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Apple Releases 2011 Sandy Bridge iMac; Interesting Upgrades

Apple Releases 2011 Sandy Bridge iMac; Interesting Upgrades

May 5, 2011

If you have been wanting to purchase a new iMac but have been waiting to pull the trigger, your patience has just been rewarded with the release of the new 2011 Sandy Bridge iMac series. The new iMac is available in two basic flavors, with either a 21.5- or 27-inch screen, and all models feature Intel Core i5 quad-core processors in speeds ranging from 2.5 – 3.1 GHz. The new iMac series includes ATI/AMD Radeon HD graphics up to a Radeon HD 6970M with 1 GB of onboard video RAM.

Other features standard on all new iMacs:

  • 4 GB RAM
  • 500 or 1 TB hard drive (other storage options available)
  • 4 USB 2.0 ports
  • 1-2 Thunderbolt ports
  • FireWire 800 port
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • SDXC card reader
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

Hidden among the obvious upgrades, however, are a couple of less obvious ones that Apple has not publicized. These upgrades should be of great interest to any SSD lovers out there.

The first upgrade is the 2011 Sandy Bridge iMac’s SATA controller. CNET has turned up the fact that with a firmware upgrade, the new iMac’s SATA controller supports 6 Gbps throughput. If you should decide to upgrade your iMac with an SSD, this can make an enormous difference in the speed of the drive. Using the OCZ Vertex 3 as an example, a recent AnandTech review found that the Vertex 3 SSD boasts sequential write and read speeds of up to 370 and 390.6 MB/sec respectively on a 6 Gbps controller. On a 3 Gbps controller such as the one in the previous model iMac, the Vertex 3 only manages up to 225.1 and 231.4 MB/sec. Random write and read speeds enjoy similar improvements with a 6 Gbps interface. For anyone craving the best possible data transfer speeds, this alone is a reason to consider upgrading to the Sandy Bridge iMac.

The second upgrade is the presence of a brand new Intel chipset. iFixit has published a teardown of the Sandy Bridge iMac. The teardown shows that the Sandy Bridge iMac has the available mounting space to hold both a hard drive and an SSD such as the Vertex 3 mentioned above (see our comparison of the best SSDs currently available). This is made more interesting by the Intel Z68 chipset, which has not officially been released yet, and is to the best of our knowledge only available in the new iMac. This chipset allows the SSD to be used as a high-speed cache for the primary hard drive, much like you would find in a hybrid hard drive like the Seagate Momentus XT.

In a recent article on Tom’s Hardware Guide, Intel’s SSD caching feature was benchmarked. Tom’s Hardware found that the feature significantly improves the speed of a computer in some applications compared to using a conventional hard drive alone. However, data transfer is still not as quick as it would be with only an SSD. Advanced users would still be advised to run the operating system and applications from an SSD, saving a conventional hard drive for less speed-sensitive data such as music and videos. However, SSD caching can allow for an inexpensive speed boost for someone who cannot afford a high-end SSD; Tom’s Hardware noted speed improvements with SSD caching on an Intel X25-V SSD, which only costs around $100.

We will be looking into how to enable SSD caching on the Sandy Bridge iMac and will post our findings in a future article.

The 2011 Sandy Bridge iMac starts at $1,199 for the 21.5-inch model or $1,699 for the 27-inch model when purchased from Apple. MacMall has them for a little bit less; $1,169 and $1,649 respectively with free shipping.