- Review Date: 12/04/2012
- Bottom line: The Apple iMac 27-inch (Late 2012) all-in-one PC is the pinnacle of desktop design and manufacturing. It's not perfect, or cheap, but it's worth every penny.
- Pros: Stunningly thin design. Impressive low-glare display. Top-of-the-line processor and graphics card offer best-in-class performance. User serviceable memory slots. Ports include Thunderbolt and USB 3.0.
- Cons: Pricey. No upgradability beyond RAM. No height adjustment.
Viewing Apple's iMac 27-inch (Late 2012) desktop (model MD096LL/A) from the front, it looks at first as if Apple is doing the same thing to the iMac that it did with the Mac mini (Late 2012): updating the internal hardware but leaving the exterior unchanged. The edge-to-edge glass over the display, the wide brushed aluminum "chin" below the display, the single piece aluminum stand—it's clearly an iMac. If looking at it from the front, side by side, the new model would be indistinguishable from last year's iMac, the Apple iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt). That illusion is broken as soon as you view the iMac from an angle. Suddenly the difference is dramatic—this thing is thin, dropping nearly a full inch at the edges. And the differences are more than skin deep. Thanks to upgraded hardware and a new internal design, the iMac is faster and more responsive, offering larger, smarter storage. It all adds up to be our new Editors' Choice for high-end all-in-one desktops.
Design and Features
From the front, the looks almost identical to the previous iteration, the Apple iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt), but you may notice that the display looks a little bit better. The 27-inch panel has the same 2,560-by-1,440 resolution, and a backlit panel with In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology offers clear viewing from 178 degrees, and glowing with up to 300 nits brightness. This isn't all about numbers, though—when compared side-by-side with the Acer Aspire 7600U (A7600U-UR308)
It also features full lamination construction, removing the two-millimeter gap between the display panel and the glass covering it. Thanks to this lamination process, as well as specialized coatings on the glass, the display is much less reflective than the previous model—75-percent less reflective, according to Apple. Despite the changes, the color is still true-to-life and compatible with professional color calibration tools. Shoppers looking for a touch screen will need to look elsewhere, but it's just as well, because the glass picks up every possible smudge and fingerprint. You'll want to keep a soft cloth handy for wiping off dust and smudges if you tend to move the system around or adjust its angle often.
The chassis is also dramatically thinner. At the tapered edges of the display, the chassis is a mere 0.2 inch thick—thinner than the stand it sits on—and the overall thickness of the iMac has been reduced by almost half. The iMac has the same sturdy aluminum stand seen in past models, but there's still no good way to adjust the monitor height aside from setting it on something higher.
The back of the iMac is curved to accommodate its internal components, but even with this extra thickness, it's still jaw-droppingly thin. A healthy amount of the dropped width can be attributed to the now-absent optical drive. If you're still holding on to software and movies on disc, you'll need to pick up an Apple USB SuperDrive ($79 direct), and it still won't offer Blu-ray playback. For a system with integrated Blu-ray, look to Windows systems like the Asus ET2701INKI-B046C or the former Editors' Choice Dell XPS One 27 .
The bottom edge of the iMac is just as thin as the top and sides, but is slotted for ventilation and sound. Integrated speakers provide what Apple calls "higher-fidelity" sound, and by and large, it lives up to the name with vibrant sound and surprisingly rich bass. Apple has touted that the audio offers a larger soundstage, meaning that the area for optimal sound listening is deeper and wider. At the top of the chassis, above the screen, are an HD FaceTime webcam (for capturing video in 720p) and two integrated microphones, which offer clearer voice recording while filtering out ambient noises, like typing and noise in the surrounding room.
The iMac also comes bundled with Apple's Wireless Keyboard and your choice of either the Apple Magic Mouse or Apple Magic Trackpad. If you want both (like we did), you can pick one when you configure your system and add the other for an extra $69 (direct). Both pointing devices also offer support for gesture controls, giving you all of the multiple-finger-gesture controls found in OS X Mountain Lion.
On the back of the system, you'll find the ports and connectors—a stereo minijack, an SDXC card reader, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and Gigabit Ethernet. You may not initially recognize them as USB 3.0 ports, however, because Apple eschews the traditional blue port color and Super-speed logo. Thankfully, with only USB 3.0 ports available, and because they are all USB 2.0 compatible, you won't need to remember which type of device you're using. The two Thunderbolt ports can be used for either blazingly fast data connections or monitor outputs, as they double as mini-DisplayPorts. You can also use the Thunderbolt ports in Target Display mode to view output from a Mac mini, another iMac, or a Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook Pro or Air. For those needing to connect to a monitor via DVI or VGA, adapters are available separately. Also, unlike the Asus ET2701INKI-B046C or the Dell XPS One 27, there is no input for using the iMac as an HDMI monitor, so there's no option of connecting your cable box or game console, so you're limited to what you can get on the Mac App Store, iTunes, or other online services.
The SDXC card reader, which was found alongside the optical drive on the side in previous models has moved. The new position isn't quite as convenient, but it's no more of a hassle than plugging in a USB flash drive. Noticeably absent is any FireWire port. Though it was included on the Mac mini (Late 2012), FireWire has been largely phased out by Apple, as it wasn't included on either the new iMac or the new Retina Display-equipped MacBooks.
Alongside the ports on the back of the iMac, you'll also find a small access panel, which lets you service and upgrade the system memory. To pop it open, all you need to do is remove the power cable and tap a button underneath. While our system came with the standard 8GB of RAM, a total of 4 SO-DIMM slots let you upgrade to a whopping 32GB of DDR3 memory. It's worth noting, however, that between the 27-inch and 21.5-inch models, only the 27-inch iMac is user serviceable in this way. Internally, the iMac is equipped with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Our review unit also came equipped with Apple's 1TB Fusion Drive, which pairs a 1TB hard drive with 128GB of flash storage, automatically shifting programs and files between the two to offer the best performance. This dynamic memory management is done automatically, with only one drive volume to manage, providing all of the performance of a dual-drive setup without the hassle of manually managing your files.
What makes this setup different from hybrid drives, however, is that the Flash storage is not acting as a cache, mirroring data from the drive. Also, the optimization process is ongoing, continuously evaluating each piece of data as it is accessed by the user, shifting it back and forth to maximize performance. Once your iMac gets into a routine and is optimized, this setup can save wear and tear on the spinning hard drive, since oft-used programs and files will eventually reside on Flash storage. All of this work happens in the background, with data evaluated in real time, and shifted to and from the Flash storage during idle times so as not to slow down performance during data intensive actions. For more on the Fusion drive, see our article, 5 Things to Know about Apple's Fusion Drive.
In addition to the 1TB Fusion Drive found in our review unit, the iMac 27-inch can also be equipped with a larger 3TB Fusion Drive, as well as plain 1 or 3TB hard drives, or an all flash memory 768GB solid-state drive.
Mac OS X and Software
As with the Mac mini and the MacBook Pro, the iMac comes with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8.2 on our review unit) preinstalled on the 128GB flash storage portion of the Fusion Drive for optimum performance. With either the Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad, you'll be able to use a wide array of multi-touch gestures, along with a full roster of programs like iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. The programs themselves are top-rated, and Mountain Lion itself was picked as one of the best tech products of 2012.
In addition to the operating system and programs, Apple covers the iMac with 90 days of free telephone tech support and a one-year warranty. For extra protection and longer coverage, you can also purchase two more years of AppleCare coverage ($169).
Our review unit is a slightly different configuration than the pre-configured model that Apple offers for $1,999. In addition to the aforementioned 1TB Fusion Drive (a $250 extra), and the second pointing device ($69 for either the Magic Mouse or Trackpad), our review unit is configured with a 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor (which added an extra $200 to the price) instead of the standard 3.2GHz Core i5, and swaps out the standard Nvidia GeForce GTX 675MX with 1GB of dedicated memory for the GeForce GTX 680MX with 2GB ($150). These brought the total cost of our review unit to $2,668 when purchased directly from Apple. It should be noted, however, that unlike a desktop tower that allows upgrading over time, the only part of the iMac that can be changed after purchase is the amount of RAM.
Additionally, if you want to expand the amount of memory included with the iMac the standard 8GB can be bumped up to either 16GB ($200) or 32GB ($600), but the user accessible memory slots give you the option of expanding this yourself after purchase.
With the shift from older Intel Core processors to the faster Ivy Bridge chips—and the upgrade to the 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core processor found in our review unit—this iMac positively screams, offering the most powerful Mac this side of the workstation-grade Mac Pro. In Cinebench R11.5, our processor speed benchmark test, the iMac scored 7.36 points, rocketing past the under-powered Acer 7600U (2.88 points), easily surpassing the previous iMac (5.10), and leading both the Dell XPS One 27 and Asus ET2701INKI-B046C (7.04 and 7.08, respectively) by a healthy margin.
It also made short work of our current media tests, plowing through Handbrake in 32 seconds--the Acer Aspire 7600U took 1:16—and Photoshop CS6 in 3 minutes 16 seconds. To get a clearer comparison against the previous iMac, we dusted off our prior Photoshop test (CS5) as well. The new iMac finished in a speedy 3 minutes 8 seconds, while the iMac 27-inch (Thunderbolt) finished the same test in 3:17. For the Mac-friendly designer or videographer, the iMac is still the machine you'll want on your desk.
With an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680MX graphics processor and 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory, the iMac also has some serious gaming chops. In our gaming benchmark, Heaven, the iMac produced 104 frames per second (fps) at 1,366-by-768 resolution, but maintained a playable score of 34 fps even at its native 2,560-by-1,440 resolution and higher detail settings. For optimal performance, you'll want to find a resolution somewhere in between, but with performance like that, you should be able to enjoy any Mac-compatible game you throw at it.
With its beautiful design and quality fabrication, the iMac 27-inch (Late 2012) is the best all-in-one desktop we've ever seen, with a look and feel that manufacturers will be trying to replicate for years. It's not without a few frustrations, like the lack of height adjustment and a price that will give some shoppers a stroke, but there's no denying that the iMac we reviewed—the top spec'ed model of Apple's best configuration—is worth every penny. As a result, it replaces the Dell XPS One 27 as our high-end all-in-one desktop Editors' Choice.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.