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Apple iMac 27-inch review:

New processors and faster Wi-Fi for Apple’s slim desktop

The good: With the addition of Intel’s Haswell chips, plus 802.11ac wireless, faster SSD hard drives, and new Nvidia GPUs, the latest Apple iMac is a thoroughly up-to-date desktop.

The bad: Other big-screen all-in-one systems have handy extras missing here, such as touch screens and HDMI inputs.

The bottom line: Anyone who bought last year’s redesigned iMac doesn’t need to upgrade, but for owners of older models or anyone looking to switch, the latest 27-inch Apple iMac offers a wide-ranging set of internal upgrades.

It’s telling that the latest set of updates to Apple’s iMac all-in-one desktop were not announced at one of the company’s regular stage shows. Instead, the new iMac slipped quietly into Apple’s Web site, the news announced via an understated press release posted early in the morning.

That’s because the updates are internal, putting new hardware inside an iMac body that received a major makeover in 2012. From the outside, this is the same slim screen sitting on top of an aluminum stand and minimalist base. The design was controversial last year, with the iMac’s razor-thin edge and bulging center creating an optical illusion that the entire system was as slim as an iPad. We’re not quite there yet, but even in its second year, the iMac’s design still feels modern, and unlike anything else on the market.

Inside, you’ll find exactly the kind of revisions one would expect from a quiet hardware update. Intel’s latest fourth-generation Core i-series processors are here, also known by the code named Haswell. In our tests with other Haswell systems, we’ve found modestly improved performance and greatly improved battery life, although the latter won’t matter here.

Our review sample has the faster of two base CPUs offered in the 27-inch size, plus a fusion hard drive that combines a 1TB HDD with a 128GB SSD, for a total of $2,199. The least-expensive 27-inch iMac is $1,799.

The built-in Wi-Fi has been updated to the new 802.11ac standard, which offers faster data speeds when connected to a compatible 802.11ac router. Both of these upgrades previously found their way into Apple’s MacBook Air laptops back in June 2013.

The SSD internal storage options are now connected via PCIe, which the company says increases drive performance if you order an iMac with either SSD storage or a fusion drive with both SSD and HDD components.

Finally, the fall 2013 iMac gets GPUs from Nvidia’s latest series, the GeForce 755M, 775M, or 780M in the 27-inch models, and the GeForce 750M in the higher of two 21.5-inch models.

Taken together, these updates don’t radically change the iMac experience. But they do take an already excellent desktop and make it very up-to-date for the holiday season and beyond, and at this point, it’s hard to suggest any midprice or higher computer that doesn’t have Intel’s Haswell processors.

That leaves us in the unusual situation of having MacBook Air laptops and iMac desktops with Intel’s current generation of processors, but the high-end MacBook Pro, including the models with the Retina Display, still using last year’s third-generation Intel chips, to say nothing of the Mac Mini.

Some of the best Windows 8 all-in-ones, such as the Dell XPS 27, add additional features not found here, chief among them a touch screen and an HDMI input so these big, high-resolution screens can also be used with other devices. Neither is a deal breaker, nor expected anytime soon.

One final note for those about to invest in a new iMac: Apple’s next operating system upgrade, named OS X Mavericks, is expected sometime in the next several weeks. That leaves early adopters wondering if the update will be free for everyone, if they’ll get a free upgrade while other Mac owners have to pay for the update, or if they’ll be stuck paying $20 or so for Mavericks so soon after buying their new iMacs.

Design and features

The current iMac design blew a lot of minds when first unveiled by Apple in October 2012. The artful photography and clever angles made the system look completely flat, although once you got to see it in person, you could see that the rear panel curves out in the center. So, no, it’s not as paper-thin as one might think at first glance, but there’s still a notable lack of bulk for a high-powered 27-inch all-in-one. (Note, for example, the thick slablike design of the Dell XPS 27, probably this system’s closest competitor.)

The bowl-like panel and curved one-piece stand make this among the most organic-feeling of Apple’s products, which is fitting for an all-in-one. That desktop subgenre is most closely associated with family computer use, kitchen PCs, or creative/artistic work, in a way that a no-nonsense tower chassis or an on-the-go laptop is not.

The design is a year old now, so it doesn’t grab the eye as it once did, but it’s still a great example of what happens when aesthetic considerations come first, not as an afterthought.

We didn’t notice any changes to the system exterior for this 2013 update. The iMac still has last year’s less-reflective screen, hidden memory slots, and rear-panel-only ports. As with most all-in-one PCs, and nearly every Apple computer (except the Mac Pro), there’s no easy user access to components — except for the RAM, this is essentially a sealed system, unless you’re willing to do some warranty-voiding surgery.

Apple’s single-cable strategy is evident here. For most users, you’ll simply need to connect a white power cable and that’s it. The built-in Wi-Fi eliminates the need for an Ethernet cable, and the included keyboard and mouse are wireless and arrive ready to use.

The standard Apple wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse have been static for a few generations of hardware now. The keyboard is still top-notch — compact, but with large, deep keys, and a logical layout. The mouse is certainly a widely used model, and has its fans, but it’s never been one of my favorites, perhaps because my reflexes are so tied into the physical click of separate left and right mouse buttons and a physical scroll wheel. But I’m actually much more partial to touch pads these days, either Apple’s Magic Trackpad for OS X systems or something like Logitech’s T650 touch pad for PCs. Outside of gaming, an actual mouse rarely crosses my palm anymore.

I originally thought you were tied to the mouse as your input device, but was pleased to discover that you can actually swap it out for Apple’s Magic Trackpad in the configuration options, which makes sense as both cost the same $69 if purchased separately.

Any all-in-one PC lives or dies based on its display. The version here is identical to last year’s and is an LED-backlit LCD with a 2,560×1,440-pixel native resolution. That better-than-HD resolution is common now in 27-inch systems, and is identical to our Windows-side favorite, the XPS 27 from Dell. Some computers are experimenting with even higher resolutions, including Apple’s 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with a 2,880×1,800-pixel screen, or a handful of 3,200×1,800-pixel laptops, such as Lenovo’s 13-inch Yoga 2 Pro.

The screen on the 27-inch iMac, though not a matte display, is less reflective than most, a change that started with the 2012 version. Apple’s displays are always bright, clear, and consistent, which makes me wish there was a way to use the display for other devices, a feature some Windows all-on-one PCs offer via an extra HDMI input port.

Apple iMac (27-inch, September 2013)
Video Mini DisplayPort (x2)
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 4 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections and performance

While some may knock Apple’s MacBook Air laptops for not offering enough ports and connections, the same can’t be said for the iMac. In a single row on the back of the display chassis, you’ll find four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort connections, an SD card slot, Ethernet jack, and headphone plug. It’s hard to imagine you’d need much more, especially as the Thunderbolt ports can connect to two external monitors.

Above the row of connections, a small trap door allows you to access the system’s RAM to change the modules. To open the door, you must unplug the power cable and press a small release button. It’s nice to have at least one user-accessible component, but I suspect many consumers would rather have access to the hard-drive bays.

Our 27-inch iMac is the higher-end of two 27-inch base models, with the addition of a Fusion Drive combining a 1TB HDD and 128GB of SSD storage. This configuration takes advantage of the new PCIe connection for faster flash modules, and the total comes out to $2,199. The base high-end model includes just the 1TB HDD for $1,999. In the less-expensive $1,799 iMac, the Intel Core i5 CPU gets clocked down from 3.4GHz to 3.2GHz, and the GPU goes from a GeForce 775 to a 755 with less onboard memory.

Also updated in this round is the 21.5-inch iMac, with slower Intel Haswell-generation Core i5 CPUs, and only Intel’s integrated graphics in the lowest-end $1,299 version.

The 3.4GHz Intel Core i5 in our review sample is more than fast enough for just about any task, or series of tasks, and matches up well with other Haswell systems we’ve tested. One difference is that this is a Core i5 CPU, whereas other comparably expensive recent all-in-one systems give you a faster Core i7 CPU, as one might expect to find for such a sizable investment. You can upgrade to a Core i7 here for $200.

In our benchmark tests, the Core i5 iMac held its own against a couple of Core i7 all-in-one desktops, and was much faster than the Haswell-powered 13-inch MacBook Air that was released a few months ago. Last year’s iMac was faster in our multitasking test, but that was a system with the expensive Core i7 upgrade.

It’s great to have a high-powered GPU in a nongaming system, in this case the newish Nvidia GeForce 775M. Video and photo applications may benefit, and the system can drive two external displays, but it’s also starting to be a lot easier to be a Mac gamer. Steam, GOG.com, and other game distributors have robust Mac sections now, and Windows games are finally being ported to OS X within months, not years.

Two excellent 2013 games, BioShock Infinite and Metro: Last Light, are both available on Macs now, although some would call them incomplete versions. While we use those games as PC benchmarks, on the OS X versions, most of the graphics options are unavailable, and the Mac version of BioShock Infinite even caps the resolution at 1,600×900, which is a real shame for a 2,560×1,440 monitor. Both games, however, played well at the highest detail settings allowed, and hopefully they will be patched to allow higher resolutions and better graphics options.

Our old Mac standby, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, ran at 89 frames per second at the highest detail settings and full 2,560×1,440 resolution. On a 2012 iMac, the same game ran at 78.3 frames per second. Both iMacs also ran Diablo III at the screen’s native resolution at about 58 frames per second.

Conclusion

In you already own last year’s slim iMac, there’s no reason to upgrade. The new Haswell CPUs, Nvidia graphics cards, and faster Wi-Fi and flash storage are good to have, but don’t radically alter the iMac experience. If you have an older model, then it’s a more compelling case. And now that it has the latest parts, you don’t need to worry about paying top dollar for out-of-date tech.

Keep in mind that Apple’s extra-cost AppleCare extended warranty is practically required, as these are much less user-serviceable than many other desktops. At least at $169 for a three-year term, it’s a small add-on relative to the system’s premium price.

Power users may be waiting for the radically redesigned new Mac Pro, coming later in 2013, but for everyone else who wants a big-screen Apple experience, this is the default.

 

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