Apple 21.5in iMac (mid-2014)
Lower price; integrated IPS LED screen; eye-catching design
Non-upgradable RAM; slow, limited-capacity 5400RPM drive; only iMac without four processing cores
How does the new iMac rate against the rest of the range? Price is the key
Working in the Macworld Lab as I do, I tend to focus on system performance when recommending (or not recommending) computers for purchase. The truth is, however, that many people buy computers based largely on price.
After all, it doesn’t take the horsepower of a high-end Mac to surf the internet, run office applications, send email, or take care of other everyday computer chores. Some buyers simply don’t want (or need) to invest in the latest PCIe-connnected flash storage, quad-core i7 processors, and discrete GPUs capable of supporting 4K video. Apple has these budget-minded buyers in mind with its latest, lower-priced iMac.
Until recently, the standard iMac lineup included two 27in models and two 21.5in models. With this latest release, a third 21.5in iMac joins the team. Priced at just $1349 – $250 less than the previous low-end iMac – this new system is externally identical to the the rest of the 21.5in iMacs, as well as those released in October of 2012. It has the same 5mm thin-edged design, the same glossy 1920-by-1080 IPS screen, the same four USB 3.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, two Thunderbolt ports, headphone jack and SDXC card slots.
The tradeoff for those super-thin edges is that there is no room on the side for peripheral ports, much less an optical drive. I would personally prefer to have the convenience of front or side peripheral ports than I would that razor-thin edge – especially because this is a desktop machine.
Under the hood, the price-versus-power choices become apparent. In fact, the new low-end iMac’s internal specifications have more in common with the latest MacBook Airs than with the rest of the iMac family. Where the $1599 iMac has a quad-core 2.7GHz Core i5 processor, the $1349 iMac has a dual-core 1.4GHz Core i5 processor. The $1599 model has a 1TB, 5400 RPM hard drive, while the $1349 iMac has a 500GB hard drive of the same rotational speed. The $1599 iMac also has faster Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics than the new low-end’s Intel HD Graphics 5000.
Configuration options are also really limited on the new low-end system. There is no incremental processor upgrade, no graphics upgrade and no RAM upgrades available. The other iMacs in the line can be upgraded to 16GB at the time of purchase. DIYers hoping to save a few bucks by going through the hassle of installing their own RAM are out of luck with the new $1349 iMac: Apple is using LPDDR3 RAM that is soldered to the motherboard. The RAM on the other 21.5in models might be hard to access, but it’s doable if you’re tenacious, and if you do you’ll find two standard DDR3 DIMM slots. You can upgrade from the standard 500GB hard drive to 1TB drive for an extra $60; an extra $300 will get you either 256GB of flash storage or a 1TB Fusion drive, which combines a 1TB hard drive with 128GB of flash storage.
As you can read in our full benchmark report, there is now a wide performance gap between the low-end iMac and the next step up the product line. The new $1349 iMac was slower across the board, and 54 percent slower overall, than the $1599 21.5in system. One thing to note: We weren’t crazy about the $1599 model when it shipped. It offered just modest speed improvements over the October 2012 system and most of that was due to the $1599 iMac’s use of Iris Pro graphics – which are not included in the new $1349 system. We tested the new entry-level iMac with the optional Fusion Drive installed and found its superior storage performance helped the custom iMac post a 23 percent higher Speedmark score than the stock system.
The price of buying an iMac just went down. The big question: Is a 15 percent lower price worth 50 percent lower performance? For people who buy Macs for their ease of use, stylish design and seamless integration with iOS devices, this less expensive model offers all of that; it will also run most modern applications just fine. If you can swing it, however, the $1599 has double the processing cores running at nearly double the clock speed and twice the storage capacity of this new low-end iMac.