Apple iMac review (2012)

Better, faster, stronger. The new iMac claims to be better in all the ways you'd expect a refreshed product to be better: it steps up to Ivy Bridge, and packs NVIDIA Kepler chips for stronger graphics performance. It sports an improved display that cuts down on glare by 75 percent.

But thinner? For the first time in the product's history, the iMac is missing a built-in optical drive, which allows it to measure just 5mm thick around the edges. We can't say we've been waiting for a desktop quite that skinny, but if the new iMac delivers substantive improvements over the last-gen model, we won't begrudge Apple a little eye candy. So, does the iMac do more than just sit pretty? Are the performance and display as good as we've been led to believe? In a word, yes. Here's why.

Look and feel

Apple iMac review 2012

For the past few years, our iMac reviews have been rather perfunctory. Until this fall, when Apple finally announced fresh models, the design remained the same for several years running. Even now, we're tempted to gloss over the hardware section: from the front, this looks more or less like the last-generation iMac. Same aluminum build, including that metal chin with the glossy black Apple logo in the center. The stand in the back is basically the same, with a circular pass-through for the power cable. (As it happens, the stand is slightly more compact than it had been, but that means little in terms of space savings since the screen sizes are the same as they always were.) Both the 21- and 27-inch machines are significantly lighter, too, but you'll only notice that when you're taking yours out of the box.

No, if you want to appreciate the difference in design, you'll have to tear yourself away from that fully laminated screen and roll your desk chair off to the side. Now that the iMacs don't have built-in optical drives, they measure 5mm thick around the edges, about the thickness of four credit cards. Aside from nixing the DVD drive, of course, Apple was able to achieve that thin shape by adopting a process called friction-stir welding, a manufacturing technique commonly used in the aviation industry. Naturally, as you can see, the backside isn't that thin throughout; it puffs out in the center where the processor, GPU, RAM and all that fun stuff lives. Even so, it's dramatically, almost comically skinnier than last year's model. Up to a 40 percent reduction in volume, to be exact, depending on which one you get.

All told, the new design is eye-catching, and will probably earn you bragging rights the next time you give someone a tour of the home office. But how often are you going to be staring at your computer edge-on? And how many stares can a desktop draw if you never take it out in public? As you'll see, we ultimately recommend the iMac for several reasons -- namely, speed, display quality and graphics might. Thinness counts, too, but it feels more like a nice bonus than anything else.

Apple iMac review 2012

With one notable exception, the selection of openings is identical on both the 21- and 27-inch model. The ports (all located on the back side toward the right) include an Ethernet jack, two Thunderbolt connections and four USB 3.0 sockets. There's also an SDXC reader and a 3.5mm headphone jack, located closest to the edge. The power button is also on the back side, but over on the left-hand side. Up front, tucked into the front bezel, is a FaceTime camera, capable of recording 720p video. Hidden nearby are dual microphones, along with an ambient light sensor allowing the screen to automatically adjust the brightness depending on the surrounding lighting conditions.

The one difference is that the memory slots are user-accessible on the 27-inch model, but not on the 21-inch one. To open up the door on the backside, unplug the machine, remove the power cable from the back of the computer and then use a pen or a safety pin to press a button that causes the door to open. To be clear, though, this applies to the RAM only; the storage drive is inaccessible regardless of which model you choose.

Keyboard, mouse and Magic Trackpad

Apple iMac review 2012

Just as the overall design hasn't changed much, neither have the included peripherals. As ever, the Bluetooth keyboard is a compact little thing, fairly small considering it was built to live on a desk (one big enough to accommodate a 21- or 27-inch computer, at that). In fact, the keys take up about as much space as on the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and the spacing between the buttons is similar, too. The only reason it might have been bigger, then, would have been to accommodate a numpad, which you'll not find here.

In general, typing feels very similar to typing on a MacBook, which is to say the keys offer a decent amount of travel, and all of the major buttons (Delete, Enter, etc.) are easy to find by feel. Typing is also comfortable thanks to the battery door on the underside of the device, which gives the keyboard a slight wedge shape. All in all, it's an easy typing experience with a very small learning curve. If we could have Apple change one thing, though, it would be to coat the keys with the same soft-touch finish it uses on its laptop keyboards. The plastic buttons here are a bit scratchier, not that it's likely to interfere with the typing experience in any way.

If you wanted, you could configure your iMac so that it came with both a Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad in the box. By default, though, you get a choice between one or the other. (The regular Apple Mouse is also an option.) Far be it for us to tell you what to do, but if it were us shopping, we'd either choose the trackpad, or pay $69 extra so that we could have both. Part of it's that the trackpad works flawlessly, but it's also that the Magic Mouse is too narrow and too flat to fit comfortably in the hand. To be fair, the entire top of the mouse is one big multi-touch surface, capable of pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scrolling and all the gestures that serve as shortcuts in OS X. All of that would be awkward to pull off on a truly ergonomic mouse with a curvier shape. Still, if you've ever seen Microsoft's Touch Mouse, you know mice like this don't need to be that flat -- not unless clean aesthetics are a priority, anyway.

Apple iMac review 2012

Fortunately, the mouse performs well on a variety of surfaces, including wood and metal. It also works reliably as, well, a mouse. Simple cursor navigation is a breeze, as are more complex gestures. We had no problem scrolling through pages using two fingers, or scrolling to the side with two fingers to swipe between pages. Zooming also works smoothly -- pinch-to-zoom, the obvious method, feels controlled, though when we had the option (like in Google Maps) we used a two-finger scroll to zoom instead.

The Magic Trackpad, to those of you who haven't seen one before, is basically an overgrown version of the glass touchpad Apple uses on all its laptops. Meaning, it offers a smooth, low-friction surface with very precise tracking. As you'd expect, it supports all the same gestures as the Magic Mouse, though it also does things the Magic Mouse can't. To put it as simply as possible, the Magic Mouse only supports single- and two-finger gestures, while the Magic Trackpad also allows for three- and four-finger ones. These include: pinching your index finger and three fingers to either expose the desktop or the Launchpad; swiping down with three fingers for App Expose; swiping up with three fingers for Mission Control; and swiping left or right with three fingers to move between full-screen apps. We'll admit having an external trackpad instead of a mouse can take some getting used to, even if you're normally glued to the touchpad on your laptop. Still, once you get comfy, you might appreciate the bigger surface area, and also the wider range of gestures. Your wrist might thank you too.

Display and sound

Apple iMac review 2012

This is your single best reason to take the plunge.

If you're thinking of buying the new iMac, this is your single best reason to take the plunge. That and, well, the screaming performance. Though the screens have the same resolution as the last generation (1,920 x 1,080 for the 21-inch model and 2,560 x 1,440 for the 27-incher), they promise 75 percent less glare, thanks to a full lamination manufacturing process that eliminates the gap between the LCD and the glass. In principle, it's not unlike the optical bonding technique used in the Surface, iPhone 5 and other devices; we've just never seen it done on a screen quite this large. Additionally, Apple used a process called plasma deposition to apply an anti-reflective coating at an atomic level, instead of just blanketing the screen with the stuff. The goal there was to reduce reflections on that glass layer without dulling the quality of the colors coming from underneath.

We'd say it was a success. Even with the screens turned off, the new iMac is noticeably less reflective than last year's model. Turn the two systems on, though, and the difference just speaks for itself. In our unboxing, we already described the display as a wall of color, and that still feels like the most apt description. There really are very few reflections standing in between you and those vibrant tones. True, you'd never mistake this for a matte display (there's still a little glare, as you can see in some of our product shots), but it's still a huge improvement over last year's model, not to mention competing all-in-ones. In fact, with the brightness turned up far enough, you'll struggle to even make out your own reflection. As you can imagine, the screen is easily viewable from off-angles, too, which should come in handy the next time it's movie night and there's not enough room for everyone to have a front row seat. You can also adjust the screen angle by tilting it forward and back, but given the lack of glare, we rarely felt the need to.

Apple iMac review 2012

Once you stop gawking at those rich colors, you'll notice the impressive level of detail. The truth is, even when it comes to mundane tasks like web browsing, having a 1080p or 2,560 x 1,440 display makes everything feel just a bit crisper, a bit tidier. It wasn't until we started playing games and viewing photos, though, that we truly appreciated all those pixels. What can we say? It's a fantastic spec, especially if you're stepping up from a lower-res system. Still, we can't help but feel that the resolution is of secondary importance compared to the new screen technologies used here; after all, last year's models had the same resolution and still didn't look this nice.

The neat thing about the iMac's speaker setup is that unless someone gave you a tour of the system, you might not know exactly where the sound was coming from. Had you asked us back when we knew nothing about it, we would've guessed the sound came from somewhere around back. In fact, though, the speaker chambers are located on either side of the display, with the sound firing down from the bottom edge of the screen. Considering the audio is aimed down, then, instead of toward the user, the soundstage is actually quite wide -- wide enough that maybe, just maybe you'll be willing to set aside your headphones the next time you launch into a gaming marathon. The quality itself is rich -- forceful, even -- with only a hint of distortion at higher volumes (not that I pushed it past the median level when it was just me working by myself). Suffice to say, you probably don't need an external pair of speakers here; as is, we felt like we were rediscovering favorite songs, in that we were able to make out details that would have gotten drowned out on a lesser system.


Apple iMac review 2012

As you'd expect from a desktop that's getting refreshed in late 2012, the new iMac steps up to Intel Ivy Bridge processors, along with NVIDIA Kepler GPUs. For the purposes of this review, we tested two units (one in each size, natch). This included a 21-inch system with a 3.1GHz Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 512MB NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M GPU, and a 27-inch machine with a 3.4GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 2GB GeForce GTX 680MX. Were you to buy these yourself, they'd cost $2,149 and $2,599, respectively.

Predictably, they do do well. Very, very well. Starting with raw benchmark scores, the 21.5-inch version we tested notched an average Geekbench score of 12,577, while our 27-inch review unit scored 13,045. The 27-inch iMac we reviewed last year scored just 8,465, but our ability to compare results is limited since that was a Core i5 unit, and not the sort of specially configured system we tested this year. Our two test machines also scored well in Xbench, managing 531.91 and 560.44, respectively. (To put that in context, the new Mac mini got 454 in the same test, which is a good showing in and of itself.)

Refreshed silicon doesn't tell the whole story.

Still, that refreshed silicon doesn't tell the whole story. That performance jump, we suspect, mostly comes from Apple's FusionDrive, which combines a 5,400RPM hard drive and an SSD into one volume -- similar to the setup you'll find in high-end gaming rigs. (Note: you need to configure the iMac with this feature, as it doesn't come standard.) It's a significant change, especially since as recently as last year even the most tricked-out iMacs still had spinning hard drives (7,200RPM ones, mind you, but spinning hard drives nonetheless). Here, you get a 128GB disk, and it's not just there for caching, or speeding up boot times. The difference between this and other so-called hybrid storage solutions is that by default, FusionDrive stores most everything on that SSD, including the OS and applications. (Media files might live on the HDD, since you're not as likely to open them every day.) For the most part, then, the SSD will be your primary mode of storage; it's not until you run out of space that the machine really starts off-loading content onto the slower of the two drives.

And yes, it's fast, especially compared to the HDDs in last year's models. Using the Blackmagic disk benchmark, we recorded average read speeds of 409.64 MB/s and average writes of 320.14 MB/s. We should say, too, that although we varied the stress load, simulating transfers between 1GB and 5GB, the performance remained pretty consistent. For instance, in the 1GB test, which tends to yield higher numbers than the 5GB one, our average read and write rates were only slightly higher: 412.73 MB/s and 321.93 MB/s, respectively. We also didn't see that significant a gap between our high and low numbers; read speeds, for instance, never dipped below the 390s, but also never rose about the 420s. The numbers also stayed even from one machine to the other: our two systems delivered nearly identical numbers across many rounds of testing.

What does that mean in practice? For starters, very little waiting. The system cold-boots in just 16 seconds. Chrome and Firefox take less than a second to open; Skype takes less than two while iPhoto, a more intensive app, takes just under three. Graphics-wise, we had no problem playing Crusader Kings II and Half-Life 2 at the max resolution (1080p), even on one of the lesser-specced 21-inch models.

Software and warranty

By now, all Apple computers ship with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, and that of course includes these here iMacs. We'll steer you toward our detailed review if you're intensely curious about all the new features, but here's the tl;dr version: deeper iCloud integration, built-in sharing to Facebook and other social networks and a new, Growl-inspired notification center.

As ever, Apple's standard warranty includes one year of eligible hardware repairs and 90 days of free phone support. The AppleCare extended warranty ($169 for iMacs) extends your coverage to three years of service, along with three years of phone support.

Configuration options

Apple iMac review 2012

Let's start with the smaller of the two machines, the 21.5-inch model. That guy starts at $1,299 with a quad-core 2.7GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB (5,400RPM) hard drive and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M GPU with 512MB of dedicated video memory. For $1,499, you get a faster 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor with a slightly better GT 650M GPU (also with 512MB of memory). Even at that higher price, you still get 1TB of storage and eight gigs of RAM. In both cases, too, you can upgrade to 16GB of RAM, which adds $200 to the cost. However, if you choose the $1,499 model, you get some upgrade options that simply aren't available on the $1,299 one -- namely, a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i7 processor ($200) or a FusionDrive ($250).

Now for the 27-inch model. It starts at $1,799, and packs the same 1.9GHz Core i5 processor used in the higher-end 21-inch model. At that entry-level price, it comes with 8GB of RAM, a 1TB (7,200RPM) drive and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660M GPU with 512MB of video memory. Here, too, there's a more tricked-out model, and that costs $1,999. For the money, you get a 3.2GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675MX GPU with a full gigabyte of memory. That configuration also comes with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive spinning at 7,200RPM.

Now, if you had the budget to upgrade even further you could, but once again you'd have to start with the higher-end configuration to get all the options. For example, you can order the 27-inch version with a 3.4GHz Core i7 processor ($200) and a 2GB GeForce GTX 680MX GPU ($150), but you'd have to select the $1,999 model. Regardless of whether you choose the high-end version or the base model, though, you can configure the 27-incher with up to 32GB of RAM ($600). You can also expand the storage beyond 1TB, even if you start with the entry-level configuration. In addition to the 1TB FusionDrive we mentioned ($250), you can order a FusionDrive with 3TB of space. That'll cost you $400. If you're content to just use an HDD, you can choose a 3TB, 7,200RPM disk, which adds $150 to the price. Proud member of the 1 percent? May as well get a 768GB SSD -- a $1,300 add-on.

The competition

Shifting our attention to all those new Windows 8 machines hitting the market, the iMac's most obvious competitor is none other than the HP Spectre One, which takes numerous design cues from Apple, right down to the Magic Trackpad-style touchpad and eerily familiar keyboard. Aesthetics aside, the Spectre One makes for a neat comparison, given that it, too, is missing an optical drive, and is fairly skinny for an all-in-one desktop. What's more, this is one of just a few Windows 8 all-in-ones that doesn't have a touchscreen, so the user experience here might be a little more similar to the iMac's than on other Windows desktops.

In terms of specs and features, it has a 23.6-inch, 1080p screen, putting it somewhere in between the two iMacs, size-wise. Still, with a starting price of $1,300, it's much more poised to compete with Apple's 21-inch desktop, which goes for $1,299 and up. For $1,300, you get the same 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor used in the $1,499 iMac, though the other specs are actually inferior to what you'd get in the lowest-end iMac. Here, you get 6GB of RAM, not eight, and the GPU is an NVIDIA GeForce GT610M (albeit, with 1GB of video memory). This, too, starts with a 1TB 5,400RPM drive, except, of course, you can't pair it with a large SSD; just 16GB of flash memory to be used for caching. Aside from the standard CPU, the only area where the Spectre One possibly wins on specs is that it has NFC. Even then, though, we're not sure even HP has a clear vision of how you'll use this feature in your day-to-day routine.

Right now, at least, there isn't a single Windows 8 all-in-one with a display as nice as this.

We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention the Dell XPS 27, which matches the 27-inch iMac's 2,560 x 1,440 resolution. It's also tough to ignore its $1,400 starting price, which makes it $400 less than the lowest-end 27-inch iMac. There are a few things to keep in mind, though. For starters, the specs are slightly weaker than what you'd get on the 27-inch iMac, which makes sense, given the lower starting price. Secondly, this has a built-in optical drive and optional touchscreen, in case you think you'll miss those features on the iMac. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it comes standard with integrated graphics, and the highest-end option is the GT 640M, which Apple only installs on its lowest-end 21-inch iMac. So, the graphics power really isn't comparable, and even if you were willing to settle for the 640M, you'd have to pay upwards of $2,100. Basically, then, if you're looking for a super-high-res screen on the cheap, this is it. But if it's ultimate processing power you're after, the iMac is the better value.

Of course, there are plenty of other Windows 8 all-in-ones out there, but few offer such high-end specs and, more importantly, many of them are touch-based. That opens up a philosophical debate that goes far beyond Mac versus PC. It's about touch versus the mouse and keyboard (or mouse and Magic Trackpad, as it were). If you're dead-set on touch, you're probably not seriously considering the iMac. And if you are thinking of a touchscreen machine, you'll have to accept the fact that right now, at least, there isn't a single Windows 8 all-in-one with a display as nice as this.

Wrapping things up back on the Mac side, you can get the benefits of FusionDrive with the budget-friendly Mac mini, which costs at little as $850 if you order it with that kind of drive. Still, you'll be stuck with integrated graphics, less RAM and less potential storage. It performs well, as we found in our review, but there's no use pretending it's in the same performance class as the iMac.


Apple iMac review 2012

More Info

The newest iMac is a great product, and despite Apple's reputation for making pricey things, it's actually a great value, too. Even as other computer makers catch up in terms of screen resolution and industrial design, the iMac stands out with a stunning display that really does cut down on screen glare. As for FusionDrive, it's exceedingly rare to find a consumer system that uses an HDD for storage and an SSD for system stuff. That's a clear step up from typical hybrid drives, which use a much smaller amount of flash memory, mainly for caching and improving start-up times. And while Apple doesn't always win on specs, it makes a tempting offer here: you get beefier graphics than on competing systems, which should help creative professionals, amateur photographers and casual gamers alike.

We highly recommend the iMac to all the above groups, though unless you're a pro or just have to have that extra screen real estate, the $1,799 price might deter you from choosing the 27-inch model. Even so, the 21-incher is a powerful machine in its own right, and is priced low enough that we can see folks picking one up to use in the home office, or as a shared family machine.

If anything, the biggest drawback is that with this redesign Apple doesn't have a single consumer desktop with a built-in optical drive. To be honest, we're not sure how many people still depend on these, but we suggest you think long and hard about whether you need to play back DVDs -- and if you'd be willing to do it with an external SuperDrive. What's more, the iMac forgoes a touchscreen in favor of the Magic Trackpad, which means if you'd like the versatility of a touch-friendly system, you'll have to start cross-shopping Windows 8 machines, with the understanding that none of the ones available today have this nice a display. If DVD drives and touchscreens mean little to you, though, the iMac remains the best all-in-one on the market.

Zach Honig contributed to this review.