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Review 21.5-Inch 2012 iMac

Apple Chose Form Over Function for the 21.5-inch iMac; the Results Aren't Pretty

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Review 21.5-Inch 2012 iMac

The most prominent change is in the iMac's case. The new design offers the optical illusion of being thinner.

Courtesy of Apple

The 21.5-inch 2012 iMac, at least in most of its configurations, is a step backward from the 2011 model. And I'm not talking about missing features, such as the lack of an optical drive. The writing was on the wall; the optical drive is history, and I'm not that concerned about it being gone from the 2012 iMac family.

What bothers me is the performance that the 2012 21.5-inch iMac sacrifices just to have a skinnier profile. I've yet to hear anyone say that a thinner profile was their number one request for the next-gen iMac. I don't think it's even on anyone's top 10 list.

With that out of my system, let's get on with the review. The new iMac actually has some good points to consider; only you can decide if they outweigh the bad points.

21.5 inch 2012 iMac Overview

The 2012 version of the 21.5-inch iMac features some nice improvements that users have wanted for quite a while, as well as some inexplicable changes that left us scratching our heads.

Thin Is In - Or Not

The most prominent change is in the iMac's case. The new design offers the optical illusion of being thinner, almost as thin as the LCD panel itself. But it's just that: an illusion, one that doesn't hold up when you view the iMac from the side. Then you'll notice that the iMac has a bulbous shape that swells in the middle and tapers to the sides. It's the taper that provides the illusion of thinness.

Of course, to make the edges so thin, something had to go to make room. In this case, it was the optical drive. If you need an optical drive, then you won't appreciate this change. But it certainly wasn't a surprise. It's pretty obvious that Apple intends to eliminate optical drives from all of its products in the near future. If you need an optical drive, you can purchase an external USB optical drive from Apple for $79.00; you can probably find a better price from a third-party manufacturer.

Antiglare Display

The other change that you'll pick up on the first time you turn on the iMac is that the display now sports an anti-glare coating. This isn't the same as a matte finish, but it's a vast improvement over the highly reflective screen in previous generation iMacs.

General Performance is Improved

The 2012 version of the 21.5-inch iMac has processor and graphics updates that are about what we expected. Apple replaced the Sandy Bridge processors used in the 2011 iMacs with the newer Ivy Bridge models from Intel. The graphics were refreshed with new offerings from NVIDIA. As a result, processor and graphics performance both received a nice boost over 2011 models.

Any Port in a Storm

The 2012 iMac has a slightly different port configuration than last year's model. The back panel now has 4 USB 3.0 ports (it's about time), 2 Thunderbolt ports, 1 Gigabit Ethernet connector, a headphone jack, and an SDXC card slot.

While it's nice to see Apple update to USB 3, and champion Thunderbolt connectivity, the microphone input is gone. Apple now uses built-in dual stereo mics with noise cancellation. This will probably fill the needs of 95% of buyers, but if you need a separate microphone or line input, you'll have to use a USB-based solution.

The other oddity on the back of the iMac is the SDXC card slot. In previous generations of the iMac, the card slot was located on the side of the iMac, right next to the optical drive. To meet its design goal of a thin edge, Apple had to relocate the SD card slot. If you use the SD card slot extensively, you'll find the new location a pain in the behind, but at least Apple chose to keep the slot. Just another example of form not following function.

21.5-inch iMac Configurations

21.5-inch iMac ports

The 2012 iMac has a slightly different port configuration than last year's model.

Courtesy of Apple

The 2012 iMac is available in two stock configurations, as well as a few BTO (build-to-order) options that let you add a Fusion drive and/or RAM, or select a faster processor:

21.5-inch iMac - $1,299.00

  • 2.7 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 processor
  • 8 GB RAM
  • 16 GB RAM - BTO option: add $200.00
  • 1 TB (5400 rpm) hard drive
  • 1 TB Fusion drive - BTO option: add $250.00
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M graphics
  • Magic Mouse + wireless keyboard

21.5-inch iMac - $1,499.00

  • 2.9 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 processor
  • 3.1 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7 processor - BTO option: add $200
  • 8 GB RAM
  • 16 GB RAM - BTO option: add $200.00
  • 1 TB (5400 rpm) hard drive
  • 1 TB Fusion drive - BTO option: add $250.00
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics
  • Magic Mouse + wireless keyboard

There are additional BTO options available for both models that include the ability to swap out the Magic Mouse for the Magic Trackpad, swap the wireless keyboard for a USB keyboard that includes a numeric keypad, add Pages, Keynotes, and Numbers software, and add AppleCare coverage.

If you're going to use any of the Bluetooth peripherals, such as the Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad, I recommend adding the Apple Battery Charger to your purchase. It includes 4 rechargeable AA batteries and a small charging station. The Apple Battery Charger will add $29.99 to your purchase cost, but it's well worth it, considering how quickly the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad deplete normal alkaline AAs.

Using the 2012 21.5-inch iMac

First impressions of the iMac depend on where you stand. From the front, it looks about the same as previous generations. From the side, it appears razor thin at first glance, but the illusion only holds until you notice the curved nature of the back. My take on the new thin design is "ho-hum." I don't see the benefit. On the plus side, the design knocked off a few pounds, making the iMac much lighter.

Display

Moving onto function, the first noticeable change is the display. Apple added an antiglare coating to the panel, which helps reduce the glare that was a problem for many users of the previous generation iMac. Apple also affixed the glass and the panel together, partly to help produce the thinner edge. This design decision also increases the sharpness and perceived brightness of the display. Once again, the iMac's display is one of the best around for its price point.

Performance

The overall performance of the iMac has improved. That’s to be expected with newer processor design, slightly faster processor clock rates, and a newer generation in both the processor and the graphics.

There is also a pretty nice improvement in potential peripheral performance. Although FireWire is gone, the 4 USB 3.0 ports more than make up for its elimination. USB 3 is much faster; on paper, at least, it can reach speeds of up to 5 Gbps, which means much faster data movement from external storage devices. If you really want to kick up the speed, the Thunderbolt port doubles the available bandwidth, up to 10 Gbps. If you really need FireWire, Apple sells an inexpensive Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter.

Internal Drive

Unfortunately, while the iMac has the processing and interconnect capabilities to deliver a nice boost in performance, it's hindered by Apple's decision to use a laptop hard drive that only spins at 5,400 RPM. The use of a slow drive as the main storage system is once again a result of the iMac's design mandate to be thin. With a smaller volume in which to house all of the internal components, Apple needed to both reduce component size where possible and keep heat production to a minimum. A 5,400 RPM laptop drive fits that bill exactly, but it really puts the brakes on pedal-to-the-metal performance.

Apple offers a solution in the form of an optional Fusion drive. This option pairs a 128 GB SSD with the slower 1 TB 5,400 RPM drive, and then uses software to actively manage where files are stored. Files that you access most often are moved to the super-fast SSD; files you don't use as often are stored on the slower hard drive. The Fusion drive works wonderfully, but it's also a $250 BTO option.

Upgradeability

I don’t have a formal upgradeability score to hand out, but if I did, the 21.5-inch iMac would get the lowest score possible. There is nothing that is user serviceable in the iMac. This includes RAM, which cannot be easily changed. I say "easily" because it is possible for a very advanced DIYer to completely disassemble the iMac and replace the RAM, which still uses standard 1600 MHz DDR3 SO-DIMM modules. But doing this risks damaging the display panel, which must be heated up in order to unglue it from the front of the iMac.

Needless to say, the gluing of the display to the case means user upgrades are not advised; this includes swapping drives as well as the afore-mentioned RAM.

Final Thoughts

21.5-inch iMac side view

The new design offers the optical illusion of being thinner, almost as thin as the LCD panel itself. But it's just that: an illusion, one that doesn't hold up when you view the iMac from the side.

Courtesy of Apple

I have mixed feelings about the 2012 model of the 21.5-inch iMac. It's too easy to say the 2012 incarnation of the 21.5-inch iMac has some flaws in its design. In actuality, you have to consider the end user and what he or she wants from the iMac. As long as you outfit the iMac with the RAM you need, and you opt for the Fusion drive, then this little iMac will be a pretty good performer. If you bypass the Fusion drive option, then even though this iMac has very good processor performance, you may be aggravated by the hard drive bottleneck, and the time it takes to boot the iMac or launch an app.

The RAM limitation may also be of limited concern to most users. The base line configuration is 8 GB of RAM, which is plenty for most basic home or office use. If you plan to use the iMac with apps that need a large amount of RAM, you can order the iMac with 16 GB, but Apple charges higher prices for RAM than most third parties do.

Recommendations

The 21.5-inch iMac could be just the right Mac if you need a good, general-purpose desktop computer, but you don't have the need or the space for a humungous display. I recommend adding the Fusion drive option, to ensure the best possible performance from the storage system.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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