Apple 24-inch iMac review: A colorful new M1 Mac for the post-quarantine world
Orange you glad the new 24-inch iMac comes in seven different colors?
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Unboxing the new 24-inch Apple iMac, all I could think was that my old curved-back 27-inch iMac was a dead man walking. The long-standing iMac design, virtually untouched since 2012, held up well over the years, but a change was well past due. The new version of the smaller iMac model (formerly 21.5 inches, now 24 inches) has a slim, refreshed design, and is available in a wide variety of colors. It feels especially fresh as this is the first Mac with a ground-up new design to go with its new M1 CPU/GPU platform. The new models go on sale on May 21.
Some features are reserved for more expensive configurations
Limited RAM and storage options
No ability to mix-and-match accessory colors.
The question was, which Mac would make the jump to M1 next? It turned out to be the smaller of two iMac models, along with one of Apple's new iPad Pro tablets. Formerly an all-in-one desktop with a 21.5-inch screen, this is now the 24-inch model, fitting a larger display into a similar footprint, thanks to thinner screen bezels and other design tweaks.
The iMac aesthetic for almost 10 years has been a large display, gently bowed out on the back, tapering to a sharp edge and perched on a single curved foot. Now we have a flat body, similar to a computer monitor, with squared-off edges. Contrasting colors highlight a slimmer screen bezel, instead of masking it in black. It's more colorful, but at the same time less organic.
The power cable has been redesigned and now attaches magnetically. It's in a similar spot as on the previous iMac design, allowing the cable to fit through a hole in the stand for tidy routing. The magnetic connection is a clever concept, but don't mistake it for Apple's old MagSafe laptop cables. The connection is tight enough that I don't think it would harmlessly pop out if you tripped over it, although I have yet to put that to the test.
The iMac's built-in Ethernet port has also been banished to the power brick, something I've only seen a handful of times over the years. Just be sure to note that on the base $1,299 (£1,249, AU$1,899) iMac, you have to add an extra $30 to get that Ethernet port version of the power brick.
The trapezoidal foot has been constrained to a neat rectangle. The screen hinge has moved further down, to a less awkward spot than before. The older iMac design hinged its screen in the center of the body, which was required by its hefty weight to keep everything nice and stable.
This is Apple's first computer designed from the ground up to be an M1 system, and it portends a major shift in Mac design that may make its way to the MacBook, Mac Mini and other systems.
Laptops and desktops have gotten thinner over time, squeezing more power into an ever-smaller footprint. But more important than that is weight, and I've always felt that PC makers should focus on dropping weight over shaving off a few fractions of a millimeter. After lugging the 27-inch Core i7 iMac around my apartment regularly during the past Covid year, mostly in order to make use of its excellent camera for video meetings, the 9-pound, 24-inch iMac felt incredibly light. That current 27-inch iMac weighs 20 pounds, while the 21.5-inch iMac this model replaces was around 12 pounds.
iPhones have come in a variety of colors for years. MacBooks have had a few color options, but they were understated, with gray, silver and gold options that really didn't look all that different from each other. With seven bold colors (and each a two-tone combination), the new iMac is the most colorful Mac computer in a long time.
The choice of colors is a clear throwback to the classic iMac G3 from 1999, which dressed up its bulky CRT display with candy- colored outer shells. Long a fan favorite, it's great to see this aesthetic return, and work-from-home types might certainly welcome a dash of color to dress up their spaces.
I tested the orange model, which has a creamsicle-like vibe. With all the iMac colors, there's a more muted shade on the front panel and a deeper shade on the back. That color choice extends across the entire product. The power cable and included lightning cable are color-coordinated, as are the keyboard and mouse or touchpad and even the desktop background image. The outer box also matches, with images of your choice of color on the package, and even a color-matched carrying handle.
The biggest shocker for a lot of people may be the absence of the Apple logo from the front panel, where it's always lived right below the display. It's now a blank expanse, and only emphasizes just how much dead space there still is under the display.
The second-biggest shocker may be that the color-coordinated keyboard, mouse and touchpad is only available with the system you ordered, and only in the same color. No, you can't match a green iMac with a purple keyboard. Nor can you buy a colored keyboard separately and use it with another system. Note that the $1,299 base model keyboard lacks Touch ID, so you'll have to splurge on it as a $50 add-on during the system configuration, as it's your only opportunity to upgrade. And you definitely should, as Touch ID on a Mac is too useful to skip.
Apple is saying a firm "no" for now, but I suspect the colored Touch ID keyboards will eventually be available separately. The dark gray keyboard and other accessories for the late iMac Pro were originally only available with the purchase of a system, but later they were available a la carte.
The case for a kitchen-ready computer
I'm fascinated by the idea of a kitchen computer, and one of the use scenarios painted by Apple is using the new iMac as a cooking companion. That could mean pulling recipe websites up on the 24-inch screen while you're cooking, or moving your video chatting, music streaming or other activities into the kitchen.
The new iMac arrived just before a family trip, so it ended up in this open-air cabin kitchen for a little while. In my own modestly sized Brooklyn apartment kitchen, I doubt the iMac would have fit comfortably between the Balmuda toaster, Nespresso machine, Instant Pot and other gadgets fighting for limited counter space. For a short time I tried setting up a Microsoft Surface tablet as a kitchen countertop computer, but even that took up too much space.
I could see the appeal, especially as an alternative to propping a laptop up to follow along with a recipe. But would I really do that enough to justify keeping an iMac in the kitchen full time? Probably not, but I'd be tempted to lug it in for an online cooking class. Something similar with a touchscreen makes a better case, as the keyboard and touchpad are not especially conducive to kitchen use. Every time there's a new Mac, some people say, "It would be great if this had a touchscreen," and in this case, it's true.
Performance, as expected
In a lot of ways, the current MacBook Air, Mac Mini, 13-inch MacBook Pro and 24-inch iMac are all the same computer. They all use the new M1 processor, the same OS and have similar RAM and storage configurations. The differences that could affect performance come in part from the two different M1 versions. Both have eight CPU cores, but one has eight GPU cores while the other has only seven GPU cores. If you're trying to figure out which one you have, the entry-level models generally have the seven core GPU version.
The other factor that can affect performance is cooling. The fanless MacBook Air can't run as hard as the MacBook Pro, which has internal fans for cooling. Similarly, the base model 24-inch iMac has a single internal fan, while the step-up models have two fans, which can help with sustained performance.
As expected, there's not a lot of sunlight between these M1 systems. We tested the M1 versions of the MacBook Air, Mac Mini and 13-inch MacBook Pro in late 2020, and those are the same M1 versions you'd get today. The 24-inch iMac we tested had the 8 GPU core version of the M1, along with 16GB or RAM and a 512GB SSD, for a total of $1,899. It will also be interesting to see how the new M1-powered iPad Pro compares in the handful of cross-platform benchmarks available.
In real-world use terms, that means you can easily work with 4K video footage in apps like DaVinci Resolve or Premiere, even previewing in 4K while you go, although there are other reasons a full-time video editor might not choose a 24-inch iMac. Like Lightroom and DaVinci Resolve, Photoshop now has an M1-native version. Other apps not yet updated for the new platform will have to run through Rosetta, Apple's x86 emulator, which you'll generally never even notice.
M1 Macs compared
Geekbench 5 single-core
Geekbench 5 multicore
Cinebench R23 multicore
3DMark Wild Life Extreme (Unlimited)
24-inch iMac (M1)
Mac Mini (M1)
MacBook Air (M1)
13-inch MacBook Pro (M1)
iPad Pro (M1)
MacBook Air (2020, Core i5)
iPad Pro 11-inch (2020, A12Z)
Gaming has never been a strength for Macs, and when the M1 Macs launched, many Mac-compatible games didn't run well (or at all) and even the popular Steam gaming storefront stuttered while running under Rosetta. Steam itself runs normally now, and I was able to play some decently demanding games, like Baldur's Gate 3.
That said, I think my Mac gaming solution going forward is going to be cloud platforms like Stadia or GeForce Now. All the players in that space have their own issues, but it's a great way to get current games like Resident Evil Village up on that impressive iMac screen.
Another gaming solution is to try games from the Apple Arcade subscription service. It's mostly focused on iPad and iPhone gaming, but a handful of games like Fantasian really come to life on the larger iMac.
If there's one universal truth everyone has had to face during the past 15 months... it's that most people have terrible webcams. Almost any laptop you use for a Zoom meeting (yes, this includes all the current MacBooks) will have a low-res, 720p-at-best camera, usually with weak software and signal processing. Since many standalone webcams were sold out and hard to get in 2020 and beyond, you were stuck with whatever was in your laptop.
At least the 2020 27-inch iMac, still with an Intel processor, jumped up to a standard full-HD 1080p webcam (as previously seen on the iMac Pro). When I tested it last year, the difference was astonishing. I literally lugged that thing from one end of my house to the other several times just to use the better camera for meetings.
I'd much rather be lugging this 9-pound version round instead, as it now also has a 1080p camera. Apple says the hardware is not the same as that 27-inch iMac version, and that the M1 platform allows for better image processing software. On paper, that sounds like it should be a better camera, although it looked pretty evenly matched with the 27-inch iMac version. That said, changing lighting conditions could occasionally freak out the 27-inch iMac camera exposure settings, while the new 24-inch iMac camera took similar challenging lighting situations in a stride.
Who should buy one, and who should wait
Playing with the new 24-inch iMac has only made me more eager to see a 27-inch version in the same design. The same goes for new color options for MacBooks or even the Mac Mini. Apple's two-year march towards CPU independence seems to be moving along at a rapid pace, hopefully the new designs will follow along.
If you have a 21.5-inch iMac that's several years old and are looking to update, then I'll say the same thing here as I did about the MacBook Air: The transition to M1 is going to be largely invisible to you, which is exactly what you should want. I've run into a small handful of compatibility issues since last year, but for the most part, things work the same or better.
A pro-level user may want more than the top-end 16GB of RAM, or more than a max 2TB of storage. In that case, a future updated 27-inch iMac or updated 16-inch Pro may be worth waiting for. Maybe we'll see those later this year, or maybe next year.
If you've never had an iMac before and are considering switching from a laptop to an all-in-one desktop, I can see the appeal for an ongoing work-from-home situation. You get a lot more screen space in a tiny footprint. At $1,299 to start, it's a hefty premium over the MacBook Air for essentially the same machine, just with a larger screen and a stand (and without a battery). Still, if you're considering it, I recommend starting with the $1,499 (£1,449, AU$2,199) model, which adds the Touch ID version of the keyboard, two extra USB-C ports, the eight-core GPU and better cooling as well as an Ethernet port built into the power supply. Just be sure to choose a color that best reflects your celebratory, (almost) post-pandemic feels, and get a head start on your hot Mac summer.