Review: Apple iMac (2012)

For the past few years, Apple has kept the iMac on the sidelines, instead choosing to focus the spotlight on its portable and mobile offerings.

The iPhone remains Apple’s cash cow, and the fervor is palpable every time a new version is released. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display are two ultra-slender notebooks that impress with both their design and their performance. And the iPad, which debuted all the way back in 2010, has some wondering if the notebook is even necessary anymore. As each of these products was unveiled, the current iMac design — originally introduced in 2009 — routinely underwent quiet upgrades. It was barely mentioned at Apple’s splashy media events.

Not this time — when Apple debuted the new iMac alongside the iPad mini and a newer Retina display iPad at its media event last October, it was the iMac that turned the most heads. Sure, the iPad mini was the hot item of the day going in, but the stunningly thin iMac generated more buzz than we were expecting. It certainly made the jaded digerati leap to Twitter with excitement.

The design, an impressively slender all-metal case capped by edge-to-edge glass, garners wows. But the fact that Apple managed to pack in a real computer — in my tester, a 3.1 GHz quad-core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 1TB Fusion Drive running OS X Mountain Lion — is just as commendable. This thing doesn’t just look good, it knows how to work it, too.

From the front, the new iMac is almost indistinguishable from the last iteration. It has the same folded-metal base, and beneath the black-edged display is the same silver “chin” with a shiny black Apple logo in the center. It’s not until you spin the thing to the side that you notice its almost unfathomable slenderness and gentle curves.

Some people hate it when you refer to a consumer electronics product as “sexy,” but … this is a damn sexy piece of machinery. At its edges, the iMac’s thickness measures a mere 5 millimeters. That’s so thin, Apple couldn’t use traditional manufacturing methods to bond the front and rear aluminum pieces together. It instead had to employ a method called friction stir welding, which creates a completely seamless, aerospace-quality juncture. It’s only that thin at the edges though. It gently tapers to a modest bulge at the center rear — you’ve got to fit those hardware guts in there somewhere.

Our loaner iMac included a 1-terabyte Fusion Drive, a hybrid drive with both 128GB of Flash storage and a traditional, spinning 1TB HDD. All of this is optimized at the system level in OS X Mountain Lion. Your workflow gets optimized on the fly — frequently used apps and files get pushed to the SSD, where they earn blazing fast read and write speeds, and things you use less often get pushed onto the hard disk. But it comes at a price: the Fusion Drive option is an extra $250 tacked onto the base $1,500 model. The standard-issue quad-core processor and 8GB of memory should be adequate for most, though I’d recommending upping the RAM to at least 16GB for professional users. Note: If you’re buying the 21.5-inch version, you have to buy the RAM at the time of purchase, as there’s no way to upgrade the memory yourself. The 27-incher has a small door to access the SO-DIMM slots.

Apple’s likely not going to refresh this iMac design for another few years yet, so if you recently grabbed a 2010 or 2011 iMac, there’s no urgent need to rush out and upgrade to a new one. However, if you are in the market for a new desktop and have a couple grand to drop, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything out there this slick and satisfying. Just be sure to rip all your CDs before you make the leap.

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