Apple iMac - 21.5-inch (2012) review

Apple's iMac has always been a beautiful device, and one that has made the industry create thin clone after thin clone to try to compete. If you are reading this on an all-in-one computer, it's either an iMac, or the designer wanted it to be one.  

But in an age where we are all about "mobile, mobile, mobile" and sofa surfing is becoming the norm, is there still a place in the home for a desktop computer, no matter how thin it is? Apple clearly believes so, and thus has overhauled the iMac to incorporate a thinner design, more power and a few new tricks to boot. 

We dumped one in the Pocket-lint kitchen to see whether it stood a chance against the house iPad. 

Design 

From the front you can't immediately see the changes Apple has made. The iMac sports a large crisp screen - in this case 21.5-inches - and beneath that a strong looking silver bar or chin. 

The screen is surrounded by a thick black bezel and there is a FaceTime HD camera at the top next to two mics to let you video call and be able to hear them. One mic is on top, the other behind designed to bounce off the wall. 

Look at the iMac from the side though, and you'll soon see the difference. It's thin, really thin and it's side-on where you see where a lot of the work has gone in to improving the overall appearance. The thinness tapers down to just 5mm. That's half the thickness of the iPhone, or in other terms the thickness of a CD single jewel case - remember those? 

Of course Apple hasn't somehow created the computer equivalent of Mary Poppins' carpet bag, and at its thickest point, where the the casing meets the stand, it is a lot thicker, but it is still an impressive feat. 

All this supermodel thinness is achievable because Apple has lost the optical disk drive from the side. Don't worry, there's an optional optical disk drive - if you really must have one - but let's face it, when was the last time you loaded some software on to your computer that you couldn't just download. 

As you can imagine, all this thinness has drawn plenty of remarks from visitors: "Where's the rest of it?" one of our guests said. 

The iMac comes with the same tilt stand (vertically) as before, and as before it doubles as a place to store the accompanying wireless keyboard and mouse. 

Pop your head around the back and there is a power button to the rear left of the screen and an array of connection ports on the right. 

Speakers

Hidden in the thin edge of the screen that faces down, towards your desk, are the Mac's speakers. We are really surprised by how good they are, considering that we can't see them, and they aren't facing us. If you are listening to music or watching a video, you'll be more than happy with their performance. 

Connectivity

The iMac comes with four USB 3.0 ports, all lined up alongside a pair of Thunderbolt sockets. On top of that, of course, is an SDXC card slot, your Mini DisplayPort that supports DVI and VGA and one, bog-standard, Ethernet connection. 

It's all fairly straightforward, but we found using the SD card slot cumbersome. In a move that keeps the front of the design of the iMac crisp and clean the SD card reader is hidden around the back of the display. To access it, you either have to fumble as you would in the dark, or poke your head around the back of the screen. For such a beautiful design, its strange that it doesn't insist you stay beautiful using it.

Bum up in the air, head tucked around the back of your computer isn't a good look, trust us. 

It's a poor design and one that would have been difficult to improve on, granted, but this is Apple we're talking about; we shouldn't have to compromise. Most people who use SD - or other memory formats - on a regular basis are going to end up ignoring the built-in socket, and using a separate card reader.  

Of course you can argue that the same applies to the rest of the ports, but they are slightly forgivable as we know that you don't use those as much. It's a desktop after all and you'll probably set everything up when you first get the computer, and not look at it much again. 

Keyboard and mouse

In the box you get Apple's standard Bluetooth keyboard and either its Magic Mouse or its Magic Trackpad. Both take about 10 seconds to set up the first time you use them and then work  seamlessly there on out. If you want the mouse and trackpad, you'll have to pay £60 extra. There isn't much to say beyond they work, are comfortable to use, and you'll be either impressed or disappointed, so we will move on.  

Screen and performance 

Back to the main focus of the iMac - the screen - and the IPS display itself is now 5mm thinner than before, and laminated to the front glass in order to eliminate an air gap that was there previously. It also has a new non-reflective coating that means the glare is less obvious too. The 21.5-inch iMac brings you a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, which is a full HD, 16:9 screen. Some computer users will have preferred a 16:10 ratio, but that's not an option. 

It is likely to be crisp enough for most people - it's HD after all - however, if you've seen the company's MacBook Pro with Retina display, you'll be a tiny bit disappointed. Apple's problem is that it spoils us with one device, and then expects us to live without that glorious tech on the next. Like a spoilt child, we're muttering "it's NOT fair"and chucking our toys about. 

Still that's us being difficult, and most won't notice the difference and will be very happy with the screen quality, whether it's while watching a movie or surfing the web.

The iMac we were sent had a 3.1Ghz Intel Core i7 processor with 16GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM, an NVIDIA GeForce GT650M 512MB graphics card, a 1.12 TB "Fusion Drive" that's a mix between a traditional mechanical drive and a 128GB SSD to speed up load times. Those on a budget can start with a more austere package that starts with a 2.9GHz quad-core Intel i5 and 2.7GHz quad-core Intel i5 processors. 

The starting price is £1,099. Our model cost £1,768.99. 

Fusion Drive

As it's described by Apple "[the] Fusion Drive combines 128GB of super-fast flash storage with a traditional hard drive" that "automatically and dynamically moves frequently used files to flash for quicker access. With Fusion Drive in your iMac, booting is up to 1.7 times faster, and copying files and importing photos are up to 3.5 times faster. Over time, as the system learns how you work, Fusion Drive makes your Mac experience even better. All while letting you store your digital life on a traditional, roomy hard drive."

It sounds glorious, and the tech has been available on hard drives from third-party manufacturers, and with certain motherboards for some time in PCs. The idea of putting frequently-used files on an SSD and infrequently accessed ones on a slower, mechanical, drive is a solid one though. All this is done in the background automatically without you noticing.

It's hard to actively tell whether the system is worth the extra £200 because you never know whether the software you are loading is loading from the flash drive or the traditional hard drive. But from experience of Flash drives compared to traditional hard drives on other Apple machines, we would opt for the flash drive experience every time. Flash is usually much faster. 

Upgrades

The 21.5-inch iMac is not really upgradable - well not yourself anyway. That's the payoff you have to live with for that lovely thin design and it's a trait that flows through most Apple products at the moment. If you want to upgrade you will have to send it back to Apple. That goes for hard drives and memory. Best advice, if you don't want to worry about it in the future buy the best setup you can afford right now to "future-proof" yourself. 

Verdict

During our time with the 21.5-inch iMac we did a number of daily tasks. Watched a movie, wrote this review, surfed the web, played some games, watch some more movies, and listened to music via Spotify. It's all good. Very good. 

The 21.5-inch iMac isn't without its faults though. We don't like the positioning of the SD card reader and for some, the lack of upgradability (at home) will be annoying. 

What is clear however is that the Apple has produced a lovely desktop machine that will look good wherever you put it in your home or your office. It will have people talking, and that's probably what you want. This is a computer that you won't want to put in the spare room, and a computer you will be happy to have on show.  

As much as we enjoyed using the iMac in our home it is a solo, single-task experience. You're sitting in front of it spending quality time and doing very little else. That's great for work, writing that novel, or dedicating time to reading stuff on the web, but not so good if you are thinking of sitting in front of the TV on the sofa shopping. 

If you are looking for a dedicated machine that sits there waiting for you to give it attention then this is a powerful enough, pretty enough and lovely enough servant that will serve you well. It coped with everything with ease and we like that. but if you are looking to break free from the confines of a desk, a MacBook Air or iPad will be the device you really want to look at buying.