Is the new 21-inch 4K Retina iMac from Apple worth buying? Find out what the critics are saying about it before you buy one
Eye on Apple
By Jim Lynch, CIO
The latest version of Apple’s 21-inch iMac sports a 4K Retina screen, and many consumers are no doubt wondering if it’s worth buying. Fortunately, a slew of reviews of the new 4K iMac have been released, and the buzz from critics seems mostly positive with a few caveats.
Andrew Cunningham at Ars Technica notes the lack of a Fusion drive option in the new 4K iMac:
The best thing about the 4K iMac is that you don’t have to use a gigantic 27-inch model if you want to get a Retina display. There are plenty of people who prefer the larger screen, but for those who find it intimidating or just too big for their workspace, the 4K model is here and it’s waiting with open arms. The more-than-doubled resolution and Retina scaling modes give it more multitasking potential than the non-Retina iMacs too.
But screen size aside, the 21.5-inch iMacs are inferior to the new 27-inch models in many ways. It’s typical for the smaller iMacs to have smaller build-to-order storage options and weaker GPUs, but in this case Apple has entirely removed dedicated GPUs from the equation and isn’t offering 1TB SSD upgrades or 3TB Fusion Drive upgrades (though this may be due to space limitations inside the smaller case). Even worse, Intel’s frustrating release calendar means that the 21.5-inch models are now a full CPU architecture refresh behind the 27-inch models, and the 4K model won’t even have the option of upgrading to Skylake until early in 2016.
If you’re OK with the list of omissions and you can spring for the storage upgrade, the 4K iMac gets you a great professional-quality screen and a powerful quad-core processor for a pretty reasonable price. The 27-inch iMac is the computer that most blurs the line between consumer all-in-one and high-end workstation, but as long as you aren’t gaming you can get some pretty serious work done on the 21.5-inch iMac. If Apple can make Fusion Drives and 4K screens standard on all iMacs when the Skylake refresh comes around, we won’t have much left to complain about.
Jason Snell at Macworld calls it a “a high-resolution desktop Mac for the masses”:
The 5K iMac is an incredible computer, one of the best Macs ever made—but it’s also just too much for many people. A 27-inch display can dominate a desk or a room, and though the price tag has come down a lot in the past year, it’s still on the pricey side. In contrast, here’s the iMac with 4K Retina display.
It offers a lot of screen space but isn’t awkward to maneuver around a table top. The prices on the three models are more reasonable though you’ll want to upgrade the hard drive to a Fusion Drive or pure flash storage if it fits within your budget.
Most importantly, it’s got that screen. 9.4 million pixels of screen, making your photos and your webpages and your word-processor documents and even the text of your emails look substantially better than ever before. Retina has arrived on Apple’s most affordable iMac model. You won’t regret the upgrade.
DetroitBORG has an interesting YouTube video review of the 4K iMac that includes some GPU benchmarks and disk speed data:
The Engadget review of the 4K iMac
Dana Wollman at Engadget noted the improved color accuracy in the new 4K iMac:
The iMac is still the best all-in-one, with an attractive (if predictable) design, near-standard 4K and 5K screens, and even better color accuracy than before. The 21.5-inch version is in some ways the more interesting of the two models, as this is the first time the smaller Mac has been offered with a Retina display. That’s good news for people who are willing to pay a premium for a sharper screen, but don’t quite have the desk space for the bigger 27-inch model.
In addition to the computer itself, the peripherals come close to stealing the show: They’re finally rechargeable, for one, and the keyboard in particular takes up less space, despite having larger buttons. The Magic Trackpad now supports Force Touch too, so if you happen to enjoy those pressure-sensitive gestures on the MacBook Pro, Apple Watch or iPhone 6s, you can now have the same experience here.
As you can see, then, the iMac mostly hits the right notes, although I wish Apple were more generous with the other specs — besides display quality and resolution, that is. The 21.5-inch version is no longer offered with discrete graphics, not even on the 4K edition, which seems like a mistake. Meanwhile, hybrid Fusion drives only come standard on machines priced from $1,999.
Again, I love the improved screen, but having faster storage for the money and the option of more robust graphics would have improved my boot time and maybe eliminated the few hiccups I experienced. It’s great that more iMacs now have 4K and 5K panels, but until Apple redesigns the hardware, which has looked the same for several years now, the best thing the company can do is double-down on performance.
Joel Santo Domingo at PCMag notes the appeal of the 4K iMac for photographers and other creative professionals:
The display is color calibrated at Apple’s factory. It features technology that lets it display colors in the DCI-P3 color space. DCI-P3 was introduced in 2007 by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) as a color reference that’s wider than the sRGB space common to LCDs. That translates into more accurate reds and greens, as well as all the colors in between.
The 27-inch iMac comes with a 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive standard, so it’s somewhat disappointing that the 21.5-inch model comes with a 1TB, 5,400rpm HDD. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to affect performance too much on our benchmark tests. You can upgrade to a faster Fusion Drive or flash storage in configure-to-order (CTO) options, but our base model doesn’t have these upgrades.
3D performance is good for a system with integrated graphics. The iMac completed the Heaven (29 frames per second or fps) and Valley (35fps) tests at medium quality with frame rates that just qualify as playable. Its performance is equivalent to that of systems with entry-level discrete graphics like the HP Sprout, the Lenovo B50, and the Lenovo Horizon 2, but it can’t hold a candle to all-in-one PCs with higher-end discrete graphics, like the MSI Gaming 24GE and the Apple iMac 27-inch.
If you make your living through the lens of a camera, or you’re a serious creative type, the 21.5-inch 4K Retina iMac belongs high up on your short list—especially if you want the hi-res display but don’t want to pay for the 27-inch 5K iMac. It has the power to easily motor through photo and video projects, and its brilliant, high-resolution Retina display has a color depth that’s unmatched by rivals.
If you can use the larger screen, go with the 5K iMac
As you can tell from some of the reviews, there are definitely some drawbacks to the 21-inch 4K Retina iMac. I’ve had a 27-inch 5K iMac since it was first released, and I love mine. My advice is to go with the 27-inch version if the larger screen isn’t too much for you. You’ll get more configuration options, a better GPU and the larger screen.
The 5K iMac has also gotten positive reviews from customers on Amazon, and most people seem quite pleased with it. Once you get used to a Retina screen on your iMac, you really won’t want to deal with looking at screens in a lower resolution. Yes, the difference in screen resolution really matters that much as you use your iMac.
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