21-inch iMac 2012 (Thin) Review: Looks Only Get You So Far

Gadgets get thinner. Apple's gadgets more than most. That's just the natural order of things. But while thin and light are two of the chief virtues of mobile, and prettier is always better, the new deskbound iMac has to prove it's more than just a diet plan.

Design

The iMac's new, thinner design is the centrepiece of this update. It tapers to 5-mm at the edges, creating a pretty stunning optical illusion — a waif of a desktop.

Using It

Actually turning the computer on and using it pretty much unchanged from any other iMac before it, aside from the speed. Apple's SSD/HDD Fusion Drive hybrid keeps pace with the SSDs in the MacBook Air, for the most part.

Programs like Premiere Pro CS6 or Photoshop open at full SSD speed. Same goes for file transfers within the confines of the SSD (all file transfers seem to go to the SSD by default, and then migrate to the HDD later, given I/O speeds). If you're transferring 100GB+, you're going to kick over to the HDD and see some slowdown.

As for actual brute force computing prowess, in our standardised render test, the new iMac averaged 43 seconds. That came out well ahead of the Retina MacBook Pro 13-inch (54 seconds) and an older Mac Pro (2 minutes), but it was behind a Retina MBP 15-inch (34 seconds) that had double the RAM and a beefier graphics card. Real world-wise, that nudges the bang-for-buck value toward the RMBP 15, especially since its default graphics card is a little better.

For gaming, our near-base configuration was fine. It's 1080p (non-Retina) screen ran Diablo 3 at 1080p on medium settings at close to 60fps. But for any heavy lifting, you're going to want to upgrade to the beefier cards on the 27-inch iMacs. If you ramp up the settings on D3 or Witcher 2, you're not going to squeeze great performance out of the baseline GT cards. Our framerate dipped under 30 on both games, in a hurry.

The Best Part

It's a fast iMac. As frustrating (and Apple-like) as it can be to have basically no options for what goes where on the drive, Fusion Drive does its job well. It makes the entire OS feel snappier in ways that simple 8 or 16GB smartcache solutions don't, really. Aside from moving around huge files (videographers beware), it really feels like having your whole system running on an SSD, just with a high capacity drive.

Tragic Flaw

The design upgrades do little to improve the desktop experience. For most people, the biggest upgrade to usability here is the Fusion Drive, by a pretty good margin. But the slim new design does nothing for you. In fact, it gets in the way — it's nearly impossible to upgrade RAM on the 21-inch version, and the razor-thin side moves the SD card slot to the less convenient back panel.

Inconvenient ports are the biggest deficiency on an all-in-one. Someday, someone's going to figure out how to do it right. But it's probably not going to be by making the machines thinner.

This Is Weird...

The thinner design also has the sort-of unexpected effect of making the iMac easier to budge. If you grab the edge to wipe a smudge off of it, or just bump it as you reach for something, it's more likely to shift on the table top.

Test Notes

  • Here are the specs of the machines used in our render test:

    • Retina 15: 2.3GHz Quad Core Ivy Bridge Core i7, 16GB 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, 251GB SSD, 122.47GB free, OS X 10.8.2

    • Retina 13: 2.9GHz Dual Core Ivy Bridge Core i7, 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3, Intel HD Graphics 4000 768 MB, OS X 10.8.2

    • MacBook Air 11: 2GHz Dual Core Ivy Bridge Core i7, 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, Intel HD Graphics 4000 512MB, OS X 10.8.2

    • Mac Pro: (Early 2008) 2x 2.8GHz Quad Core Intel Xeon, 34GB 667MHz DDR2 RAM, ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB, OS X 10.7.4

  • After loading up the machine with a bunch of files, apps, and games — enough so it wasn't all just lumped on the SSD portion of the drive — it only took a few uses of a program for the drive to learn it should be prioritising it. So three or four launches of Premiere Pro was enough to knock its launch time from 15-20 seconds back down to 5.
  • The display on the new iMacs is supposed to be better because Apple removed the 2mm air gap between the LCD and the glass. Apple claims it reduces reflectiveness, but day-to-day it didn't seem to make much of a difference. Although, this could be because our office is as dim as an opium den.

Should You Buy This?

Sure. Maybe. If you want an iMac as a pretty-looking home station, there's no reason to not go for the slimmer design with better guts and the option for the fusion drive. But if you're considering this 21-inch model, be aware that it's much tougher to customise by yourself than its 27-inch counterpart. You should also know you're not getting top-end gravel-chewing performance — for that, you'd be better off with a Retina MacBook Pro.

iMac Specs As Tested

Display: 21-inch 1080p

Processor: 2.9GHz Ivy Bridge i5 Quad Core

Memory: 8GB RAM

Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with 512MB

Storage: 1TB Fusion Drive

Price: $US1750

Gizrank: 3.5


Comments

    It's a little disappointing to have a desktop computer with less grunt than a 15" laptop - especially considering the extra space available for bigger and more powerful components.

    Ideally I'd also like to see a manufacturer add a small LI battery to their desktops with enough power to run for 5-10 minutes only, so that in the event of power loss you can keep using your computer briefly to save files and whatnot.

      so that in the event of power loss you can keep using your computer briefly to save files and whatnot.

      Get a cheap UPS. Problem solved.

      The 15 inch MBP is kind of special. It has the highest resolution of any laptop you can buy, quad core i7, high speed memory, fast SSD (not a hybrid drive) and great battery life. The 15 inch MBP is a Ferarri of the tech world, you shouldn't really expect Apple's entry level desktop to be better. Though this imac does sound good. Better than that huge black box my son uses in his room, which makes his desktop look and sound like a server room (but he insists that is the computer he wants).

        There are plenty of PC laptops with similar, and even better, specs. The Retina display is a gimmick, largely useless in my experience, and it both reduces battery life and retards graphics performance.

        Stop being blinded.. Sure it might be louder but it's going to run a hell of a lot cooler than an iMac, extending it's life over an iMac which can run pretty damn hot, the ones I used in school would usually see 80 degrees under load, where as my desktop at home would see 60 under load. And the fact a desktop is also running actual desktop components where as the iMac runs all laptop components.

    The rear ports on iMac have always been annoying for easy access.
    As per normal with Jobs, he always chose form over function; and I suspect that is why they are always on the rear, it keeps it cleaner looking, especially with cables going in.

    It would be great if the had the card reader (I never use) and at least one USB port on the front face section of the stand.
    Just ordered my maxed (not RAM) 27" yesterday, interesting to see how it performs over my MBPr.

      I just use one of those little usb extensions that came with a wireless dongle and it sits nicely on my desk in easy access from my desktop that sits under the desk, just a thought.

        So you buy something beautiful just to make it ugly?

          I don't find it ugly, it's just like having a little dock sitting on my desk for ease of use. How do you know my computer is beautiful anyway, kind of a weird thing to say dude.

            So you think having cables snaking all over your desk is not ugly? It annoys the hell outta me, even though I probably do it worse than anyone - external DVD drive, external HDD and a USB hub on top of the usual power, monitor and audio cables.

    Still don't see why you'd need a Thin desktop unless your really, really, really stuck for space. With a laptop it makes sense, to be portable. Desktops, not so much.

      Why do people need thin TVs? Why not just use those 10 inch deep large screen LCDs people used to buy in the 90s?

    I am thinking hard to jumping from W7/8 to a new iMac for home. But I still feel like I'll be giving up some very useful programs that I use to transfer video from online sources (ABC iView etc) to my iPad (which requires reprocessing). I know that there are mostly clones or apps for both PC and Mac, and I can always boot camp the thing, but then if I use W7/8 on the iMac why bother paying extra for the mac in the first place.

    Dilemma.

    The other issue is my two year old 17" laptop is a heckof a lot more powerful in every aspect than this 2012/2013 machine... so maybe I just keep my Core i7 8GB, 1TB SSHD GTX460m 1.5GB and windows 8... aaaargh!

      I think of the Mac desktops as an iOS device extension, not really as a work computer. I've been thinking this since OSX 10.7 came out.

        I've been using Mac's since 1997 and not once have I thought that Mac OS is a sub-par OS to Windows and/or of recent years, an extension to iOS devices. I make a lot of money using my Mac machines as professional devices (read: work computers) – exactly as I would if I was using a Windows machine.

        However, I do have my share of personal issues with Mac hardware and software inasmuch as I do with Windows (which in itself is also a very good OS).

          "I make a lot of money using my Mac machines as professional devices (read: work computers)..." So do I but that's largely because I work for an hourly rate. If I was using my PC I would make a lot less money because I'd be able to get stuff done far more quickly. That is mostly down to the restricted choices of software available for MacOS but there is also a component of how many problems we have with the Macs here at work, problems the editors never have on their PC workstations.

      I run a mixed fleet of Win7 and OSX computers for a diverse range of needs. Software is still the issue on Macs but that is rapidly changing so there are a few instances where the Mac has a killer app. For most people, Win7 is still the way to go. I've been using Win8 for a month or two as my primary machine and as much as I would like to like it, am disappointed by its stability and some of the UI decisions. However, I still find it a better OS for getting things done. Aero snap on a widescreen monitor is just brilliant when working between apps or windows.

    wireless keyboard and mouse. Long hours of work... ahahaha

      ...? I don't get the joke.

        I think he's implying they'll run out? Not seeing the joke though as my batteries tend to last a few weeks on full work days and then it takes roughly 20 seconds to change them

          I think my Microsoft mouse and keyboard last 6 months at least and I use them 10hrs a day and thousands of times an hour. I wear off the letters off the keyboard and also wear out the scroll wheel and paint off the buttons before the first battery goes flat.

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