Bright DCI-P3 4K screen. Can drive 4K or 5K external displays. Discrete graphics. Hybrid SSD/HDD Fusion Drive. USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. Wireless keyboard and mouse included.
Shallow keyboard. Ports and SD card slot are on back panel. Lacks HDMI-in and DisplayPort-in connectors.
- Bottom Line
Design unchanged, the latest 21.5-inch Apple iMac with 4K Retina display packs an updated CPU, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, VR-ready graphics, and a brighter display. Despite these minor updates, it's the midrange all-in-one to beat.
With only minor updates to the iMac's design and components since 2012, Windows all-in-one desktops (AIOs) like the Microsoft Surface Studio have set their targets squarely on Apple's AIO, but most of those comparable models have larger screens and are priced well above $2,000, putting them more in line with the 27-inch iMac. The 21.5-inch model plays in an area without a lot of competition. Although the recent updates to Apple's smaller, more affordable AIO aren't revolutionary, it does get a nice bump in processor power, updated ports, the addition of discrete graphics, and a more-vibrant 4K display. For artists on a budget or those whose daily tasks don't require a larger screen, the 21.5-inch with 4K Retina display (starts at $1,299; $1,499 as tested) is still the midrange AIO standard bearer, and is our Editors' Choice.
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Same Sleek Aluminum and Glass Design
The design of the 21.5-inch iMac is almost identical to the 2015 iteration, and at 17.7 by 20.8 by 6.9 inches (HWD), it's the same size. Despite the classic look, the stylish aluminum-and-glass iMac is still a design leader and more modern looking than the Lenovo B50, our last top pick for midrange AIO desktops, which is mostly black plastic.
On the left rear panel are a headset jack, an Ethernet port, an SD card reader, four USB 3.0 ports, and two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. While positioning them behind the screen adds to the clean design, they're inconvenient to reach compared with the side-mounted port selection on thicker AIOs like the Dell Optiplex 7450 All-in-One and the HP Envy 34 Curved.
USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports are notable because they replace the older Thunderbolt 2 ports of the 2015 iMac and are becoming increasingly popular, even on Windows PCs. They also mean faster and more versatile connections for data transfer. If you are carrying over Thunderbolt 2 accessories like external hard drives or displays, Apple sells a Thunderbolt 3-to-2 adapter for $49. Similar third-party adapters are available for DisplayPort and HDMI monitors.
The system can support up to two additional 4K monitors or one 5K display, including the internal 4K screen. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to use the iMac itself as an external display for a notebook or another desktop, like the Lenovo B50 or HP Envy 34 Curved can, since there are no HDMI-in or DisplayPort-in connectors.
The 4K Retina display is mostly the same as the previous version of the iMac, which, with its 4,096-by-2,304 resolution and stunning edge-to-edge glass, isn't necessarily a bad thing. The screen is brilliant and images appear sharp. This time around, the improvement here comes in the form of a 500-nit backlight, translating to a super-bright screen that most users will want to tame down a few notches for daily use.
Like the 27-inch iMac and the 28-inch Microsoft Surface Studio, the screen features DCI-P3 color gamut and 10-bit color, resulting in brighter and more accurate hues. Those who want to upgrade to the 5K Retina display will need to shell out the extra cash for the 27-inch iMac, as the 21.5-inch version tops out at 4K. If a touch screen is part of your requirements, you'll need to look to a Windows machine. Apple announced a slew of new features in the upcoming update to macOS, High Sierra, but touch is reserved exclusively for iOS.
Strong Speakers, Solid Accessories
The internal stereo speakers are aimed down at your desk or work surface, and they can fill a medium-sized room with clear audio. Bass came through in some of our test tracks, though it doesn't sound as robust as with the Dell XPS 27 (7760), which has eight speakers and two passive radiators. The iMac's speakers are accurate enough to quality check videos you're editing, though you'll want to use headphones for best results.
The familiar Apple Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Keyboard, both Bluetooth, come pre-paired with the iMac. You can also opt for a Magic TrackPad 2 instead of the mouse for an additional $50, or both for $129. Apple's wireless accessories charge with the included USB-to-Lightning cable, which also lets you use the keyboard in wired mode. The only nit is that they are very shallow compared with typical PC keyboards and mice. Still, the peripherals here are much higher quality than, say, the wired, plastic mouse and keyboard that come with the Lenovo B50. The iMac supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2.
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An Under-the-Hood Upgrade
The base $1,299 version of the 21.5-inch iMac 4K comes with 8GB of RAM, a 3GHz Core i5 processor, and a 1TB hard drive. Our $1,499 test unit has the same amount of RAM, a faster 3.4GHz Core i5 CPU, and a 1TB Fusion Drive, which is Apple's SSD/HDD hybrid. The 32GB SSD component of the Fusion Drive helps the desktop boot and launch oft-used apps faster, especially compared with hard-drive-only systems like the $1,099 base-level non-Retina iMac or the Acer Aspire Z3 (AZ3-715-UR15).
This upgraded model can be equipped with 32GB of RAM for $600 more, and a faster 1TB SSD for an extra $700. And at that price point, you may want to consider the 27-inch iMac or the Microsoft Surface Studio for their larger screens and more powerful internal components. But know that no matter which version of the iMac you buy, you'll need to commit to a configuation before you order, because the chassis is effectively sealed, limiting future upgrades. (The one tweak you can make in the 27-inch is to upgrade memory via a slot in the rear.) The iMac comes with a one-year warranty with 90 days of free technical support.
An Intel Core i5-7500 processor and discrete AMD Radeon Pro 560 graphics powered the iMac to solid results on our benchmark tests. It took 1 minute and 4 seconds to finish the Handbrake test, 8 seconds behind the Dell XPS 27. It also took 3:08 to complete the Photoshop test, 18 seconds behind the Dell Optiplex 7450. Though not the best scores we've seen, they are certainly respectable. In our experience, any system that breaks the 1-minute barrier on Handbrake and 3 minutes on Photoshop is a solid performer.
Performance is on par with the larger, pricier competition like the 2017 27-inch iMac, the Microsoft Surface Studio, and the HP Envy 34 Curved in most areas. For example, its Handbrake score was within 1 second or matching the other models, and its Photoshop score was within 5 seconds. Multimedia performance is similar to the 2015 iMac, though, so it's not a must-have upgrade if you've recently bought the last-generation iMac.
Most AIO desktops aren't made for hardcore gamers, but the iMac showed respectable scores on our 3D gaming tests. It returned playable frame rates (above 30 fps) on the Heaven (45 fps) and Valley (64 fps) tests at medium-quality settings. When we ran the same tests at ultra quality in its native 4K resolution, the results were much too slow for smooth animation. That said, the 2017 iMac is measurably better at 3D tasks than systems with integrated graphics, like the 2015 iMac 21.5-inch, and systems with entry-level GPUs, like the Acer Aspire Z3. The only system listed in our benchmark chart that could play either test smoothly at ultra resolution in Full HD was the Microsoft Surface Studio, which has a gaming-grade Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M GPU. You'll be able to play the occasional game on the iMac, but only in a small window or blown up to full screen from a 1,366-by-768 resolution.
The Radeon Pro GPU on our review unit is ready to take on VR, which High Sierra will support when it's released later this year. Augmented reality (AR) isn't playable yet in macOS, but Apple has demonstrated it on the iPad Pro and iPhone.
In a Class of its Own
While the 27-inch iMac is more vulnerable to competition from Windows AIOs, the Apple iMac 21.5-inch with 4K Retina display is in a safer zone, at least for now. Windows systems like the $4,199 Surface Studio and $2,799 Dell XPS 27 are admittedly attractive, but the 21.5-inch iMac is much more affordable, as long as the smaller screen size isn't an issue for you. An upgraded processor, discrete graphics, and a stunning screen help this smaller iMac replace the aging Lenovo B50 as the midrange AIO PC we'd recommend for creative types who don't have the deep pockets or desk space for a Microsoft Surface Studio, the 27-inch iMac, or the upcoming workstation-class Apple iMac Pro.
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Joel Santo Domingo is the Lead Analyst for the Desktops team at PC Magazine Labs. He joined PC Magazine in 2000, after 7 years of IT work for companies large and small. His background includes managing mobile, desktop and network infrastructure on both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. Joel is proof that you can escape the retail grind: he wore a yellow polo shirt early in his tech career. Along the way Joel earned a BA in English Literature and an MBA in Information Technology… More »
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