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

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 centerpiece 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 standardized 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.

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

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 prioritizing 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 customize 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: $1750
Gizrank: 3.5