iMac review: Apple’s astonishing new processor shows its true colours

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 18 May 2021 15:06
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The 2021 iMac is both a blast from the past and a vision of the future. It is the best desktop Apple has made in years, perhaps ever, and a fittingly charming housing for the M1 chip that has changed the Mac computers in a profound way.

It is by far the most delightful iMac that Apple has made ever since those rounded plastic machines that helped build the company as it is today. And its fun injection of colour should not be taken to suggest it does not mean business: it is astonishingly fast, able to take just about anything throw at it, and so capable that it means you never have to worry about it again.

The only problem, really, is that Apple has made a host of similar computers: late last year, a new Mac Mini, MacBook Air and Pro arrived, which were astonishingly, calmingly fast, too. And the company is rumoured to be having more coming down the line, including a rumoured update to the outside of those laptops, which could bring the same colours to the Air line, as well as a host of other upgrades.

The iMac is an astonishing computer: perhaps the most capable and charming desktop anyone has ever made. The only real question is whether you want a desktop at all, but the iMac does its best to answer that, too.

The question of how the iMac compares to other recent Apple computers is made possible in part because the chip that powers them all is the same. Both the iMac and its earlier siblings – those new laptops and Mac Mini, but even now its iPad Pro – all use Apple’s M1 chip, the first it has designed itself for its computers.

It means that you can just about take your choice of what form you’d like your searing speed and capability to come in: if you’d like it in a display mounted to a stand and sitting on your desktop, then the iMac does the job. But you might want it in a laptop or a tablet, too, and now Apple has an offering for them all.

The iMac is, however, the first of Apple’s computers it has designed for that M1 chip, and it shows all the way through, from inside to out and from display to keyboard. (It’s the first redesign of any kind in almost 10 years.) The extra thermal headroom allowed by the processor means that the computer has been shrunk down into a body that is both astonishingly light and tiny.

It is hard to convey how small the footprint of the iMac is. It is barely thicker than the latest iPhone, and so light that it’s easy to pick it up with one hand; in both design and heft, it is more akin to a large iPad mounted on a stand than a traditional desktop computer.

And on to that tiny, light body, Apple has splashed heaps of colour, though there is also a silver aluminium one for people who that might offend. Each of those options – green, yellow, orange, pink, purple and blue – are splashed right across the computer, reflected on both the outside as well as in its software.

Apple has not shown the slightest embarrassment about that colour, and they are not a light shade of the colour like previous versions but a full blown leap into rich and bright tones. The blue computer, like the one reviewed, is decisively and firmly blue.

That is especially true on the back, and the new iMac feels like the first one in years that is designed to be as nice from the back as the front. It is almost a shame that you never actually get to see the back – with its vibrant aluminium colouring and complementary Apple logo – because in many ways it is more attractive than it is from the front.

None of that is to say that there is anything objectionable about the front of the computer, which carries on the same coloured design but softens it a little so that it is not distracting while looking at the screen. The decision to put the colour on the “chin” of the display and swap the bezels around the edges of it from black to white is one that drew plenty of questions when the computer was announced, but it is much more classy in real life than it might appear in pictures: taken together, the white and light version of the colour have the effect of softening the computer as a whole, and perhaps unexpectedly mean that it fades away while you really concentrate on what the computer is showing you.

That is a lot of talk about the outside of a device that does most of its work on the inside. But that’s because for anyone who’s been following Apple’s work on its own processors, the inside is much the same as the other computers it has made in recent months.

Which is to say that it is a stunning technical achievement, thoroughly capable of handling just about any task you ask of it with a speed and stability that sometimes makes you giddy.

On strict numbers, the computer is about the same as the other M1 devices; all are within a margin of error on Geekbench’s benchmarks for single-core performance, for instance, and they all vastly outpace any other Mac ever made. Just like the MacBook Pro compared with the Air, the iMac is likely to be able to sustain that performance for longer because it can throw out heat better, but in practice it is hard to do anything that sufficiently taxes the iMac to actually find out.

(When it comes to multi-core performance, the iMac still loses out to the vastly more expensive Mac Pro, as did its other M1 siblings. But the iMac is not built for people for whom that is a major concern; just as there is a colourful iPhone line and a more sombre iPhone Pro line, there is no doubt a new version of the iMac Pro coming down the tracks that will fit into that role.)

When you put the performance to the test in real-world applications, the computer does them without complaining in the slightest. Open up numerous music tracks in Logic, edit various 4K video streams, compile huge apps in Xcode, run Chrome – do that all at the same time if you want to, and the computer will hardly moan at all.

In practice, of course, that isn’t going to be most people’s workflow: this iMac is meant as a consumer device, rather than a power-intensive workhorse, even if it can handle many of the tasks that would be thrown at the latter. But the performance is real nonetheless, and means that, for instance, you never have to worry about how many Chrome tabs you have open or whether opening a big application is going to cause everything to grind to a halt.

Like its other M1 siblings, the benefit of the performance is mostly what you don’t need to do, and the capability is less about adding new speed than removing friction. You’re going to have to work very hard to make this computer work very hard; for most people you simply don’t have to worry about whether it will be able to keep up with you.

There are a host of other changes to the new iMac that continue the sense that it is just a thoroughly pleasant thing to have in your house.

The camera is improved, for instance, so that it no longer looks like a washed out, muddy mess, as just about every other computer’s camera does. Occasionally, that can be shocking – logging into Zooms and seeing myself reflected back in HD, I realised that I was somewhat grateful for having myself smudged a little – but it is much required, and should make video calls all the more realistic.

The keyboard and mouse have been colour-matched, too, and you’ll get the same charming two-tone design on each of them. The keyboard also now has a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, now; the kind of thing that might seem frivolous before you use it, but then feels absolutely necessary once you have.

It does do away with some things you might be familiar with from previous iMacs, in particular the ports. Instead of the array of SD slots and USB plugs, you’ve just four USB-C inputs, two of which work with Thunderbolt, and an audio cable; there would simply not be space for anything else, as the computer is too thin, and even that 3.5mm jack has been moved onto the side because the computer is not deep enough to support such a thick plug.

But it is that speed that is most remarkable. Just like its fellow M1 computers, Apple has achieved what is surely the ultimate aim of all consumer computers: it’s so fast that you won’t really ever have to think about how fast it is.

The iMac packs all of that performance into a body that is just as remarkable as the outside. It is the first computer to give that M1 the fresh and modern housing that it deserves; it is bright and brilliant, inside and out.

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