iMac review: Modest gains for the new entry-level Haswell iMac

There’s no denying that the 21.5-inch iMac is a beautifully designed all-in-one computer. Its gleaming aluminum body, seamless ultra-thin edges, and bright, LED-backlit IPS screen make the iMac a drool-worthy desktop. This design isn’t new, however—in fact, the 2013 iMacs are externally identical to the late 2012 iMacs. The updates to this iteration of iMacs are all internal.

The $1299 entry-level iMac () features a 1TB hard drive, 8GB of RAM, a 21.5-inch screen with a 1920 by 1080 resolution, and a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor. Sound familiar? That’s because they’re the same as the 2012 entry-level iMac.

But where the 2012 iMacs used Intel’s Ivy Bridge Core i5 processors, the 2013 models incorporate Intel’s fourth-generation Core processors, code-named Haswell. Haswell made its Mac debut with the MacBook Air released in June, and as our lab testing bears out, the Haswell processor is more efficient and higher-performing than its Ivy Bridge counterpart.

Haswell also brings a new integrated graphics option. All 2012 iMacs used discreet Nvidia GeForce GTX 600 series graphics. The 2013 iMacs were updated with Nvidia GTX 700 series graphics, except for the new low-end iMac in this review; it now uses Intel’s Iris Pro integrated graphics, which Intel claims should perform similarly to a discrete GPUs and be as much as twice as fast as the integrated graphics that shipped with Ivy Bridge. Integrated graphics share memory with the CPU, while discrete have their own designated RAM (from 500MB to 4GB in the new iMacs). Iris Pro still shares memory, but has access to a small amount (128MB) of dedicated on-chip memory. The 2013 MacBook Air uses Haswell processors and integrated graphics, but in these systems, Apple opted to use the Intel HD Graphics 5000.

The back of the iMac has a headphone jack, SDXC card slot, four USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and a gigabit ethernet jack.

While the 2013 21.5-inch iMac retains the striking design of the 2012 models, it also shares the limitations introduced with those systems—namely, a lack of upgradability and features set aside in the name of slimming down the design. The RAM slots are not user-accessible on the 21.5-inch iMac. All 2013 iMacs ship with a generous 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM and can be ordered with 16GB for an extra $200, but if you order with 8GB and decide later that you’d like more, you’ll be stuck. The iMacs also use adhesive to attach the screen to the bezel, not magnets as used in the past, which makes getting to the internals and reassembling the system much more difficult. The super-slim edge of the iMac makes it impossible to include a slot-loading optical drive and the SDXC card slot was moved to the less-convenient location near the ports. On the back of the iMac you’ll find two Thunderbolt ports, four USB 3.0 ports, headphone jack, and one Gigabit Ethernet port.

Apple also continues the year-long tradition of using 5400-rpm hard drives in the smaller iMacs. The 27-inch models use speedier 7200-rpm drives. These 5400-rpm drives have a larger cache and perform better than most 2.5-inch drives, but still aren’t as fast as a 7200-rpm drive.

The new iMac has an internal PCIe connection for use with optional flash storage upgrades. As seen with the new MacBook Air, PCIe-connected flash storage is considerably faster than SATA-connected flash. None of the four standard configuration iMacs come with flash storage, but all can upgraded at the time of purchase. The 21.5-inch iMac can be configured with 256GB of flash storage in place of the 1TB hard drive for an additional $200. 512GB of flash storage is a $500 upgrade. Also available is a 1TB Fusion Drive (a $200 option), which marries a 1TB hard drive with a 128GB flash storage to make one logical volume that performs similarly to flash storage, but with the capacity of standard hard drives.

21.5-inch iMac/2.7GHz (Late 2013): Speedmark 8 benchmarks

  • 21.5" iMac/2.7GHz (Late 2013) 212.0
  • 21.5" iMac/2.7GHz (Late 2012) 194.0
  • 21.5" iMac/2.9GHz (Late 2012) 204.0
  • 21.5" iMac/2.7GHz (Mid 2011) 183.0
  • 27" iMac/2.9GHz (Late 2012) 238.0

Higher results/longer bars are better.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Albert Filice

To see how the processor and graphics updates affect the performance of the new $1299 iMac, we ran our Speedmark 8 suite of tests on the system and compared the results to recent models. The new iMac was 9 percent faster, overall, than the entry-level iMac it replaces, and 4 percent faster than last year’s step-up model, the 21.5-inch iMac with a 2.9GHz Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor.

In terms of CPU performance, the new iMac was 12 percent faster in MathematicaMark and 14 percent faster in the Cinebench CPU test than last year’s iMac with its quad-core 2.7GHz Ivy Bridge processor. Looking at the results of a 2.7GHz Sandy Bridge-powered 2011 iMac, the new Haswell was 17 percent faster in MathematicaMark and 19 percent faster in the Cinebench CPU test.

The Iris Pro integrated graphics was impressive in some tests and disappointing in others. The new iMac posted a 9 percent higher frame rate in Portal 2 tests over last year’s entry-level iMac with discreet Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics. The Iris Pro mopped the floor with the 640M in Cinebench r11.5's OpenGL test, with 52 frames per second on the new model versus 35.6 frames per second on last year’s iMac. The new iMac also beat out last year’s 2.9GHz 27-inch model, with a 30 percent faster OpenGL frame rate in the same Cinebench test. Cranking up the resolution and settings in Portal 2, we saw the new iMac’s frame rate drop to a very playable 33.4 frames per second. However, the same high resolution Portal 2 test on a 2012 2.9GHz 21.5-inch iMac produced frame rates of 62.9 frames per second.

In the course of our testing, Maxon updated their Cinebench to version r15. The tests are more taxing, and while r15's results can't be compared with r11.5's, comparing the new benchmark's scores across systems shows a dramatic shift in the performance balance with last year's 2.9GHz iMac posting 47 percent higher frame rates than the new iMac.

Hard drive tests also showed improvement over last year’s iMac too, though both use 1TB 5400 rpm drives. Our 6GB file copy test was 9 percent faster on the new iMac than on the 2012 2.7GHz 21.5-inch iMac. Comparing the speed of the new 21.5-inch model’s drive to the 7200 rpm drive from the 2.9GHz 27-inch iMac from last year, the 27-inch iMac’s drive was 30 percent faster in our file copy tests.

Bottom line

The new $1299 entry-level iMac may not be nearly as groundbreaking as its predecessor, but the updated internals offers welcome, if subtle, performance enhancements.

Next page: Complete Speedmark 8 application test results

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