Apple’s strongest products have often been those that combine market-leading industrial design with ease-of-use. The 24-inch M1-powered 2021 iMac desktop computer aims to join that group.
It may be serendipitous that the latest iMac arrives during a pandemic that has made mainstream consumers more conscious of the hardware that sits in the living room and elsewhere around the house. For many of them, working from home has meant sitting in front of a screen for much of the day as well as perhaps making it available for homeschooling.
The iMac line has always aimed to look good. In its latest incarnation, the computer is a mere 11.5mm thick and available in seven colours, strong tones at the back and more muted ones at the front.
It has then been configured to do all the things typical users have in mind without any fuss. The ideal purchaser is almost certainly someone who will never read this article, or indeed this magazine. He or she just wants to push the power button and get started straight away.
To that end, there is a 4480×2520px Retina display with True Tone technology that adjusts the output according to the ambient light, a 1080p FaceTime camera supported by the proprietary image signal processor within the engine-room M1 system-on-chip, a three-microphone array, a six-speaker system and, in upgrades, Ethernet that can be added to the power supply (an external option because the thinness of the computer prohibits a port there) as well as TouchID security via the keyboard. There is even a 3.5mm headphone jack on all models, fixed on iMac’s side in further due deference to WeightWatchers.
That is not to say that this iMac is a significantly under-powered computer as, let’s be honest, consumer-led products frequently are. It has the same M1 system-on-chip that sits in a range of Apple hardware, a proprietary design that packs an eight-core CPU (four high- performance Firestorm and four energy-efficient Icestorm cores), a seven-or-eight-core GPU, a 16-core neural processor and the ISP mentioned earlier, packaged with 8GB or 16GB of RAM.
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The chip is a hefty upgrade in comparison with earlier Intel-powered iMacs and on a par with current rival generations for the desktop. Moreover, as Apple notes, it is by being able to put so much of the processing power within a single package that it has been able to slim down the computer so much.
The M1’s presence also tends to give the game away. The 2021 iMac is priced at £1,249 and upwards. You could certainly find a Windows equivalent for less and that’s one thing. You could also buy into the Apple platform for less, too. The latest Mac mini has the M1 and costs £699 and upwards. With another £550 to play with, you probably could get a monitor with resolution and size as good, add a decent microphone and speakers and have change to plunder the Apps Store.
You could do that, but remember: this computer is for those who see such a process as too much hassle, or too confusing or who, darn it all, simply want something that looks good at home. Nothing wrong with that. We all buy products according to personal taste and our – often quite limited – knowledge of their markets. Address those needs well and you can charge a premium and ship in volume.
Achieving all this has involved more than simply determining options for the paint job.
The logic board is the smallest iFixit has seen, having torn down all recent generations of the iMac, and the interconnect board is also “wafer-thin”. Apple has nevertheless managed to squeeze in cooling fans within the ‘chin’ that houses most of the electronics at the foot of the screen.
On the same theme, iFixit’s teardown team note that the speakers come in a pair of “impossibly thin” two-woofer/one-tweeter arrays (about 1.5mm at the opening), but add: “Their sprawling surface area equates to quite a lot of internal volume, and therefore more air, and fuller sound. Pretty nifty use of what might otherwise be empty space.”
Even the on-board batteries to support the NVRAM have been changed. It appears that the usual CR2032 button cell for this job is too fat. “That’s right,” says iFixit, “they couldn’t squeeze in the battery from an AirTag. So, Apple instead used two half- height CR2016s.”
There are nevertheless some modular elements, such as the USB ports and the headphone jack. But this is still a typically tough Apple product to upgrade or repair. The M1 packaging makes upgrades particularly difficult, with memory soldered directly to it. The display can be removed – indeed has to be removed to access other parts of the device – but that involves a tedious path through adhesive.
Overall, the new iMac scores just 2-out-of-10 for repairability. There is some great engineering inside, but much of it a bit more hidden than you might like.
Will this matter so much to the customer? The price tag suggests most will also have enough disposable income to take Apple Care as well as maybe a couple of upsells. By most standards, the 2021 M1 iMac looks and performs, to borrow a phrase, insanely great.
Apple iMac 2021 key components
1. Speaker array (2x)
2. Button cells
3. Interconnect board
4. Fans (2x)
5. USB port
6. Power button
7. USB port
8. Display and ‘chin’ front assembly
9. Rear assembly
Image credit: iFixit
11. Power management, Apple
12. System-on-chip, Apple
13. Memory (DRAM), SK Hynix
14. Memory (Flash), Kioxia (1 of 2)
15. Power management, Apple
16. Power management, Richtek
17. Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, Murata
Image credit: .