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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The iMac and spinning-disk disappointment

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Tuesday’s announcement of new iMacs is exciting for those who have been waiting for an update before buying, but a bit disappointing for those who were hoping for a more comprehensive iMac redesign. I have to admit that I’d been hoping for a new exterior iMac redesign—the current enclosure design’s almost seven years old. But the biggest disappointment of the announcement might have been Apple’s choices when it comes to storage.

Not to belabor the point, but the iMac is the only remaining new Apple product that features a spinning hard drive. It’s also the only Mac in a couple of years to receive an update and not include an Apple-designed ARM processor for security and other features. (The two are probably related—so far as I can tell, Apple has designed the T2 to only use flash storage.)

Spinning disks had a good run, but they’re old tech. They’re far less reliable than flash storage drives, and are also generally much slower. The $1299 base-model 4K iMac ships with a slow 5400 rpm spinning disk. It’s almost unforgiveable.

Apple pushes Fusion Drive as a cost-effective alternative to the much more expensive flash storage—Fusion Drive pairs a small bit of flash storage with a spinning disk drive to create a virtual disk that mixes the speed of flash storage with the much more affordable large capacities of traditional hard drives. And I will accept that Apple is reluctant to ship very small-capacity flash storage drives on iMacs, Macs that traditionally get loaded down with big photo libraries and other large collections of files. (As flash-storage prices continue to drop, the argument gets tougher to make, though.)

I will guarantee you that the single greatest bottleneck in terms of speed on the base 4K iMac is that slow spinning disk drive. People who spend $1299 for a 4K iMac in 2019 deserve not to see a spinning beach ball—but they probably will. This is one case where Apple should either take the hit on profit margin or just raise the price if it has to.

In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, I’ve heard from a bunch of people who are equally frustrated that Apple hasn’t converted the entire iMac line to flash storage. I get the argument, but Apple knows very well who is buying iMacs, and I am guessing that these decisions are very much made with that knowledge in mind. Many iMac buyers are quite price sensitive, which is why the base models are configured as cheaply as possible. It’s not like you can’t configure an iMac with only flash storage—it just raises the price a lot, and you lose storage capacity in the meantime.

It’s clear where Apple’s going here, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next iMac—the larger model, at least—update inherits some design elements of the iMac Pro, which removed support for spinning disks and used that space for a quieter and more powerful cooling system. And while we’re making wish lists, how about a new enclosure that reduces the size of the bezels and adds Face ID, too?

Alas, those are features that will have to wait for the iMac of the 2020s. The era of spinning hard drives at Apple will continue for a little while longer. I understand it, but I don’t have to like it.

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