By Jason Snell
November 6, 2023 6:00 AM PT
M3 iMac Review: Keep playing the hits
After nearly two and a half years, the iMac has finally gotten its update. The venerable desktop Mac was a late addition to the first generation M1 processor, but now it’s in the vanguard of Apple’s M3 chip generation. As a result, the iMac isn’t just a colorful all-in-one desktop Mac—it’s also likely representative of the performance characteristics of every M3-based Mac to come, most notably the MacBook Air and Mac mini.
There are two stories here. Let’s start with the computer, and then I’ll get to the chip stuff.
A largely unchanged computer
The M1 iMac, released in May 2021, was an entirely new iMac design—and the M3 iMac doesn’t change a single thing. If you don’t remember that far back, here’s a quick recap: It’s an ultra-thin (11.5mm) slab that looks like an oversized iPad attached to a stand (or optional VESA mount). It comes in seven different color options—well, six colors and silver. A strong magnetic connector attaches the iMac to an external power brick that (optionally for the base model) also integrates an Ethernet jack. The 24-inch screen is at 4.5K resolution and is bright and colorful, though it can’t pop the brightness in dynamic range content like the MacBook Pro display can (it’s limited to 500 nits). It comes with color-matched accessories (yes, charged by color-matched Lightning cables).
We live in a world of laptops, in part because laptops are just so convenient. But as I revisit the iMac for the first time in a couple of years, I’m reminded of just how great this design is. It’s light (less than 10 pounds), making it easy to pick it up and carry it somewhere else (or reposition it on a desk). The screen isn’t huge, but it’s plenty for a lot of tasks—including most of the ones I perform regularly. The color choices mean it can stand out or fade in, depending on your preference and the setting. No, a desktop all-in-one isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, this design is just delightful.
Unfortunately, since this design is unchanged, that means that some of its flaws also remain unaddressed. In the intervening two-plus years since the iMac’s original release, Apple has released a Studio Display that comes in three different configuration options, including an adjustable stand. The iMac’s stand remains unadjustable and, in my opinion, inappropriately low. Given the cost of the adjustable Studio Display stand, I don’t expect Apple to integrate one into the base-model iMac—but it would’ve been a really nice option. Instead, these cute iMacs will end up sitting on a motley connection of books and boxes and stands in order to get them to a more ergonomic height.
Apple also hasn’t upgraded the FaceTime camera, which remains at 1080p. That’s the resolution you’ll find in laptops, but I had hoped for an upgrade on the desktop. It’s possible that the reception to the Apple Studio Display’s camera has scared Apple off the idea of building a higher-resolution camera with Center Stage into a desktop Mac—but I hope not. Apple needs to take another crack at that. Center Stage is a useful feature when you have a desktop Mac that cannot be as easily repositioned as a laptop. Apple needs to find a higher-quality webcam that can support Center Stage (as well as macOS Sonoma’s built-in options to manually pan and zoom the camera exactly the way you want it) and build it into future iMacs and external displays.
Also, since Apple moved the iMac to Retina displays nearly a decade ago, the company has abandoned its old concept of a “target display mode,” which allowed an unused iMac to be repurposed as an external display for a different computer. It’s already a little painful to think about how wasteful an all-in-one computer can be, given that displays can have lifespans vastly longer than the computers they’re attached to. Apple could assuage a lot of that frustration if it would engineer the iMac to double as a display for another device. Given the company’s commitment to the environment, perhaps it’s time to build a new Target Display Mode.
I should also probably list the iMac’s display size as one of its disappointments, but I don’t think I can. I know there are a lot of people out there who used to use 27-inch iMacs—I’m one of them. Now that the 27-inch Apple Studio Display exists, ready to be attached to a Mac mini or Mac Studio or any laptop you want, I’m not sure the world actually needs an additional size of iMac. And certainly not if the iMac can never be repurposed into a standalone display.
Apple told me that it has no plans to develop a 27-inch iMac again. If the company changes its mind and one day decides to make a bigger iMac, I’ll cheer… but I don’t think I’d go back to an iMac now that I’m able to work with a Studio Display and a Mac Studio.
While this review has largely treated the 24-inch iMac as a single computer, in truth, there are two distinct models, exactly as was the case with the M1 generation. There’s a $1299 base model and a more full-featured model that starts at $1499.
The $1299 model uses the a binned variant of the M3 processor—with eight, rather than ten, GPU cores (very much what Apple did with the M2 and the low-end 13-inch MacBook Air). It also only comes in silver, blue, green, and pink, so if you want purple, yellow, or orange, you’ll need to splurge. Finally, that base configuration ships with a Magic Keyboard that lacks Touch ID and a power brick that lacks Ethernet, though you can choose to upgrade both of those at the time you buy.
All base configurations of iMac come with 8GB of RAM. Either Apple thinks that’s enough RAM for low-end use, or it knows savvy users will immediately tack on a $200 upgrade to get to 16GB. Personally, I think 8GB of RAM is acceptable, if not ideal, for low-end use. If you are discerning enough about computers to read articles like this one on the Internet, and if you’ve got an extra $200 in your budget, it’s the upgrade most worth doing. (You can add more storage later via USB-C, but you can never add more RAM.)
The M3 debuts
As Apple enjoyed pointing out during its announcement of this new iMac and the new MacBook Pros, the M3 chip in the new iMac will absolutely destroy any Intel-based model in performance. If you’re considering an upgrade from an Intel-based Mac and are concerned about the “low-end” chip in the iMac, don’t sweat it. Even the least capable M3 chip is going to offer performance that will blow away older Intel-based Macs.
Apple’s also got a bit of a marketing advantage with the iMac in that there’s no M2-based model to compare it to. So, compared to the last iMac, performance gains will be greater than you’ll see on other M3 models. In multi-core performance, the iMac was 37 percent faster than an M1 system. And it was also 18 percent faster than an M2 MacBook Air in the same tests. In single-core tests, which basically isolate how fast an individual CPU core in each generation runs, the M3 was about 18 percent faster than M2 and 32 percent faster than M1.
Graphics gains were all over the place. The M3 has a new caching architecture that maximizes GPU throughput, as well as support for hardware-based ray tracing and mesh shading, all of which boost graphics performance. (Yes, the lighting effects in Resident Evil Village did look great on the iMac’s display.) The 10-core GPU iMac was only about 4 percent faster than a 10-core GPU M2 MacBook Air on a Geekbench 6.1 Metal test, but an eye-watering 234 percent faster than an 8-core GPU M2 MacBook Air on the new Cinebench 2024 GPU test.
In terms of pure CPU performance, it seems like the M3 is a larger leap from the M2 than the M2 was from the M1. On the graphics side, things seem to vary a bit more. The new M3 GPU is definitely faster, but in some circumstances, it appears to be spectacularly faster.
So, yes, it’s faster than the last one and faster than all previous Intel-based iMacs. I suspect that the power of the M3 iMac will satisfy anyone who chooses to buy one. With the exception of some particularly hairy audio and video work, I could happily use one as my main computer, too.
In fact, that’s unfair—the hairy audio and video work I do would get done fine on the M3 iMac. It would just take longer for those plug-ins and exports to run. Unless you’re trying to do something like edit a project with a half-dozen 8K video streams on an iMac—don’t do that!—this computer will do pretty much whatever you need.
I also very much look forward to Apple bringing this same chip into 2024 updates to the MacBook Air and the Mac mini. The Apple silicon era has been very, very good to Mac users, and the M3 generation continues the trend, this time with an extra boost on the graphics side.
Where the iMac fits
When the original iMac arrived, desktop computers still ruled. But these days, our lives are dominated by mobile devices. Often, families don’t share a single computer, with each family member using their own personal devices. So, what’s the role for today’s iMac?
Back in 2019, I tried to understand Apple’s approach to the iMac:
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.
Four and half years later, I continue to believe that Apple sees the iMac as more of a supporting player that needs to justify its existence by doing certain tasks better than an iPad, iPhone, or MacBook. Its biggest asset is its screen: A 24-inch screen will let you be productive in ways that smaller screens simply can’t. For many tasks—whether you’re editing photos or video or just watching a movie—bigger screens are just better.
By redesigning the iMac to have bright colors and making it thinner and lighter, Apple has repositioned the iMac as more fun, more mobile, and more likely to find itself a home. The days of the iMac being the default Mac for most users are long over, but today’s iMac does need to be flexible enough to slide into a kitchen (but not on the island!) or onto a makeshift workspace in the corner of a bedroom.
Today’s iMac is a utility player. I can’t say that I can find a place for it in my life, but it’s possible that you might find one in yours. Either way, the Apple silicon iMac is charismatic and fun. I’ve immensely enjoyed working on one in my house this past week. If there’s a place for one in your life, I expect you’ll love it too.
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