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

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Spend another $200 and you get a 21.5-in. iMac with a quad-core 2.9GHz i5 (featuring a 6MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.6GHz), though you can bump the processor to a 3.1GHz Core i7. This one also ships with a 5400rpm 1TB drive, though you can upgrade to either a 256GB or 512GB flash drive, or a 1TB Fusion drive. (More about the Fusion drive in a minute.) Unlike the other configuration, this model comes with the NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics with 1GB of GDDR5 memory -- a better choice if you're into games.

Both 21.5-in. iMacs come with 8GB of memory, which is plenty for now. But if you want to future-proof your computer, considering doubling the RAM to 16GB (for $200 more). Just like last year, this model does not have user-replaceable memory slots, so if you don't get the extra memory now, you won't be able to add it later. As far as Apple is concerned, attempting to do so may void your warranty. (The iMac uses adhesive instead of magnets to keep the screen attached to the aluminum body.

For more power, a larger display, or both, the iMac of choice is the 27-incher. The $1,799 model comes with a 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (with 3.6GHz Turbo Boost and 6MB of L3 cache) and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M graphics processor with dedicated 1GB of GDDR5 memory. That's a notch up from the graphics card in the more expensive 21.5-in. iMac.

Another $200 gets you an iMac equipped with a 3.4GHz quad-core i5 that can be bumped up to a 3.5GHz quad-core Core i7. For the best performance, the Core i7 chips are the way to go. The high end iMac display uses the more powerful NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M graphics processor with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, and you can get an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M with 4GB of GDDR5 memory, if the absolute best is a must have.

Both larger iMacs come with 8GB of memory, expandable to 32GB. You can max out the RAM when you buy, or do it later yourself. (Unlike the 21.5-in. model, the larger iMac has a user-serviceable memory port on the rear of the unit, tucked beneath the point where the stand and the main body meet.) Both also come with 1TB drives, although these are at least 7200rpm drives for better performance out of the box. You can configure this machine with a 3TB hard drive, upgrade to a 1TB or 3TB Fusion Drive, or choose 256GB, 512GB or 1TB of flash storage.

Flash-based storage is absolutely the way to go if you want the best overall performance, but it's also among the most costly options. The 256GB SSD adds $200 to the bottom line; the 512GB SSD adds $500; and if you decide to go with the 1TB option, it'll set you back an additional $1,000.

Other iMac features

All iMacs sport the same stylish aluminum-and-glass enclosure, and all come with a FaceTime camera for videoconferencing, surpassingly strong built-in stereo speakers and dual microphones for noise-canceling and better voice recognition when conducting video chats or dictating text.

Connectivity options abound. On the rear of the iMac is an SDXC card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and a mini display port for connecting an external monitor. Gigabit Ethernet is supported -- for those who still rely on wires -- and for the wireless crowd, the iMac supports Bluetooth 4.0 and the new 802.11AC wireless standard. The headphone port also supports optical audio out via a minijack.

As noted earlier, the display really is gorgeous, with even lighting and vibrant, crisp colors. It's almost good enough to make me forget about the possibility of a super-hi-resolution Retina display iMac. Almost.

Maybe next year.

That being said, this design -- stylish as it is -- can also be extremely inconvenient. The peripheral ports are all hidden behind the huge screen, which is a pain if you're in the habit of constantly plugging and unplugging peripherals. It's nothing new, but it certainly is the trade-off for this design.

iMac rear view
The iMac's ports are located on the back -- great for aesthetics, but bad for anyone who connects and disconnects peripherals frequently. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

Using the iMac

Setting up this iMac was a snap. I am an iCloud subscriber and I use Notes and Pages often -- both of which support iCloud sync. Logging into my iCloud account on the iMac automatically brought over all of my current documents, Finder Tags and Notes as well as other data like calendars. But my main concern was access to my in-progress articles. Clicking on my custom Work In Progress tag in the Finder sidebar showed all of my current documents, even though I never transferred the files over to the machine. Before the release of OS X Mavericks, these files would be accessible through Pages; with Mavericks, my work was right there in Finder, waiting for me.

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