Review: Apple’s 21.5-in., 3.4GHz ‘Kaby Lake’ 2017 iMac

Power in the brightness

Apple, iMac, WWDC, iMac 3.4GHz, macOS, Retina Display
Credit: Roman Loyola

Apple introduced new iMacs at WWDC 2017. I’ve taken a look at the 21.5-in., 3.4GHz model with a 4K Retina display.

This model carries a 1TB Fusion drive and uses a Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB video memory. I’ll try to avoid repeating too many of the widely available technical details, but this is what I found:

Bright spark

The first time you start the new iMac, you’ll be impressed by the brightness of its display. You can’t miss it. Apple claims it to be 43 percent brighter than before.

It isn’t just about brightness, though, not only is the Retina screen incredibly clear and capable of showing the image, but it also uses a clever technology called 10-bit dithering, so it can reproduce “a billion colors.”

I’ve not been able to count all of those colors, but to make them happen on-screen Apple uses the same sort of tech you’ll find in high-end televisions, pushing those extra colors out by changing shades at a pixel level while you watch. Your eye doesn’t pick this up; it just sees a wide color gamut with excellent detail.

I ran a couple of Unigene Valley tests and found that even at the highest settings the Mac convincingly crunched through those tasks. Overall, a better display than this is hard to find at this price.

Power in the brightness

So, what about the move to Kaby Lake chips?

Now, we know that performance gains in modern PC systems are only partly attributable to processor improvement, with much more advantage these days emerging from improvements in hardware and software design and making use of the spare capacity of the GPU.

Apple has improved both the chip and the GPU, (this model includes a Radeon Pro 560), so you’d expect performance gains. You won’t be disappointed.

Geekbench scores clearly show this iMac performs strongly in comparison to other Macs, and I will note that my own multi-processor scores exceeded those benchmarks.

I put the Mac through its paces, launching Photoshop, Final Cut, a movie and a bunch of other apps simultaneously.

With all those apps running, I saw no problems encoding and transcoding content or applying effects. I will confess I wasn’t running any of the real performance hogs, such as Flash or Facebook (j/k).

In comparison to the last iMac I used regularly (a 2015 model), what I saw when using this supports the performance improvement claims Apple made when it launched the system. (3x faster gaming performance, 2x faster graphics and 1.5x faster video editing, etc.)

Additional notes

My model carries a Fusion Drive as standard. This makes it much faster to start your Mac and get it working. Apple has also improved the SSD flash storage component in these Macs, so it is around 50 percent faster than before.

Connectivity: Four USB 3.0, two Thunderbolt 3 and Gigabit Ethernet ports join an SDXC card slot and headphone jack in the back of the iMac (which are hard to reach if you are a normal person and have an iMac that has its back against a wall).

Many will be pleased to learn you can use these iMacs to drive two 4K displays or one 5K display. The iMac ships with an Apple rechargeable wireless keyboard and mouse and a Lightning to USB cable to charge those devices (got to love cables).

Buying advice

I got to use the high-end 21.5-in. iMac.

My opinion? If you need a desktop system as a pro, gaming or work machine, the $1,499 price of this model provides a good balance of performance and affordability. I’m not certain the lower-end models are as convincing.

With that in mind, enterprise CIOs may want to consider the model I tested above the other configurations partly because for a few dollars above the base $1,099 iMac price, you get a machine that should still do what you want it to do in three years time.

If you need a Retina Display, then the $1,299 model is the cheapest such display you’ll find. But it really is worth spending $200 more for the 3.4GHz model I tested.

Partly this is because the processor is faster, but mainly I recommend it because of its faster GPU and extra graphics memory. That's going to become much, much more important in the near future, thanks to ARKit.

The clearly defined area of doubt and uncertainty here is that Apple also offers more powerful 27-in. iMacs, and its forthcoming iMac Pro promises even more performance enhancements. 

Would I get one of these iMacs? I think so. Why? The display is quite lovely while processor and graphics performance improvements and speedier storage mean this model provides  a compelling combination of the things you need. Just max out the RAM when you make the purchase because Apple insists on making post-purchase memory upgrades unreasonably hard to do, given these are desktop machines.

Good: Display, processor, graphics performance, balance of technologies and price

Bad: RAM upgrades should be easy, awkward to reach rear-mounted ports and SD slot.

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