Look and feel
You'll buy the iMac for its beautiful display and robust performance, not the thickness of the bezel.
This section is going to feel awfully repetitive for those who read last year's review or who've gotten a chance to check out the iMac at a local Apple store. Still, what kind of reviewers would we be if we recommended a $1,299-plus product without describing the exterior design?
Like the current iMac (or any Mac, really), these guys are made of smooth aluminum, with blunt edges and rounded corners. Unlike the Air, though, the iMac isn't made of a single piece of aluminum, but rather, two. If you're curious, Apple uses a process called friction-stir welding (often used in the aviation industry) to bond the two pieces together so that the chassis is thin, with no obvious seams.
All told, that skinny frame really is impressive, though you'll only truly appreciate it on the occasion you're viewing the machine from off to the side. And as thin as the bezel is, you'll still notice a bulge around back where all the internal components live. Also, while the base is slightly more compact than on previous iMac designs, the screen sizes are the same, so you won't get much in the way of space savings. That's not to say the machine isn't pretty, but let's be honest: you're buying the iMac for its beautiful display and robust performance, not the thickness of the bezel.
Speaking of the sort, we've been getting an awful lot of emails from readers asking not if they should buy the iMac, but what size they should get. As a disclaimer, it's always hard to make that call when we're not actually sitting in your workspace (photos can only tell us so much). That said, we'll call out the dimensions here, and you can do the rest by measuring your desk space. Starting with the smaller model, the 21.5-inch version stands 17.7 inches tall and 20.8 inches wide, with a stand that measures 6.9 inches deep. The 27-incher, meanwhile, stands 20.3 inches tall and 25.6 inches wide, with an 8-inch-deep stand. One weighs 12.5 pounds and the other 21 pounds, not that it'll matter after the initial setup.
At any rate, we'd hate to steer you toward the 27-inch model only for you to discover it takes up too much room on your desk. But in general, we've found the bigger guy actually fits into more workspaces than we would have expected. So yes, we do recommend you double-check your desk dimensions first, but you also shouldn't be shy about springing for the larger model just because it's bigger. Really, we suspect some people will rule out the large version because it's $500 more expensive, not because it has too giant a footprint.
Moving around to the back, the iMac has a circular hole on the stand, meant for a cable to pass through -- a feature Apple has been including on its desktops for some time now. Also on the back, you'll find the power socket, along with a row of ports on the left: a headphone jack, SDXC slot, four USB 3.0 connections, two Thunderbolt sockets and a Gigabit Ethernet port. The power button, meanwhile, is still built into the back side, over on the right. It blends in well enough that you might miss it at first glance, but it's still easy to find by feel if you're standing in front of the machine (which you usually will be). Finally, as always, the side edges are blank: you won't find any optical drive here. (How else could the frame be so skinny?)
Inside the box, you'll also find the all-important wireless keyboard, along with your choice of the Magic Mouse or the Magic Trackpad. You can have either for the same price, but if you want both, you'll need to pay an extra $69.
Display and sound
We won't dwell much on the iMac's screen resolution, as it's been the same for several generations now (1,920 x 1,080 on the 21-inch version, and 2,560 x 1,440 on the 27-incher). We will take some time to bring you back up to speed on the panel itself, which Apple refreshed in a big way when it unveiled the redesigned iMacs last year. In short, it's all about the low glare. That and the colors. For starters, Apple used a full lamination manufacturing process that eliminates the gap between the LCD and the glass. If you recall, it's actually quite similar to what Apple already does with the iPhone, and what Microsoft does with the Surface, to name just two examples. The difference is, Apple applies the anti-reflective coating at the atomic level, instead of painting the screen with it, which ensures the colors don't get muddied.
In any case, even a year later we're still not used to seeing such an anti-reflective screen on a machine this large -- not unless it has a matte finish, anyway. As it stands, when you look into the iMac's powered-on screen, you'll barely see your own reflection staring back at you, especially if you pump the brightness up. Heck, with viewing angles this good, you might not even need to take advantage of the tilting screen, though that's of course an option for people who want full control over their workspace. Perhaps other PC makers will catch up over the coming year, and this screen won't seem so novel by the time next fall rolls around, but for now, at least, it's still the single most important reason why you'd buy this over a competing all-in-one.
You can't see the speakers -- the openings are cleverly hidden on the underside of the lower bezel -- but they produce loud sound nonetheless. Not just loud, but also robust, with deep low notes and minimal distortion at the high end. (You'll rarely need to crank the volume up, anyway -- trust us.) What's especially impressive is that although the sound is firing down from the chin, it never seems like it's localized around the base of the machine; the audio manages to feels omnipresent, as if it's emanating out of the sides and back of the computer too. Needless to say, that kind of immersion is ideal not just for listening to music, but also for watching movies and playing games.
It was with last year's iMacs that Apple first introduced Fusion Drive, a storage setup that combines a traditional spinning hard drive with an SSD. Unlike other computers, though, that use a small SSD (32GB or less), Fusion Drive comes with a large 128GB solid-state drive, and it's not just there for cutting boot times, either. Here, the SSD and hard drive coexist in a single volume, and the iMac stores the OS (along with all of your files) on the SSD by default; it only starts off-loading onto the hard drive once you run out of flash storage.
This time around, though, Apple's improved the speed on both the HDD and SSD sides of the equation. On the one hand, the 27-inch iMac now starts with 7,200RPM drives, not 5,400RPM ones. (The entry-level 21.5-inch configuration still comes with a 5,400RPM disk.) Meanwhile, Apple also moved from regular SSDs to ones that follow the PCI Express (PCIe) standard. Sure enough, we saw a big jump in read speeds: an average of 667.88 MB/s, up from 409.64 MB/s last year. Write speeds stayed about flat year-over-year, though: the 2013 model we tested notched an average of 318.14 MB/s, which is pretty similar to the 320.14 MB/s we saw in the 2012 models.
As we've seen on all those Haswell laptops we've been testing, there isn't a big difference in CPU performance when you compare Intel's third-generation Core processors with its fourth-gen chips. Unfortunately, it's impossible for us to make a direct comparison with the machines Apple sent us last year, as those were tricked-out, configured-to-order units; the 27-inch model we're testing now, with a 3.4GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 2GB NVIDIA GTX 775M GPU, is actually one of the more modest configurations available, at $2,199. (If you're paying attention, by the way, that's a laptop-grade chipset, which is sadly a requirement for getting a machine to be as compact as this. See also: Vizio, to name just one example.)
That said, even if you take our Xbench and Geekbench scores with a grain of salt, our startup times also indicate fairly even performance when it comes to more CPU-intensive tasks. For instance, booting up the machine now takes 13 or 14 seconds, whereas we logged 16 seconds on last year's models. Not a big deal, right?
In addition, we tried some other benchmarks that we didn't run on the 2012 iMacs. In Cinebench R15, for instance, we recorded 80.18 frames per second on the graphics-focused OpenGL test. In the CPU test, we got a score of 525. Meanwhile, in Novabench (available for free in the Mac App Store, for those of you who want to play along at home), our unit managed a score of 539 on the CPU tests, 390 on the graphics tests and 58 in the hardware section. Interestingly, the hard drive test showed write speeds of 278 MB/s. That falls in roughly the same ballpark as our other numbers, which we got from the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. Another tidbit: RAM speed comes in at 9,461 MB/s, if you're curious. If all this seems out of context, it is -- we only just started using these tests -- but hopefully this means we can include more comparisons when we review next year's iMacs.
Aside from those faster PCIe SSDs and 7,200RPM hard drives, the other big performance boost comes from the refreshed GPUs. As we said, our particular test unit came with NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M graphics, along with 2GB of video memory, though if you wanted, you could step up to a GTX 780M with four gigs of VRAM. To test this guy's graphics chops, we specifically started out with Batman: Arkham City (the Game of the Year Edition) -- not just because it's new, but also because it has a built-in benchmarking tool. (We didn't want this section to amount to "this game runs smoothly," though in general, they do).
What we noticed is that there isn't much of a difference in frame rates when you choose between "high" and "medium" for the level of detail. (In both scenarios, the resolution was set to 2,560 x 1,440, with 4x anti-aliasing; that seemed like a good compromise between having no anti-aliasing, and having so much that the game slowed down.) With the details set to medium, we saw an average frame rate of 60 fps, with the minimum frame rate coming out to 38 fps and the maximum topping out at 76 fps. That's all very playable, especially for a casual gamer.
Not only was the detail sharp, even at medium settings, but we didn't notice any slowdowns either. Even better, the frame rate stayed roughly the same when we bumped the level of detail to its max setting: under those conditions, we got an average of 56 fps, with frame rates ranging from 37 fps to 74 fps depending on what part of the game it was. The thing is, though, casual gamers will have a tough time appreciating the difference between medium detail and the max setting. Really, we suspect only serious players will want to crank up the details, but even then, those are precisely the sort of folks who will go for dedicated gaming rigs.
With other titles, too, we saw diminishing returns after setting the detail level to high. In BioShock Infinite, with the resolution maxed out at 1,600 x 900, we enjoyed detailed, mostly smooth gaming, but we did see some frames jump as we had our character look up and around the room. Meanwhile, with Borderlands 2, cranking up the details caused even the intro credits to stutter. Fortunately, downgrading to medium solved the problem -- and the animations looked intricate. Still, The Witcher 2 ran fluidly, even at max detail, so to some extent, you'll need to play with the settings to see how great a picture you can get without sacrificing smoothness.
Software and warranty
For now, the iMac still ships with OS X Mountain Lion, but it looks like the next version, Mavericks, should be shipping very soon. Once it becomes available to download, you'll enjoy new features like finder tabs, file tagging, full-screen Finder, iBooks and Maps for Mac, the ability to respond to notifications and various options for people using multiple displays. Additionally, the software promises to have a positive effect on battery life, thanks to Apple's new "Compressed Memory" and "App Nap" features, the latter of which redirects power to different programs as necessary.
No word yet on how much the upgrade will cost, but last year's OS cost $20, so we wouldn't be surprised if Apple offered this version at a similar price. To be clear, though, Apple usually waives the upgrade fee for folks who purchased Macs within the previous few months. So if you buy an iMac after reading this review, you're probably in the clear.
Across the iMac lineup, the standard warranty includes one year of repairs and 90 days of free phone support. As ever, Apple does sell an extended AppleCare warranty, which stretches the warranty and free phone support period to three years.
Though this section always comes at the end of the review, almost like an afterthought, these are actually some of the most important paragraphs you're going to read here: it's the specs that have changed on this year's iMacs, not the exterior design. To avoid overwhelming you, we'll split this up by screen size. Starting with the smaller, 21.5-inch model, the base $1,299 configuration comes with a 2.7GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 5,400RPM hard drive, Intel Iris Pro graphics and a 1,920 x 1,080 display. There's also a $1,499 configuration that has a slightly faster 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, and a 1GB NVIDIA GT 750M GPU.
You can also customize either of those two models. There's a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, which you can add on for $200, but it's only available as an upgrade on the $1,499 model. On either configuration, you can opt for 16GB of RAM ($200), a 1TB Fusion Drive ($200), a 256GB SSD ($200) or a 512GB SSD ($500).
Like last year, the 27-inch model doesn't just have a bigger footprint and higher-res screen; it also starts with beefier specs. (Granted, at a beefier price.) For $1,799, the base 27-inch model includes a 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive (7,200RPM this time) and a 1GB NVIDIA GT 755M GPU. Meanwhile, there's a $1,999 configuration that comes with a 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 7,200RPM HDD and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M graphics with 2GB of video memory.
In keeping with the 27-inch model's status as the more powerful machine, it also carries more upgrade options than the 21.5-inch version. For starters, you can load up to 32GB of RAM, at an extra cost of $600. There's a wider variety of storage options too. All told, you can chose from a 3TB 7,200RPM hard drive ($150), a Fusion Drive with 1TB or 3TB of storage ($200 / $350) or an SSD with 256GB, 512GB or 1TB of storage ($200 / $500 / $1,000). Additionally, if you buy the more expensive $1,999 configuration, you can upgrade to a 3.5GHz quad-core Core i7 processor ($200) and a 4GB NVIDIA GTX 780M GPU ($150).
Again, many of our readers who write in about the iMac already know they want it; they just don't know which screen size to buy, or whether to go with a Fusion Drive or a proper SSD. If you happen to be OS-agnostic, though, you'll find a small number of companies have caught up to the iMac in terms of specs. The first that comes to mind is Dell, whose XPS 27 desktop starts at a slightly cheaper $1,600 with a Core i5 Haswell processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 7,200RPM hard drive and a 2,560 x 1,440 IPS touchscreen. It even comes with an optical drive, which the iMac doesn't.
Then again, though the XPS 27 goes up to 2TB of storage with a 32GB SSD, you won't get the benefits of Fusion Drive, with a solid-state disk and traditional hard drive comprising one volume. Also, whereas the 27-inch iMac starts with discrete graphics, the base XPS 27 comes with integrated Intel graphics; to get a 2GB NVIDIA GT 750M GPU, you'll need to pay at least $2,170.
In addition to Dell, ASUS is also in on the quad HD game: it recently announced the ET2702, its first desktop with a 2,560 x 1,440 screen. That's available now on Amazon for $1,650 with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, AMD graphics, 802.11ac WiFi, a 1TB hard drive and an optical drive.
We already loved the iMac for its attractive design, forceful audio and sharp, low-glare screen, so it's even easier to recommend it now that it's been upgraded with new processors, more powerful GPUs, faster 802.11ac WiFi and speedier PCIe SSDs. Though other companies are starting to catch up in terms of specs, especially the 2,560 x 1,440 resolution, the iMac's optically bonded display is still best in class. It's also still rare to find a computer that combines an HDD and large solid-state drive into one volume, with most everything stored on the SSD by default.
Particularly if you're at home using OS X (and don't need a built-in optical drive), it's not a question of whether you should get a Dell or ASUS machine instead, but rather which size iMac is right for you. For families and students, we're inclined to say the 21.5-inch machine is better, if only because the $1,299 starting price will be more palatable. That said, if you're a creative professional, an avid gamer or flush with extra cash, the 27-inch model offers a higher pixel count and is more powerful out of the box. We hope that breaks it down for you, but we wouldn't be surprised if some of you kept emailing us photos of your desks anyway.