The introduction of the Mac Studio this week got me thinking about how strange the final few years of the Intel-based 27-inch iMac were.
When the 27-inch iMac was refreshed in 2020 we all knew it was the end of the line. Apple silicon iMacs were coming, but just before Apple shut the door on the old iMac, it got a final revision out the door.
Consider the features of that iMac: An optional nano-texture display and a 3.6GHz 10-core Intel Core i9 processor. Macworld’s reviewed iMac configuration cost $4,499—clearly aimed at pro users. Now consider that the original iMac, when it was introduced in 1997, was underpowered and cost $1,299 for the general consumer. The evolution of the iMac took a strange turn. What happened?
No place to go
After the Intel transition in 2006, the new Mac Pro (formerly Power Mac) seemed to drift further and further away from most users. It eventually reached its apotheosis when it transformed from a holey metal slab into a cylinder, becoming an expensive objet d’art with trash-can looks and severe cooling problems. Its ultimate replacement–the current Mac Pro–starts at $6,000 and goes way, way up from there.
These are computers designed for the extremes of Apple’s customer base. But there’s another group that doesn’t want to spend that much (or can’t afford it) and doesn’t need extreme power. They have needs–greater than those who just want to check email and surf the web–but not extreme needs.
With the Mac Pro receding into the distance, that group fled to the iMac. (Especially when Apple stopped selling its own external displays, making using a Mac mini even less of an attractive proposition.) Over the years, the iMac slowly transformed from a friendly computer for the masses to a device that led a double life. It still needed to be affordable for the masses, but also had to offer power to those who needed it.
In the Intel era, the iMac got weird. Apple kept trying to hold down the low end of the line, offering affordable systems with features like non-Retina displays and spinning hard drives for years after they had fled the rest of the product line. And on the high end, the iMac was packed with higher-end Intel processors that taxed the iMac’s cooling system, causing them to loudly blow fans when doing hard work.
Mac Studio (M1 Max, 2022)
24-inch iMac (2021)
The crowning moment in the distortion of the iMac was the release of the 2017 iMac Pro. I love the iMac Pro–I wrote this article on mine–but it was a product built at a moment when Apple thought it was going to cancel the Mac Pro. Apple had fully committed to the idea that the iMac product line would now encompass everything that high-end Mac users needed.
And yet, by the time the iMac Pro was released, Apple had changed direction, offering a mea culpa and promising a new Mac Pro. The 2017 iMac Pro ended up being one of its kind, and Apple kept releasing “regular” iMacs with hot processors and nanotexture displays.
The fun is back
The Apple silicon era has been a reset for the iMac. The 24-inch M1 iMac is downright fun. Apple brought a rainbow color palette back for the first time since the original G3 iMac. The M1 processor itself, while a remarkable piece of engineering, is not exactly a professional-level chip–as has been made readily apparent by the arrival of the M1 Pro, M1 Max, and M1 Ultra chips.
And now, this. The 27-inch iMac–that one with loud fans cooling high-end Intel chips–has been discontinued. Apple didn’t release a new iMac or update the 24-inch model with an M1 Pro. Instead, Apple announced the Mac Studio and a new Studio Display to go with it.
We’ll see how the Mac Studio performs when it arrives on March 18, but it seems clear that Apple has decided to redefine the iMac’s place in the product line. Instead of packing it full of power, it has left that for the Mac Studio. As someone whose last two primary Macs have been iMacs (an original 5K iMac and that weird, great one-off iMac Pro), I will admit: the moment I saw the Mac Studio, I realized that it was made for me.
The iMac was always meant to be a consumer computer. Now it is again. While I hope that, in time, there’s a larger and more capable iMac for those who want one, I’m happy that the iMac is no longer the compromise users make because they don’t want a Mac Pro.