Connections, performance, and battery
In a single row on the back of the display chassis is a generous collection of ports and connections, including four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort connections, an SD card slot, Ethernet jack, and headphone plug. The only downside is that the Thunderbolts are the original Thunderbolt spec, not the newer Thunderbolt 2.
While this new, less-expensive 21.5-inch iMac looks the same as models that start at high as $1,499 (£1,199 or AU$1,849), and that can be configured up to almost twice that, it has a slower processor, lower-level graphics card, and less internal storage than other current-gen iMacs. In this case, you get a dual-core Intel Core i5, very similar to what you'd find in a current MacBook Air, along with 8GB of RAM, a 500GB non-SSD hard drive, and Intel's very basic HD 5000 graphics. The previous low-end iMac, the now-middle configuration, differs in that it has a faster quad-core Core i5, Intel's better Iris Pro graphics, and a full 1TB hard drive.
The best way to think of this new model is as a 13-inch MacBook Air, but with a 8GB RAM upgrade, and hopefully some more thermal headroom for the CPU to operate at higher clock speeds more frequently. In that sense, we saw decent application performance from the base iMac, faster than both the current MacBook Air and similarly sized Windows all-in-one systems, such as the Lenovo Flex 20. For everyday tasks, from social media to email to office work, or for watching HD video, it should be more than enough.
We also tested a version of the base model with a 1TB Fusion Drive, which is what Apple calls a hybrid hard drive with a 128GB SSD. In our tests, this upgrade resulted in essentially identical performance, but those tests aren't especially indicative of drive access speed. If you're working with transferring large files, you might find the Fusion Drive makes the process zippier. If you're planning to edit high-res photos or video, or try more than very basic gaming, I'd still be tempted to go with the middle model instead, as it gets you a lot of improved hardware.
In a new cross-platform gaming test, last year's Tomb Raider game ran at full 1,920x1,080 and normal (read: medium) settings at 12.2 frames per second, which fits our Intel HD 5000 graphics expectations. The Fusion Drive version ran at 12.9 frames per second at the same settings. Running the same test on last year's 27-inch iMac, with an Nvidia GeForce 775 GPU, got us 58.2 frames per second.
We've heard complaints from some quarters that this new, lower-cost iMac sacrifices speed and power for cost savings, or that it's essentially a MacBook Air in iMac form. Considering the Air remains the single most universally useful laptop you can buy, that's not necessarily a knock, and in our hands-on testing, this entry level iMac worked fine for everyday tasks.
That said, there is a palpable difference in performance between this and systems with more common desktop components (and it would be nice if this system was even slightly upgradable). If you can invest $200 more, the step-up model adds a bit of future-proofing, but if you're on a tight budget and primarily drawn to the design and overall usability of the iMac, it delivers on that front, especially if you can take advantage of Apple's educational discounts to bring the price down even further.
Apple iMac (21-inch, 2014)
Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks; 1.4GHz Intel Core i54260U; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 500GB HDD
Apple iMac (21.5-inch Fusion drive, 2014)
Mac OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks; 1.4GHz Intel Core i54260U; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 1TB HDD + 128 SSD
Apple iMac (27-inch, 2013)
Mac OS X 10.8.5 Mountain Lion; 3.4GHz Intel Core i5 4670; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 775M graphics card; 1TB HDD + 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)
Mac OS X 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4240U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM ; 1024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB SSD
Lenovo Flex 20
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i3 4010U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1748MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 500GB HDD