Hands on: A month with Apple’s 4K 21.5-in. iMac

The latest all-in-one now sports a welcome Retina 4K display as an option

2015 retina imacs

The 21.5-in. iMac (left) now offers a high-resolution display much like the one available in the larger 27-in. iMac (right).

Credit: Apple

Like many Apple products, the 21.5-in. iMac was refreshed just ahead of the holiday season, gaining a welcome Retina 4K display at the top of the model line-up. I've spent nearly a month with one of these iMacs and can tell you this is an amazing bargain if you're looking for a desktop Mac while still keeping a close eye on your budget.

There are three general configurations, with the least expensive starting at just $1,099. This includes a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, 1TB of storage, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000 graphics processor. For $200 more, your 21.5-in. iMac comes with a 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and an Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200 GPU. Both of these models have a full HD 1920-x-1080-pixel LED display (with IPS technology, for better clarity at extreme viewing angles).

However, the most interesting model is the $1,499 iMac with an a 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and the Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200 GPU now powering a sharp and vivid 4K Retina display.

The 4K Retina display features 9.4 million pixels - at a 4096-x-2304 resolution - that are designed to show a wider color palette with color reproduction that is more accurate than the display it replaces. That's important for professionals who rely on color accuracy to get their jobs done. Apple says it squeezed out 25% more available colors, surpassing standard sRGB displays by using red-green phosphor LEDs instead of the more traditional white LEDs.

Even if color reproduction isn't at the top of your must-have list for a new computer, looking at the vibrant and crisp display on the iMac is all the proof you need that the $400 jump over the base model's price is worth it.

Second verse, same as the first

The overall design of this year's iMac hasn't changed, and that's not a bad thing. Like previous iMacs, there is a "chin" that adds a few inches of frame below the display, which is bordered in black and hides a FaceTime camera for video conferencing and taking selfies, centered above the screen.

The 21.5-in. iMac, like its larger 27-in. sibling (the one that offers a 5K-resolution screen), is still constructed from aluminum, with the enclosure tapering to just 5mm thin across the edges. The iMac is so thin that the aluminum pieces for the main housing required Apple to use a welding process called friction-stir, a technique normally reserved for use in aerospace and shipbuilding industries. Friction-stir uses a mixture of heat and pressure to combine the alloy into a single piece.

There are dual speakers, which bounce the sound off of the desk and do a decent job; two microphones - one to aid in noise-cancelation -- and a 3.5mm jack that supports headphone/optical digital audio out via minijack. (It also supports Apple's iPhone headphones with microphone and controls.) In the rear of the iMac, you'll find next to the headphone jack an SDXC card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and Gigabit Ethernet. The iMac also supports Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Second-gen magic

The iMac comes with Apple's newest accessories: a Magic Keyboard and either a Magic Mouse 2 or a Magic Trackpad 2. One of the benefits these new input devices offer: built-in batteries that are recharged via an included Lighting to USB cable.

That's right: No more replacing AA batteries every few months.

The Magic Keyboard has wider keys, with smaller gaps between them; this should help those who often hit the edge of keys on regular keyboards. Another improvement: The keys are fastened via a scissor mechanism, which provides a more solid feel to typing. Keys hit on the edge won't dip in the side. Instead, the entire key reacts uniformly. I like the feel of the new keyboard, but some users might need a little time to adjust to the different feel of the keys.

The other standout device is the Magic Trackpad 2. Anyone who follows me on Twitter (@mdeagonia) knows I'm a big fan of Apple's multitouch trackpads because they allow multitouch gestures used on the iPhone and iPad to be replicated on a desktop Mac. This new trackpad is nearly 30% larger than earlier versions and now brings Force Touch technology with it.

Force Touch allows different actions to be triggered, based on the amount of pressure applied. The harder you press, the more options are available for quick access to apps or shortcuts. It doesn't sound like much, but these little shortcuts can make you more productive over the course of a day.

Purchasing advice and recommendations

If you're still in the market for a desktop in this day and age when everything - computers included - seems to be focused on mobility, this iMac is worthy of consideration. It's quiet, it's fast, and if you're not familiar with OS X, the learning curve is more than manageable. Apple's OS X 10.11 El Capitan doesn't require the day-to-day maintenance inherent to Windows-based PCs.

Though you will probably spend more money up front compared to Windows-based all-in-one options, you'll save that money over the long haul, both in maintenance and longevity.

Macs have the ability to run Windows in virtual machines using Parallels or Fusion - either allows you to run your Windows programs side-by-side with your Mac apps -- or via Boot Camp, which which allows you to boot your Mac into the latest Windows OS. These days, Macs really are the best of both worlds, running on some damned fine hardware.

The only thing I would recommend is to forgo the standard 1TB hard drive and opt for at least a Fusion drive, or, preferably, an SSD drive. The stock hard drive is a 5,400-rpm model, which is slow and doesn't deliver an ideal computing experience. I'd also recommend that you pair the iMac with the Magic Trackpad 2; it's the best input device I've ever used and if you are already accustomed to the multi-finger gestures on the iPhone or iPad, it'll be be right up your alley.

This story, "Hands on: A month with Apple’s 4K 21.5-in. iMac" was originally published by Computerworld.

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