ReviewApple iMac 2021 review: M1 chip is super fast, 11.5mm width impressive, but its strict consumer desktop specs need a rethink
- The new iMac is the first major design overhaul for the line in well over a decade and its revolutionary M1 chip does not disappoint
- However, the chip is less impressive here than on the MacBook Air or iPad Pro, and many potential users might be better off buying an Apple laptop
Steve Jobs once famously split Apple’s computing categories into four quadrants: desktop and portable machines, with each split into “Pro” or “Consumer” segments. While Apple’s products like the iPad and MacBook Air have increasingly blurred those lines in recent years, the company’s standard iMac series (with no “Pro” moniker attached) has always sat cleanly in the consumer desktop box, aimed squarely at casual users.
This new model, despite a sleeker design, new coat of paint and that industry-shaking M1 chip, is no different. The big question for me is: in 2021, does it still make sense for a product to stay so cleanly inside one of Jobs’ four quadrants?
Design and hardware
The 2021 iMac is the first major design overhaul for the iconic iMac in well over a decade. It’s still an all-in-one machine as before – meaning all the computing parts are inside the same body as the display – but it’s thinner (11.5mm) and lighter (4.45kg), with slimmer bezels.
That 11.5mm number in particular is impressive, considering both that the depth is uniform throughout the entire machine and there’s powerful hardware inside: a crisp 1080p webcam, excellent speakers and that critically acclaimed Apple silicon known as M1.
Apple gave the machines new pastel colours too, including red, blue and pink. These are always paired with white for a two-tone finish; included accessories such as charging cables, mouse and trackpad all carry the same colours.
The base model of the iMac offers four USB-C ports, with two being Thunderbolt, while those above come with five USB-C ports, including two Thunderbolts. There’s a headphone jack too.
The non-base models of the iMac also come with a keyboard that includes a fingerprint scanner for easier biometric security login. Base-model buyers will have to stick with typing in a password.
Software and performance
The iMac runs the latest version of MacOS and because it’s powered by the same M1 chip as the iPad Air and Mac Mini released late last year, performance is very similar to those machines. This is mostly good news, because the M1 is a revolutionary chip that outperformed Intel’s newest processors in most regular productivity tasks.
In benchmark or real-world speed tests, the M1 iMac handily beat a 2021 Intel i7 Windows laptop and Apple’s own 2019 fully spec’ed out Intel MacBook Pro.
However, while the M1 is significantly faster and more energy-efficient compared to Intel’s processors, the fact that it uses an integrated GPU (graphics processing unit) means its graphics prowess can’t match high-end computers with a discreet GPU.
The M1 also can’t be configured with more than 16GB of RAM or 2TB of storage, with both figures far too low for video-editing professionals.
These shortcomings were no issue on earlier M1 devices, such as the latest MacBook Air or iPad Pros, because they’re lightweight portable machines. But on a desktop computer, these shortcomings could feel limiting for certain creative professionals.
Plus, one major benefit of the M1 chip – increased battery life due to superior efficiency – is a non-factor on a desktop computer.
Overall, due to changing circumstances and expectations, the M1 chip is less impressive here on the iMac than it is on the MacBook Air or iPad Pro. But for most people who use this machine to type words, surf the net, watch Netflix and make video calls? This machine will perform like a champ. I particularly enjoyed watching movies on the machine, as the speakers are some of the best around, and the iMac is lightweight enough to move around the room.
Starting at US$1,299 in the US and HK$9,999 in Hong Kong, the 2021 iMac is a worthy purchase for students or working adults looking for a desktop productivity machine for strictly home or office use.
However, I’d argue that this specific consumer base is shrinking. As remote working becomes more commonplace and portable machines become more capable, a desktop computer feels increasingly unnecessary for all but serious creative professionals or gamers.
Most people without work that requires heavy computing would be better off buying a laptop and plugging it into an external monitor for home or office use – especially since the latest MacBook Air is just as powerful as this 2021 iMac.
Jobs revealed his four-quadrant product grid in 1998 – in 2021, tech products have become too versatile to sit in just one box.