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Hands on: New entry-level 21.5-inch Apple iMac

updated 07:04 am EDT, Tue July 1, 2014

New 21.5-inch Apple iMac makes for a great entry into the Mac world

New hardware from Apple is always greeted with interest, and Apple's new entry-level iMac is no exception. Previously, all of Apple's iMac range were powered by quad-core processors, but the new entry-level iMac is powered by a dual-core processor. But is not the type of dual-core processor that you might expect; it is in fact the same low voltage dual-core Intel Core i5 processor found in Apple's current MacBook Air range. In the MacBook Air the Intel chip delivers solid performance in its class; but how does it perform in an iMac?

The new entry-level iMac comes in the same stunning 21.5-inch design as its stable mates, which first debuted in 2012. It features the same razor thin edge, and its overall dimensions so compact that many casual observers often mistake it for being just a monitor. It's all-aluminum unibody construction, and seamlessly integrated front panel continues to mark the iMac as both a premium product and comfortably the best-looking all-in-one desktop computer on the market. It also carries four USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, two Thunderbolt ports, and Gigabit Ethernet giving users plenty of fast expansion options. The excellent 1080p 21.5-inch IPS display is also unchanged, giving users an excellent visual experience, while the incredibly narrow speaker enclosures produce surprisingly rich and powerful sound.

From this perspective, anyone who was already in the market for a 21.5-inch iMac will certainly want to give it a look as it carries most of the features that make the range popular with users. The new lower price of $1099 also makes it a very attractive option for users looking for a second computer for the home, or for those with school age children looking for the first family computer. There will also be plenty of cost-sensitive educational agencies who will be keen to check it out. In fact, Apple has from time to time had education-only versions of its iMacs that have stripped out features to make them more attractive. In this case, most of the key features remain intact, while the model has been put on sale to the wider market instead of being reserved just for the education sector.

In order to shave $200 off the price of the new starting price of the new iMac, Apple has opted to utilize the very same 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 'Haswell' low-voltage processor it uses widely in its popular MacBook Air range. It's an unusual choice as it could have easily opted to use a more powerful dual-core part. However, as Apple already uses the part in the MacBook Air, one can only assume economies of scale largely determined the choice. Regardless, the chip has proven to be a solid choice in the MacBook Air and here it matched with a decent (though non-expandable) 8GB of RAM. The main difference is that in in the new iMac, the dual-core chip has been paired with a much slower 500GB 5,400rpm spinning hard drive instead of the fast PCIe-based flash storage found in the MacBook Air.

We ran the iMac through a couple of basic performance tests and the results were quite interesting. There is no question that the spinning hard drive is the leading bottleneck in the overall system architecture. The BlackMagicDesign Disk Speed Test reveals that both read and write speeds peak at around 105Mb/s, which is dramatically slower than the PCIe-based flash storage in a MacBook Air. This means that routine encoding tasks like CD-ripping will take much longer than if you opted for the 1TB Apple Fusion drive, for example, or the 256GB flash storage option. While giving the entry-level iMac a substantial boost in speed, both of these options will add $250 to the price of your iMac negating much of its overall value proposition. However, in general use, the 500GB spinning hard drive works well. Apps launch quickly, and more system intensive programs like GarageBand and iPhoto all remain highly usable. If you want to enjoy the full value of the entry-level model, you could also consider utilizing faster external storage options by taking advantage of USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt external drives.

The performance of the Intel dual-core 1.4GHz Core i5 chip is actually a pleasant surprise. It is one of Intel's newer parts and was only added to the MacBook Air line in the last couple of months. Although featuring only 3MB of shared L3 cache, it supports Intel's Hyperthreading meaning that Mac OS X can 'see' an additional two virtual cores, giving the chip the capability to execute four sets of instructions simultaneously (even though it only has two physical cores). It also supports Intel's Turbo Boost 2.0, allowing one of the two cores to clock up to 2.7GHz for short bursts where intensive processing is required. As a point of comparison, the iMac's Geekbench 3 single-core of 2833 puts it on par with a 15-inch quad-core MacBook Pro with Intel Core i7 chip from early 2011. Its Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 5465 puts it on par with a 13-inch dual-core MacBook Pro with Intel Core i7 from early 2011 as well. However, it performs less well than the quad-core 21.5-inch quad-core iMac currently sitting one rung above it in Apple's current range. That iMac returns a single-core score of 3168 and a substantially higher multi-core score of 10253 - its 1TB hard drive also spins at a much fast 7,200rpm, but costs $200 more.

Overall, the new entry-level 21-5-inch iMac from Apple is a welcome addition to the line up. It is not going to set the world on fire with its performance, but it was not designed to. It is what it is; a good value, low-cost starting point into the world of Apple desktop computing. Its Intel HD 5000 integrated GPU even offers the possibility of light 3D gaming and will be more than powerful enough to run many of the new low-cost gaming apps available through the Mac App Store. One important point to consider when taking into account the value proposition of Apple's hardware, and something that is frequently overlooked, is the free software Apple also offers customers. This includes all the apps from the excellent iLife and iWork suites ensuring that you will be both productive and creative, without additional expense. A free upgrade to OS X Yosemite due this fall will also make the new iMac even better.

The new Apple entry-level 21.5-inch iMac makes for a great second computer, or a first desktop computer for young families. There will also be plenty of schools lining up to get their hands on the new iMac too.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



  1. Inkling

    Senior User

    Joined: 07-25-06

    Be careful. Unless the demand you place on a computer are light, buying the low-end often means having to buy again a year or two sooner than you'd need to do if you'd opted for a bit more power. That soldered in RAM illustrates that. It keeps users from being able to make the first fix to add more life to an aging computer--adding more RAM. This illustrates what's meant by the old saying "Penny wise, pound foolish." Saving now can cost later. The low-end 11" MacBook Air has similar issues.

  1. Kees

    Junior Member

    Joined: 09-15-01

    If this is where your budget maxes out, one would do better to look for a refurbished last gen model. Any last year model iMac is faster than this one by quite a bit...

  1. Gazoobee

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 02-27-09

    @Inkling: The thing where you buy a computer and then add more Ram a few years later to bring it back to better performance hasn't really been a "thing" for years now. At least not with Macs.

    With Mac OS X, it's pretty much impossible for an app to use more than 4GB of RAM and only apps like video editing and other high end things will even use that. Ever since they started coming with 2GB and 4GB, Apple's computers don't really have a RAM problem for the average user and adding extra RAM doesn't really solve whatever performance problems they may be having. It's the processor that matters more now. 8GB of RAM soldered to the board will definitely serve for the entire lifetime of that computer unless the user is some kind of super power user and is attempting to edit a feature film or something.

  1. Grendelmon

    Senior User

    Joined: 12-26-07

    @Gazoobee: Hogwash. RAM can EASILY be maxed out by novice users in OS X. Especially if it is a family computer used by multiple people. True, a *single* app won't max out the available memory. It's the number of apps that will do it. If 2-3 family members remain logged into the machine simultaneously, each with their own instances of browers, email clients, iTunes, etc, it adds up quickly.

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