how much you might actually need after using the new computer for a while.
posted by birdsquared at 7:31 PM on July 31, 2010

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