New Apple iMac still the Gold Standard in all-in-one desktops (February 26th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $2,749 as tested
- Gorgeous, low-glare display - Beautiful redesign, well constructed - Powerhouse performance - Fast connectivity options
- No optical drive - Screen can be hard to keep smudge free - No recovery media - Expensive upgrade options
The new iMac was introduced in late October, however trying to get your hands on one is not easy. Even now, if you choose a customized option as we did, you will need to wait for up to four weeks before you can get yours. Even ahead of its launch, rumors were circulating that Apple's manufacturing partners were having problems using the new 'friction welding' technique that Apple has employed in its design achieve the very thin, unibody design that distinguishes it. It seems that some of those issues may have persisted to some extent as Apple has yet to get supply on an even keel with demand. So, is it worth putting down the money on a computer that you might not get for another month?
Hardware and design
Jony Ive and his design team at Apple have created yet another compelling iMac design. Making its devices thinner and better with each generation is something that Apple specializes in, however, no one could have anticipated just how much thinner new iMac is against the previous generation. It is just 5mm at the edges, before it gracefully arcs away at the rear to accommodate everything that is required to make it a state-of-the-art all-in-one desktop. The new iMac has shed an incredible 9.5 pounds in weight, taking it down to just 21 pounds for a device packing a 27-inch display as well. In doing so, its volume has also been reduced by an amazing 40 percent.
From a pure design perspective, it is best appreciated from the side view, while from the front it still looks very similar to its predecessor. There is nothing wrong with that of course, as Apple like BMW in the automotive world, chooses to evolve its designs more slowly, after first defining a look that is distinctly its own. However, to the trained observer, it becomes apparent on closer inspection that the changes to the iMac are more than purely cosmetic. On the rear of the 27-inch iMac there is a new slotted ventilation port that is very discrete, and beneath it sits a user accessible panel that hides the memory. Both of these reside behind the rear stand, making them hidden from view when viewed directly from the rear. The button for the memory panel (only available on the 27-inch model) is popped open by a button that is elegantly tucked away inside the rear power port, which is entirely hidden when the power cord is plugged in. It is the type of design detail that only Apple would take the trouble to think through and properly execute.
At the bottom of the display are a number of grills, which is where the speakers hide. As narrow as these are, and as thin as the whole device is, Apple has packed in two 20W speakers. An iFixit teardown of the new 21.5-inch iMac shows a sound tube has been applied to each speaker to help amplify the sound further, resulting in a surprisingly decent sound. Although pointed downwards, they seem to project music and audio forwards with both clarity and reasonable depth, although they produce far too much treble for our taste. They are certainly no substitute for a pair of good external desktop speakers.
But as with the power port that also hides a button to pop open the memory card slots, what seems like multiple speaker grilles, just two are reserved for the speakers. The remainder are air intake ports for the single fan unit that Apple has employed, which sucks the air through the bottom vents of the iMac and out through the rear grills. You may be familiar with the approach, as Apple first applied it to the design of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. In this instance, Apple has used the same approach to keep a full-power Intel quad-core desktop chip with thermal dynamic profile of 77W cool inside an ultrathin desktop design.
Also, embedded in the front bezel, is a FaceTime camera capable of recording 720p video as well as an light sensor that automatically adjust display brightness depending on the ambient light. Tiny holes on top of the bezel and at the top rear of the iMac betray dual microphones. Integration and the seamless blend of functional elements define the new iMac design as the epitome of pure industrial design. It is equal parts a powerhouse computer and a design statement.
The other striking feature of the 27-inch iMac, as always, is its display. Although Apple may have disappointed some users by launching an all-new iMac without a super high resolution Retina display, the 27-inch iMac has always sported one of the best LCD panels in its segment. It continues with a 2560x1440 LED-backlit 16:9 widescreen TFT active matrix IPS panel with its protective glass coating fully laminated to the LCD. This eliminates 2mm the gap between the panel and the glass on the previous design and is very similar to the approach Apple has adopted in the construction of the iPhone 5. To this, Apple has embedded an anti-reflective coating at a molecular level that it says is good for reducing the glare on the display by 75 percent.
So although there is no Retina display to boast of, it provides an outstanding viewing experience that will keep discerning users more than happy. We were able to compare it with our 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt display in a side-by-side comparison, which is an excellent benchmark. Although it uses a panel with the same resolution as the new iMac, it continues with the 2mm gap between the display and the glass panel and does not include the new anti-glare treatment used in the new iMac display. Viewed on its own, the Thunderbolt display is still excellent. Viewed next to the new iMac display, and it becomes readily apparent that the display treatment on the new iMac makes for much less glare and a much more comfortable computing experience as a result. We look forward to the inevitable Thunderbolt display redesign that should also bring with upgraded I/O capabilities as well as a zero gap display and thinner chassis.
Further, the colors on the new iMac display do not lose their ‘pop’ in any way, and if anything, they look to be somewhat deeper and richer suggesting that Apple has been able to deliver a wider color gamut with the new panel. Icons in the dock look exceptionally crisp and vibrant, while web pages are easy to read and movies are clearer, with better definition and contrast. Brightness is 300 nits, while its overall hue appears warmer than the Thunderbolt display, which appears cooler by comparison. There is no LED light bleeding apparent, nor any dead pixels. The viewing experience is simply first-rate. The only down side to the new anti-reflective display treatment is that it seems to make cleaning smudges and finger prints off the glass quite difficult. For the most part, this is not noticeable, except it can be apparent around the black bezel. We had more issues than most because were handling the device for photos, making it very hard to avoid getting our hands on the front panel.
Our iMac (Late 2012) model is a build-to-order model, assembled in China. It is powered by a 64-bit Intel Core i7 ‘Ivy Bridge’ 3770 clocked at 3.4GHz that is fabricated on a 22nm process, and is a $200 upgrade. It includes 8MB of shared level 3 cache, while each core has its own 256k level 2 cache. Equipped with Turbo Boost 2.0, it can ramp up to 3.9GHz for short periods under intense processor load; while it also incorporates Intel’s Hyper threading that allows the computer to recognize eight virtual cores. This is matched with 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3L SDRAM (PC3-12800) that is installed as a pair of 4GB modules. This leaves an additional two SO-DIMM slots free to add another pair of 4GB modules taking RAM up to 16GB or, alternatively, you can go the whole hog and replace the 4GB modules with 8GB modules in all four slots. Buy the whole 32GB of RAM from Apple, and it will set you back a ridiculous $600. A quick search of Crucial.com revealed that we could do the same upgrade ourselves for $200.
Our test iMac also features an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680MX with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. This upgrade costs a more reasonable $150 and brings with it some serious graphics grunt, even though it is considered a mobile-class GPU. It is built on a 28nm process and is based on Nvidia’s vaunted Kepler architecture. It features 1536 CUDA cores, clocked at 720MHz and is capable of supporting up to four displays. Memory speed is clocked at 2500MHz for bandwidth of 160 GB/sec and it is good for a texture fill rate of 92.2 billion/sec. It supports OpenGL 4.1 and PCI Express 3.0, all the latest standards, making for very fast and fluid graphics performance. Nvidia claims it is the fastest mobile GPU on the market.
Our test iMac is also equipped with Apple’s new Fusion drive, which combines a 128GB Samsung SSD and a 3-terabyte spinning hard drive into a single volume. Apple uses a clever software algorithm that constantly monitors usage patterns and shifts data between the two volumes in the background, to help ensure that access to frequently used blocks comes from the SSD component, while less frequently used blocks, including infrequently used software gets shifted to the spinning platter. If your usage changes, so will the placement of the data blocks. In most instances though, applications will remain on the 128GB SSD component. You can go all-SSD, but that will take an additional $1300 for a 768GB SSD. For near SSD performance overall, the Fusion drive combination makes the most sense for most users. The BlackMagicDesign speed test yielded peak write speeds of around 355 MB/s and peak read speeds of around 457 MB/s. However, this was achieved by writing and reading to and from the SSD drive.
We ran a couple of well-known benchmarks to obtain and objective set of test scores. The 64-bit Geekbench test yielded a score of 14,177, which at the time of writing makes the eighth fastest Mac of any description in the Geekbench 64-bit top ten. The Geekbench 32-bit test yielded a score of 13,004, which placed the new iMac at number 9 on the 32-bit list all-time fastest Macs. This compares with a score of 11,058 for the mid-2012 MacBook Pro with Retina display running a 2.3GHz third-generation Core i7 quad-core CPU, and 6526 for the 2011 Mac mini running a second-generation dual-core Core i7 clocked at 2.0GHz. The new iMac has heavy-hitting performance, which was made plainly apparent when we ripped a 90-minute movie in using the multi-threaded capable 64-bit version of Handbrake in just 11 minutes.
The Cinebench R11.5 test yielded scores of 42.16fps on the OpenGL component, comparing favorably with the Kepler-based Nvidia GT 650M running in the Mid-2012 rMBP, which achieved 34.80fps on the same test. The older Mac mini with discrete AMD Radeon HD 6630M produced a score of 18.04fps as a point of comparison. The new iMac will be a lot of fun for Mac gamers, bringing titles like Bioshock 2 and Call of Duty 4 to life in a way that has not previously been possible in Apple’s all-in-one product line. We thoroughly enjoyed its smooth graphics rendering at resolutions up to 1080p with details set to maximum, which looked great on the stunning 27-inch iMac display. The Cinebench CPU test saw our iMac score 7.34 points. By comparison, the rMBP managed a score of 6.15, while our 2011 Mac mini was well back at 2.77.
There is little doubt that the new iMac performs very well. It is the fastest ever iMac, and its combination of processing and graphics capabilities will be up to the challenge of even pro-level users. When maxing out the CPU on the Handbrake test, it was notable that the iMac started to produce audible fan noise. Our temperature sensors revealed that the CPU reached at temperature of 156 degrees Fahrenheit (69 degrees Celsius) at the peak of the 11 minute ripping cycle, but this is well within the operating parameters for the chip. Memory management is also very sound. We were able to launch multiple applications simultaneously, including Xcode, Aperture, iTunes, Photoshop, Safari, Mail, Pages, FaceTime, Contacts, Notes, Reminders, Numbers, and QuickTime, which still left 2.20GB of the 8GB of system RAM idle.
While the air coming out the rear vents was very warm, the external casing did not feel particularly warm to touch. Previous iMac designs did not have the ability to draw in cool air from outside the case to keep things cool, but Apple’s new thermal design means that it should be able to handle processor intensive tasks comfortably. Just be prepared for the otherwise near silent operation to become noisier, although not unacceptably so. Jony Ive and his design team have made the new iMac using lessons learned from the development of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display to pack in a high-powered computer into a space no thicker than the average stand alone 27-inch monitor, which includes Apple’s own Thunderbolt display. It is an incredible achievement, and one which should not be understated.
The new iMac comes with a host of cutting edge connectivity options, which should make some Mac Pro users quite envious. Built-in to the rear of the iMac are four USB 3.0 ports, a pair of Thunderbolt ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and an SDXC card reader. This ensures that users can connect to latest USB peripherals and enjoy transfer speeds of up to 5Gb/s (x4), while the Thunderbolt ports can both transfer data at up to 10Gb/s (x2). Each Thunderbolt port can also support up to six daisy-chained devices, giving iMac users incredible flexibility as well as the fastest connectivity options of any all-in-one device, and more than any other Mac in Apple’s lineup. Added to this is a fast 802.11n wireless connectivity over a MIMO antenna array for up to 450 Mbit/s transfer speeds, and Bluetooth 4.0 hub capability. Barring the eventual adoption of the 802.11ac standard, the new iMac is about as future-proof as you can get from a connectivity perspective.
The new 27-inch iMac comes with a special build of Mac OS X 10.8.2 Mountain Lion. We can assume that this means it has custom drivers installed among other tweaks. As reviews of Mountain Lion have pointed out, it is an incremental update over its predecessor that is a more complete integration of some of the better features from Apple’s mobile iOS operating system. For the most part, it remains a high quality 64-bit operating system that remains user-friendly, but offers plenty of power and scalability for professional users who need to eek out every little once of power that its 64-bit software architecture is able to draw from Intel’s powerful processors.
The downside to the custom build of Mountain Lion on the iMac is that there is no recovery partition installed on the drive. This can prove to be a real annoyance when it comes to reinstalling Mountain Lion should something go wrong, as it did for us following a migration from our MacBook Pro with Retina display over Thunderbolt. While the transfer was completed in a mind-blowing 12 minutes, we suffered multiple stability problems following the transfer and were forced to reinstall Mountain Lion over the Internet. Over our ADSL connection, this took over 3 hours, which is a pain in the neck by any standards. While digital downloads are definitely upon us, we would still love the option to have a presupplied USB reinstall stick as Apple once did for at least one generation of its MacBook Airs. Sure, Apple has a utility app, Recovery Disk Assistant, that helps you create a bootable USB drive, but that does not help late 2012 iMac users as it depends on a recovery partition to create the bootable drive.
Mac OS X also comes with Apple’s free iLife ‘11 software, which is surely coming due for another overhaul. However, it remains a very easy to use suite of apps that includes iPhoto, Garageband and iMovie. In their own right, they remain among the best and most accessible applications for quickly editing and creating photos with effects, home movies with slick transitions and animations, or turning your Mac into a digital audio workstation. All of these also serve as entry-class apps for Apples professional level applications including Aperture, Logic and Final Cut Pro, which as you would expect, Apple has made it very easy to enable users to transition across to if you want to get serious at any time.
One of the key trade-offs of the new iMac is that, like most of Apple’s MacBooks and the Mac mini, its optical drive has been sacrificed in the name of thinness. While it is true, that increasingly many of us are moving to an all-solid-state digital world, we still use an optical drive for watching DVDs and ripping purchased CDs in lossless formats. We would also watch Blu-ray discs if Apple ever supported the format! So, what we are left with is Apple’s SuperDrive, which at $79, is not unreasonably priced. It writes DVD+R DL and DVD-R DL at 4X, DVD-R and DVD+R at 8X, DVD-RW at 6X, DVD+RW at 8X. It reads DVD at 8X, writes CD-R at 24X, writes CD-RW at 16X, and reads CDs at 24X.
The iMac also ships with a choice of Apple Wireless or wired keyboard with numeric pad and Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad at no extra charge. However, users can also opt to purchase both the Magic Trackpad and the Magic Mouse for an additional $69. While we have settled on using our Logitech Bluetooth Easy-Switch Keyboard with backlighting for the time being, the Apple Wireless Keyboard remains a solid choice. Users will enjoy its relatively quiet operation and comfort, but may tire of having to change its batteries at roughly two-monthly intervals or shorted, depending on use. The Magic Mouse is currently our preferred mouse, although there are better third-party alternatives out there. The Magic Trackpad remains a great way to bring multi-touch gestures to the Mac desktop experience, without the awkwardness that can characterize a traditional upright desktop touchscreen experience.
The 27-inch iMac (late 2012) is in a class of its own when it comes to all-in-one desktop computing. It will cater to a wide range of users who are looking for more power and a larger display than can be delivered in a notebook. There are now a number of competing PC products on the market that have also added touchscreen capabilities thanks to the introduction of Windows 8. However, we are yet to be convinced of the value of a touchscreen in desktop environment and thus don’t view that as a downside of the new iMac. If you’re in the market for a Windows alternative, you can look to the Dell XPS One 27, the Vizio Touch PC and HP’s Omni 27.
As is often the case in Mac versus Windows PC comparisons, the Windows machines generally offer better bang-for-your-buck, but they will not bring you the level of detail and refinement that comes with Apple’s new 27-inch iMac. Apple’s 27-inch iMac also caters to the pro-sumer market in a way that none of the Windows alternatives is able to challenge as it supports up to 32GB of RAM, has the fast hybrid Fusion drive or the option for 768GB SSD and an array of unparalleled high-speed connectivity options. We would like to see Apple drop its exorbitant prices for in-house RAM upgrades and we would also love to see a return reinstall media being presupplied. Overall, though, the redesigned 27-inch iMac is every inch a winner.