Computing

New iMac rumored to get XDR redesign, ARM CPU and ship in 2020

We don't know much yet, but that never stops the rumors and leaks.

Is Apple ready to refresh this tired design?
Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of WWDC 2021. All the latest coverage from Apple's annual developers conference.

Apple's virtual Worldwide Developer Conference starts June 22, less than two weeks away, so it's no surprise that the rumor mill has begun churning away in anticipation of what new technologies and products the company may reveal during the event. It's a given that the online-only WWDC will bring updates to the company's operating systems such as iOS 14

But there may possibly be news about Apple's home-grown hybrid processor (code-named Kalamata), an Arm-based variant of chips like its A13 Bionic that's intended to run Mac OS instead of iOS or iPad OS like its iPhones and iPads. While rumors are also swirling about the 2020 iPhones (iPhone 12?), we usually don't hear about those until the fall. Some welcome bits o' buzz concern the iMac and possibly iMac Pro, both of which are long overdue for more than the routine updates they've been getting for years. 

Read more: Apple WWDC 2020: Everything you need to know about the online developer conference

When should we expect a new iMac?

The consensus, such as it is, seems to be the end of 2020 for both the iMac and the iMac Pro. This makes sense, because AMD's Big Navi RDNA 2-generation desktop graphics processors -- that's the generation of GPUs in the new Sony PS5 and Microsoft Xbox Series X consoles -- is expected by the end of the year, and jibes with the reports that the new iMacs will have Navi GPUs. It wouldn't make much sense to rev the system but leave the last-gen graphics inside, at least for the higher-end models.

Will it use the rumored Apple CPUs?

It's thought that new Macs will incorporate the new chips starting next year, but I doubt that the company would hold back new models that long.

For one thing, the whole advantage of the hybrid Axx Bionic CPUs on which the first rumored processors are based -- aside from Apple owning the supply chain and closing the loop on its closed system architecture -- is in power savings and cellular connectivity. When or if Apple develops and fabricates more desktop-optimized processors, then maybe. But that's likely a long way off; switching from a third party (Intel) to a new, custom microarchitecture is no small feat. 

It's possible, however, that we'll see the beginnings of the operating system code and software programming interfaces necessary to support a revamped processor in the version of Mac OS revealed at WWDC, which may provide some hints as to the direction Apple will be taking its desktops and higher-end MacBook Pros.

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Will it be redesigned?

The first rumors indicate there might be an iMac model with a 23-inch screen, and wisely point out that it could just be incorporated into the current 21.5-inch model, just with narrower bezels. Even that small update would make it a much better buy. The footprint of the current 21.5-inch version is optimal for small spaces and kids, but that's a relatively small screen. Plus, narrower bezels would go a long way to making it look less tired. 

In fact, reports say a new iMac will take its design cues from Apple's Pro Display XDR monitor. if it does look like it, let's hope it takes after it with more than just narrow bezels -- like adopting some conventions of the $1,000 stand, including the ability to raise and lower the screen. That's one of the big annoyances of the iMac design, though a common failing of most all-in-ones.

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It may look like its expensive relative, the Pro Display XDR.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Furthermore, if Apple adopts the "cheese grater" heat sink design of the XDR's back panel, that might go a long way towards it being able to use high-powered components without having to update the fan layout with that of the iMac Pro. Plus, that would make it blend in visually with the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR in offices that have both.

We haven't heard anything about a new size screen for the 27-inch, but that's OK, as 27 inches is a nice size already. But if Apple can shrink the overall footprint of the system by reducing the bezels, that would be great. A report had indicated that a iMac Pro update would incorporate a mini LED version of its 27-inch display, but that's not expected until at least the end of this year.

What will the specs be?

So far, all we've heard is that a new iMac may come in solid-state-only configurations -- no more Fusion or spinning hard drives -- with Apple's T2 security chip, in addition to the Navi graphics. Once again, this is common sense: The drive encryption technology used by the T2 requires SSD, and premium systems like the iMac should probably have jettisoned the older storage a while ago.

Among the changes I'd really like to see for the iMacs is the adoption of a mini LED display (though a mini LED iPad may not arrive until 2021), because it's desperately in need of HDR support and there needs to be something with a brightness level between the current 500-nit screen and the 1,600-nit XDR. The standard iMac also needs to gain features that are currently only on the Pro, including four Thunderbolt 3 ports, a UHS-II SD card slot (or better, UHS-III) and the 1080p camera. Both lines need to be upgraded to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) or better, too.  

An upgraded audio system and maybe a 32-inch model would be great perks; the HP Envy 32 has both, and they noticeably improve the experience.