Apple iMac (27-inch, September 2013) review: New processors and faster Wi-Fi for Apple's slim desktop

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The Good With the addition of Intel's Haswell chips, plus 802.11ac wireless, faster SSD hard drives, and new Nvidia GPUs, the latest Apple iMac is a thoroughly up-to-date desktop.

The Bad Other big-screen all-in-one systems have handy extras missing here, such as touch screens and HDMI inputs.

The Bottom Line Anyone who bought last year's redesigned iMac doesn't need to upgrade, but for owners of older models or anyone looking to switch, the latest 27-inch Apple iMac offers a wide-ranging set of internal upgrades.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

It's telling that the latest set of updates to Apple's iMac all-in-one desktop were not announced at one of the company's regular stage shows. Instead, the new iMac slipped quietly into Apple's Web site, the news announced via an understated press release posted early in the morning.

That's because the updates are internal, putting new hardware inside an iMac body that received a major makeover in 2012. From the outside, this is the same slim screen sitting on top of an aluminum stand and minimalist base. The design was controversial last year, with the iMac's razor-thin edge and bulging center creating an optical illusion that the entire system was as slim as an iPad. We're not quite there yet, but even in its second year, the iMac's design still feels modern, and unlike anything else on the market.

Inside, you'll find exactly the kind of revisions one would expect from a quiet hardware update. Intel's latest fourth-generation Core i-series processors are here, also known by the code named Haswell. In our tests with other Haswell systems, we've found modestly improved performance and greatly improved battery life, although the latter won't matter here.

Our review sample has the faster of two base CPUs offered in the 27-inch size, plus a fusion hard drive that combines a 1TB HDD with a 128GB SSD, for a total of $2,199. The least-expensive 27-inch iMac is $1,799.

The built-in Wi-Fi has been updated to the new 802.11ac standard, which offers faster data speeds when connected to a compatible 802.11ac router. Both of these upgrades previously found their way into Apple's MacBook Air laptops back in June 2013.

The SSD internal storage options are now connected via PCIe, which the company says increases drive performance if you order an iMac with either SSD storage or a fusion drive with both SSD and HDD components.

Finally, the fall 2013 iMac gets GPUs from Nvidia's latest series, the GeForce 755M, 775M, or 780M in the 27-inch models, and the GeForce 750M in the higher of two 21.5-inch models.

Taken together, these updates don't radically change the iMac experience. But they do take an already excellent desktop and make it very up-to-date for the holiday season and beyond, and at this point, it's hard to suggest any midprice or higher computer that doesn't have Intel's Haswell processors.

That leaves us in the unusual situation of having MacBook Air laptops and iMac desktops with Intel's current generation of processors, but the high-end MacBook Pro, including the models with the Retina Display, still using last year's third-generation Intel chips, to say nothing of the Mac Mini.

Some of the best Windows 8 all-in-ones, such as the Dell XPS 27, add additional features not found here, chief among them a touch screen and an HDMI input so these big, high-resolution screens can also be used with other devices. Neither is a deal breaker, nor expected anytime soon.

One final note for those about to invest in a new iMac: Apple's next operating system upgrade, named OS X Mavericks, is expected sometime in the next several weeks. That leaves early adopters wondering if the update will be free for everyone, if they'll get a free upgrade while other Mac owners have to pay for the update, or if they'll be stuck paying $20 or so for Mavericks so soon after buying their new iMacs.

Apple iMac (27-inch, September 2013) Dell XPS 27 MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) Apple iMac (27-inch,November 2012)
Price $2,199 $2,099 $1,099 $2,599
Display size/resolution 27-inch, 2560x1,440 screen 27-inch, 2,560x1,440 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen 27-inch, 2560x1,440 screen
PC CPU 3.4GHz Intel Core i5 4670 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-4770S 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4250U 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 3770
Graphics 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 775M 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT750M 1,024MB Intel HD Graphics5000 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 680M
Storage 128GB SSD 1TB hybrid hard drive 2TB, 7,200 rpm hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD 1TB hybrid hard drive
Optical drive None Blu-Ray/DVD/DVD RW combo None None
Networking 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.5 Windows 8 (64-bit) OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4 OSX Mountain Lion 10.8

Design and features
The current iMac design blew a lot of minds when first unveiled by Apple in October 2012. The artful photography and clever angles made the system look completely flat, although once you got to see it in person, you could see that the rear panel curves out in the center. So, no, it's not as paper-thin as one might think at first glance, but there's still a notable lack of bulk for a high-powered 27-inch all-in-one. (Note, for example, the thick slablike design of the Dell XPS 27, probably this system's closest competitor.)

The bowl-like panel and curved one-piece stand make this among the most organic-feeling of Apple's products, which is fitting for an all-in-one. That desktop subgenre is most closely associated with family computer use, kitchen PCs, or creative/artistic work, in a way that a no-nonsense tower chassis or an on-the-go laptop is not.

The design is a year old now, so it doesn't grab the eye as it once did, but it's still a great example of what happens when aesthetic considerations come first, not as an afterthought.

We didn't notice any changes to the system exterior for this 2013 update. The iMac still has last year's less-reflective screen, hidden memory slots, and rear-panel-only ports. As with most all-in-one PCs, and nearly every Apple computer (except the Mac Pro), there's no easy user access to components -- except for the RAM, this is essentially a sealed system, unless you're willing to do some warranty-voiding surgery.

Apple's single-cable strategy is evident here. For most users, you'll simply need to connect a white power cable and that's it. The built-in Wi-Fi eliminates the need for an Ethernet cable, and the included keyboard and mouse are wireless and arrive ready to use.

The standard Apple wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse have been static for a few generations of hardware now. The keyboard is still top-notch -- compact, but with large, deep keys, and a logical layout. The mouse is certainly a widely used model, and has its fans, but it's never been one of my favorites, perhaps because my reflexes are so tied into the physical click of separate left and right mouse buttons and a physical scroll wheel. But I'm actually much more partial to touch pads these days, either Apple's Magic Trackpad for OS X systems or something like Logitech's T650 touch pad for PCs. Outside of gaming, an actual mouse rarely crosses my palm anymore.

I originally thought you were tied to the mouse as your input device, but was pleased to discover that you can actually swap it out for Apple's Magic Trackpad in the configuration options, which makes sense as both cost the same $69 if purchased separately.

Any all-in-one PC lives or dies based on its display. The version here is identical to last year's and is an LED-backlit LCD with a 2,560x1,440-pixel native resolution. That better-than-HD resolution is common now in 27-inch systems, and is identical to our Windows-side favorite, the XPS 27 from Dell. Some computers are experimenting with even higher resolutions, including Apple's 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with a 2,880x1,800-pixel screen, or a handful of 3,200x1,800-pixel laptops, such as Lenovo's 13-inch Yoga 2 Pro.

The screen on the 27-inch iMac, though not a matte display, is less reflective than most, a change that started with the 2012 version. Apple's displays are always bright, clear, and consistent, which makes me wish there was a way to use the display for other devices, a feature some Windows all-on-one PCs offer via an extra HDMI input port.

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