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Apple's colorful new iMacs embrace retro design, with cutting-edge twist inside

A splash of color and the first major redesign in nearly a decade belies big upgrades internally with the M1 chip.

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The iMac's shape has evolved too.

Apple

When Apple first introduced the iMac in 1998, it was a revelation to the tech industry. The all-in-one PC was unlike anything else in the industry, with the computer built into the screen. And then there was the body. In a sea of dull tan and grey PCs, the first iMac stood out with its vibrant and colorful translucent plastic casing.

Over the years, however, Apple's iMac shifted from candy colors to white plastic and then, eventually, sterile machined aluminum, like much of Apple's other devices. But on Tuesday, the company dipped back into its well of color designs, announcing its newest iMac in seven colors: green, yellow, orange, pink, purple, blue and silver. It will start at $1,299 when it goes on preorder April 30 before shipping in May.

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The front of the computer is mostly a sheet of glass over the screen, with a pastel-colored chin where the computer guts live. In the back though, it has striking shades.

"The back is designed to celebrate color," said Colleen Novielli, a member of Apple's Mac product marketing team.

The burst of color marks a break from recent convention and harkens back to the original iMac. But using colors, as eye-catching a move as it is, isn't something companies do on a whim. If the company manufactures too much of an unpopular color, it's just lost sales.

"You have to know what you're doing when you're in the color game," said Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

New inside and out

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Apple co-founder Steve Jobs used to joke, "the back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys."

Screenshot/Apple

Back when the first iMac launched, Kay and IDC, his employer at the time, tried to help PC makers decide whether to take on the iMac's eye-catching designs. What he found was that while it's easy to create good design, the safest colors among consumers were black, white, silver and blue. "So the PC guys said, 'yup, we'll do that,'" Kay said.

Apple is different though. Analysts often compare it to a fashion company, focusing as much on the computer's looks as its innards. And just like bell-bottoms, neon and the all-denim "Canadian tuxedo," old trends often can come back into style after a few decades.

In Apple world, that's translated to the company shifting from boxy designs for 2010's iPhone 4 through 2012's iPhone 5S, to rounded edges on 2013's iPhone 6 through 2019's iPhone XS. Now, the iPhone 12 is boxy again.

New designs help to dramatize that something's changed, too. In the iMac's case, the computer is powered by M1 microprocessing chips. The company last year began shifting its computers from Intel microprocessing brains that powered Apple computers for 14 years to new custom-designed ones similar to those in the iPhone and iPad.

"The technology industry is becoming like the fashion industry," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research. Not only does his research show that Apple buyers tend to skew younger, but O'Donnell also said that more people are being forced to spend time in front of their computers at home during the pandemic. So that splash of personalized color may really matter to some people.

"I rarely get technological lust in my heart anymore, and I thought it was kinda cool," he said.

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The new iMac design has smaller bezels in the front.

Screenshot/Apple

Pandemic malaise

During its presentation, Apple made several nods to features that could help us get through the pandemic a little easier. The iMac's webcam, for example, added a feature to track and zoom in on a person as they're talking during a video chat. And its microphones can supposedly filter out background noise. The iMac's footprint is also smaller, Apple said.

None of the iMac's new features are particularly groundbreaking -- Google, Facebook and other companies have been working on home and office chat devices for years. But in Apple's case, it all came together at a time when the company seemed to acknowledge that a zooming video might help families chat together, the microphones could help filter out kids who interrupt a meeting, and the smaller footprint means an iMac could sit on a kitchen table or other small spaces, reducing the need for a central computer desk.

When Apple discussed the colors, it even called them "light and optimistic." The iMac wasn't the only device to get a new coat of paint. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini each get a vibrant purple as a new color option. 

If nothing else, it's a break from our gray, COVID-bound reality.

"Apple's goal is modern retro, but a breath of sunshine -- or a bright yellow iMac -- is certainly appreciated after a year of pandemic and unrest," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential.