Apple iMac M1 review: The computer built to satisfy almost everyone

If you’re one of the millions of people who have been mostly working from home for the past 18 months, the notion of buying a desktop computer might have crossed your mind more than once.

The past two decades have seen the rise of mobile computing: smartphones are now capable of the vast majority of tasks you used to buy a computer for, while wider tablet adoption and laptops replaced them in more casual users’ lives. Desktops backslid from a home’s sole portal to the internet to machines largely confined to offices and other working environments, with just 24 per cent of households in the UK reporting owning a desktop in 2020, compared to 56 per in 2009.

However, with the sweeping changes the pandemic wrought on our working lives looking set to continue for years to come, you might find yourself considering buying a desktop for the first time. Apple is among the companies to benefit the most from the working from home boom, with shipments of iMacs across Western Europe growing 127 per cent in the first three months of 2021 alone, according to analyst Canalys.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JUNE 18, 2021 - A photo taken on June 18, 2021 shows Apple's newly released iPad Pro with M1 chip and iMac with seven colors on display at an Apple store on Nanjing Road pedestrian street in Shanghai, China. (Photo credit should read Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

So it’s no surprise that Apple’s latest iMac made a splash when it was announced in April. Revamped with the company’s much-lauded M1 processor, the new model is the line’s most significant redesign since 2012 and is being heavily marketed as the ultimate machine for the whole family: fast enough for children and teenagers to play games and complete schoolwork on, while powerful enough for Mum and Dad’s architectural or graphic design day job. But what’s it like to use?

How does it look?

As you’d expect from the company that’s made billions of dollars from making aesthetically desirable electronics, the M1 iMac is a beautiful feat of design. Sporting a 24-inch 4.5K display just 1.15cm thick and a vibrant new colour scheme, the new model will make a stylish addition to home offices, bedrooms and kitchens – if the company’s advertising campaign is anything to go by – across the world.

The thoroughly modern two-tone configuration combines soft, pastel hues on the front of the machine, complete with matching tilt stand, with a choice of a deeper, brighter red/pink, orange, yellow, blue, green, purple and silver on its back. The display itself is bordered with a thick white bezel containing the overhauled webcam, while the Magic keyboard, mouse and trackpad’s aluminium sides and surfaces come in a range of matching shades. The tones are pretty without tipping into saccharine and serve as the perfect reminder that consumer electronics that cost this much money should bring you joy every single time you look at them (prices start from £1,249).

The new Apple Inc. iMac computers on display at an Apple store in Palo Alto, California, U.S., on Friday, May 21, 2021. Apple Inc. rolled out the first redesign of its flagship desktop iMac computer in almost a decade, showcasing its latest machine with in-house designed chips instead of those made by Intel Corp. Photographer: Nina Riggio/Bloomberg via Getty Images

However, shoppers considering the cheaper base model should bear in mind it only comes in four finishes (blue, green, pink and silver), meaning you’ll have to spend at least £1,449 for a yellow, orange or purple model (or up to £1,649 for the highest-specced versions). Similarly, while the Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse come in the box, the Magic Trackpad is sold separately for those who prefer a static touchpad over scrolling on the upper third of the mouse, and the entry-level model’s included keyboard does not include a TouchID fingerprint sensor or an ethernet connection. This makes it difficult to present a convincing case to consider buying the cheapest model given these fairly sizeable shortcomings, making the middling-priced of the three options the best option without making compromises.

Two small fans, six speakers and three mic-strong system are all squished into the remarkably slim body, while two USB-4 Thunderbolt and two USB-3 ports are secreted away on its back, allowing you to recharge the Magic Keyboard or an iPhone without cluttering up your desk with cables. However, this could easily end up being frustrating for professionals who might want to attach external devices such as dongles, cameras or hard drives multiple times a day. Apple’s insistence on minimal ports on all but its most expensive Macs is a constant source of annoyance among certain crowds, as the company clearly feels that it’s a sacrifice worth making to keep making laptops and desktops as slim as possible.

How easy is it to set up?

One of Apple’s most impressive tricks is in making setting up an iMac as simple as an iPhone. It took just five minutes between unpacking, plugging in the power brick cable and getting the machine up and running, and the on-screen instructions are clear and easy to follow.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: The keyboard to a recently released iMac color computer is seen at the 5th Avenue Apple store on May 21, 2021 in New York City. Apple recently launched new consumer products. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Macs’ reliance on touchpad finger gestures and keyboard shortcuts means the product has developed a reputation as being hard to use among people more familiar with the more universal language of PCs, despite Apple’s insistence of how intuitive its products are. How strongly you feel about this is likely to come down to how naturally inclined towards Macs or PCs you are, but improvements in the latest Big Sur software have helped to bridge the gap and help familiarise people who might find themselves searching for the Control key rather than Command.

Grouping notification by app, for example, is a smart way to reduce general on-screen clutter and provide shortcuts to launch. Software updates conveniently start in the background while your attention is elsewhere, meaning they’re ready to use when you need them. It’s the small tweaks like this that help to optimise a machine to carry out exactly what you need it to, as quickly as possible with minimum disruption.

What’s it like to use?

Ever since Apple announced its intentions to end its long-standing relationship with Intel and to go it alone making its own processors, fans have been keen to know how the new chips would translate into running an iMac.

While the chip remains the exact same across devices, the cheaper entry-level model sports seven GPU (graphics processing unit) cores and a single cooling fan, the more expensive models boast eight cores and two fans. I tested an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU model with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, and found the performance lived up to the loft expectations set by both the iPad Pro and MacBook Air – extremely fast, efficient and reliable.

A customer looks at an Apple Inc. iMac computer equipped with the M1 chip inside the company's store in Sydney, Australia, on Friday, May 21, 2021. Apple is preparing to release several new Mac laptops and desktops with faster processors, new designs and improved connectivity to external devices, accelerating the company's effort to replace Intel Corp. chips and leapfrog rival PC makers. Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While the majority of truly energy-intensive tasks – such as editing and rendering hours’ worth of video – are probably still left to the aptly-named MacBook Pro, it cuts through mundane processes and basic tasks instantly, launching apps instantaneously, rendering games beautifully and facilitating general web browsing and document-writing without a hitch. Crucially, the screen is wide enough to display two documents at full size simultaneously, making it a doddle to scroll through sites while collating notes, watching videos or editing text.

The 24-inch M1 iMac with a seven-core GPU, 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and two USB-4/Thunderbolt 3 ports costs £1,249.

The 24-inch M1 iMac with an eight-core GPU, 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and four USB-4/Thunderbolt 3 ports, plus Magic Keyboard with Touch ID costs £1,449. Expect to pay £1,649 for 512GB of storage.

One of the most significant upgrades comes in the form of the updated 1080p front-facing camera, which has greatly benefited from the M1 chip’s advanced image signal processing power. Consequently, the resulting picture is notably sharper and brighter than both its predecessor and recent MacBook updates: which makes a big difference when you’re obligated to spend hours a day on Zoom calls for work or schooling.

Pre-pandemic, the quality of a computer’s webcam was unlikely to have been something I’d single out for praise, but 18 months of grainy calls on less-powerful MacBook FaceTime HD cameras has shone a new light on how essential they can be when they’re one of your primary means of communication.

So, should you buy the M1 iMac?

If the past 18 months have taught us anything about the ways in which we work it’s that despite the portability and convenience of laptops, the extra display space afforded by desktops/monitors can make life a whole lot easier when you’re required to spend hours a day looking at a screen.

Consequently, as hybrid-working makes desktop machines increasingly common in our homes, it’s important to think about the kind of audience the M1 iMac is catering to – families, students and professionals who rely on a handful of programs or web services to complete their work. It’s not intended to compete with the highest-specced gaming machines or the customisable computers with a wealth of configuration options. Instead, you’re supposed to be able to hit the power button and expect everything to work as you’d want it to.

Naturally, this approach won’t be to everyone’s tastes. There will be plenty of people who don’t feel its asking price is reflective of the specs, who probably also feel that a sugary pastel-coloured range of computers isn’t something they’d be willing to part with their cash for anyway. This isn’t really a problem because there are plenty of other computers better suited to those needs, because the M1 iMac is a generalist machine for the majority of computer users who want something reliable.

In terms of aesthetics, the M1 iMac is unparalleled. It’s far and away the best-looking desktop on the market, and comes with an Apple-appropriate price tag in exchange for that design. It’s the expense that prevents me from describing it as a computer for the masses, but the principle is there – it’s a machine that’ll easily handle what most people ask of it.

So, if you’ve been considering buying a new desktop computer that’s more than powerful enough to whizz through pretty much anything you can throw at it while looking stunning, the M1 iMac is an obvious choice. If you’re after something a bit more heavy-duty that’s friendlier to those with lots of external devices to connect, that’s okay too.

Pros:

  • Beautiful design, complete with clean lines and fun choice of colours
  • M1 chip is powerful and energy-efficient
  • Webcam upgrade is much-welcomed

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Far from the most highly-specced desktop available
  • Lack of customisable options

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