review For fifteen years now Apple’s iMac desktops have cut a striking look in the design department and have remained close to the bleeding edge in their introduction of the latest PC components. But with Windows 8 and a plethora of touchscreens champing at its heels, can the venerable iMac still compete with the best? Read on to find out.
Since the first all-in-one iMac was released back in 1998 shortly after the return of the prodigal son Steve Jobs to lead Apple to glory once again, Apple’s flagship desktop has been an iconic part of the PC landscape, and the latest edition of this classic machine does much to add to that legacy.
Since 1998, and especially since the introduction of the first flatscreen ‘sunflower’ iMac back in 2002, Apple’s iMacs, like its laptops, have been getting thinner and lighter, and the latest model released in October last year really takes this concept a giant leap forward.
If you poke your head around the back of the 21.5″ model, what you’ll find is that in its centre, it’s actually around the same thickness as the previous model released several years ago. However, it’s in the edges where the iMac has changed the most, courtesy mostly to the removal of the DVD drive which takes up quite a large amount on the previous generation of iMacs. At its thinnest, the new iMac is a mere 5mm thick — soaking up 40 percent less volume in total than the previous generation.
To say that this has to be seen to be believed is an understatement. The October 2012 iMac doesn’t feel like a PC at all — it feels more like just the monitor component. If you go back to the old generation, what you’ll find is that they’re substantially thicker at the sides than a normal computer monitor, giving a solid indication that they’re actually a computer and not just a display device. The new iMac doesn’t feel that way at all; it feels just like a computer monitor. Light, thin, beautiful. It’s a fantastic design element which really sets Apple apart from its competitors.
Apart from this, many of the same iMac design features have been retained in the new iMac. You get the same overall aluminium, black plastic and glass finish, with the very bright and vibrant screen appearing to float in minimalist black borders. The 21.5″ iMac is 45cm tall, including its minimalistic stand, 17.5cm deep, and 52.8cm wide. It weighs 5.68kg.
Underneath the iMac’s screen sits a very thin and long grill which houses its speakers, and there’s an air exhaust on its back. On the right-hand at the back sit the unit’s various input and output ports (you get a headphone socket, an SDXC card slot, four USB ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and a gigabit Ethernet port), and the power socket’s also on the back, with a hole in the iMac’s stand so that the power cord slips neatly through. On the left-hand side at the back sits a small button to turn the iMac on.
Included with the unit is a full-sized wireless Bluetooth keyboard (although it doesn’t come with a numeric keypad, and its arrow keys are smaller than normal), in Apple’s normal aluminium and white chiclet style and you also get one of Apple’s wireless Bluetooth Magic Mouse units, also white.
It has to be said: The new generation of iMacs represents the best-looking desktop computers on the market, although they are also very functional; Apple’s design doesn’t get in the way of using its machines. We really like how these units are designed.
Apple sells a number of different 21.5″ iMacs, which are differentiated primarily by the processing power which they come with. They all have the same 21.5″ LED-backlit IPS panel display, running at a maximum resolution of 1920×1080. The lowest-end model comes with a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, and you can also get a 2.9GHz model, as well as a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i7 model. Given that most applications these days are graphics processor-constrained rather than CPU constrained, we consider these specs pretty grunty for a desktop machine. The 21.5″ iMac also comes with 8GB of 1600MHz DDR RAM, configurable up to 16GB.
Now here’s where things get a little funky. By default, the 21.5″ iMac ships with a 1TB hard disk drive running at 5,400 RPM. However, we really don’t recommend that you get this model. It’s much better to upgrade to what Apple terms its ‘Fusion’ drive, which is a model a little over 1TB.
What this drive does is combine two separate units, a 128GB solid state drive unit, and a 1TB traditional magnetic hard disk, together into one unit which is indistinguishable in Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. SSD drives are much faster at some tasks, such as reading data, so Mac OS X will by default store regularly accessed files such as applications and its own system files on the SSD portion of Apple’s Fusion Drive, meaning the whole iMac will be speeded up greatly through this technique. Then the rest of the files which you rarely use (probably your home video and music libraries) will be stored on the slower portion of the disk.
You can even transparently partition the Fusion Drive using a tool such as Apple’s Disk Utility (for example, to include a Windows partition) and Mac OS X will deal with that by putting the extra partition in the traditional hard disk portion of the Fusion drive, meaning the speedy SSD remains intact.
The Fusion Drive add-on costs an extra $300. However, we really recommend that you get this upgrade when you buy an iMac. We use a last-generation iMac with a normal hard drive as our regular work machine, and the speed difference with the Fusion Drive on the 21.5″ unit we tested is very clear. It’s very much worth it. There are other ways to get the same speed by manually upgrading your iMac — but we don’t recommend doing this unless you’re an expert. Actually, we consider ourselves an expert (having built our own custom PCs for years), and the videos demonstrating the technique are very daunting.
Other features of the new 21.5″ iMac include a new NVIDIA graphics chip (the GeForce GT 640M or 650M) with 521MB of graphics memory. Apple used to use ATI’s Radeon series but has recently switched. 512MB isn’t that much memory for a modern graphics card, but then most people won’t be using their iMac to play that many games (we’ll get onto that later in the review). It’s a competent amount and the NVIDIA graphics chips here are also competent.
Apart from this, you also get Apple’s FaceTime HD camera, which is great for videoconferencing, stereo speakers, dual microphones, and unlike Apple’s recent laptops, there is also a Kensington lock slot so you can chain your iMac to your desk and prevent it being stolen. Not all desktop PCs support wireless, but the iMac does, up to 802.11n, and you can also use the Thunderbolt ports to add on extra monitors to the iMac if you choose.
And of course, along with all of this, you get Apple’s Mac OS X operating system (Mountain Lion version). We won’t go into it now in any depth, but of course it’s the second-most popular desktop operating system on the planet, behind Microsoft’s Windows, and extremely full-featured. Many of the applications you’ll use most — from email to web browsing to video and photo editing and so on — are bundled by default and used daily by squillions of people worldwide.
The unit we tested was at the high end of Apple’s 21.5″ iMac range — it comes with the 3.1Ghz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and Apple’s Fusion Drive. So it’s not surprising that it breezed through every normal desktop operating system task we could throw at it — including doing them simultaneously.
The iMac’s screen is lovely and vibrant, it was highly responsive and just great to use. We’re not quite a huge fan of the way the iMac’s software is set up by default, with its taskbar cluttered with many Apple apps which we never use ourselves, but you can easily modify that. At least it doesn’t come bundled with third-party crapware like so many Windows PCs do.
To our mind there are probably three key aspects to the 21.5″ iMac’s performance which you’ll need to consider if you’re buying this baby.
Firstly, and we can’t stress this enough: Get the Fusion Drive built-in. It makes a collossal difference when you’re launching apps and just using Mac OS X on a daily basis. We tested the new 21.5″ iMac alongside our older 27″ iMac without a Fusion Drive, and there’s no comparison. The new unit is simply much, much faster. Get the Fusion Drive.
Secondly, the sound on this baby is much better than you’re probably expecting. You can’t really see the speakers underneath the 21.5″ iMac’s screen, and you might have been put off by the fact that in Apple’s online store there are quite a few quality external speakers you can add to the unit. Frankly, we have to say that the speakers which are built into this iMac are much better than most people probably expect. They’re deep, with quite a lot of bass and volume to them; more than enough to fill a room with music or the sound from a film. These aren’t laptop speakers.
Lastly, you’ll want to know about the 21.5″ iMac’s gaming performance. Sure, this is an all-in-one desktop PC, and it’s also a Mac, but can you game on it? The answer to this question is definitely a huge resounding yes.
We booted up Valve’s Steam service on the 21.5″ iMac and installed a fresh copy of Borderlands 2, which is primarily a console game — it’s no Crysis 3 — but which is quite demanding in terms of its graphics capabilities. The iMac handled it admirably at its max resolution and detail with no problems, but be warned, the back of the machine gets very hot — almost too hot to touch. You’ll know you’ve been gaming when you do so on the 21.5″ iMac — it’s probably the ideal thing to do to warm up your cold study in winter. We also booted up an older game — Half-Life 2, Episode 2, and found very much the same thing.
Could you play really high-end games such as Crysis 3 on the 21.5″ iMac? Definitely, in our reckoning, although be prepared to turn down the detail and perhaps resolution. And lower-end games such as Borderlands 2 and StarCraft II are absolutely no problem. The machine gets a little hot, but we still consider it pretty amazing that a PC the size and shape of a normal computer monitor packs enough power to run high-end games. Personal computing has come a long way.
So what didn’t we like about the 21.5″ iMac?
Firstly, we don’t like the price on Apple’s Fusion Drive. $300GB extra, for what is essentially a smallish SSD disk, is pricing such an essential upgrade at a premium. Then there’s the mouse and keyboard which come with the iMac. If you’re planning to do any serious work or gaming, replace them immediately. You’ll probably want a USB keyboard with a separate number pad and function keys (think ‘delete’, as opposed to the included ‘backspace’ key, as well as page up and page down etc — Apple actually actually sells an extended version of its keyboard just like this, which is our go-to model), and you may want to make that keyboard and mouse USB models if you’re a gamer; I play a lot of StarCraft II and I have found most wireless keyboards and mice have occasional jagginess which many gamers won’t be able to tolerate for long.
Apple’s Magic Mouse is just a pain to use. The difference between the left and right buttons is imprecise, and we don’t like how the company has implemented a stroking ability to scroll up and down. We prefer an actual physical scroll wheel.
Then there’s the lack of a sound input, which we just consider ludicrous — don’t be fooled, the sound output on the iMac’s back is not a dual-mode model. You’ll need an extra attachment to get sound into the iMac for processing. You also don’t get Firewire ports, which are commonly used for video work, and although you can output video using Apple’s Thunderbolt/DisplayPort standard, we would prefer if Apple’s had included some adapters for this purpose — DVI, VGA etc. Apple used to do this with some models, but has apparently considered it not worth the cost any more.
Then there’s also the fact that all of the iMac’s ports are on the back. If you’re like me and use USB thumb drives frequently (I get given a lot with media kits from vendors on them), you’ll rapidly become rather annoyed with the way you have to reach around the back of the iMac constantly to get to the USB ports. You can get around this with an extra USB hub — which also gives you more USB ports than Apple’s meagre four — but it’s annoying to have to add this on.
There’s also the heat. It’s an issue which you’ll probably notice if you do more than a little gaming on the iMac. With the machine getting that hot — almost too hot to touch — we’re a little worried about what’s going on inside the iMac. Is it well-ventilated enough? How would it perform in environments naturally quite hot, such as the Northern Territory or Alice Springs? It sure would be interesting to find out.
Lastly, let’s return to the price. Once you upgrade the 21.5″ iMac’s CPU to a core i7 model for a little extra grunt ($240 extra!), add on a Fusion drive ($300 extra), add a USB SuperDrive so you can still access those DVDs you need to, and perhaps buy a better keyboard and mouse, you’re looking at around $2,200. It’s no exaggeration to say that you can spec out a high-end Windows-based gaming PC for about half that. Sure, it’ll come in separate units and it won’t fit in one svelte monitor design like the 21.5″ iMac does, but you’ll be able to save a stack and probably invest in a better video card for better gaming performance.
Don’t believe me? Go and check out online retailers like AusPCMarket. I’m sure you’ll be quite surprised with just how much power you’ll be able to get with ~ $2,200. We put together a gaming PC for about that much about four years ago — and it’s still more powerful and full-featured than the 21.5″ iMac is today.
Lastly, as someone who likes to tweak the hell out of our computers, we don’t really approve of what Apple has done with Fusion Drive in some ways. This drive is actually two drives — but in supposed low-level technical utilities such as Apple’s Disk Utility, the pair still shows up as one drive. This is, frankly, smoke and mirrors, and we’d like to get more direct control over which files reside on the Fusion Drive and which don’t. If we, for example, created an encrypted partition on the drive, would Mac OS X move frequently-used files out of that partition when we mounted it, and onto the non-encrypted SSD component? We’re not quite sure — but removing user control from the paradigm is never good, in our opinion. We’re not idiots, Apple — don’t treat us as such.
However, these are, of course, quibbles. When it comes down to it, the 21.5″ is a stellar machine and a marvel of modern engineering. It also leaves most of the other all-in-one desktops in its class lying broken in the dust.
It’s priced at a premium, and once again Apple has made certain choices regarding the 21.5″ iMac which will annoy more technical users. No audio input, only four USB ports, its own Thunderbolt and DisplayPort standards and its inadequate keyboard and mouse combination stick out. Plus, the essential Fusion Drive add-on should really be a default option on this model and is too expensive for the hardware it consists of … and Apple needs to give technical users more granularity in how Fusion functions.
However, when it comes down to it, the 21.5″ iMac is still an incredible machine. It’s almost unbelievable that you get this much power packed into this tiny a PC footprint, and it does everything it does well, with a great set of speakers and significantly improved performance over the previous generation. Plus, despite its small size, it can actually play modern games at a decent clip. We highly recommend this machine to anyone looking for a 21″ desktop PC with a tiny footprint. It’s an excellent model and it would be very hard to find something similar from Windows-land to match this model.
Plus, there’s those razor-thin edges, which really make the 21.5″ iMac a standout machine in terms of its design. Apple has really pulled out all the stops here to make this iMac the best ever … and we expect it’s a similar situation with its big brother, the 27″ model.
Note: The images below are predominantly of the 27″ version of Apple’s iMac; they are included here because the 27″ iMac features a very similar design to the 21.5″ model in this review; Apple does not supply individual stock images of the 21.5″ model.
Image credit: Apple