Apple iMac 21.5-inch with Retina 4K display review (2019): The iMac for everybody

The new Apple iMac line brings upgraded processors plus new graphics options for 2019. But mainstream users should not worry: the iMac can still be specified with a variety of hardware, so it’s not as if the whole product line has gone high-end – you can get a dual-core Core i5 version of the 21.5-inch machine on review here, if you want.

However, it’s fair to say that the 27-inch version is definitely now a pro-level machine – it now ships with six-core Intel Core processors as standard (upgraded from quad core). By powering up the top-line models, Apple intends to bring the iMac closer to the iMac Pro in terms of what it offers so there’s not such a gap between the models. Having said that, the iMac Pro is still a cut above – it’s essentially a workstation inside an iMac body, coming as it does with Intel Xeon server processors.

Apple says that many iMacs are used in workplaces as front-of-house machines, for example, where there isn’t the same performance requirement. And in the home, they’re still often used as a family machine in the main living spaces. That’s probably why Apple hasn’t been tempted to replace this 21.5-inch version with a larger model – it’s not huge, so can be used in most environments.

Design 

  • Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Keyboard included in the box
  • 4x USB 3, 2x Thunderbolt 3, 1x SD, 1x 3.5mm jack
  • Classic aluminium unibody design
  • Measures: 450 x 528mm
  • Stand height: 175mm
  • Total weight: 5.66kg

The iMac has remained broadly unchanged externally for nearly a decade now. That’s OK in many ways because it still looks sleek compared to the opposition; it’s also a little thinner this time around too. But it is a bit bizarre that Apple has decided not to innovate externally because the company prides itself so much on design.

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After all, in its first years of existence some 21 years ago, the iMac was reinvented several times. And it’s certainly true that competitors such as the Dell Inspiron AIO and HP EliteOne have long caught up in terms of design.

Yes, the iMac may still be a more attractive package for many because of its distinctive aluminium design, but that appeal can’t last forever. Perhaps part of it is that the display is so restrictive – there’s only so much you can do with a huge panel. 

Part of this is that the iMac’s bezels now seem huge compared with many rivals and monitors. It’s not a dealbreaker, but Apple has the know-how and ability to produce an iMac that’s not only razer thin – as this is at the top – but has an edge-to-edge display like many laptops currently offer.

Naturally, you get a Magic Mouse 2 plus Apple Magic Keyboard in the box – you can swap the Magic Mouse for a Magic Trackpad for an extra £50 – while there’s also a USB-to-Lightning cable for charging these devices.

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It’s standard protocol to include the peripherals, of course, but it’s a shame if you have an existing set you want to keep hold of, like a Logitech or Microsoft setup, that you can’t cut a little of the price away to have them absent in the box.

Specs

  • 8th Gen Intel Core i: dual-core i5 (2.3GHz) / quad-core i3 (3.6GHz) / hexa-core i5 (3.0GHz) / hexa-core i7 (3.2GHz)
  • 8GB DDR4 RAM 2,666MHz (up to 32GB configurable – factory option only, not user accessible)
  • 1TB HDD (up to 1TB SSD available, Fusion Drive also available)
  • Radeon Pro GPU options available

This 2019 update brings a welcome speed boost. We’ve got the top-line 21.5-inch to test – before any added extras that is. And yes, that has a 3.0Ghz hexa-core 8th Gen Intel Core i5-8500 (up to 4.1GHz Turbo Boost) with 8GB of memory, and a 1TB Fusion Drive (SSD and HDD combo). There’s also AMD Radeon Pro 560X graphics with its own 4GB of video memory.

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An also-new lower spec iMac variant with the 8th Gen quad-core 8th Gen Core i3-8100 clocked at 3.6Ghz is available in Retina screen format. Below this still is a non-Retina base-level version with a Full HD display, integrated Intel graphics and slower memory. There’s an even older 2.3GHz dual-core 7th Gen Core i5-7360U model which was first introduced in mid-2017, so is now ageing.

You can upgrade either of the first two models to a 3.2 GHz hexa-core Intel Core i7-8700 (up to 4.6 GHz Turbo Boost) should you wish, although you’re talking about an extra £180 for that. You can also specify the Radeon Pro Vega 20 professional grade graphics card, too, but that option will set you back £315. And instead of the Fusion Drive, you can opt for an SSD, though that storage – as with Apple’s own memory upgrades – gets costly to have at the point of order. 

Indeed, just by maxing out the basic specs (CPU, memory, graphics and storage) in the configurator, you can soon add hundreds of pounds to the cost of your iMac.

Although it isn’t installed in our review model, the 1TB standard hard drive is a glaring and underwhelming spec on the sheet, having a pedestrian spin speed of 5,400rpm. Obviously, it’s been included to keep costs at a certain level, but you’d hope for more.

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The Fusion Drives in the other systems – including our review unit – are much better. These hybrid drives (by any other name) combine a hard disk drive for capacity with a small amount of flash storage for speed. They will learn about the apps you use the most and move them to the flash part of the drive – so the stuff you use most often will start fastest. These drives are only used on Mac desktops – portable Macs exclusively use SSD now.

While SSD is better overall – and is what a pro user would ideally want – they cost a lot more for the same capacity and so Apple has struck the balance between mass-market appeal and those who demand more and so can upgrade the systems on show.

Software-wise, this machine currently ships with the very stable macOS 10.14 Mojave, but will be fully upgradeable to the forthcoming macOS Catalina (10.15) which will launch in September 2019. We think macOS is still a fine operating system and comes with more software than ever, including all the basic apps you need to handle photos, documents, browse the web and more.

If there is a little criticism of macOS it’s that some of the features – like Mission Control, which enables you to navigate multiple desktops and open windows – can be a little hard to locate for novice users. It can still feel like there’s a layer of stuff you need to be told about, rather than discover. 

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Unlike many other Macs, the iMac has a plethora of ports. There’s four USB 3.0, dual Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), Gigabit Ethernet, an SD card slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The Thunderbolt 3 ports can be used to connect up Thunderbolt and USB-C devices obviously as well as various displays via DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI and VGA with a relevant adapter.

Performance and display

  • 21.5-inch display options: Full HD (1920 x 1080) / Retina (4096 x 2304)
  • Retina has P3 wide colour gamut, 500 nits brightness

While the top two 27-inch iMacs have 9th Gen Intel processors, first released at the beginning of 2019, our review model features the Core i5-8500 released in the middle of last year. It’s actually the same chip used in the base-level 27-inch, so that gives you some idea of the hierarchy of things; the 27-inch line starts where the 21.5-inch leaves off. 

Performance of this system is terrific – you’re hard pressed to find anything outside of video processing that really taxes it. It gleefully outpaces other recent iMacs as you’d expect thanks to those upgraded processors. 

However, when under heavy load, the fan does kick in and it can be quite loud. This can also happen at the oddest times – Skype, for example, is a particular problem child here.

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This model retains the same excellent 4K retina display with P3 wide colour that we saw in the older 2017 version of this desktop. It’s wonderfully vibrant and sharp. Pictures and videos do look great, while the 27-inch model crams in a 5K panel with even more resolution for the larger screen.

However, 4K displays aren’t unusual now – it’s easy to get hold of an inexpensive 4K monitor – while they’re becoming much more prevalent in laptops and other all-in-ones. However, you’d be hard pushed to find a panel quite this good, we’d warrant. It’s just a shame the bezels are so massive by today’s standards.

Verdict

As Apple acknowledges with the different versions of the 21.5-inch iMac, there are many different users who are attracted to this series. Although you can get cheaper all-in-ones, the iMac isn’t overpriced – unless you go wild on the upgrades (which you can’t do yourself with this smaller scale model).

Even the basic model will be OK for all-round use, although we do feel it should have been upgraded this time as well. And, at the performance end, our hexa-core review model can cope with anything you throw at it. Power users will want this higher spec, perhaps with an SSD upgrade, although clearly Apple believes that those people will plump for the 27-inch version.

Aside from the massive bezels looking somewhat dated, the 21.5-inch iMac remains a great all-rounder to be reckoned with.

Also consider

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Mac Mini

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If your needs are a little less and you already have a keyboard and monitor, what about the Mac mini? It’s still a surprisingly powerful Mac, with plenty of connectivity including Thunderbolt 3. It’s also quiet and this version has a lot more oomph than previous versions. It is, of course, more expensive as a result. 

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iMac Pro

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If your needs are even greater – think constant video editing or picture processing from DSLRs – then the iMac Pro is a step further. It houses powerful Intel Xeon workstation processors inside the same form factor. It’s a cut above. 

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