Hands on with the new Haswell chip iMac

If you liked the look and performance of the previous iMacs, you'll like the new models, too

I should say this right from the start: When it comes to Apple's current line of iMac all-in-one desktop computers, I love the design. Love, love, love it.

I've always been a big fan of the aluminum enclosures Apple employs across its product line, but I really appreciate its use in the 27-in. iMac model sitting on my desk. From the black bordered glass to the aluminum "chin" to the 5mm thin tapered edges, I adore the iMac look, which is thankfully unchanged from last year's models.

Apple updated the iMac in late September, moving it to Intel's newest "Haswell" processors, adding faster solid-state storage options and adding support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi. All three of those changes make a solid performer and even better deal for buyers, as prices from the 2012 models remained the same.

That's usually the Apple way. Boost performance, tweak the design and keep prices intact.

The now-familiar line-up continues as before, with the entry-level iMac (with a 21.5-in. screen) starting at $1,299 and the larger 27-in. model starting at $1,799.

The model I've been using is a 27-in. version provided by Apple, complete with the hybrid "Fusion" drive the company unveiled a year ago when it rolled out the current design. The drive now uses PCIe-based flash memory, which Apple says can boost performance over SATA III flash-based models by 50%.

If you're not used to a screen this large, you're in for a treat. It's big enough that you can have multiple open documents side by side without having to the use Spaces to create virtual desktops or shrinking the size of windows. Of course, in concert with Spaces and an Apple multitouch trackpad, the iMac can become a productivity powerhouse.

I quickly grew accustomed to the display's size. But what I could never get used to is the view from the side. Maybe it's because I grew up in a CRT world, where monitors were big, and chunky and beige, but the sides of the iMac always seem to be impossibly thin, as if the machine resides in 2D space. Sure, the back of the unit becomes progressively thicker at its center to accommodate the internal hardware, but catching a glimpse of the iMac from the side leaves me with a feeling of 'wow' every time.

The iMac has an extremely thin bezel, making the screen look like it's floating when viewed from the side. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

Apple offers the iMac in only two sizes, with two standard configurations. But there are a wealth of options available when you buy. And it's important to think through what you'll need, because if you buy the smaller iMac, you won't be able to open it up later and add RAM.

Configurations and options

The cheapest iMac is the 21.5-in. model. It sports a quad-core processor, Intel's 2.7GHz Core i5 (featuring a 4MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.2GHz), a 1TB hard drive and integrated Intel Iris Pro graphics. The hard drive is a 5400rpm model, which is a mediocre drive compared to the faster Fusion drive (or the super-fast, but pricey, SSD option). The Iris Pro graphics represents a decent update compared to the previous generation, but you'll still get better performance on the 1920x1080-pixel display from a discrete graphics card. That leads me to the next model.

Spend another $200 and you get a 21.5-in. iMac with a quad-core 2.9GHz i5 (featuring a 6MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.6GHz), though you can bump the processor to a 3.1GHz Core i7. This one also ships with a 5400rpm 1TB drive, though you can upgrade to either a 256GB or 512GB flash drive, or a 1TB Fusion drive. (More about the Fusion drive in a minute.) Unlike the other configuration, this model comes with the NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics with 1GB of GDDR5 memory -- a better choice if you're into games.

Both 21.5-in. iMacs come with 8GB of memory, which is plenty for now. But if you want to future-proof your computer, considering doubling the RAM to 16GB (for $200 more). Just like last year, this model does not have user-replaceable memory slots, so if you don't get the extra memory now, you won't be able to add it later. As far as Apple is concerned, attempting to do so may void your warranty. (The iMac uses adhesive instead of magnets to keep the screen attached to the aluminum body.

For more power, a larger display, or both, the iMac of choice is the 27-incher. The $1799 model comes with a 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (with 3.6GHz Turbo Boost and 6MB of L3 cache) and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M graphics processor with dedicated 1GB of GDDR5 memory. That's notch up from the graphics card in the more expensive 21.5-in. iMac.

Another $200 gets you an iMac equipped with a 3.4GHz quad-core i5 that can be bumped up to a 3.5GHz quad-core Core i7. For the best performance, the Core i7 chips are the way to go. The high end iMac display uses the more powerful NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M graphics processor with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, and you can get an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M with 4GB of GDDR5 memory, if the absolute best is a must have.

Both larger iMacs come with 8GB of memory, expandable to 32GB. You can max out the RAM when you buy, or do it later yourself. (Unlike the 21.5-in. model, the larger iMac has a user-serviceable memory port on the rear of the unit, tucked beneath the point where the stand and the main body meet.) Both also come with 1TB drives, although these are at least 7200rpm drives for better performance out of the box. You can configure this machine with a 3TB hard drive, upgrade to a 1TB or 3TB Fusion Drive, or choose 256GB, 512GB or 1TB of flash storage.

Flash-based storage is absolutely the way to go if you want the best overall performance, but it's also among the most costly options. The 256GB SSD adds $200 to the bottom line; the 512GB SSD adds $500; and if you decide to go with the 1TB option, it'll set you back an additional $1,000.

Other iMac features

All iMacs sport the same stylish aluminum-and-glass enclosure, and all come with a FaceTime camera for video conferencing, surpassingly strong built-in stereo speakers, and dual microphones for noise-canceling and better voice recognition when conducting video chats or dictating text.

Connectivity options abound. On the rear of the iMac is an SDXC card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and a mini display port for connecting an external monitor. Gigabit Ethernet is supported -- for those who still rely on wires -- and for the wireless crowd, the iMac supports Bluetooth 4.0 and the new 802.11AC wireless standard. The headphone port also supports optical audio out via a minijack.

As noted earlier the display really is gorgeous, with even lighting and vibrant, crisp colors. It's almost good enough to make me forget about the possibility of a super-hi-resolution Retina display iMac. Almost.

Maybe next year.

That being said, this design -- stylish as it is -- can also be extremely inconvenient. The peripheral ports are all hidden behind the huge screen, which is a pain if you're in the habit of constantly plugging and unplugging peripherals. It's nothing new, but it certainly is the trade-off for this design.

The iMac's ports are located on the back -- great for aesthetics, but bad for anyone who connects and disconnects peripherals frequently. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

Using the iMac

Setting up this iMac was a snap. I am an iCloud subscriber and I use Notes and Pages often -- both of which support iCloud sync. Logging into my iCloud account on the iMac automatically brought over all of my current documents, Finder Tags and Notes as well as other data like calendars. But my main concern was access to my in-progress articles. Clicking on my custom Work In Progress tag in the Finder sidebar showed all of my current documents, even though I never transferred the files over to the machine. Before the release of OS X Mavericks, these files would be accessible through Pages; with Mavericks, my work was right there in Finder, waiting for me.

That's almost too easy.

But, that's really what we expect from computing devices these days. Because all machines are relatively responsive -- especially at these price points -- it's not so much about benchmarks as it is about accessing our content no matter the device. Apple gets a lot of heat because its online services have more issues than some competitors, but when it works, it works well. And when using the iMac, it worked well for me.

As for the iMac itself, it was always responsive in overall use, always ran cool, and remained completely silent. If you operate in a quiet environment and want that environment to stay that way, the iMac should fit right in.

No doubt the Fusion drive helps keeps the noise level down. Remember, the Fusion drive is actually a hybrid drive, with small SSD segment and a larger portion that relies on a 5400rpm hard drive. The Fusion Drive makes OS X feel snappier. It's only when you need to access files stored on the hard drive that things start to slow down a little. Many users won't even notice, but I did. That's why I recommend an SSD drive if you can afford it as an option, the Fusion drive as a fallback and the 5400rpm drive never.

How fast is the Fusion drive? Using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, I got results showing write speeds averaging between 260MBit/sec. and 315MBit/sec., and read speeds between 490Mbit/sec and 515MBit/sec. Those are noticeably faster speeds than you'll see with any hard drive, even the 7200rpm versions.

Whenever I review a Mac, I have a complex, 50-minute iMovie project that I render. (The iMovie '11 file was exported using Apple's "Large" settings, resulting in an h.264 m4v file with a 960-by-540-pixel resolution.) The 2.8GHz quad-core i5 iMac from 2010 rendered the movie project in an hour and eight minutes; the iMac I tested last year did it in just 48 minutes. The newest iMac did it ... 5 seconds faster than that.

In other words, this year's iMac is virtually as fast as last year's in that test.

One last note: As OS X matures, so does its multitouch support. With that in mind, I highly recommend using Apple's Magic Trackpad ($69) with the iMac instead of the included Magic Mouse. It puts the massive screen literally at your fingerprints, allowing you to swipe with ease through documents, photos and apps and navigate quickly through virtual desktops. It really will boost your productivity.

At $1999, this iMac isn't inexpensive, but wow, is it a stunner, even at that price. If there's a better all-in-one computer around, it would have to be the 27-in. iMac with the Intel Core i7 chipset. With 32GB of RAM. And a 1TB SSD for storage. Of course, that one will cost $3,799.

For more mainstream users, the $1,999 version should do just fine. That's true whether this is your first iMac or you're simply looking to upgrade an iMac bought before last year's big style change. The current line-up should serve you well for years to come.

My verdict on the 2013 iMac: Recommended.

The iMac line-up offers two screen sizes and a variety of processor, storage and memory options. (Image: Apple)

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

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