Test-driving the new Intel-powered 24-inch iMac from Apple

Return to story. Top of page

Matchup: iMac vs. Dell
Feature Winner Details
DISPLAY Draw Dell's 24-inch UltraSharp 2407FPW monitor is a gorgeous display. But so is the integrated iMac 24-inch widescreen LCD. Both feature resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels, good enough for HDTV. I think the iMac screen is brighter. And, of course, the entire iMac takes up the same desk space of the Dell monitor alone.
OPERATING SYSTEM Apple The iMac operating system is Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. Dell's operating system is Genuine Microsoft Windows Media Center 2005 Edition. Both are scheduled to be upgraded early next year, the Mac OS to version 10.5, code-named Leopard, and Windows to several versions of Vista. Vista will offer lots of features found today in Tiger, including greater resistance to worms, viruses and other security attacks. For now, it's no contest.
MEMORY Dell Standard memory on the iMac is 1GB dual channel DDR2 SDRAM. The Dell comes standard with 2GB. For today's uses, and for future operating system upgrades, 2GB ought to be standard. Apple tends to gouge its customers for add-on memory, and in this case the upgrade to 2GB costs $175.
PROCESSOR Draw The 24-inch iMac comes standard with a 2.16-gigahertz Intel Core 2 Duo main processing engine, which is actually two separate but equal processor cores in one chip package. Not long ago, such "parallel processing" was the stuff of supercomputing. The Dell features a 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo. Based on raw chip speed, it's a draw. But here's the catch: The Dell uses the desktop version of the Core 2 Duo chip, code-named Conroe, which runs hotter than the newer, mobile "Marom" version of the Core 2 Duo used in the iMac. Apple chose the Marom chip because it is cooler (less hot) and has energy-saving features not found on the desktop chip. Using the cooler chip also means the iMac does not have to run a cooling fan quite as much, making the iMac quieter to operate. So, I call it a draw.

[Alert: Non-geeks should avert their eyes for the next paragraph]

The Dell scores points for having a faster front side bus, 1,066 MHz against the iMac's 667MHz. The front side bus is the data backbone between the main processor and other chips and chipsets, including RAM and expansion cards. The faster the FSB, in general, the better the computer's performance. Both machines have 4 megabytes of L2 (level 2) cache memory. The L2 cache is a holding pen for frequently-accessed data, which, when properly implemented, gets information to the main processor even faster than RAM. The Dell can be upgraded to a 2.66 GHz Conroe chip, while the Apple Marom chip tops out at 2.33 GHz.]
HARD DRIVE Dell The standard iMac drive is 250GB. So is the Dell's, but with a catch: Dell adds a "DataSafe" backup drive, also 250GB, that mirrors the main drive and reduces the likelihood of data loss. Tinkerers can recode the "hidden" drive to boost the system to 500GB. Or, Apple customers can pay $200 extra for a 500GB drive. For my price comparison I add $200 to the $1,999 base price of the iMac for the 500GB upgrade, but for a lot of people that would be optional. By the way, the iMac has a Firewire 800 port that allows the addition of multiple high-performance external hard drives, so both the XPS 410 and the iMac have the potential for more than a terabyte of storage.
OPTICAL DRIVE Draw The Dell comes with two tray-loading drives, a 16x DVD-ROM plus a 16x DVD+/-RW double layer drive. The Apple comes with a single, slot-loading 8x SuperDrive DVD+R double layer drive. In this case, two drives are not necessarily better than one, especially if the one is elegantly integrated into the display.
GRAPHICS Apple The 24-inch iMac comes standard with an NVIDIA GeForce 7300GT graphics card, while the standard XPS 410 configuration is an ATI Radeon X1300 Pro. The tech boffins at TechSpot (www.techspot.com), who exult in esoteric measurements of vital interest to video gamers, sum it up: "Clearly the Radeon X1300 Pro is no match for the GeForce 7300GT."
SOFTWARE Apple Where do we start? Apple's advantage in software is off the charts. Apple software includes Spotlight, Dashboard, Mail, iChat AV, Safari, Address Book, QuickTime, iCal, DVD player, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, iWeb, GarageBand, Comic Life, Omni Outliner, Board Games, Office 2004 for Mac test drive, Front Row and PhotoBooth. The Dell comes with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Works 8, and a mess of unrelated programs like PC-cillin antivirus and spyware, Corel Photo Album, MusicMatch Plus, and some games.
WARRANTY and SUPPORT Draw Both machines come with a one-year limited warranty. The Dell includes one year of at-home service, while the Apple comes with 90 days of free telephone support. While on paper the Dell appears to have an advantage, consider that reader polls and testing by PC Magazine and Consumer Reports rate Apple tops among all PC makers. Dell's customer support is not nearly as good as it was a decade ago, and Dell recently vowed to improve it. One other factor: If you live near an Apple Store, free advice and support is available on a walk-in basis at the Genius Bar.
OTHER STUFF   Now comes some volleying back and forth, and you'll have to be the line judge. The Dell comes with a TV tuner card. Apple doesn't offer a TV tuner because it thinks people will download TV shows from the Internet. I might have found a TV tuner card appealing a couple of years ago, but I agree with Apple that digital downloads will soon make tuner cards if not obsolete, then certainly a niche feature. Most people in the United States get their TV from a cable, not from an antenna, after all. For those who want to add a TV Tuner to the Mac anyway, Elgato has a high-definition version of its USB-based Eye-TV tuner coming soon for less than $200.

The iMac comes with built in 802.11g WiFi wireless networking, Bluetooth 2.0 with enhanced data rate, gigabit Ethernet, a Firewire 800 port (yes!), a Firewire 400 port, 3 USB 2.0 ports, 2 slower USB 1.1 ports, built-in stereo speakers, a built-in microphone, optical digital audio in/out jacks, a mini-DVI video out port, and a built-in iSight video camera. The Dell, being a traditional tower design, offers all sorts of expansion slots and bays that the iMac lacks, in case you want to take storage up to a terabyte or more. But with USB and Firewire, it's hard to think of anything that can't be added to the Mac externally. The Dell has something like a bazillion USB ports and a pair of Firewire 400 ports, plus Ethernet. No video camera, no mike.