Apple's New iMacs House A Few Secrets After All

Though Apple's taken a pretty conservative line with the hardware refresh for its iMac desktop PCs, it turns out that the guts of the machines harbor some juicy secrets.

hidden apple

Apple's brand new iMacs, while having the expected spec bump in terms of raw processor power and graphics capabilities, were about as conservative as you can get in terms of adjusting the actual look and feel. The only real excitement seemed to be that they now had a Thunderbolt port or two on the back to link up super-speedy peripherals and multiple displays. But now it seems that inside their shiny metal guts, the new iMacs have a handful of carefully hidden secrets.

Mixed-mode solid-state/hard-disk drives

Among the semiconductor components dotted on the new iMac's motherboard hides Intel's BD82Z86 Platform Controller Hub. If that doesn't immediately get your spine tingling, then you're forgiven—it's a seemingly esoteric bit of hardware. Except...Intel's not officially releasing it for about a week, which suggests Apple has once again snagged early access to hardware from Intel (those chip foundry rumors sound a little more positive now).

But better yet, the Z86 uses Intel's "Smart Response Technology" which utilizes a smaller-capacity SSD as a "high-speed cache" for a larger traditional hard drive. Some slightly flexible language on Apple's iMac specs page about buy-to-order SSD-equipped iMacs even hints that at some point Apple may enable the SSD and HDD to play together as a single rapid-cached drive inside your Mac. And that's just one step before Macs go 100% SSD.

Changeable graphics units

iMacs have always been tricky beasts to repair, let alone upgrade, thanks to the extremely crammed-in nature of a design that seems to optimize every square inch inside the slender case. If your graphics card in older iMacs went kaput, then you were looking at a very difficult and potentially expensive repair. But now iFixit has found, during its tear-down of the new machines, that Apple has made it much easier to swap out the AMD GPU in case of damage. In fact, it's just about possible that hackers and tweakers could upgrade the GPU themselves—all it takes is a little smart dismantling, and removal of the bulky GPU heatsink.

Back-lit wireless keyboards

This one's not so exciting, or even definite, but it is interesting: The new iMacs ship with a setting in their OS that corresponds to a back-lit keyboard. The machines also have an ambient light sensor—a new addition—next to their webcam, in a configuration that only MacBook Pros have now. Since iMacs, by definition, lack a built-in keyboard, this is being taken as a hint that Apple has been working on an upgrade to its popular slim wired (and possibly even wireless) keyboards that includes backlit keys.

Three tiny tweaks, then... hinting that while Apple may be taking the slow and sensible route to updating its hardware in 2011, it's still taking the opportunity to refine and improve its offerings.

[Image via Flickr user onmywayto]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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  • Kit Eaton

    @Richard. Thanks for the comment. It's not about "editorial decency," although indeed that's something writers always keep in mind--it's about keeping up with newly revealed facts. I'm very glad your old Mac Pro--similarly, I'm extremely content with my 6-year old iMac--which still runs all the media serving in my home. My previous piece was an opinion-based one, written perhaps with an non-US flavor. Your opinions may vary!

  • Richard_SF

    Thank you for having some editorial decency to update your prior piece.

    Btw, I'm very happy with my MacPro from 3 years ago, 2 MacBookPros from 2 years ago, a G4 PowerBook 12" that's maybe 7 years old** (more on that), and my Android phones. For context I have never owned any version of the iPhone or iPad. Was an early adopter of WindowsMobile in 2003 and switched to Android in 2010. My newest Mac hardware is Mac mini server about 6 months ago that networks my Macs and PC. And I've owned Macs since 1986.

    Why is any of that relevant? To immediately dispense with any "fanboy" prejudice. I use products that work really really well, and I don't have a single-company agenda. So my prior comments from your prior article have nothing to do with "don't pick on Apple". I pass on their entire mobile offerings and have no problem swapping in and out other product lines that are effective for what I do in UX Design for web and mobile.

    ** Re Powerbook G4 12" --- To further discredit your prejudiced view that newer is always better, you should do a survey some time at the various Genius Bars across the nation. In San Francisco alone you might be surprised at the number of people who continue to own and use daily the Powerbook G4 12" despite its older processors, graphic cards, dim screen, and inability to run Snow Leopard or intel apps. I kid you not, about 9 months ago I was at the Stonestown Mall Apple Store in San Francisco, waiting at the Genius Bar to run some test on my 12" laptop (I also had my MBP in a back-to-back appt), and there were three other customers in the store at that very time with G4 Powerbook 12" laptops. A fluke? I asked the "genius bar" guy. he said, "No, we see them all the time, people love them, they don't want to give them up". And one of the reasons is the 12" footprint, for airplane usage, at coffee shops, everywhere. You might think: Wow, how stupid can you people be! But you might be surprised at the demographic.

    Lesson: We all know what you were getting at. But maybe it's time to re-think the premise a bit. The other commenter told you why he or she thought your rationale was very flawed when you chastised the inclusion of a DVD player, and why they were still highly relevant to users. I'm just suggesting the heavy handed smackdown about lack of innovation seemed ill-thought out and very superficial, vs user-experience oriented.

    Richard Hoefer
    San Francisco, CA