Design & Hardware
Whether or not you're an Apple fan, it's hard not to fall for the iMac's design—shaving off a few centimetres from the casing hasn't changed that. The iMac is still a product with a sleek and accomplished design, which is sure to look great on any desk.
When Apple announced the upcoming release of its iMacs, it was impossible to find any photos of the back of the device. We therefore suspected that the back bit of the iMac may not be quite as slim as those much-flaunted skinny edges may suggest. And although we weren't wrong (4.5 cm), we were still pleasantly surprised. To actually see the convex part of the rear casing, you need to look at the iMac from the right around the side or from the back. Otherwise, it looks completely flat. All in all, Apple has done a good job here.
Like previous product generations, the 2012 iMac ships with a wireless keyboard (no numeric keypad) and the Apple Magic Mouse.
The keyboard hasn't been updated in any way. It's about the same size as a MacBook Pro keyboard and is pretty nice to type with. That said, we think it would be a bit more comfortable to use if it was a little bigger. Seeing as gaming is now a real possibility on Mac, gamers will no doubt be heading straight for another model. Note that when buying your iMac you can opt for a keyboard with a numeric keypad for no extra cost, although this model is wired rather than wireless.
The Magic Mouse bundled with this iMac is actually pretty horrible to use. While it's already painful enough to use for general or office-style computing, it can frustrate you to the point of tears with games. Apple lets you switch the default mouse for a Mighty Mouse, but, to be honest, that's no better. As far as we're concerned, the only real option is to pick up a decent competitor mouse for your iMac.
Apple has made some changes to the connectors this year. For example, the four USB 2.0 ports have been upgraded to USB 3.0 for faster data transfer, and the microphone port has been ditched. This 2012 model also waves goodbye to the FireWire 800 port, replaced by a second Thunderbolt connector for data transfer or onscreen display. The card reader, which used to sit next to the now-defunct DVD drive, has been moved round to the back of the computer. The Ethernet port and headphones socket are still hanging on in there.
With optical drives proving less useful for many users, Apple has ditched the slot-in DVD drive to help slim down this 2012 iMac as much as possible. For anyone who still needs the DVD drive, Apple is selling an optional external drive for £65.
There is one front on which Apple can't quite match some of its competitors, though. While the lack of touchscreen wasn't really a problem for us, we do think it would have been nice to see a built-in TV tuner, as seen in many recent al-in-ones. You can then use your computer as a TV, which can be really handy for anyone living in a small space or for occasional use in a bedroom.
Finally, the fact that Apple has put all the connectors on the back of the iMac isn't particularly user-friendly.
Temperature readings for the 21.5" 2012 iMac with the components working hard. Measured with a Fluke Ti25 heat-sensitive camera.
The 2012 21.5" iMac keeps heat and noise under control nicely. It works very quietly and its operating temperature stays nice and low.
The sub-pixels show that the 21.5" iMac has a PLS screen manufactured by Samsung!
The Full HD PLS screen panel used here offers wider viewing angles than the much-used TN technology, but this isn't its only strength. The contrast is also an excellent 970:1, and remains so no matter what screen brightness setting you're using (max. 360 cd/m²).
Colour fidelity is good too. We measured the Delta E at 2.9 (anything under 3 means colours are reproduced accurately onscreen). Colours are therefore accurately displayed on this iMac, which is good news for anyone who wants to edit photos or buy stuff online.
The only thing this screen might not be so great for is gaming. We measured the ghosting time at 15.5 ms on average, which means that fast-moving objects won't look super-sharp onscreen.
The transparent top-plate covering the screen and bezel seems less prone to reflections and glare than in previous models. However, Apple is still using a glossy screen panel in which you can see your reflection when a darker image is displayed. We therefore recommend you place this 21.5" iMac with its back to the window to help keep glare to a minimum.
Green = Good / Orange = OK / White = Poor.
As the frequency response graph (above) shows, the iMac speakers cover a fairly wide frequency band. This makes sound output quite rich. Plus, distortion is kept under control even at the maximum volume setting, which is pretty rare for this kind of product. The all-metal build no doubt helps somewhat, as it helps keeps vibrations at bay.
Another great thing about this iMac's audio is the excellent spatialisation. When you first fire up the speakers, it's quite hard to determine where the sound is coming from. The speaker chambers are situated on either side of the screen, but the speakers are in fact angled downwards, with sound coming out of the grille on the lower edge of the screen. Since sound waves are therefore aimed downwards rather than directly at the user, and they're reflected back from the iMac's stand giving the impression of a wide soundstage. It's really quite effective!
The headphones out in this iMac is excellent too. For starters, the output power is higher than what we've seen with competitor models. Plus, the output is very accurate and there's a good dynamic range and no distortion. The only thing that may annoy some users is the socket itself, as this is a straight headphones socket rather than a headphones and mic combi port. You'll therefore need to use a USB headset if you need an external mic.
Our Test Model
We tested the high-end version of Apple's 21.5" iMac, which has 16 GB of RAM, a 3.1 Ghz Intel Core i7-3770S processor, an Nvidia GT 650M graphics card and Apple's Fusion Drive memory, comprising a 1 TB HDD and a 128 GB SSD.
The tech specs in this high-end iMac make for excellent levels of processing power. Plus, the Intel Core i7-3770S desktop CPU supports Intel's Hyper-Threading and Turbo functions to help boost performance. This CPU is therefore geared up to handle all kinds of tasks. Compared with the 2011 generation (Core i5-2400S, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB hard drive), this iMac is 1.5 times faster on average. With applications and programs designed to share out the workload between the various processing cores (e.g. 3D modelling) it's actually three times faster!
The HDD/SSD Fusion Drive used in this iMac also has a role to play in its speediness. The built-in 128 GB SSD isn't accessible for user storage. Instead, the system decides which files and applications are stored on the SSD or on the slower HDD, depending on how frequently you use them. Accessible user storage is covered by a roomy 1 TB hard drive.
This new iMac has no problems with responsiveness, booting in 15 seconds and shutting down in less than 10 seconds.
Like the CPU, the graphics card does a good job with games. The GT 650M makes a wide range of games playable in the native screen definition (1920 x 1080 pixels) with a mid or high level of graphics detail. Only a few very heavyweight games like Max Payne 3 will need you to switch down to 1366 x 768 pixels. Otherwise, decoding Full HD video is a breeze for this iMac.
This is another strong feature of the iMac. The 2011 model used 75 watts when idle on the desktop, whereas the 2012 version uses 38 watts in the same conditions. It's the same story for video playback too—the 2012 iMac only uses 56 watts compared with 95 watts for the previous-generation model.