iMac (M1, 2021) Review: The Future Looks Bright

APPLE

The iMac has always been about design – making the computer itself something you want to look at or put on display, rather than just a tool that occupies desk space. Apple was one of the first companies to capitalise on people’s desire to make a statement with their workspaces and homes. Way back in 1998 when the very first partially translucent Bondi Blue iMac came out, it got everyone talking and also revitalised Apple at a time when it was struggling. Shortly afterward when five new candy-coloured options were introduced, they became the de facto way to advertise that you were cool, hip, and unique. You’d see them on every TV show and at every creative business. Every teenager wanted one. The desktop PC went from beige box to pop culture moment.

Since then, the progression from colours to white and then to aluminium has made the iMac look more sophisticated and premium, but also less fun. You still see them everywhere, but they make a different statement – more sedate than exciting; more minimalist than quirky. In 2021, all that is changing. Colour is back with a bang, and the iMac has been completely redesigned and repurposed. It’s going back to its roots, but also setting the stage for the future.

Of course there’s more to it than just design. This is Apple’s first all-in-one powered by the in-house M1 processor, and there are plenty of software touches to talk about as well. I’ve had a chance to use and review a new 2021 iMac for a few weeks now, and while I think Apple is on to something here, this definitely isn’t the ideal computer for everyone. Here’s everything you need to know about the new iMac, and whether it’s right for you.

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The new iMac comes with colour-matched input devices and cables

iMac (M1, 2021) price in India

With a starting price of Rs. 1,19,900 in India, the new iMac doesn’t come cheap. You should be aware that the base variant at this price comes in only four out of seven colours and lacks a few features – fewer ports, a slightly weaker integrated GPU, no Touch ID keyboard, and no Ethernet port. This price gets you 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, which are not upgradeable later.

The variant priced at Rs. 1,39,990 is a more realistic baseline if you want all the features and versatility. You still get 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, but the aforementioned compromises are eliminated. There’s also a readily available configuration priced at Rs. 1,59,990 which ups the storage to 512GB.

Apple now lets you customise hardware configurations in India, particularly if you buy from its own online store. Each tweak will take a big bite out of your wallet, though. If you want 16GB of RAM instead of 8GB, it’ll cost a staggering Rs. 20,000 extra. You’ll pay the same amount to for each storage tier – that means Rs. 20,000 more for 512GB, and up to Rs. 80,000 more for a 2TB SSD. Considering the market prices of RAM and storage, these markups are hard to justify.

Swapping a Magic Mouse for a Magic Trackpad will cost Rs. 5,000, and if you want both, that will be Rs. 12,500 extra. If you choose the base variant, you can get an Ethernet port (on the power brick, more on that later) for a somewhat reasonable Rs. 3,000 and an upgrade to the keyboard with Touch ID sensor for Rs. 5,000. The Magic Keyboard with a numeric keypad will be another Rs. 3,000 on top of that (Rs. 8,000 in total). Interestingly, Apple has only just begun selling these new versions of the Magic Keyboard, Mouse and Trackpad on their own, but only in Silver. As standalone products, they sell for more than you’d pay to upgrade while buying an iMac, and you can’t get them in matching colours, at least not yet. You can also buy the new iMac with a VESA mount instead of a stand at the same prices from Apple’s online store.

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The bold colour can be seen best from the rear

iMac (M1, 2021) design

The new iMac arrives in a pretty large box with photos and text that match the colour you’ve chosen. There’s even a matching fabric strap to carry it with. The box opens to reveal the iMac itself plus all the accessories neatly nestled within custom-sized cutouts. Depending on what you chose at the time of purchase, you’ll get the external power brick and cable, plus the Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse, and/or Magic Trackpad and one Lightning cable to charge all of them. Of course, they’re all colour coordinated. A small envelope contains the basic literature and two Apple logo stickers in different tones of your chosen colour.

You can choose between Silver, Blue, Pink, and Green if you’re going for the base variant, and there are also Yellow, Orange, and Purple options if you choose the more expensive ones. Silver is of course the neutral, safe option, and while I wish there was a darker Space Grey as well, Apple clearly wanted an upbeat palette. All the other colour finishes are two-tone – rich, saturated and bold metal on the back, pedestal and input devices, with a paler pastel variation on the front panel and cables. Yes, every little detail is colour coordinated, right from the contact nubs inside the Type-C ports on the rear to the sleeving and plastic insert on the bundled Lightning cable’s connector.

The iMac is designed to look good from any angle. Despite having a 23.5-inch display, Apple says this new model is actually smaller in volume and footprint than the previous-gen 21.5-inch model. Many people might be disappointed that there’s still a thick chin below the screen, but this has become an instantly recognisable design feature, so I’m not surprised it’s been retained. What is interesting is that there’s no Apple logo on the front anymore. Around the screen itself you now have a white border. A webcam and its activity LED are above that. On the top of the frame you’ll see two pinholes for microphones, and the bottom has discreet vents for cooling.

At just 11.5mm thin with a completely flat back, the new iMac does give off a very modern vibe. The thinness doesn’t save any desk space since the pedestal is 14.7cm deep, but it does grab attention. Frankly, this isn’t even necessary for a desktop PC. Sure, the level of integration that the M1 SoC enables and its modest cooling requirements mean that the iMac can be thin, but you also sacrifice modularity and upgradeability.

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The stand only lets you tilt the body of the iMac forwards or backwards

The iMac stand allows it to tilt forwards and backwards, and you can simply turn the whole thing to swivel it. There’s no height adjustment. The whole thing weighs 4.48kg and it can be carried around without much trouble. It’s quite possible to tip the base to either side, but it won’t be easy to accidentally make the iMac fall over. If you reach around on the left, you’ll be able to feel the power button. The ports (more on them later) are on the rear-right. A 3.5mm headphones socket is on the bottom of the left side panel.

I don’t like the fact that you have to reach around the back and potentially scratch the finish while feeling for the ports. The only alternative is to turn the entire body of the iMac around. Older iMacs had USB hubs on the keyboard for convenience, but those went away when input devices went wireless and there’s been no substitute since. Connecting pen drives and hard drives frequently is a pain.

Another reason that the body of the iMac can be so thin is that Apple has moved to an external power brick. The higher-priced variants ship with a brick that has an Ethernet passthrough (but you can add this to the base variant too, if you buy directly from Apple). The brick is quite bulky but can stay tucked out of sight. Strangely, units in India ship with a 16A power cable, and very few people have these large sockets handy near their desks. A PC should not draw so much power, leave alone one built around the M1 SoC which is meant to be very power-efficient.

The power brick has a fairly long (colour coordinated) cable that leads to the iMac itself. Apple has designed a new custom magnetic connector. It isn’t called MagSafe because it isn’t intended to be attached and detached easily – the iMac after all has no battery. The magnet is probably needed because the body is so slim that a regular barrel connector wouldn’t have been secure enough. It snaps into place with a very satisfying ‘thunk’ sound, and then you can forget about it.

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The new iMac comes with an external power brick, and Apple has designed a new magnetic power connector

iMac (M1, 2021) specifications

Now that the M1 processor has been out for a while, Apple is happy to let it take a backseat and let design of the new iMac get all the attention. This is the same silicone that we’ve seen so far in the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini, and iPad Pros. This is a fully integrated SoC with four high-performance CPU cores, four more efficiency cores, and up to eight GPU cores, plus various IO controllers and logic blocks for AI and security, image processing, and AI. System RAM is also now unified on the same package.

The base configuration of new iMac ships with an M1 with seven GPU cores, while the higher priced ones have eight. All implementations have the same eight CPU cores and 16 “neural engine” cores. Apple doesn’t publish information like base and boost clock speeds, thermal thresholds, or power draw, but third parties have figured all that out. The new iMac uses active cooling and the slim body shouldn’t be too thermally constraining, considering that the same hardware works just fine in slim MacBooks.

It’s interesting that Apple has gone with a single 23.5-inch display option. This tells us that the new iMac is being repositioned as more of a general-purpose PC than a creative professional’s tool. It’s very likely that we’ll see a new iMac Pro lineup with larger screens in the near future. The panel resolution is 4480×2520, which is effectively 4.5K at a 16:9 aspect ratio. You get P3 wide colour gamut coverage, brightness of up to 500 nits, and Apple’s True Tone automatic colour temperature adjustment feature. There’s surprisingly no mention of HDR. The M1’s GPU is said to be capable of driving this display as well as up to one 6K external display simultaneously.

The base variant has only two Thunderbolt 4 (40Gbps) Type-C ports and the 3.5mm audio output. The higher variants have an additional two USB 3.1 Gen2 (10Gbps) Type-C ports plus Gigabit Ethernet passing through the power brick. If you still need USB Type-A ports, be prepared to buy some hubs, adapters, or replacement cables. This dearth of ports might be acceptable on an ultraportable laptop but there’s no real justification on a large, static desktop – especially since the new Mac mini has a better selection. If you have a printer or other devices permanently attached, the base variant will prove frustrating.

Since you’ll need to do a lot of things wirelessly, there’s Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5. Sound quality has been upgraded with a six-speaker audio system, Dolby Atmos spatial audio, and a “studio quality” directional three-mic array. The webcam has a 1080p resolution which should come in handy in this age of video calls.

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The 23.5-inch screen has a 4.5K resolution, and it looks sharp and vibrant

iMac (M1, 2021) software

One of the biggest appeals of Apple’s hardware is how tightly it is integrated with software and services. The new iMac comes with macOS Big Sur (11) and will be eligible for a free update to macOS Monterey (12) later this year. You might already have used Big Sur on older Macs, since you can generally expect at least three years’ worth of free updates. Buying an M1-based Mac means that you’ll likely have a software upgrade path for several years.

You can check out our recent MacBook Air and Mac mini reviews for more details about Big Sur and what features it introduces for M1-based Macs. There’s a fresh new UI design scheme, plenty of updates to core apps, and several popular Apple-only features. Free preloaded software such as Pages, Numbers, Time Machine, Garage Band, and iMovie can come in handy.

If you use AirPods, an iPhone and/or an iPad, you’ll probably appreciate the interoperability of audio switching, iMessage, AirDrop, Handoff, Sidecar, Universal Clipboard, and Keychain – just some of the ways that these devices can work together to make life easier. Of course you’ll have to use iCloud and Apple’s own apps and services such as Apple Music, Safari, and Mail to take advantage of many of them.

M1-powered Macs can now run iOS apps downloaded from the App Store, though there are some limitations – you can read about this in our Mac mini review. Many apps have been updated to run natively on Apple Silicon over the past several months, but even ones that haven’t should run fine thanks to Apple’s very smooth Rosetta 2 emulation layer.

There hasn’t been any update to Boot Camp, so Windows isn’t officially supported. As before, you can download Windows for ARM and run it with a bit of work. Other virtualisation options such as Parallels Desktop already support Windows 11 betas.

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The highlight of the new Magic Keyboard is the Touch ID sensor which lets you sign in quickly

iMac (M1, 2021) usage and performance

While pops of colour are nice, I felt a bit of sensory overload at times with my Orange review unit. The front panel colour is more of a salmon pink than orange. MacOS knows what colour your iMac is, and the default wallpaper and highlight colour are set to match. On top of that, the True Tone display feature makes all colours warmer by default. It all got to be a bit too much for me and I had to tweak the software settings.

I found the orange front panel a little distracting when working and when watching videos – the white frame around the panel provides some visual relief but I imagine that anyone using this iMac for colour-sensitive creative work would prefer the neutral Silver option. You should definitely check out all the colours in person at a store before deciding whether a bright one will work for you.

Apple says the new iMac has an antireflective coating, but I still did find reflections on the screen to be a problem in a sunlit room, and had to tilt the body a bit to avoid them. The display is otherwise excellent, as expected. It’s much crisper than you might be used to, and colours do pop nicely. At 23.5 inches diagonally, this is a very comfortable size to work on and will make sense for most people in their homes. What you don’t get is a high refresh rate or official HDR rating, which are becoming common on high-end PCs and laptops. There’s also no touch interaction, since Apple is keeping its iPad and Mac hardware distinct for now.

The new six-speaker array is a major point that Apple is promoting with the new iMac. I tried a variety of music and watched some videos, and was relatively impressed. Sound can get quite loud and it remains crisp, with a pleasantly deep bass response and distinct vocals. Pump up the volume and you can clearly hear minor details. However, the soundstage is quite thin, and music doesn’t really feel engrossing even if you’re sitting at a desk right in front of the iMac. It’s a pity that Apple didn’t use the chin area below the screen for front-firing speakers.

I used my review unit with both the Magic Trackpad and Magic Mouse. The mouse is the same as ever; it just has a colourful base now. It isn’t the most comfortable, and if you’re new to Apple’s way of doing things it’s worth getting familiar with how the right-click and gestures work. You still can’t use it while it’s charging thank to awkward Lightning port placement.

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The Thunderbolt and USB Type-C ports are inconveniently located on the back.

It took a bit of tweaking in the Trackpad and Accessibility Preferences panels to set up gestures and taps the way I’m used to on Mac laptops. The trackpad doesn’t physically click, but there is a speaker that generates a faint click sound to further the illusion that you get with haptic vibration feedback. This can be disabled in the macOS System Preferences. The body is angled so that the trackpad can sit next to your keyboard – it doesn’t work comfortably if you try to place it in front, like on a laptop.

That brings me to the new Magic Keyboard. Apple’s default has a cramped laptop-style layout, and you have to pay more if you want full-sized arrow keys and a number pad. This might be comfortable for some people, in the sense that your hand doesn’t have to move as far if you place your mouse or trackpad to the right of the keyboard, but it isn’t great for productivity. Many workflows benefit greatly from a number pad and paging keys, and I would much rather have a full layout when working on a desktop PC.

Apple has slightly tweaked the keyboard layout – the Fn key in the corner now brings up an emoji panel by default (even when you aren’t filling a text field), and some of the Fn row shortcuts have been rearranged. The main attraction is of course the Touch ID sensor, which makes life so much easier. Fingerprint recognition isn’t instant, like you might be used to on a phone, but it’s still very convenient. Once stored, your fingerprint can be used to authorise App Store purchases and autofill passwords, but as of now you can’t restrict access to apps. You can press this button to lock your Mac quickly, and it’s a bit stiffer than the rest to prevent accidental presses. In terms of typing comfort, the keys are crisp and travel is about what you’d feel on a recent Mac laptop, which is to say that it’s good, but as good as a desktop experience usually is.

The keyboard, mouse, and trackpad all have built-in batteries and charge using a Lightning port. A single (colour-matched) Type-C Lightning cable is included. You can check the battery levels in the macOS System Preferences panel for each peripheral. In my experience, each of them dropped by 1-2 percentage points per day, whether used actively or idle. I didn’t have to charge them during the review period, but you should get into the habit of staggering recharges so you don’t have more than one run low at the same time.

The upgraded FaceTime camera is said to benefit from the M1’s image signal processing capabilities. It does capture crisp stills and video in the daytime, and is usable even with indoor lighting. Sadly, you don’t get the Centre Stage auto-framing feature that debuted on the M1-powered iPad Pro series.

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The body of the new iMac is just 11.5mm thin

The review unit Apple sent had the higher-end configuration with eight GPU cores and the additional USB Type-C ports. It was customised with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. That plus the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad combo brings its retail price to Rs. 1,92,400. As we’ve experienced with the M1-powered Mac mini and MacBook Air, everyday performance was exceptional. The new iMac boots quickly and there’s barely any pause when opening the default apps. You might even miss the familiar icon bouncing animation in the macOS dock, since apps just pop open immediately. Web pages loaded without trouble in Safari. Everything just felt extremely snappy and responsive, as though the full power of this computer can be tapped at a moment’s notice.

Apple’s own software has been optimised to run natively on the Arm-based M1, and even heavy apps like Garage Band run without a hitch. You should easily be able to run light content creation workloads such as video editing, graphic design, animation, or 3D modelling. Apple might not be targeting this iMac towards professionals but it does claim far better performance than the previous-gen Intel-based iMac.

I tried a few Mac-compatible benchmarks to see how the new iMac compares. The Blackmagic disk speed test measured reads and writes at 2870.5MBps 2914.9Mbps respectively which are good enough for PCIe SSDs. The cross-platform Geekbench 5 produced 1,735 and 7,657 points respectively in its single-core and multi-core tests, as well as 19,217 points in its OpenCL compute test. Cinebench R23 also managed 1,493 and 7,708 points respectively in its single- and multi-core runs.

The latest M1-native build of Blender was able to run the familiar BMW render scene test in 5 minutes, 16.51 seconds which is just a hair slower than the Mac mini. Browser-based tests were also impressive – WebXprt reported a score of 286, Basemark Web 3 showed 882.92, and Jetstream 2 managed 177.901 points, all of which are comparable (if not identical) to the Mac mini’s scores.

As for graphics and gaming, the M1’s integrated GPU certainly can’t push modern games at the native 4.5K resolution. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s built-in benchmark managed a barely playable 24fps average at its Medium preset at 1920×1080. Troy: A Total War Saga’s built-in Battle benchmark averaged 31.7fps at High quality at the same resolution. You’d be better off sticking to older games and casual titles from the App Store.

One thing to note is that although it has a cooling fan, the iMac runs virtually silent. It can only barely be heard even when running graphics-heavy tests. The only thing loud about this iMac is its design.

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The chin below the display has a lighter colour tone than the metal body and stand of the new iMac

Verdict

The new iMac brings us back to design as the centre of everything – it looks great and works brilliantly for everyday tasks and even some creative production workflows. I expect to see colourful new iMacs show up everywhere, recapturing the whimsical and non-conformist spirit of the original. For the first time, we see how Apple has produced a new Mac around the M1, as opposed to the recycled previous-gen Mac mini and MacBook bodies – and this is just a taste of what’s still to come.

Of course performance is also top-notch, you get great value through macOS and all the included apps, and you can take better advantage of the Apple ecosystem with each new product you buy or service you subscribe to. The display is excellent, the speakers are good, and everything just works right out of the box. Everything about this iMac feels fresh.

That said, this design introduces and perpetuates plenty of compromises that desktop computers simply should not make. You can’t upgrade anything, and Apple’s configuration options are ludicrously expensive. If you want to work with large files, you’ll need more than the 256GB base SSD capacity, and you’ll need to pay for it at the time of purchase. You also shouldn’t have such a limited selection of ports on a desktop that has plenty of room for more. The default keyboard is unnecessarily laptop-like, with a cramped arrow cluster. It’s also unfortunate that when it’s time to upgrade, you can’t repurpose the brilliant display – with all-in-ones, the whole thing has to be disposed of. Apple’s attention to detail can unfortunately sometimes result in tunnel vision, and that’s what we see here.

Most home and creative users who expect their needs to scale up over time should skip the base variant. This Rs. 1,19,990 configuration should be fine for schools or offices with simple needs, or for those who buy an iMac primarily for show. If you don’t care about looks, you get practically identical performance and greater flexibility from the much less expensive M1-powered Mac mini.

Apple iMac (M1, 2021) 
Price:
 Rs. 1,19,900 (starting); Rs. 1,92,400 (as reviewed)

Pros

  • Very good performance
  • Looks great
  • Excellent display
  • Value-added software, free OS updates

Cons

  • RAM and storage not upgradeable
  • Very expensive configuration options
  • Limited and awkwardly placed ports

Ratings (out of 5)
Design: 4.5
Display: 4.5
Performance: 4.5
Software: 4.5
Value for Money: 3.5
Overall: 4.5

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