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How much slower is the education-only "Late 2011" Aluminum iMac than the regular "Mid-2011" Aluminum iMac models? Are the savings worth the reduced performance?
Given that Apple quietly released the education-only "Late 2011" Aluminum iMac model -- the iMac "Core i3" 3.1 21.5-Inch -- without even a press release, it shouldn't be surprising that no official performance information is available.
Even skim a comparison of the education-only "Late 2011" iMac to the regular 21.5-Inch "Mid-2011" models -- the iMac "Core i5" 2.5 21.5-Inch and "Core i5" 2.7 21.5-Inch -- and it should be readily apparent that the "Late 2011" model is a "downgraded" variant intended to hit a lower price point. As the education-only model has a slower processor with half the number of cores, less memory and less video memory, one should expect it to be notably slower.
Determining how much slower, however, requires either benchmarking or real-world tests.
General Performance Overview
As the education-only "Late 2011" iMac is not available to mainstream purchasers and demand is limited as well, the blogosphere did not provide real-world tests or reviews.
However, for a solid general overview of the performance differences between the education-only "Late 2011" iMac models and the "Mid-2011" iMac models as well as other Macs, EveryMac.com's own Ultimate Mac Comparison makes it quick to compare side-by-side 32-bit and 64-bit Geekbench benchmark averages with all other G3 and later Macs for thousands of possible performance comparisons.
The Geekbench benchmark shows that the "Late 2011" education-only iMac "Core i3" 3.1 21.5-Inch model is roughly 10% slower than the entry-level "Mid-2011" iMac "Core i5" 2.5 21.5-Inch and costs nearly 12% less.
Performance & Value Summary
The education-only "Late 2011" iMac has downgraded connectivity -- Mini DisplayPort rather than Thunderbolt and no internal Bluetooth -- in addition to less standard RAM and a smaller hard drive and more limited RAM expansion (likely artificially capped in EFI), too.
If funds are tight, and the limitations in connectivity and potential future upgrades are not an issue, performance alone likely is a reasonable sacrifice for a school district to make. However, the cost-to-performance ratio is decidedly marginal and given discount prices for discontinued iMac models, some might find bulk purchases on the used market to be an equally good or better deal as the education-only model.
The education-only "Late 2011" iMac only is available direct from Apple and for purchase by educational institutions. Site sponsor PowerMax has standard 21.5" and 27" iMac models (as well as used iMacs individually and in bulk) available for sale free of sales tax.