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COMPUTER SYSTEMS

Latest iMac Not For Tinkerers
By: Terri Wells
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    2012-12-07

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    I can hardly blame you if you saw those gorgeously slender new iMac all-in-one computers and started lusting after them. Coming in 21.5 inch and 27 inch models that are only 5 millimeters thick at the edges, this Apple creation is nothing short of sexy. Like many sexy things, however, you'll find it's very high maintenance if you like to tinker.

    At least, that seems to be the verdict from the crew over at ifixit. Seeing the lovely new 21.5 inch iMac, they had to take it apart to see what made it tick. If you like taking things apart too, be aware that you'd be in for a wild ride with this iMac; in addition to the expected screwdrivers, ifixit's tool list for this job included heavy duty suction cups, guitar picks, a spudger, and a heat gun. Not pretty.

    So what interesting discoveries did ifixit make? Well, to start with, though the edges of the iMac are really thin, its thickest point is more than four centimeters, which is over eight times as thick as the edge. A strong adhesive holds the display assembly in place – hence the need for the heat gun and guitar picks. Once that's done, it's out with the suction cups to lift the display up...where they discover that “To save space and eliminate the gap between the glass and the pixels, Apple opted to fuse the front glass and the LCD. This means that if you want to replace one, you'll have to replace both.”

    That's not all it means, however. This decision by Apple means a much bigger headache for those who'd like to tinker and those who repair the machines. As ifixit explains, “cutting open the display destroys the foam adhesive securing it shut. Putting things back together will require peeling off and replacing all of the original adhesive, which will be a major pain for repairers.” If you need to do this every single time you want to replace or upgrade something in the new iMac – well, I don't know about you, but I know I'd be disinclined to take it apart and put it back together more than once (if that).

    Ironically, by the way, the new iMac's LCD is the same model number as last year's, despite being five millimeters thinner. The folks at ifixit think Apple pulled off this little bit of “magic” by taking all of the LCD's pieces and simply stuffing them into a smaller housing.

    Once inside, ifixit discovered some of the ways Apple saved some space – like switching from a 3.5 inch desktop drive to a 2.5 inch laptop drive. The smaller drive is held in a rubber-like housing around its edges, to help dampen the inevitable vibrations from the spinning hard drive; with everything packed in pretty tightly, these vibrations could spread throughout the device otherwise.

    The power supply board is screwed down very tightly. The ifixit crew notes that the specified output is 12.1 V, 15.4 A. The fan layout in the new iMac is very different from previous models. Instead of three small fans, Apple provides one single centralized fan. Noting the fan's orientation, ifixit believes “that it draws cool air from the bottom vents, then blows hot air out of the grating in the back of the iMac.”

    Another interesting change greeted the ifixit folks when they checked out the webcam cable. Formerly, in iMacs, the webcams were connected to the logic boards with fragile snaking cables. The latest iMac, however, boasts a “beefy” cable for its FaceTime HD camera, and a sturdy-looking connection to the logic board. That's good news for anyone who loves to use video chat.

    Indeed, this iMac seems designed for video chat action. It boasts two microphones. This is the same kind of technology that cell phones use to cut background noise when you're making a phone call. Now Apple is using it to improve the quality of your FaceTime chats. By the way, despite the difficulty of getting into the iMac, there's one aspect about the microphones and webcam that ifixit liked: “It's not often that we see the microphone(s) and webcam for a computer disconnected from each other. That modularity means positive points toward repairability.”

    Unfortunately, ifixit had nothing nice to say about the speakers, or at least about removing them. “For seemingly no other reason than to push our buttons, Apple has added a barb to the bottom of the speaker assemblies that makes them harder-than-necessary to remove.”

    After removing all that, though, ifixit finally gets to the logic board. The good news is that the iMac's RAM, at least in theory, is “user-replaceable.” Note, however, that you'll need to go through the messy process of ungluing your screen and lifting out your logic board to replace the RAM. The ifixit folks note that this is just barely not as bad as “having soldered RAM that's completely non-removable.” Do you see why I'm saying that this is not a machine for those who like to tinker? RAM should NOT be this much of a pain to replace!

    Speaking of replacing and removing, here's a word of caution: when ifixit removed the iMac's “honkin' heat sink” (no fooling, it's huge), the CPU came off with it. Turns out the processor sits in a spring-loaded, FCLGA1155 socket. So...how about overclocking? According to the ifixit guys, their bottom-of-the-iMac-line processor, the Intel Core i5-3330S “is clocked at 2.7 GHz, but can stretch its legs up to 3.2 GHz if needed.” If you need more than that, “You can max out a 21.5 inch machine with a 3.1 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 3.9 GHz.” You gamers will want to know that this machine also boasts an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU.

    As The Register so artfully sums up, “So, yes, you can replace the CPU, as well as upgrade your RAM and swap out your hard drive – although there's no room for a second drive, as there was in earlier models. But if you do open the iMac to accomplish these should-be straightforward upgrades, know that getting it back together is no easy feat.” The ifixit crew award the new iMac three points out of a possible 10 for its repairability score. So if you want a machine you can tinker with, that won't fight you every step of the way, sorry folks: the new iMac isn't it.


    DISCLAIMER: The content provided in this article is not warranted or guaranteed by Developer Shed, Inc. The content provided is intended for entertainment and/or educational purposes in order to introduce to the reader key ideas, concepts, and/or product reviews. As such it is incumbent upon the reader to employ real-world tactics for security and implementation of best practices. We are not liable for any negative consequences that may result from implementing any information covered in our articles or tutorials. If this is a hardware review, it is not recommended to open and/or modify your hardware.

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