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Jan 18, 2013

2012 iMac review: Apple’s super-slim all-in-one is incredible

by Freddie Harrison

Can the most significant change to the iMac in five years prove that the desktop computer is still king? We think so. Here’s why the all-in-one is still great…

New iMac - Review - Main

Available from: www.store.apple.com

Price: 2.7 GHz £1,099/$1,299 • 2.9GHz £1,249/$1,499

If there’s one argument from the camp of Apple’s harshest critics that comes through clearer than most, it’s that the last few products to come out of Cupertino hardly reinvent the wheel. Those used to Apple’s uncanny ability to enter a new market and turn it on its head (see: MP3 players, phones and, if you go far enough back, the desktop computer) have resulted in a level of expectation that, arguably, wasn’t quite reached with the last two iterations of the iPad, the latest iPhone or even the iPad mini. The new iMac sets out to silence this claim and, after a good few days of getting up close and personal with Apple’s thinnest desktop yet, we’re happy to report it completes its mission with aplomb.

When Apple announced the new iMac during its event at the tail-end of October, its focus was firmly set on its size. With the depth of this iMac just five millimetres at its thinnest point (and that’s an important point to make), there’s no denying (even from those in the critics’ camp) that Jony Ive and his team have had their work cut out. In the flesh, it’s clear to see why the iMac’s greatest asset is its form factor and even those foul cries of photographic trickery towards Apple become pretty insignificant. Apple has achieved the impossible with the new iMac and squeezed some incredibly powerful computing technology into an outstandingly thin aluminium and glass shell. There’s no getting around the fact that the back of the iMac is bowed slightly (making space for some of the thicker components on board), but even if the thickest point is little over a centimetre thicker than its predecessor, it’s still an unbelievable improvement.

New iMac - Review - Side-on
The new iMac is just 5mm thin at its edges

To get things so thin, Apple relied on a manufacturing process known as friction-stir welding, a technique once reserved for the aerospace industry that heats up two pieces of aluminium so intensely that they can be ‘stirred’ together at a molecular level – this alone is enough to ward off claims that Apple has somehow lost its innovative streak. As a result of its thinner design, the new iMac is significantly lighter, too. At just 12.5 pounds (5.68kg) compared to the previous model’s 20.5 pounds (9.3kg), it requires a thinner ‘foot’, adding to the feeling that this iMac is significantly smaller than ever before. All in all, these changes to weight and dimensions add up to Apple creating an all-in-one that delivers on aesthetics like no other. If you’re any good at visualising, it’s not hard to see the new iMac taking pride of place at home or in your office space. Just don’t try and look at it in profile, it’s much harder to imagine that way.

Aesthetics only run skin-deep, though, and fortunately, there’s an extra depth to the new iMac that runs far beyond how thin it is – although it is heavily influenced by it. In making the iMac extra thin, Apple also resorted to fusing the glass and LCD of its display into one single unit and, while this might diminish chances of a cheap repair, it does lead to a few other significant changes. Side-by-side with an older iMac, the technology applied to the display in the new model has yielded a display that’s far brighter and more vivid, with a picture that appears to sit right on top of the screen. It’s a result of this reduced gap between the LCD and display but also down to reduced reflectiveness. Using techniques usually applied to camera lenses and the helmets of fighter pilots, Apple has coated the display in a thin layer (so thin, in fact, it’s measured by the atom) of anti-reflective coating leading to 75 per cent less reflection on the screen. The result is game-changing, especially if you’ve ever been sat with a bright window behind you with an older iMac, making all the difference to anyone who spends their days working with video or graphics or even just watching films. Naturally, there are still some reflections in a well-lit environment, but in a dark room, images on the screen appear to be etched right onto it – perfect for showing off Aperture edits or checking out the latest blockbuster. Like any Apple product, the back of the iMac is no less beautiful than the front. Apple’s attention to detail sees the iMac’s most unsightly feature – a set of large air vents – hidden by its foot, leaving a set of I/O options, power socket and power button.

As far as ports go, there’s been a bit of a change here, too. Gone are the FireWire 800 and the audio in ports, replaced by four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, an SDXC card slot, a headphones jack and a Gigabit Ethernet connection. It’s a subtle change to the iMac’s I/O, but one that sees it brought up to date with Apple’s other new launches of late, as well as the plethora of USB 3.0-equipped peripherals that are slowly penetrating the world of Apple. For those who still use FireWire 800, though, there’s always Apple’s Thunderbolt to FireWire 800 connector (£25/$29). Similarly, the missing audio in port may be an issue for some who will now need to shell out for a somewhat pricey USB audio interface. Finally, the elephant in the room that is the missing SuperDrive (optical drives being sacrificed by Apple for the sake of space isn’t a new thing, but it is for the iMac) can be replaced in much the same way by Apple’s USB SuperDrive (£65/$79). It’s perhaps the only sticking point for anyone looking to upgrade but still heavily reliant on what Apple now considers legacy technology.

New iMac - Review - Ports
There's been a few changes to the iMac I/O options

Obvious omissions aside, however, the I/O options featured on the iMac are plentiful for first-time buyers and hardened Apple aficionados alike. Speed is of the essence here and those USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports certainly deliver. If you’re lucky enough to have owned an older iMac, the slightly adjusted position of these ports might leave you awkwardly reaching behind the new iMac for a while, but once you’re used to it, we’re pretty certain you’ll never find yourself short of ports. Of note as well is Apple’s FaceTime HD camera that’s coupled with dual microphones (one on the front of the iMac and one on the rear) that utilise the same noise- cancelling technology for video calls free of background interruptions. Inside the iMac, there’s no real curve balls to be found (aside from the optional upgrade of the Fusion Drive – see to the left) with a 2.6GHz quad- core i5 processor coming as standard on the lowest-priced machine, along with 8GB of RAM (upgradeable, by Apple only on this model, to 16GB) and a 1TB hard drive. It’s nothing to be sniffed at, though, because these seemingly unassuming internals add to up a stellar OS X experience.

Our new iMac was specced up to include the full 16GB of RAM, a 2.9 GHz processor and a 1TB Fusion Drive and it flew. From the 16 second boot time (from completely turned off to a fully functional OS X desktop) to its impressive ability to load every stock app in under a minute, everything about the new iMac is quick. Another internal component that’s seen a complete overhaul as a result of the iMac’s redesign is the speakers. Apple claims these are the best desktop all-in-one speakers ever made and, from an audiophile’s perspective, we’re inclined to agree.

What these speakers seem to do best is stay true to the music, delivering a level of clarity in whatever’s playing that simply can’t be matched by the previous iMac. Bass fiends may find these speakers’ output a little lacking, but that’s less down to a lack of bass response, more down to the reduced muddiness that’s completely evident when you listen to music on both the old and new iMacs, side-by-side. The new iMac’s speakers are quite simply stunning – enabling you to hear the subtle nuances of every instrument in an arrangement, characterised by crisp highs and a perfectly prominent low-end coupled with a mid-range that, while not perfect, certainly sits well in the overall mix.

New iMac - Review - Benchamarking
The iMac's Geekbench scores were pretty impressive

Even when we put the iMac under pressure, playing Batman: Arkham City on its highest settings, it stayed cool (literally and figuratively – heating up no more than an idling late-2011, 21.5-inch iMac) and gave us a graphics performance that, while not on par with some top-spec gaming PCs, still left us impressed. After 30 minutes of Batman fun, we still didn’t find the overall temperature of the iMac as high as it was on your previous- generation model which was sitting alongside it. The only real hot air being expelled was from the air vents, as you’d expect. It’s a welcome change from previous generations of iMac, which sometimes have a tendency to get a little too warm for your liking. Editing images using Aperture was also a pleasure, with zooming and retouching tools all functioning perfectly smoothly, only struggling when we had almost every other app open at the same time. Naturally, moments like this are where the improved display really comes into its own, allowing us to see zoomed in on images in unparalleled detail. The new iMac truly is a photographer’s dream desktop machine.

Regular tasks such as updating calendars and surfing the web with Safari were handled by the new iMac without any issues – the apps were incredibly quick to load and snappy to work with. Switching between a number of apps was also pleasantly efficient; everything loaded in a matter of seconds with little to no lag. We never felt restricted by processing constraints when it came to using the iMac and that’s key for creativity. Everything seemed to load so quickly that it almost happened before we wanted it to.

New iMac - Review - Competition

Undoubtedly, as performance goes, our iMac’s Fusion Drive was a big help here, ensuring that the files we used most often were sitting on the iMac’s built-in SSD for quick access. It’s an optional extra that’s well worth the additional investment. The same also goes for the additional RAM upgrade, which can’t be performed post- purchase due to a lack of access to the machine’s internals, unlike previous generations. These increasing barriers to do-it-yourself repairs are very much in line with the new Retina display MacBook Pros, but may well prove a sticking point for those who need that extra boost in performance as their needs change.

Issues with upgrading aside, though, the new iMac is the assurance from Apple that desktop computers are here to stay for a long time yet. Using the new iMac is nothing short of a pleasure; with images seemingly sitting directly on top of the stunning 21.5-inch screen, sound coming through clearer than ever and processing power that ensures even the most challenging of creative tasks are easily achievable. What’s more, with such a great user experience wrapped inside the most beautifully designed iMac yet, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that this is the best all-in-one ever made.

Verdict: Orange 5 Stars

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