Apple iMac Review: A Reason to Get a Desktop Computer

Can Apple's iMac excite like its iPad and iPhone?

November 30, 2012, 1:20 PM

Nov. 30, 2012 — -- You could say that out of all the products Apple has announced in the last few years, its line of desktops have been, well, the least sexy. New iPad? Ahhhh! New iPhone? Where do I line up? But a new desktop? Eh.  In a world where everything is focused on the mobile and where ultrathin laptops suffice as one's main computer, the large and in charge desktops tend to be ignored.

But there's no ignoring Apple's new 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMac, which go on sale today. 

A Machine to Display

No, really, no one will ignore it. Even if you aren't a tech enthusiast, this is a machine -- or perhaps sculpture -- you can admire. Just 5mm thick at its edges, the profile of the computer has been trimmed significantly. It's like one of those drastic before-and after-Weight Watchers commercials -- the new iMac obviously being the after. The way after. (Apple says the computer's volume has been reduced 40 percent.)

The guts of the computer sit in a curved, rounded area on the back, making most of the aluminum system look like just a thin display. It's amazingly thin, especially when you think that this isn't just a display like Apple's Thunderbolt display -- this is one of the fastest computers you can buy. 

Apple did drop the optical drive on this model -- so no playing DVDs. It does still have an SD card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, a MiniDisplay jack, and an Ethernet jack.

While this may be the prettiest all-in-one you can keep on the desk at your house or your cubicle or store (I see a lot of iMacs at small stores), it will actually be the display that you spend the most time looking at. Let me rephrase that: It will actually be the display you don't STOP looking at. The 27-inch 2560 x 1440 display is more eye-pleasing than ever before (the 21.5-inch version has a 1920 x 1080 resolution). While the resolution is still the same on both, Apple has gone to the lengths to apply a new lamination process, bonding the screen and a new coating in a way that reduces reflection by 75 percent.

The result is a uniform viewing experience with much less glare. Even with the sun pouring in from my windows this morning I didn't have to adjust the angle of the display to see all my open programs.

Whether Apple will ever make its own TV remains to be seen, but with the 27-inch iMac with its silver aluminum frame sitting in my apartment, I was consistently drawn away from my 40-inch 1080p TV. Maybe that says something about my TV, but it also says something about Apple's ability to make stunning displays. Looking at photos and HD video on this screen is an immersive experience -- colors are rich and in some images it actually looked as if objects were popping out because of the level of detail. It's not considered a Retina Display (perhaps one day it will get one), but it's hard to imagine it getting even sharper.

Powerful Insides

The last part of the experience is how it actually works as a computer. As you can imagine, my review unit's quad-core 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, Nvidia graphics, and 1TB Fusion drive was able to run the Mountain Lion operating system, several programs (Microsoft Outlook running in Citrix, Tweetdeck, iTunes, Apple's Mail), an HD YouTube video, and a Chrome browser with over 20 webpage tabs open, all with a lot of energy to spare.

The Fusion Drive is an interesting development for Apple -- it takes a fast flash drive and puts it together with a slower but larger regular spinning hard drive. The result is that applications open quickly and overall performance improves, but you still have the space you need for all your files. (I've already expressed how badly I want this technology to come to a laptop in the MacBook Pro with Retina Display review.)

The best part is that it is all invisible to the user. You don't have to think about where you want to put files. It just does it. Apple has built the system with the most powerful desktop parts around -- if you are looking for more details on the deeper performance speeds and feeds, check out The Verge's review.

Touchpad, But No Touch

Included in every big iMac box is Apple's wireless keyboard. You can choose between the Magic Mouse and the Magic Trackpad. All instantly pair with the computer via Bluetooth 4.0, but I'd really suggest getting the trackpad. Mountain Lion works best when you take advantage of the gestures -- swiping four fingers upward to see all your open apps in Mission Control, swiping from the right to left to show the Notification Center, etc.

All that has made me wonder, though: why, with this generation of iMacs, has Apple not taken the touch-screen plunge? When my girlfriend first saw it, she actually touched the screen. I asked why, and she said, "I wanted to see if they had done that yet."

Her reaction makes sense, especially since so many of the competing all-in-one desktops have touch screens. Of course, Steve Jobs' answer was always that people don't want to hold up their arms vertically -- it's "ergonomically terrible," he once said. That might eventually change for Apple -- it certainly changed its tune on a smaller iPad, which Jobs had pooh-poohed for a long time -- but it also wouldn't quite be Apple to throw a touch screen on top of its Desktop operating system.

But even if today's iMac doesn't have a touch screen or a higher resolution display, it's still one of the best -- if not the best -- all-in-one out there. Dell's $1,399 XPS One 27, which has a a 27-inch IPS display and Blu-ray drive, is also a good option if you're looking for a Windows 8 touch all-in-one. And, as you might expect, you will pay more for Apple's version. The 21.5-inch iMac starts at $1,299 and the 27-inch version at $1,799. And to get those Fusion Drives you have to pay at least an extra $250.

The price aside, if you're in need of an iMac upgrade or you are considering a new desktop for the home or office, the new iMacs are worth a very long, hard stare. This isn't just another "eh" upgrade. This is a desktop with as much sex appeal as the iPad and iPhone.