REVIEW: Apple iMac 21.5-inch (2012)

The iMac hasn’t had much attention from Apple in recent years―its metallic all-in-one design has received only minor modifications since its introduction in 2007. Despite this, Apple claims that the iMac is currently the top-selling desktop computer in the US. And, unusually for Apple, it seems to be almost as popular with businesses as it is with home users.

Every magazine designer on the planet seems to use the 27-inch model for layout work, as do many Web designers, photographers and video editors. The smaller 21.5-inch model is a striking status symbol on executive desks, and sticking one in your reception area is a sure way of telling your clients that you run a really cool company. So, to capitalise on the iMac’s current popularity, Apple has unveiled a new version that is even slimmer and more elegant―not to mention even more expensive―than ever.

Slim Pickings

As always, the iMac is available in two sizes―the 21.5-inch model reviewed here is on sale now, but the 27-inch model has experienced a delay and isn’t likely to be available before January 2013. That’s a shame, since the 27-inch model makes a fine graphics workstation and is arguably of greater interest for many business and professional users.

Even so, this 21.5-inch model is still striking enough to stir the techno-lust in your loins. Apple has removed the optical drive, allowing it to reduce the thickness of the screen panel even further. The outer edges of the screen measure just 5mm thick, although the back panel does bulge noticeably towards the centre. It looks wonderfully elegant and it’s tempting to keep running your finger around the edge of the screen just to feel the precision and quality of the engineering work.

The screen itself has been modified too. The 1,920 x 1,080 resolution remains unchanged, but Apple has used a new lamination process that reduces reflection and glare dramatically, resulting in a brighter, more colourful image. It has an impressively wide viewing angle too, so it’ll work well for presentations or a showroom display.

The iMac also sports two of Apple’s Thunderbolt connectors that―with the use of a suitable adapter―can be used to connect the iMac to a larger screen or monitor. However, longtime Mac users will be disappointed to see that the new iMac no longer includes any FireWire ports, opting for Thunderbolt and four USB 3.0 ports instead.

Power Play

The bad news, of course, is that the slimmer design comes with an even fatter price tag. The entry-level point for the iMac is now £1,099, a full £100 increase on last year’s model. It is more powerful though, as the quad-core Intel i5 processor has been updated to Ivy Bridge, and given a minor speed-bump from 2.5- to 2.7GHz.

The memory and hard disk have both been doubled, to 8GB and 1TB, and the AMD Radeon graphics card has been replaced by a GeForce GT640M based on nVidia’s latest Kepler architecture. It’s certainly a powerful piece of kit, although we’re inclined to suggest that a machine costing the best part of £1,100 should not be using a dated 5,400rpm hard disk and a graphics card with only 512MB of VRAM.

If you need even more power then there’s a model priced at £1,249 that runs at 2.9GHz and has a GT650M graphics card. That model can also be customised with options such as Apple’s new hybrid ‘Fusion’ drive which, for an additional £200, bolts 128GB of solid state storage onto the hard drive in order to improve the machine’s start-up time and launch time for applications.

The Fusion drive works intelligently, monitoring the applications that you use most and moving those applications onto the SSD partition. It also installs the main operating system onto the SSD to speed up the initial boot time. The results are genuinely impressive―the machine boots in a matter of seconds and application launch times improve dramatically.

Sadly, though, Apple tells us that Photoshop―a key professional program, and one that is notoriously slow to launch―may not benefit from the Fusion drive due to its idiosyncratic handling of memory and hard disk cache. It also occurs to us that most professional Photoshop users will probably prefer the larger screen of the 27-inch model, which raises the question of who exactly is likely to buy this 21.5-inch model.

Making A Statement

In its 13-year lifetime, the iMac has evolved from a low-cost home computer to a premium-price workstation. The 27-inch model is ideal for designers and other creative professionals―you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I have one in my own office―but the position of this 21.5-inch model seems less clear. Its quad-core processor and nVidia graphics card might appeal to gaming fans, but seem like massive overkill for business users who simply need to run Microsoft Office―especially with a starting price of £1,099.

There’s obviously room for a more modest iMac model, perhaps with a dual-core processor and just 4GB of memory, priced at less than £1,000. And, of course, there are numerous compact, all-in-one Windows PCs that are available from the likes of Dell, HP and Toshiba at considerably lower prices. But, let’s face it, they won’t look as cool on your desk or impress your clients and colleagues in quite the same way.

The new iMac is certainly impressive, both aesthetically and in terms of performance, and having one on your desk will certainly make a statement. But if you’d rather save money than make a statement then you’ll find that the recently released Mac Mini is far more affordable.

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  • Joseph

    I have always been on Windows for a long time but after trying out this newest incarnation 21.5in 2.7Ghz three times at different stores, I am so impressed how efficient it truly is. Fantastic!

  • Jane

    If you have countless hours to spend waiting in telephone queues to be told there are none in stock, Apple staff not knowing what will be on their next delivery so having to repeat this with every store every day, and Apple online unable to deliver before 17-20 days (as of a week ago), despite every other retailer managing next day courier delivery, it may well be worth it. For me … any company that deals so poorly with customer care rings alarm bells and, as the dragons would say, ‘I’m out.’