NEW YORK - You can understand why computer buyers routinely choose laptops over desktops. Having a more compact portable computer you can travel with is an obvious benefit. But then you take a gander at the seductive new iMac that Apple has just started selling and you at least think about making a different purchasing decision.
No, you're not going to schlep an iMac on the road - it's not a replacement for folks who really do need that laptop. But Apple's latest all-in-one desktop is indeed a sight for the eyes. It has a display so thin that you can't fathom how the company squeezed so much computing power behind it. Apple has always led the aesthetic cutting edge. But the edge I'm talking about here is a mere 5 millimeters - about one-fifth of an inch - at its thinnest juncture. The machine curves out a bit in the back but not in any way that detracts from the design. Granted you don't spend a lot of time staring at a computer from the side, but depending on where you put it in your house, it makes quite the design statement. It's kind of like when you're examining an ever- thinner flat-screen TV from the side: you can't help but be impressed (not that you can hang the iMac on the wall like the TV).
You're equally pleased when you view the iMac straight on. The high-resolution 27-inch screen on the upper end model that I tested is a knockout (even if it is not the Retina display that's on the latest iPads and MacBooks). Apple says it reduced the reflection on the screen by 75% thanks to a new lamination process that reduces the gap between the LCD panel and the screen's cover glass.
For sure, there are trade-offs. The most obvious, and a chief reason why the display is so svelte, is that Apple ditched the optical drive that on older iMacs sucked DVDs into a slot like a vacuum. Apple's reasoning is that everything is moving to the cloud anyway. You download music and movies. Digital downloads are also Apple's preferred method for selling you software; the Mac App Store is a feature of OS X Mountain Lion, the operating system that is preloaded on the latest Macs.
But for better or worse, you still encounter situations where you need an optical drive - your wedding photographer might hand you a disk with a video on it, or you might still have DVDs you want to show to the kids. For just such situations, Apple sells a portable USB SuperDrive accessory for $79.
Meanwhile, Apple is taking the opposite route of Microsoft when it comes to touch computing. Windows 8 is built for touch-screens, but the display on the Mac isn't touch capable.
Apple of course is a big believer in multitouch for the iPhone and iPad. But it is not convinced people want to interact with a Mac in the same way. You do have the option of getting the iMac with either an Apple Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad, if not both. Magic Trackpad serves the same purpose for the iMac that the trackpad does on a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. You can employ the pinching, clicking, scrolling and swiping gestures that you perform on those notebooks.
One of the arguments made for desktop PCs generally is that you get more bang for the buck. Desktops typically have more powerful processors, greater storage potential and better expansion opportunities. The iMac isn't big on expansion - you can manually add memory by opening a rear door on the 27-inch model, but not the smaller model. But it does boast some beefy specs, starting with the latest third-generation quad-core Intel processors, plus state-of-the-art graphics technology from Nvidia.
But no one would argue that the iMacs are inexpensive. The standard configuration starts at $1,299 for a 21.5-inch model and $1,799 for a 27-inch machine. Depending how you configure it, you can push the price well north of two grand. My test unit, as configured, costs $2,599.
It has an Intel iCore 7 processor and 8 gigabytes of memory. On the back are four USB 3.0 ports, gigabit ethernet and an SD card slot that on prior models was on the side - the thin design doesn't permit putting it there anymore.
The machine also has two Thunderbolt ports for a speedy new type of connector that Apple has been pushing. Thunderbolt is only now going mainstream but there are some storage and other accessories that can take advantage of the new connector.
A 1-terabyte hard drive, which you can upgrade to 3 TBs, comes standard. But you can also configure the iMac with 768 GB of flash storage, yielding much faster performance at the expense of greater capacity.
But my iMac was outfitted with another storage option, Apple's new Fusion Drive, which combines the regular 1-TB or 3-TB drive you've chosen with 128 GB of flash. Apple loads the operating system in flash, plus all the apps, pictures and other data you call upon most frequently. It's all managed automatically in the background - to the end user it looks as if there's only one drive on the system. Apple claims up to 3½ times faster performance over a regular hard drive and while it's difficult to measure these things, the computer did boot up quickly and felt plenty fast. Fusion Drive adds $250 to the price of the computer so it isn't cheap.
Among the machine's other niceties: excellent built-in stereo sound.
Apple says the 27-inch unit will ship in three to four weeks; the smaller model is currently available.
A desktop computer may not be the most practical choice you can make. But the new iMac is hard to pass by.
The bottom line
$1,299 and up for 21.5-inch model; $1,799 and up for 27 inches.
Pro. Thin design, beautiful screen. OS X Mountain Lion software.
Con. Expensive. Optical drive is now an accessory.
By Edward C. Baig