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Apple iMac 27in review (late 2012)

Laptops & PCsReviews
9/10
by Brian Westover, 04 Dec 2012Reviews
Apple iMac 27in review (late 2012)
Best Buy

Viewing Apple's iMac 27in (late 2012) desktop from the front, it looks at first as if Apple has done the same thing to the iMac as it did with the Mac mini (late 2012): Updated the internal hardware but left the exterior unchanged. The edge-to-edge glass over the display, the wide brushed aluminium "chin" below the display, the single piece aluminium 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 Apple iMac 27in.

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, and it offers Apple’s new Fusion Drive for a smarter storage solution.

Design and features

As we’ve just noted, from the front, the machine looks almost identical to the previous iMac, but you may notice that the display looks a little bit better. The 27in panel has the same 2,560 x 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, the higher resolution display on the iMac is far better looking to the naked eye.

It also features full lamination construction, removing the 2mm gap between the display panel and the glass covering it. Thanks to this lamination process, as well as specialised coatings on the glass, the display is much less reflective than the previous model – 75 per cent less reflective, according to Apple.

Despite these changes, the colours rendered are still impressively true-to-life. However, shoppers looking for a touchscreen will need to look elsewhere, but that’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 5mm 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 aluminium stand seen in past models, but sadly there's still no way to adjust the monitor’s height.

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 (£65 direct), and it still won't offer Blu-ray playback. For a machine with integrated Blu-ray, look to Windows systems such as the 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 claimed 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, is an HD FaceTime webcam (for capturing video in 720p) along with two integrated microphones, which offer clearer voice recording while filtering out ambient noises.

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 £59. Both pointing devices also offer support for gesture controls, giving you access to 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 recognise them as USB 3.0 ports, however, because Apple eschews the traditional blue port colour 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 aforementioned Dell XPS One 27, there is no input for using the iMac as an HDMI monitor, so there's no option of connecting your set-top box or games console – therefore 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 been 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 this year’s Mac mini refresh, 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 (pictured left), 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 27in and 21.5in models, only the 27in iMac is user serviceable in this way. Internally, the iMac is equipped with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Fusion Drive

Our review unit also came equipped with Apple's 1TB Fusion Drive, which pairs a 1TB hard drive with 128GB of flash storage, with the system shifting programs and files between the two to offer the best performance. This dynamic management process is done automatically, with only one drive volume to manage, providing all of the performance of a dual-drive setup without the need for any manual intervention whatsoever.

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 optimisation process is on-going, continuously evaluating each piece of data as it is accessed by the user, shifting it back and forth to maximise performance. Once your iMac gets into a routine and is optimised, 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 here.

In addition to the 1TB Fusion Drive found in our review unit, the iMac 27in can also be equipped with a larger 3TB Fusion Drive, as well as plain 1TB or 3TB hard drives, or an all flash memory 768GB solid-state drive.

Operating system 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 optimal 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 notch, and Mountain Lion is an excellent OS.

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 purchase two more years of AppleCare (£139).

Configuration options

The review model we were supplied with was a slightly different configuration to the base 3.2GHz 27in model that Apple offers for £1,699. In addition to the aforementioned 1TB Fusion Drive (a £200 extra), our review unit was configured with a 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor (which added an extra £160 to the price) instead of the standard 3.2GHz Core i5. It also had the graphics card upgrade from the standard Nvidia GeForce GTX 675MX with 1GB of dedicated memory, to the GeForce GTX 680MX with 2GB (which costs £120).

This meant that the total cost of our review unit was £2,179 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. And do also remember that the cheapest iMac 27in is £1,499, with our review machine being built on the base £1,699 model.

Additionally, if you want to expand the amount of memory included with the iMac the standard 8GB can be bumped up to either 16GB (£160) or 32GB (£480), but the user accessible memory slots give you the option of expanding this yourself after purchase.

Performance

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, and is 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 the Dell XPS One 27 (7.04) by a healthy margin.

It also made short work of our current media tests, chewing through Handbrake in 32 seconds – the Acer Aspire 7600U took 1 minute and 16 seconds – and Photoshop CS6 in 3 minutes and 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 and 8 seconds, while last year’s iMac 27in took 3 minutes and 17 seconds. For the Mac-friendly designer or videographer, the iMac is still the machine you'll want sitting 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 x 768 resolution, and maintained a playable score of 34 fps even at its native 2,560 x 1,440 resolution and higher detail settings. For optimal performance, you'll want to find a resolution somewhere in between, but with performance levels like this, you should be able to enjoy any Mac-compatible game.

Verdict

Oozing quality, and with a gorgeous design, the new iMac 27in 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.

The machine isn’t without downsides, though, such as the lack of height adjustment, and very limited upgrade potential. The price of the iMac 27in will also give some shoppers a heart attack, it must be said (though remember the range starts from £1,499).

Our top-spec review model is definitely on the pricey side, tipping over the two grand mark, but it’s worth every penny of that outlay. Overall, we’re happy to pin a Best Buy award on this excellent refreshed all-in-one from Apple.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Product

Apple iMac 27in (late 2012)

Processor Family

Intel Core i7

Graphics Card

Nvidia GeForce GTX 680MX

Screen Size and Type

27in, LCD Widescreen

Primary Optical Drive

External

RAM

8GB

Type

Gaming, Mainstream, Multimedia, All-in-one

Storage Capacity (as Tested)

1128 GB

Operating System

Mac OS X 10.8

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