A price cut for the 21-inch iMac makes it a mainstream machine

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CNET EDITORS’ RATING

4starsExcellent

The Good The new entry level 21.5-inch Apple iMac is now only $100 more than the (already discounted) 13-inch Macbook Air. The display, design, and build quality remain top-notch, and it includes high-end features such as Thunderbolt, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Apple’s excellent bundled accessories.

The Bad This lower-cost model has a small hard drive and laptop-like CPU and graphics performance compared to the more-expensive iMac configurations. It lacks even basic user upgradability.

The Bottom Line While it includes some performance and graphics concessions on the lowest priced model, the 21.5-inch iMac brings Apple’s iconic design and top-notch bundled accessories and software to a wider audience.

Few desktop PCs cause much excitement anymore, outside of a handful of bulky systems for gaming enthusiasts or small home theater set-top boxes. Beyond that, we mostly see all-in-one desktops with PC components packed behind a large screen. Apple’s iMac line is still the sharpest-looking of these desktops, despite a basic design that’s almost 2 years old at this point.

The massive 27-inch version of the iMac starts at a hefty $1,799 (£1,449 or AU$2,199), but the smaller 21.5-inch version was, until recently, a serious-but-reasonable $1,299 (£1,049 or AU$1,599). Rather than cutting the price of its base model, as Apple recently did with its 11-inch and 13-inch Macbook Airlaptops, instead we have gotten a brand new iMac model for $1,099 (£899 or AU$1,349).

There’s still a big psychological difference in shoppers’ minds between just under and over (as well as a practical difference — that extra money is nothing to laugh off, even when buying a computer), but this new price makes the 21.5-inch iMac a much more likely candidate if you’re primarily dealing with everyday tasks such as surfing the Web, email, social media, and light photo editing.

 

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos02.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

That’s because there’s a serious trade-off being asked of us here. The CPU in this $1,099 configuration is a slower dual-core version of Intel’s Core i5 chip, versus the more desktop-like quad-core version found in the step-up 21.5-inch iMac. The integrated Intel graphics drops from the decent Intel Iris Pro to the merely basic Intel HD 5000, which won’t cut it in newer games. Most importantly, the base model only gives you a standard 500GB spinning platter hard drive. That’s small for a non-SSD hard drive, especially one in a desktop.

We also tested an upgraded configuration with a fusion drive from Apple — essentially a hybrid hard drive that combines 1TB of spinning platter storage with a 128GB SSD. That’s a $250 upgrade (£200 or AU$300) worth considering, but we’d be tempted to just get the middle model instead with its quad-core processor, better graphics, and stock 1TB HDD.

If you’re looking for a mid-size all-in-one, and want or need access to OS X and the operating system tools, functionality, and organization it promises, this new, lower price may be worth the performance trade-offs, especially as you get the same slim-edge design, rugged build quality, bright, colorful 1080p display, and Apple’s excellent wireless keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), as those buying more expensive configurations.

For surfing, video streaming, and basic school or office work, it feels like a slightly faster version of the13-inch MacBook Air. If that level of performance works for you, great. If not, the extra money for the next model up would pay off as a long-term investment.

 

Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) Lenovo Flex 20 Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014)
Price as reviewed $1,099; £899; AU$1,349 $749 (same model unavailable outside the US) $1,349; £1,199; AU$1,649
Display size/resolution 21.5-inch, 1,920×1,080 screen 20-inch, 1,600×900 touchscreen 21.5-inch, 1,920×1,080 screen
PC CPU 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 4260U 1.7GHz Intel Core i3 4010U 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 4260U
PC Memory 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000 1748MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000
Storage 500GB, 5,400rpm HDD 500GB, 5,400rpm HDD 1TB 5,400rpm HDD + 128GB SSD
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks Windows 8 (64-bit) Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks

Design and features

The current iMac design, first unveiled by Apple in October 2012, still looks more cutting edge than any other all-in-one, with its slim edges and gentle curves. The rear panel bows out in the center, so it’s not as paper-thin as one might think at first glance, but this $1,099 (£899 or AU$1,349) version is still the same design and materials as iMacs that cost much more. For a more detailed breakdown of the iMac’s design and construction, read our review of the late-2013 27-inch model here.

If you’re seeking something similarly thin in a Windows all-in-one, you might look to the 18-inch Dell XPS 18, which also has the advantage of being a battery-powered tabletop tablet when removed from its stand.

 

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos07.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

That comparison, while not one-to-one, highlights a few other things you’ll be missing out on if you choose the iMac as your primary PC. The trend in Windows all-in-one systems to at least add a touchscreen, if not a battery and folding kickstand to provide some away from the outlet portability, even if it’s just for carrying the screen from room to room. This is an all-in-one desktop in a much more traditional mold, and Apple has made no move towards evolving into touchscreens for any of its OS X products, and the operating system itself, unlike Windows 8, isn’t designed for that.

If you’re not connecting any external USB, Thunderbolt, or Mini-DisplayPort devices, and using Wi-Fi instead of a wired Ethernet connection, this is essentially a one-cable setup, with a single white power cord in the lower middle of the back panel. As with most Apple computers, this is essentially a sealed system, with no user-accessible components — unlike the 27-inch iMac, which at least has an access port for the RAM slots.

 

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos03.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

The standard Apple wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse are your default packed-in accessories. These have remained essentially unchanged for the past few years, and the keyboard is still responsive and easy to use, despite it’s small size. The mouse has its fans, but the lack of distinct left and right mouse buttons (this is more of a left/right rocker design, and both buttons can’t be depressed simultaneously) reminds me that I grew up on PC/Windows systems. I’m much more partial to Apple’s Magic Trackpad instead, and fortunately, you can swap the trackpad in for the mouse in the configuration options at no extra cost. (Although I seriously suggest the default be switched to the trackpad.)

Of course, an all-in-one desktop is all about the display. In this case, it’s a 21.5-inch screen with a 1,920×1,080 native resolution. As is typical for Apple, the display is clear, bright, and not overly glossy. Off-axis viewing is excellent, from both horizontal and vertical angles. The screen connects to its curved stand with an internal hinge, housed inside the system body, allowing for 30-degrees (from -5 degrees to 25 degrees) of vertical adjustment.

The 27-inch iMac model has a higher resolution, at 2,560×1,440, much like the Retina display MacBook Pro models. Interestingly, prices for better-than-HD displays are coming down, with Lenovo, for example, offering a 3,200×1,800 touch display in its Yoga 2 Pro for around the same price.

 

APPLE IMAC (21.5-INCH, 2014)

Video Mini DisplayPort (x2)
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack
Data 4 USB 3.0, SD card reader, 2 Thunderbolt (same as Mini DisplayPort)
Networking Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery

In a single row on the back of the display chassis is a generous collection of ports and connections, including four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort connections, an SD card slot, Ethernet jack, and headphone plug. The only downside is that the Thunderbolts are the original Thunderbolt spec, not the newer Thunderbolt 2.

 

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos04.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

While this new, less-expensive 21.5-inch iMac looks the same as models that start at high as $1,499 (£1,199 or AU$1,849), and that can be configured up to almost twice that, it has a slower processor, lower-level graphics card, and less internal storage than other current-gen iMacs. In this case, you get a dual-core Intel Core i5, very similar to what you’d find in a current MacBook Air, along with 8GB of RAM, a 500GB non-SSD hard drive, and Intel’s very basic HD 5000 graphics. The previous low-end iMac, the now-middle configuration, differs in that it has a faster quad-core Core i5, Intel’s better Iris Pro graphics, and a full 1TB hard drive.The best way to think of this new model is as a 13-inch MacBook Air, but with a 8GB RAM upgrade, and hopefully some more thermal headroom for the CPU to operate at higher clock speeds more frequently. In that sense, we saw decent application performance from the base iMac, faster than both the current MacBook Air and similarly sized Windows all-in-one systems, such as the Lenovo Flex 20. For everyday tasks, from social media to email to office work, or for watching HD video, it should be more than enough.

We also tested a version of the base model with a 1TB Fusion Drive, which is what Apple calls a hybrid hard drive with a 128GB SSD. In our tests, this upgrade resulted in essentially identical performance, but those tests aren’t especially indicative of drive access speed. If you’re working with transferring large files, you might find the Fusion Drive makes the process zippier. If you’re planning to edit high-res photos or video, or try more than very basic gaming, I’d still be tempted to go with the middle model instead, as it gets you a lot of improved hardware.

 

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos01.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

In a new cross-platform gaming test, last year’s Tomb Raider game ran at full 1,920×1,080 and normal (read: medium) settings at 12.2 frames per second, which fits our Intel HD 5000 graphics expectations. The Fusion Drive version ran at 12.9 frames per second at the same settings. Running the same test on last year’s 27-inch iMac, with an Nvidia GeForce 775 GPU, got us 58.2 frames per second.

Conclusion

We’ve heard complaints from some quarters that this new, lower-cost iMac sacrifices speed and power for cost savings, or that it’s essentially a MacBook Air in iMac form. Considering the Air remains the single most universally useful laptop you can buy, that’s not necessarily a knock, and in our hands-on testing, this entry level iMac worked fine for everyday tasks.

That said, there is a palpable difference in performance between this and systems with more common desktop components (and it would be nice if this system was even slightly upgradable). If you can invest $200 more, the step-up model adds a bit of future-proofing, but if you’re on a tight budget and primarily drawn to the design and overall usability of the iMac, it delivers on that front, especially if you can take advantage of Apple’s educational discounts to bring the price down even further.

 

HANDBRAKE MULTIMEDIA MULTITASKING TEST

Apple iMac (27-inch, 2013) – 195
Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) – 466
Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014) – 476
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013) – 532
Lenovo Flex 20 – 710

 

NOTE:

Smaller number indicates better performance

 

ADOBE PHOTOSHOP CS5 IMAGE-PROCESSING TEST

Apple iMac (27-inch, 2013) – 175
Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014) – 269
Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) – 270
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013) – 333
Lenovo Flex 20 – 443

 

NOTE:

Smaller number indicates better performance

APPLE ITUNES ENCODING TEST

Apple iMac (27-inch, 2013) – 54
Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014) – 77
Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) – 78
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013) – 87
Lenovo Flex 20 – 182

 

NOTE:

Smaller number indicates better performance

System Configurations

Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014)

Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks; 1.4GHz Intel Core i54260U; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 500GB HDD

Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014)

Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks; 1.4GHz Intel Core i54260U; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 1TB HDD + 128 SSD

Apple iMac (27-inch, 2013)

Mac OS X 10.8.5 Mountain Lion; 3.4GHz Intel Core i5 4670; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 775M graphics card; 1TB HDD + 128GB SSD

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)

Mac OS X 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4240U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM ; 1024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB SSD

Lenovo Flex 20

Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i3 4010U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1748MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 500GB HDD

WHAT YOU’LL PAY

 

via cnet.com

Dan Ackerman leads CNET’s coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he’s written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men’s Journal.

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