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After spending nearly a week with it, I can confidently say that Apple’s 2021 iMac is one of the most exciting computers the company has ever made.
It’s immediately familiar but feels new. It’s a forward-thinking throwback to the original iMac, which was released in 1998 and epitomized the second Steve Jobs era at Apple.
A Fresh Coat Of Paint
This iMac’s most distinct feature, by far, is its updated design. That starts with the fact that it’s available in several colors — my review hardware was blue — for the first time in almost 20 years. The colors Apple chose weren’t subtle, they’re bold, and the company has leaned hard into making its desktop computer stand out.
The iMac I’ve been using features three different shades of blue: light blue on the front, teal on its aluminum “foot,” and dark blue on its back. The computer shipped with a keyboard and mouse whose aluminum bodies were analyzed blue and a blue power cable. The use of color could be seen as a gimmick, but it works. You have to look at your computer for up to eight hours a day, why shouldn’t it look nice and have some personality? Don’t worry, if you liked the look of Apple’s previous iMac, the company offers a single-tone silver version.
Apple’s only “controversial” decision was making the iMac’s screen bezel white, which stands out a lot more than the black band that typically surrounds its screens. This bothered me a little while playing videos in a dark room but not using the computer to get work done.
The New iMac Took Inspiration From The iPad’s Thin, Flat Design
Colors help the new iMac stand out, but the changes Apple made to its desktop go far further than skin-deep.
The 2021 iMac’s frame is a rounded rectangle with straight sides that resemble the latest iPad Air or iPhone. The previous iMac had a bulbous backside that held the computer’s components, but Apple shrunk them down so much that the front and back could be perfectly flat. The entire computer is roughly the thickness of four quarters and thinner than the original iPhone.
This thinness is impressive but required some concessions. Thankfully, Apple managed to find creative solutions to most of the problems imposed by its desire to make its computers as small as possible.
First, the iMac’s headphone jack was moved from the back of the machine to the lower left-hand side of the machine, which makes it easier to plug headphones in. Apple removed the previous iMac’s USB-A ports, Ethernet jack, and SD Card Slot in favor of two Thunderbolt 3 ports, which means you’re probably going to need to get a hub if you do serious work.
An upgraded version of the machine, which I tested, augments the Thunderbolt 3 ports with two USB-C ports and an Ethernet jack built into the iMac’s power brick. This is the first time an iMac’s power supply and any port were moved off the machine. Another interesting note: The iMac’s power cable attaches to the computer magnetically because it’s too thin for a traditional power port.
The iMac’s basic shape hasn’t changed much since 2003, but this is its most significant overhaul in nearly a decade, and the change is welcome.
Apple’s Lightning-Fast Custom Chips Continue To Impress
The new iMac runs on Apple’s M1 processor, a custom-made chip that the company debuted in its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro last year. It’s incredibly fast and allowed this new iMac to play games, edit images, and handle dozens of open browser tabs without kicking up its fans. I couldn’t make the latest MacBook Pro sweat, and the same was true here. I can recommend this computer to any content creator: graphics artist, videographer, photographer, programmer, app developer, writer, etc., without reservation.
That’s especially true because all of this power comes attached to an excellent display. The 2021 iMac’s 23.5-inch screen is two inches larger than the model it replaces and features a new 4.5K “retina” display that looks incredibly sharp. Photos and videos looked vibrant, and text appeared clear even when I zoomed in really close. If you haven’t upgraded your iMac since the desktop’s display went “retina” (high resolution), you’re in for a treat.
Like all M1 Macs, the new iMac tops out at 16GB of RAM (memory) and a 2TB SSD (storage), which is fine for most people but may seem a little stingy for power users. The iMac I tested has 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, and I never ran into any issues. If you’re nervous about running out of system resources, we recommend upgrading the RAM first because there’s no way to add more memory to the machine. If you run out of storage, you can always plug in an external hard drive.
Apple bundles the new iMac with a slightly updated version of its Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which is only notable if you upgrade from the basic model. Higher-end iMacs come with a new Apple keyboard that features Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor available on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. This is the first time a Touch ID sensor has been available on a desktop Mac or a wireless keyboard.
It worked flawlessly in my tests and made minor annoyances less of a nuisance. Using my fingerprint to unlock the computer from sleep was easier than typing in a password, and authenticating an Apple Pay purchase was faster and more convenient. Apple doesn’t currently offer a Touch ID keyboard as a separate purchase, so we recommend getting one with your new computer instead of hoping it becomes a standalone accessory.
The New iMac’s Most Significant Upgrades Are Its Webcam And Speakers
Apple has always touted the iMac as an all-in-one desktop computer that can free your desk from messy wires, but this 2021 model feels like the first one in a long time to deliver on that promise truly. That’s due in large part to the fact that Apple finally upgraded the computer’s webcam, which has a new sensor and improved image signal processor.
Apple says it’s the best webcam it’s ever put in a Mac, and while it can’t hold a candle to the Logitech Brio, the camera does a pretty good job at making you look presentable, even in low light. It’s the first time we can recommend using a Mac without an external webcam with the understanding that you will get a noticeably better picture if you plug one in.
Another noticeable improvement to this year’s iMac is its speaker system, which features four drivers and two force canceling woofers. Apple called this the best speaker system it’s put in a Mac, and once again, we have to agree. The company clearly took what it learned from designing the iPad Pro’s great-sounding ultra-thin speakers and applied it to a desktop computer.
When listening to music, the sound from the iMac rivals any stereo desktop speakers in the $100 to $200 range, with impressive stereo separation, deep bass, and no distortion at loud volumes. If you use the iMac in a home office or bedroom, there isn’t much reason to use external speakers unless you mix music and need some studio monitors.
This is also the first Mac whose speaker system supports spatial audio, a new surround sound format available when watching newer movies. Spatial audio is coming to a part of the Apple Music catalog next month, so Apple seems committed to this format.
By making speakers and a webcam that are good enough for most people in most situations, Apple has made a compelling case to ditch external accessories and use the iMac as-is.
The Bottom Line: If You Want An All-In-One Desktop, Get This One
It’s fitting that the iMac was the first computer to receive a major overhaul after the release of Apple’s M1 processor. It symbolizes Apple’s re-commitment to the Mac after years of stale-looking boxes with so-so hardware. If the 2021 iMac is any indication of where Apple’s computers are headed, it should be a fun, interesting-looking ride. It’s available to order now, will start shipping on May 21, and starts at $1,299.99.