Apple iMac 21.5in (2012) review

Apple's latest AiO features its Fusion drive, an 5mm-thin design and Intel Ivy Bridge power. Is it still the dream machine for power users or has it fallen behind the likes of the HP Z1?

Performance and specification

The processors used in this year's iMacs have been upgraded, too. Intel Ivy Bridge hardware has been used, with the low-power Core i7-3770S the chip on show here. It's a 3.1GHz part and, while its clock speed is a little lower than Intel's full-power chips, it'll Turbo Boost to a top speed of 3.9GHz - and it's Hyper-Threaded, too.

Our review sample had a mammoth 16GB of RAM, too, and the machine blitzed to an application benchmark score of 0.96 - one of the best results we've ever seen from an all-in-one, and approaching the 1.02 scored by the heavy-duty HP Z1 workstation, which packed Intel Sandy Bridge Xeon processors.

Graphics power comes from Nvidia, and the GeForce GT 650M scored a respectable 33fps in our 1,920 x 1,080 High-quality Crysis benchmark. That's enough to put paid to graphically intensive office applications, and it'll also allow for after-hours gaming.

Apple iMac 2012

Connectivity options include 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4 and Gigabit Ethernet, and it's also worth mentioning the iMac's speakers. They've been redesigned to fit into the slimline chassis, and most of the hardware is crammed into the thin space either side of the component bulge on the rear of the system, with outputs across the screen's bottom edge. They produce plenty of volume and, when it comes to mid-range and high-end sounds, quality is exceptional - although there's hardly any bass.

One area that's seen less change is the screen. The 21.5in, 1,920 x 1,080 panel is the same LG component used in last year's machine, and quality remains outstanding. The measured brightness of 469cd/m2 makes for a screen that's vivid without searing the retinas, and the contrast ratio of 1,024:1 is excellent - it's paired with high levels of colour accuracy and a broad colour gamut.

Viewing angles are good, there's no sign of backlight bleed, and Apple says that the glossy panel is less reflective than last year's version because the 2mm gap between the screen and its glass covering has been eliminated. We can't vouch for that 75 per cent figure, but this year's iMac is definitely less reflective than older models.

The one sting in the iMac's tail comes from its roster of tightly-packed components. Air can only escape through two small vents, and the one internal fan struggles to cope: we stress-tested the machine in both OS X and Windows 7 and recorded peak processor temperatures of 98C and 100C. The system never became unstable, and few users will run their machines at 100 per cent load, but it's something to bear in mind.

Upgrades

As usual, Apple offers several configuration options. The two 21.5in iMac base models cost 1,099 and 1,249 respectively: the former machine has a 2.5GHz Core i5 processor and Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics core, and the latter is boosted to a 2.9GHz Core i5 and the GT 650M GPU included in our review sample.

The cheaper of the two machines is less versatile, with only two upgrades available: doubling up to 16GB of RAM costs 140, and adding the Fusion Drive will set you back 200. The more expensive model offers the same two options, but you can also upgrade to the Core i7 processor included in our sample - a change that costs an extra 160.

Conclusion

Apple's reputation for expensive systems isn't exactly undeserved, and that's certainly true of this year's machine - the sample we've reviewed here will set you back 1,769, or more cash than you'll need to buy either of Apple's two base-model 27in iMacs.

The price is driven up by all of the possible upgrades, though, and while they're tempting additions we're not sure that most users will feel the benefit. Indeed, while the Fusion Drive and Core i7 processor speed the iMac up, in day-to-day use it'll still feel slick with a standard hard disk and a Core i5 processor in tow.

Whichever specification you buy, you're still getting the slim, gorgeous and well-built chassis and the stonking screen - just think carefully about whether you really need those expensive upgrades.

Verdict

Apple's iMac keeps its lead as the market's most stylish all-in-one thanks to a 5mm-thin edge, and component upgrades ensure it's one of the fastest around, too. It doesn't come cheap, though, when all of its components are upgraded - so weigh up whether you really need the Core i7 processor and Fusion Drive before taking the plunge.

OS: Apple OS X Mountain Lion

PROCESSOR: 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-3770S

RAM: 16GB DDR3

STORAGE: Apple Fusion Drive

SCREEN: 21.5in 1,920 x 1080 IPS

CONNECTIVITY: Gigabit Ethernet, dual-band 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0

PORTS: 4 x USB 3, 2 x Thunderbolt, SD card reader

OTHER: Apple Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse

DIMENSIONS: 528 x 175 x 450mm (WxDxH)

WEIGHT: 5.7kg

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