Apple iMac (21.5-inch, 2014) review: A price cut for the 21-inch iMac makes it a mainstream machine

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.2
  • Performance: 7.0
  • Design: 9.0
  • Features: 8.0
Review Date:

The Good The new entry level 21.5-inch Apple iMac is now only $100 more than the (already discounted) 13-inch Macbook Air. The display, design, and build quality remain top-notch, and it includes high-end features such as Thunderbolt, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Apple's excellent bundled accessories.

The Bad This lower-cost model has a small hard drive and laptop-like CPU and graphics performance compared to the more-expensive iMac configurations. It lacks even basic user upgradability.

The Bottom Line While it includes some performance and graphics concessions on the lowest priced model, the 21.5-inch iMac brings Apple's iconic design and top-notch bundled accessories and software to a wider audience.

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Few desktop PCs cause much excitement anymore, outside of a handful of bulky systems for gaming enthusiasts or small home theater set-top boxes. Beyond that, we mostly see all-in-one desktops with PC components packed behind a large screen. Apple's iMac line is still the sharpest-looking of these desktops, despite a basic design that's almost 2 years old at this point.

The massive 27-inch version of the iMac starts at a hefty $1,799 (£1,449 or AU$2,199), but the smaller 21.5-inch version was, until recently, a serious-but-reasonable $1,299 (£1,049 or AU$1,599). Rather than cutting the price of its base model, as Apple recently did with its 11-inch and 13-inch Macbook Air laptops, instead we have gotten a brand new iMac model for $1,099 (£899 or AU$1,349).

There's still a big psychological difference in shoppers' minds between just under and over (as well as a practical difference -- that extra money is nothing to laugh off, even when buying a computer), but this new price makes the 21.5-inch iMac a much more likely candidate if you're primarily dealing with everyday tasks such as surfing the Web, email, social media, and light photo editing.

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos02.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET
That's because there's a serious trade-off being asked of us here. The CPU in this $1,099 configuration is a slower dual-core version of Intel's Core i5 chip, versus the more desktop-like quad-core version found in the step-up 21.5-inch iMac. The integrated Intel graphics drops from the decent Intel Iris Pro to the merely basic Intel HD 5000, which won't cut it in newer games. Most importantly, the base model only gives you a standard 500GB spinning platter hard drive. That's small for a non-SSD hard drive, especially one in a desktop.

We also tested an upgraded configuration with a fusion drive from Apple -- essentially a hybrid hard drive that combines 1TB of spinning platter storage with a 128GB SSD. That's a $250 upgrade (£200 or AU$300) worth considering, but we'd be tempted to just get the middle model instead with its quad-core processor, better graphics, and stock 1TB HDD.

If you're looking for a mid-size all-in-one, and want or need access to OS X and the operating system tools, functionality, and organization it promises, this new, lower price may be worth the performance trade-offs, especially as you get the same slim-edge design, rugged build quality, bright, colorful 1080p display, and Apple's excellent wireless keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), as those buying more expensive configurations.

For surfing, video streaming, and basic school or office work, it feels like a slightly faster version of the 13-inch MacBook Air. If that level of performance works for you, great. If not, the extra money for the next model up would pay off as a long-term investment.

Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014) Lenovo Flex 20 Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014)
Price as reviewed $1,099; £899; AU$1,349 $749 (same model unavailable outside the US) $1,349; £1,199; AU$1,649
Display size/resolution 21.5-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen 20-inch, 1,600x900 touchscreen 21.5-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen
PC CPU 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 4260U 1.7GHz Intel Core i3 4010U 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 4260U
PC Memory 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000 1748MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000
Storage 500GB, 5,400rpm HDD 500GB, 5,400rpm HDD 1TB 5,400rpm HDD + 128GB SSD
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks Windows 8 (64-bit) Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks

Design and features

The current iMac design, first unveiled by Apple in October 2012, still looks more cutting edge than any other all-in-one, with its slim edges and gentle curves. The rear panel bows out in the center, so it's not as paper-thin as one might think at first glance, but this $1,099 (£899 or AU$1,349) version is still the same design and materials as iMacs that cost much more. For a more detailed breakdown of the iMac's design and construction, read our review of the late-2013 27-inch model here.

If you're seeking something similarly thin in a Windows all-in-one, you might look to the 18-inch Dell XPS 18, which also has the advantage of being a battery-powered tabletop tablet when removed from its stand.

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos07.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET
That comparison, while not one-to-one, highlights a few other things you'll be missing out on if you choose the iMac as your primary PC. The trend in Windows all-in-one systems to at least add a touchscreen, if not a battery and folding kickstand to provide some away from the outlet portability, even if it's just for carrying the screen from room to room. This is an all-in-one desktop in a much more traditional mold, and Apple has made no move towards evolving into touchscreens for any of its OS X products, and the operating system itself, unlike Windows 8, isn't designed for that.

If you're not connecting any external USB, Thunderbolt, or Mini-DisplayPort devices, and using Wi-Fi instead of a wired Ethernet connection, this is essentially a one-cable setup, with a single white power cord in the lower middle of the back panel. As with most Apple computers, this is essentially a sealed system, with no user-accessible components -- unlike the 27-inch iMac, which at least has an access port for the RAM slots.

imac-2014-21inch-product-photos03.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET
The standard Apple wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse are your default packed-in accessories. These have remained essentially unchanged for the past few years, and the keyboard is still responsive and easy to use, despite it's small size. The mouse has its fans, but the lack of distinct left and right mouse buttons (this is more of a left/right rocker design, and both buttons can't be depressed simultaneously) reminds me that I grew up on PC/Windows systems. I'm much more partial to Apple's Magic Trackpad instead, and fortunately, you can swap the trackpad in for the mouse in the configuration options at no extra cost. (Although I seriously suggest the default be switched to the trackpad.)

Of course, an all-in-one desktop is all about the display. In this case, it's a 21.5-inch screen with a 1,920x1,080 native resolution. As is typical for Apple, the display is clear, bright, and not overly glossy. Off-axis viewing is excellent, from both horizontal and vertical angles. The screen connects to its curved stand with an internal hinge, housed inside the system body, allowing for 30-degrees (from -5 degrees to 25 degrees) of vertical adjustment.

The 27-inch iMac model has a higher resolution, at 2,560x1,440, much like the Retina display MacBook Pro models. Interestingly, prices for better-than-HD displays are coming down, with Lenovo, for example, offering a 3,200x1,800 touch display in its Yoga 2 Pro for around the same price.

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Where to Buy

Apple iMac (21.5-inch, 500GB)

Part Number: MF883LL/A
Pricing is currently unavailable.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Regional specs shown for US. AU specs are unavailable.

  • Graphics Processor Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • OS Provided Apple OS X 10.9 Mavericks
  • Monitor Type LED - IPS