Review: Hands on with the new Haswell chip iMac

If you liked the look and performance of the previous iMacs, you'll like the new models, too

I should say this right from the start: When it comes to Apple's current line of iMac all-in-one desktop computers, I love the design. Love, love, love it.

I've always been a big fan of the aluminum enclosures Apple employs across its product line, but I really appreciate its use in the 27-in. iMac model sitting on my desk. From the black bordered glass to the aluminum "chin" to the 5mm thin tapered edges, I adore the iMac look, which is thankfully unchanged from last year's models.

Apple updated the iMac in late September, moving it to Intel's newest "Haswell" processors, adding faster solid-state storage options and adding support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi. All three of those changes make a solid performer and even better deal for buyers, as prices from the 2012 models remained the same.

That's usually the Apple way. Boost performance, tweak the design and keep prices intact.

The now-familiar lineup continues as before, with the entry-level iMac (with a 21.5-in. screen) starting at $1,299 and the larger 27-in. model starting at $1,799.

The model I've been using is a 27-in. version, complete with the hybrid "Fusion" drive the company unveiled a year ago when it rolled out the current design. The drive now uses PCIe-based flash memory, which Apple says can boost performance over SATA III flash-based models by 50%.

If you're not used to a screen this large, you're in for a treat. It's big enough that you can have multiple open documents side by side without having to use Spaces to create virtual desktops or shrinking the size of windows. Of course, in concert with Spaces and an Apple multitouch trackpad, the iMac can become a productivity powerhouse.

I quickly grew accustomed to the display's size. But what I could never get used to is the view from the side. Maybe it's because I grew up in a CRT world, where monitors were big, chunky and beige, but the sides of the iMac always seemed impossibly thin, as if the machine resides in 2D space. Sure, the back of the unit becomes progressively thicker at its center to accommodate the internal hardware, but catching a glimpse of the iMac from the side leaves me with a feeling of "wow" every time.

iMac side view
The iMac has an extremely thin edge, making the screen look like it's floating when viewed from the side. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

Apple offers the iMac in only two sizes, with two standard configurations. But there are a wealth of options available when you buy. And it's important to think through what you'll need, because if you buy the smaller iMac, you won't be able to open it up later and add RAM.

Configurations and options

The cheapest iMac is the 21.5-in. model. It sports a quad-core processor, Intel's 2.7GHz Core i5 (featuring a 4MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.2GHz), a 1TB hard drive and integrated Intel Iris Pro graphics. The hard drive is a 5400rpm model, which is a mediocre drive compared to the faster Fusion drive (or the super-fast, but pricey, SSD option). The Iris Pro graphics card represents a decent update compared to the previous generation, but you'll still get better performance on the 1920x1080-pixel display from a discrete graphics card. That leads me to the next model.

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