Mid-2014 iMac review: lower price, way lower performance

For many everyday computing chores, the new low-end iMac could be fine. Just be sure you know what you are (and aren't) getting.

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Working in the Macworld Lab as I do, I tend to focus on system performance when recommending (or not recommending) computers for purchase. The truth is, however, that many people buy computers based largely on price.

After all, it doesn’t take the horsepower of a high-end Mac to surf the Internet, run office applications, send email, or take care of other everyday computer chores. Some buyers simply don’t want (or need) to invest in the latest PCIe-connnected flash storage, quad-core i7 processors, and discrete GPUs capable of supporting 4K video. Apple has these budget-minded buyers in mind with its latest, lower-priced iMac.

Until recently, the standard iMac lineup included two 27-inch models and two 21.5-inch models. Now a third 21.5-inch iMac joins the team (). Priced at just $1099—$200 less than the previous low-end iMac—this new system is externally identical to the the rest of the 21.5-inch iMacs, as well as those released in October of 2012. It has the same 5mm thin-edged design, the same glossy 1920-by-1080 IPS screen, the same four USB 3.0 ports, gigabit ethernet, two Thunderbolt ports, headphone jack and SDXC card slots.

The tradeoff for those super-thin edges is that there is no room on the side for peripheral ports, much less an optical drive. I would personally prefer to have the convenience of front or side peripheral ports than I would that razor-thin edge—especially because this is a desktop machine.

Under the hood, the price-versus-power choices become apparent. In fact, the new low-end iMac’s internal specifications have more in common with the latest MacBook Airs than with the rest of the iMac family. Where the $1299 iMac has a quad-core 2.7GHz Core i5 processor, the $1099 iMac has a dual-core 1.4GHz Core i5 processor. The $1299 model has a 1TB, 5400 RPM hard drive, while the $1099 iMac has a 500GB hard drive of the same rotational speed. The $1299 iMac also has faster Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics than the new low-end’s Intel HD Graphics 5000.

Configuration options are also really limited on the new low-end system. There is no incremental processor upgrade, no graphics upgrade and no RAM upgrades available. The other iMacs in the line can be upgraded to 16GB at the time of purchase. DIYers hoping to save a few bucks by going through the hassle of installing their own RAM are out of luck with the new $1099 iMac: Apple is using LPDDR3 RAM that is soldered to the motherboard. The RAM on the other 21.5-inch models might be hard to access, but it’s doable if you’re tenacious, and if you do you’ll find two standard DDR3 DIMM slots. You can upgrade from the standard 500GB hard drive to 1TB drive for an extra $50; an extra $250 will get you either 256GB of flash storage or a 1TB Fusion drive, which combines a 1TB hard drive with 128GB of flash storage.

As you can read in our full benchmark report, there is now a wide performance gap between the low-end iMac and the next step up the product line. The new $1099 iMac was slower across the board, and 54 percent slower overall, than the $1299 21.5-inch system. One thing to note: We weren’t crazy about the $1299 model when it shipped. It offered just modest speed improvements over the October 2012 system and most of that was due to the $1299 iMac’s use of Iris Pro graphics—which are not included in the new $1099 system. We tested the new entry-level iMac with the optional Fusion Drive installed and found its superior storage performance helped the custom iMac post a 23 percent higher Speedmark score than the stock system.

Bottom line

The price of buying an iMac just went down. The big question: Is a 15 percent lower price worth 50 percent lower performance? For people who buy Macs for their ease of use, stylish design, and seamless integration with iOS devices, this less expensive model offers all of that; it will also run most modern applications just fine. If you can swing it, however, the $1299 has double the processing cores running at nearly double the clock speed and twice the storage capacity of this new low-end iMac. And note: As I write this, refurbished versions of the $1299 system are available from the Apple Store for the same $1099 as this new iMac.

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