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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

2019 iMac review: The best of a bygone era

The 2019 iMacs are a contradiction. They are brand-new computers that somehow feel like the last members of a dying order. They are shells designed in 2012 that somehow contain 8th- and 9th-generation Intel processors. They represent Apple’s broad-appeal entry-level Mac desktop, but can also offer power to rival the performance of the base-model iMac Pro. They are part of a legacy that once represented the core of the Mac market, but now fills specific niches in a world devoured by mobile technology.

I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks with a top-of-the line 5K iMac with a 9th-generation Intel processor, and its performance was impressive. There’s no denying that the iMac is better than ever, just as there’s no denying that this is a product line that’s in need of reinvention after years of stasis.

What’s an iMac for?

We live in a mobile-device world. These days we’ve got phones and tablets and laptops—for years, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all Macs sold have been laptops. That makes the iMac increasingly an outlier, a fractional part of a Mac business that is a fractional part of Apple’s overall device business.

And yet the iMac matters. Apple sells billions of dollars of iMacs a year, as shared home computers and corporate desktops and retail kiosks and dozens of other niches that still find value in having a computer with a big display and a simple aluminum exterior. No, it’s not what it was—it’s clear from my discussion with Apple’s iMac product manager that Apple has shifted its iMac messaging to be focused on specific use cases rather than attempting to sell it as a device with broad appeal.

My family used to have an iMac at the center of our computing life. My wife used it for her job, I used it to edit video and photos, and my kids used it to play games when they were little. But that was last decade. Now we all have laptops and tablets and phones and there’s no family computer anymore. Things are different now.

Still, there are areas where the iMac can play a role. Equipped with a large hard drive, it can be an ideal place to store and process family photos. The iMac got a 5K Retina display in 2014 (the 4K model followed in 2015), and that was a big step forward. Today’s models support gorgeous wide color gamuts at high resolution. They’re great devices for that use. There’s also something to be said for positioning a Mac somewhere in your house to use as a homework machine, to force a student to focus in a way that they might not if they’re sitting in their bedroom on a laptop or iPad.

The iMac is also a pretty good value, because it comes with that high-resolution screen. If you wanted to configure a Mac mini and a 4K iMac with the same specs, you’d only have $400 left over to buy a 4K display. For the 5K iMac the figure is $800. You won’t get a display of the quality of the iMac’s for those prices, so unless you want to spend more money for the flexibility of swapping out display or computer separately, the iMac is probably the right choice.

Spectrum of choices

iMacs (left to right): iMac 4K, iMac 5K, and iMac Pro.

The iMac’s configuration options cover a lot of ground, from low-cost base models up to expensive high-end features. Choosing which model is right for you can be confusing.

Nobody should buy the $1099 21.5-inch iMac, which was not a part of the 2019 update. It exists because it allows Apple to say it still sells an iMac for $1099—but it’s powered by a seventh-generation Intel processor and doesn’t have a Retina display. Like the $999 MacBook Air, it’s a computer that shouldn’t be sold as “new” in 2019.

The middle configuration of the 21.5-inch iMac, at $1299, has an 8th-generation Intel processor and a 4K Retina display, both of which are good. But it’s hamstrung by its slow 1TB hard drive, which lacks even the most basic speed boost you get by adding a little bit of solid-state storage and turning it into a hybrid device Apple calls a Fusion Drive. Converting it to a Fusion Drive takes the price up to $1399, which is essentially the lowest acceptable configuration of iMac for sale today.

If you want power but don’t need that enormous 5K display, one option might be to configure the highest-end 4K iMac you can, with an 8th-generation Intel i7 processor, Radeon Pro Vega 20 graphics and pure SSD storage. Those options will raise the price above $2000, but you’ll have a pretty powerful little iMac. The only big drawback is that, unlike on the 27-inch models, you can’t upgrade the RAM in the 21.5-inch iMac after the fact. Configure accordingly.

On the 5K iMac side, Apple’s standard configurations are better. Base storage is the Fusion Drive rather than a bare spinning disc, which is good, but pure SSD is always a better option if you can afford it. While the 9th-generation Intel i5 and i9 processors are very impressive, the first upgrade option you should choose is ditching a Fusion Drive for SSD. After that, you might want to upgrade your RAM or move to a faster processor. All of these models have six processor cores and high Turbo Boost speeds, so I wouldn’t worry about upgrading the processor unless you have very specific high-end needs—essentially, if you’re a pro-level user who is trying to build a cheaper iMac Pro.

Speaking of which…

iMac Pro on the cheap

I wrote a story for Macworld earlier this month about how the high-end 2019 iMac, with its 9th-generation core i9 processor, measures up to the base-model iMac Pro. The truth is, you can save a lot of money by trading away some of the Very Nice Features of the iMac Pro and speccing up a 5K iMac instead. My top-of-the-line iMac managed to match my base-model iMac Pro in multiprocessor tests and beat it in single-core tests.

In a few places, most notably Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro X, my iMac Pro came out on top, most likely because my iMac Pro’s GPU is slightly more powerful and it’s got twice the RAM (32GB) of the iMac I tested.

Beyond the pretty space gray exterior and peripherals, what you give up when you use an iMac instead of an iMac Pro is the T2 processor, a nice FaceTime camera, on-the-fly disk encryption, safe boot, and that really great cooling system that’s far quieter than the one in the iMac. The iMac Pro is undeniably more luxurious, and if you’re doing the kind of pro-level work that requires performance above what the base-model iMac Pro offers, the iMac can’t compete.

But that $4999 base-model iMac Pro, the one I’m currently using? The gap between it and the iMac has closed to the point that for most uses, you’d probably be better off saving your money and just configuring a high-end 5K iMac.

imac-gap-bench

A changing of the guard?

Just as notable as what the 2019 iMacs are is what they aren’t—namely, they aren’t a new iMac design, nor do they integrate any of the technology Apple has rolled into every other new Mac introduced in the last year.

In an era where the bezels around screens are creeping in on all sides, the iMac’s bezels are still enormous by comparison. Apple redesigned the cooling system in the iMac Pro, which uses the same enclosure, in order to keep things cool and quiet—but that kicked out the possibility of using spinning discs, which Apple insists these iMacs still use in order to keep prices down.

And then there’s the T2 processor, introduced with the iMac Pro. The Apple-designed ARM processor really has come to define what a Mac looks like today. It handles audio and system management, acts as the disk controller and encrypts data on the fly, improves the quality and security of the FaceTime camera, and enforces a secure-boot system to ensure your operating system is valid. These iMacs don’t have one, which makes them feel like a little bit of 2017 pulled into 2019.

I’ve got to think that Apple has a bigger iMac redesign in the offing, but that it’s not ready to make that step right now—perhaps because of price issues involving SSD storage, perhaps because of other forthcoming changes to the Mac platform that require them to hold that design back. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the 2019 iMac doesn’t feel like a relic of a previous era a lot sooner than you might expect. This is the last hurrah of the old iMac, not the first step into a new era.

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