21.5-inch iMac with Retina 4K display (Mid 2017)
The 4K iMac gets the extra power and speed it deserves
$1,499 From Apple, apple.com
Features 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, AMD Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB video memory, 8GB memory, 1TB Fusion Drive, 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports, 4x USB 3.0 (Type-A) ports, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2
Believe it or not, the 2017 models of the 4K iMac are the first updates since the original debuted in October 2015; Apple’s desktop Macs have had it very quiet of late. When it came out, this was a bit of an oddball machine. For a lot of people, it ought to be a nearly ideal desktop computer – with a fantastic, highly detailed display for viewing photos or working, the power of a quad-core processor, and the inherent advantages of a desktop, such as lots of ports and a large amount of storage fitted as standard.
But while it was good, the first version had its disappointments: It came with a slow 1TB, 2.5-inch hard drive, instead of the Fusion Drive that always should have been the minimum; and its visuals felt a bit underpowered, as they were delivered by Intel’s integrated graphics chips, rather than a dedicated GPU. That was okay for basic use, but didn’t give much room for intensive tasks that benefit a lot from a powerful graphics processor. It was, in short, half-baked.
However, with another 20 months in the oven, the 2017 models have risen to a much more impressive finish. For a start, you can now get a 4K model for less money than before.
When the 4K iMac launched in 2015, it cost $1,499, and it was the top-of-the-range 21.5-inch model, with two non-4K models below it. In the 2017 range, there’s the equivalent top-of-the-line $1,499 model that’s reviewed here, but also a new $1,299 Retina 4K model.
There’s also an even cheaper $1,099 entrylevel iMac, which is equipped with just a dual-core processor and an integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 processor. Given all this, and that model’s 1920x1080 display, which lacks the wider color gamut of the Retina 4K display, we strongly recommend spending at least the extra $200 to get much better bang for your buck.
So what do you get for more money? Front and center is still the gorgeous Retina 4K display; at 4096x2304 pixels, it’s actually slightly higher resolution than the Ultra HD 4K broadcasting standard (3840x2160) used by regular TVs. This doesn’t mean much in
practice, yet it’s nice for videographers working in the Cinema 4K standard, which is 4096 pixels wide. Some DSLRs record at this res, so it’s not that obscure a thing to want… just pretty obscure.
The important thing is that the display is super-crisp for viewing photos, can provide a huge amount of working space for documents and windows if you tweak the settings, supports the P3 wide-color gamut to make compatible images (including those taken on an iPhone 7) look more realistic than on other screens, and is now brighter than before. That last attribute helps reduce the reflectivity of the screen – this year’s models are among the best iMacs Apple has made for cutting down on reflections – and is generally impressive at making everything look super-vibrant. Colors really pop on this iMac’s display, and the sheer number of pixels is brilliant for viewing your photos, without the slightly monstrous screen size of the even-more-detailed 27-inch 5K iMacs.
Next up, the processor: it’s a quad-core 3.4GHz Intel Core i5, compared to a 3.1GHz quad-core unit in the previous version. (The $1,299 model in this year’s range now has a 3.0GHz quad-core i5). As is often the case with these generational updates, the difference between their speeds seems pretty small, and practical results bear this out.
In our tests using Geekbench, the improvement was a little under 10 percent for both single-core and multi-core operations. When we ran our real-world test of a difficult video encode, we saw around the same gain. So, nothing groundbreaking, but then processor power was never a slouch in the 4K iMac anyway – those are good results that match the more expensive Retina 5K iMac. Even if you’re planning to do programming or video work, this is still a strong performer.
The area in which we were really looking for improvement is graphics. Apple has gone from using a thoroughly middling integrated Intel graphics processor in the 2015 model to a much more capable discrete chip from AMD this time around. This is obviously good for gamers, but it’s great elsewhere, too – apps from consumer-level stuff like Photos to professional software such as Final Cut Pro use it to speed up many tasks. Skimping on its performance meant limiting the capability of these apps, but that’s all changed.
Speaking of low-hanging fruit that Aple has fixed, you now get a Fusion Drive as standard
Gaming is one of the toughest tests, and the difference is huge in our Tomb Raider benchmarks. With the game set to render at 1920x1080 pixels, we saw a 66 percent improvement in frames per second (fps). When we set the game to render to the display’s native 4096x2304 resolution, the difference was a colossal 92 percent – though we still only saw 12.3fps on this latter test, so don’t expect playable 4K games unless they’re a lot less complex than Tomb Raider.
Those results show exactly why we were so disappointed with the graphics last time, and it’s great to see them fixed. This iMac still isn’t blockbuster power for a $1,499 machine – it’s not capable of powering a virtual reality system, for example, which is a shame since Apple focused heavily on VR at WWDC – but with performance improvements coming in High Sierra plus the new breed of apps that make better use of graphics power, this is a pleasingly capable desktop.
Speaking of low-hanging fruit that Apple has fixed, you now get a Fusion Drive as standard at this price. It’s a 1TB model, and the use of flash storage alongside a big hard disk makes a massive difference to the experience. The fastest data read speed we saw on the 2015 model was 104MB/sec; on this one it’s 487MB/sec.
A Fusion Drive isn’t as good as purely flash-based storage (things you haven’t used in a while are slower to find and open, since they’re stored on the hard disk rather than the relatively small flash portion of the Fusion Drive), but it is a much, much cheaper way to combine the speedy performance of flash with the large capacity of a hard disk in a single volume – and in a desktop, what a lot of people want is plenty of room to store photos, videos, and other files going back years. That’s what you get here, but with a big speed boost for apps and files you access often.
We’re disappointed to see that the $1,299 model still only comes with a plain 1TB hard drive, though. Apple, this is a premium machine, and a little 32GB stick of flash storage is not breaking your bank – just throw it in! You can configure the $1,299 model to have a 1TB Fusion Drive for an extra $100, but that’s too steep – we would suggest paying an extra $100 on top of that to get the best model.
You still get 8GB of memory here, which is fine for most people; although if you’re delving into editing photos from a DSLR, or like to edit video, springing for the 16GB or even 32GB upgrade is wise even though they’re expensive – you’re not able to add more memory yourself later, only by going to a service center.
The new iMac models come with Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which has a fairly crisp response to its keys. It won’t win over mechanical keyboard lovers, but we like it. That said, we can’t believe it doesn’t come with Touch ID in this day and age – if you’ve used a new MacBook Pro, this will feel like a big backwards step. And in the era of thin bezels, we think the iMac’s design is due a refresh – including a Space Gray option across the line, not just on the upcoming iMac Pro, Apple! The important thing is that the 4K iMac gets the internal performance to match its fantastic Retina display – making this a great desktop pick.
the bottom line. Whether you work with photos or videos, or just do office work, this is a strong Mac with a lovely display.
The 4K iMac remains clean and simple at the back, with a central bulge tapering to the super-thin edges.
Apple’s aluminum craftsmanship is beautiful, but the iMac’s design feels ready for an update.
The display is more impressive than ever, and less reflective, thanks to improved brightness.
The 4K iMac gives you a big, crisp display, without dominating your desk the way the 27-inch model (with Retina 5K display) does.
The ports are generally identical to before, but with Thunderbolt 3’s ludicrous speed and 5K display output.