I recently bought a new iMac to replace my aging (3.5+ years old) MacBook Pro, and I love it! Since I’ve been getting some questions about it (and I haven’t blogged in a while anyway), I figured I’d take this opportunity to write a quick blog post.

It took me a while to figure out what kind of computer to get:

  • I considered getting another MacBook Pro, but I already have one at work, so I didn’t really need another laptop.
  • The Mac Mini is potentially interesting, but none of the configurations are perfect for me. The two consumer models only come with dual-core CPUs. The server model does come with a quad-core, but it only supports the basic, onboard Intel HD Graphics 3000 as opposed to a higher performing ATI or Nvidia video card. All Mac Minis also max out at 8GB. Sufficient for now, but does’t leave much headroom for the future.
  • I also toyed with the idea of building a Hackintosh. Until recently, I wasn’t aware that this had become feasible, but it sounds like it very much has, and in fact one of my coworkers is very happy with his setup. It’s certainly tempting to build a nice custom machine (something I haven’t done since my Windows / Linux days), and tools like Kakewalk seem to make it pretty easy to install OSX on it. For less than $1000, significantly less than a comparable Apple computer, you can get a very powerful machine. But in the end, I was worried about the amount of time I would have to invest every time there is an OSX update, resolving driver incompatibilities and other issues. Time is my most valuable asset, and I’d rather invest more money now and be confident that I won’t have to deal with any hassles.
  • Last not least, my 24” Dell monitor was starting to show symptoms of an impending failure, which is what finally swayed me from a MacBook Pro or Mac Mini to a 27” iMac.

This is hands-down the best computer I’ve owned yet. Some specs:

  • 3.4GHz Core i7: I chose this over the 3.1Ghz i5 as I’m starting to work with some CPU heavy music applications, so the extra horsepower (particularly the i7’s Hyper-Threading) should come in handy.
  • 27” 2560x1440 display: This is the largest display I’ve used yet, and it’s gorgeous. The high resolution allows me to comfortably run multiple apps side by side, such as a browser window on one side and a text editor, email app, or even a music app on the other. To be perfectly honest I’m not a big fan of Apple’s glossy displays (on MacBooks I always opt for the matte screen), but since I only use this iMac indoors, this is not as much of an issue. And pictures and videos do look great on the glossy screen.
  • AMD Radeon HD 6970M 1GB: I don’t do any hardcore gaming on my Mac and didn’t see the need to upgrade this to the 2GB version (for an extra $100).
  • 16GB RAM: Aftermarket! Apple charges a ridiculous $600 for this upgrade (the default is a measly 4GB). Amazon sells several 2x4GB kits from various brands for below $40, so you can get the same 16GB RAM for about $75. I went with two of these Crucial kits, which work great. This gives me more than enough RAM to run all the apps I need, including virtual machines and memory-hungry music apps.
  • 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD: This $600 upgrade admittedly hurts, but I’m incredibly glad I opted for this. OSX and apps start amazingly quickly, and files open instantly. I’m writing more about my storage setup below.

A few additional notes:

The iMac has two Thunderbolt ports. While I don’t have any existing Thunderbolt peripherals, this will be interesting in the future. One immediate possibility is to occasionally use the iMac as an external monitor for my MacBook Pro (2011 model with Thunderbolt). Unfortunately you need a pricey $50 Apple Thunderbolt Cable to hook this up, but it works flawlessly. Simply press Command+F2 on the iMac to put it into Target Display Mode, and repeat the same command to leave it later. Note that this does not work with older Macs with Mini DisplayPort instead of Thunderbolt. The two ports look identical and fit the same cables, but they are quite different.

The iMac supports a maximum of 16GB memory. Each of the 4 RAM slots supports up to 4GB, and the basic configuration comes with 2x2GB and the other two slots empty. The cheapest non-wasteful memory upgrade is therefore to add 2x4GB, yielding a total of 12GB. But in my opinion, given the current low RAM price of less than $40 for 2xGB, upgrading to 16GB is probably worth it.

There are many different ways to use a mixed SSD + HDD configuration. I ended up going with Matt Gemmell’s solution, which is working out great. Read his blog post for more details, but the basic idea is to keep OSX and your home directory on the fast (but small) SSD, and selectively offload certain folders to the slow(er) (but large) HDD, by moving these and then symlinking them back to the home directory on the SSD. This approach saves precious SSD space by storing movies, music, and other bulky files on the HDD, while still being able to conveniently access everything from the home directory on the SSD.

Last not least, note that the hard drive is not user upgradable. That generally hasn’t stopped me from upgrading similar devices in the past (such as my TiVo, original Xbox, or 2008 pre-unibody MacBook Pro), but aside from the mechanical challenge, it looks like Apple has introduced some additional issues with this HDD upgrade. Therefore, you’ll want to make sure that you’re going to be happy for the next couple years with whatever storage configuration you go with. Of course, purely for data storage purposes, it’s easy to hook up additional hard drives via USB or Thunderbolt. But you probably want your boot drive to be internal, so if you think you might want to boot from a fast SSD, you should purchase this as part of your iMac configuration.