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iMac 2020 Review: The Last of the Best Intel iMacs

Illustration for article titled iMac 2020 Review: The Last of the Best Intel iMacs
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

The new 27-inch iMac is a very good computer. That’s not surprising: Apple upgraded its newest machine to Intel’s 10th-gen CPUs, making it adept at handling processor-intensive creative tasks. It also has a truly beautiful screen, better than any I’ve ever used (more on that on a minute).

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But this iMac is also likely the last of its kind. Apple is making its own custom ARM-based chipset and transitioning all Macs to Apple silicon in the next two years, which means this is probably the last iMac with an Intel chip. And, perhaps just as significantly, this may well be the last iMac with this decade-old design.

Not that that should deter you from buying it. Looks aren’t everything, especially when it comes to a workhorse like the iMac. For many people stability is crucial. Apple silicon may end up being faster and come in fresher devices with more cool additional features, but new doesn’t necessarily mean stable, and if you’re in video or audio editing then stability can matter as much as speed. So this iMac, which features a dated but proven design and the absolute latest (but super stable) internal hardware, feels like a perfect bet.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the latest 27-inch iMac is that it looks exactly like all the iMacs that have come before it. Apple has been reusing this design for years now, and while it’s become a classic for a reason, it’s also a little dated. Why are the bezels still so incredibly large? Why does the Apple logo take up so much real estate? I suppose it just works.

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Though I wish Apple had expanded the screen in the same size footprint, people still remark on how slim and stylish the iMac is when they see it up close. And the new iMac has an absolutely stunning screen—but it’ll cost you.

Staring at this screen all day is so easy on the eyes that I want nano-texture glass in every device.
Staring at this screen all day is so easy on the eyes that I want nano-texture glass in every device.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo
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Apple introduced a nano-texture glass screen with the Pro Display XDR, but that monitor costs $6,000—a non-starter for most of us. You can now get the nano-texture glass in the 27-inch iMac as a $500 add-on, and to be honest, I think it’s worth it. I’m surprised at myself, because $500 is kind of a lot, and if you’re going to upgrade your iMac, adding more RAM or a speedier processor is more practical than pretty glass. But the glass really is that good.

The base model iMac already comes with an anti-reflective coating, but adding the nano-texture glass option almost completely eliminates glare. Apple says the glass is different from screens with matte coatings, which scatter light. Instead, it’s etched with “nanostructures” that appear to maintain the contrast even when a light source is aimed directly at the screen. I confess that I’ve been using the iMac not just to work, but also to watch movies and episodes of Selling Sunset, and the screen has been amazing.

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This is the best screen I’ve seen in years. In fact, it’s so easy on the eyes that I now want every device I use to come with nano-texture glass—or I would if the screen weren’t so finicky to clean. Apple includes a special microfiber cloth in the box, and though I haven’t had to do much but lightly buff away a few smudges from moving the desktop from my dining room to my office, that’s a little high maintenance for a touchscreen device, so it’s probably for the best that Apple reserved it for the Pro Display and iMac. I still think $500 is a little much, but if you work in a room with challenging lighting, this glass is worth it.

Look at this special cleaning cloth.
Look at this special cleaning cloth.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo
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The iMac Apple sent me for review didn’t just have nano-texture glass. No, no. This thing is almost fully specced out with a 10th-gen Intel Core i9 processor (10 cores), AMD Radeon Pro 5700 XT GPU with 16GB of VRAM, 32GB of memory, and 1TB SSD. It’s a beast. It’s also $4,500.

The 27-inch iMac starts at $1,800, but you can upgrade nearly every component to get pretty incredible performance. And the version I tested impressed in the suite of benchmarks we put it through. In a test of the machine’s CPU performance rendering a 3D image in Blender, the iMac finished the job in 2 minutes and 29 seconds. That’s even faster than when we benchmarked a stock Intel i9 10th-Gen chip with a Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU TI on a custom Windows machine. In a video-editing test of the iMac’s GPU using Handbrake, the machine finished processing a gigantic 4K video file in 5 minutes and 29 seconds, which is plenty fast compared to the stock CPU which did it in 6 minutes flat. And in Geekbench 4, which tests overall system performance, the iMac’s single-core (6382) and multi-core (42417) scores were high enough to take my colleague Joanna Nelius, Gizmodo’s resident PC expert, aback.

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The new iMac didn’t quite dazzle in our gaming benchmarks compared to the dedicated Windows gaming PCs we’ve tested, though it did perform capably, delivering 82 frames per second in Shadow of the Tomb Raider on the highest graphics setting (1920 x 1080). That should surprise absolutely no one but, honestly, gaming likely isn’t a major deciding factor for those in the market for a new iMac.

When it comes to getting creative work done, the iMac handles intensive tasks with ease.
When it comes to getting creative work done, the iMac handles intensive tasks with ease.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo
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Synthetic benchmarks aside, the iMac is a machine designed for creatives who need to do a lot of heavy lifting using tools like Final Cut Pro or Pro Tools. My work is a little more lightweight, so I asked my husband, a professional audio producer, to play around with Apple’s audio-editing software Logic Pro X on the iMac and provide his feedback. Now I regret it, because he wants to drop $4,500 on this desktop. As someone who has had to transition from a professional studio set-up to a temporary makeshift work-from-home lifestyle, he’s been making do editing sessions on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, which isn’t ideal. Aside from the iMac’s giant nano-texture glass screen, of which he declared, “I could stare at that all day,” he also found the basics—importing audio and editing multiple tracks—to be “screaming fast.” That helps him work more quickly, because it eliminates the biggest pain point in his workflow: a sluggish machine.

The new iMac also has a three-mic array that Apple claims is “studio-quality,” but unless you’re recording in a sound-proof room, your audio will be a little too echo-y for professional use. Unfortunately, the iMac isn’t exactly portable enough to move to our bedroom’s walk-in closet, the only room in our house that can dampen sound and the place where my husband records tracks, so it’s better as an editing/mixing machine for his purposes than a recording one.

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All the essentials.
All the essentials.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

A couple of little things to note, aside from the incredible performance and beautiful display: I love the iMac’s 1080p front-facing camera and am incredibly disappointed that new MacBooks don’t yet have a better-quality camera for the endless video conferences and FaceTime happy hours that are now our existence. The new iMac’s T2 security chip adjusts the FaceTime camera’s exposure and lighting dynamically as I move around, so I always look my best (or, at least, I look much better than I do on my MacBook Pro’s grainy-by-comparison cam). The iMac also has excellent speakers, which get a boost from the T2, too. As I was playing—nay, blasting—Beyoncé on the iMac in my office, my husband strolled by and asked which speaker I had set up in the room, assuming I was reviewing some new product. It sounds damn good.

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Here’s the deal: Apple may soon release a new iMac with Apple Silicon and a brand new design (likely in the form of the 21-inch model that hasn’t been touched this year, Jason Snell of Six Colors predicts, and I agree). But that doesn’t mean this iMac isn’t worth buying—particularly if you’re looking for stable, but cutting edge hardware. Its performance is pretty incredible, especially if you bump up the processor and RAM, and the nano-texture glass screen is so soothing to stare at that it’s worth an extra $500 (that pains me to write, but it’s true). If you need a machine like this, then it doesn’t matter if next year’s model looks a little better.

README

  • Nano-texture glass screen is worth the $500 premium.
  • Powerful performance, especially for creative work.
  • Front-facing camera is finally good!
  • Very expensive if you want all the bells and whistles.
  • Design is already old, and will look even older when the first Macs with Apple Silicon arrive.
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Consumer tech editor, Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

$4,500. For a 1080p computer. With those ungodly massive bezels.

I can’t.  I just can’t.  Aren’t these computers supposed to be great at editing video?  Aren’t people going to want to work on something higher-resolution than a 1080p screen, no matter how gorgeous the “nano-texture” is?  And even if they don’t want to edit higher-res video now, I’ve always heard that Macs make sense because you keep it for so long and you don’t have to replace it as frequently.  How long in to the future is this going to look (even more) horribly outdated?