iMac buying guide: What you need to know to pick the right iMac
September 10, 2021 September 10, 2021
Apple’s iMac is a direct descendant of the very first Mac, and it’s often the computer that first comes to mind when people think about Apple. The iMac’s all-in-one design is popular and iconic, and it’s versatile enough for both novices and demanding users. It can handle general-purpose and heavy-duty tasks equally well and is ideal for anyone who needs a complete computer setup (keyboard, mouse or trackpad, and display) and wants to maximize workspace efficiency.
If you’re in the market for an iMac, this guide will help you make the right choice. Apple offers three models of the iMac: an 21.5-inch entry level model, a 24-inch version with a new design and an Apple M1 system on a chip, and a 27-inch version with Intel processors. Here’s how they break down.
Updated 9/10/21: Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman tweeted that all of the 24-inch iMac colors will be available at the Apple Store. Previously, the orange, purple, and yellow models were only available online.
Apple offers one 21.5-inch iMac model. It is priced at $1,049 and originally released in June 2017.
Processor, memory, graphics, and storage: The $1,049 iMac has a 2.3GHz dual‑core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 integrated graphics. It is available with a 256GB SSD, or you can opt for a slower but spacier 1TB Fusion Drive for the same price. You can’t upgrade the $1,049 iMac yourself after you buy it, so consider paying an extra $180 at the outset for a memory upgrade to 16GB. If you want to add more RAM later, you need to bring the iMac into an Apple store.
Display: The $1,049 iMac has a 21.5-inch display with a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels and can display millions of colors. The $1,049 iMac’s display is an sRGB display, which is the color space the display uses and is enough for most users.
Input devices: The iMac comes with Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2. If you order online from the Apple Store, you can switch the keyboard to a version with a numeric keypad ($30), and upgrade to a Magic Trackpad 2 ($50). You can opt to get both a Magic Mouse 2 and a Magic Trackpad 2 for $129 extra.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi (802.11ac) and Bluetooth 4.2 are built-in. The iMac has four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.
Speed: The $1,049 is Apple’s slowest iMac. That said, it has enough power for productivity tasks, video and photo editing, and games.
How to buy the 21.5-inch iMac: This model is actually a bit difficult to find on Apple’s website. Here’s a link to its Buy page. You won’t find it in the Mac section of the Apple website. You need to go to the Compare tool, and then select “iMac 21.5-in.” from one of the pop-up menus. You can check out its specs on the Compare page, or click the Buy button.
Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac owners, the $1,049 iMac is a decent alternative to the Mac mini, with a good screen and a decent chip. If storage is your top priority, consider the 1TB Fusion Drive instead of the 256GB SSD, and we also recommend spending extra on RAM. But that pushes the price to $1,229, and at that point you’ll probably want to dish out the extra $50 and slide over to the newer 24-inch iMac instead.
Apple unveiled the 24-inch iMac at its Spring Loaded event in April 2021. It’s a fresh new take on the iMac and the first update in more than a decade, with a cleaner design, Apple silicon, and a choice of colors.
Processor, graphics, memory, and storage: The 24-inch iMac uses Apple’s M1 chip rather Intel’s processors, and there are several configurations available:
$1,299: Apple M1 SoC with an 8-core CPU (4 performance cores, 4 efficiency cores), 16-core Neural Engine, and 7-core graphics processor (GPU); 8GB of memory; 256GB SSD
$1,499: Apple M1 SoC with an 8-core CPU (4 performance cores, 4 efficiency cores), 16-core Neural Engine, and 8-core graphics processor (GPU); 8GB of memory; 256GB SSD
$1,699: Apple M1 SoC with an 8-core CPU (4 performance cores, 4 efficiency cores), 16-core Neural Engine, and 8-core graphics processor (GPU); 8GB of memory; 512GB SSD
The 24-inch iMac can have a maximum of 16GB of memory ($200 extra), and you can also upgrade to a larger SSD for an extra cost. These components can’t be upgraded after purchase.
Display: The 23.5-inch 4.5K Retina display fits right in between the 21-inch and 27-inch Intel Macs. The display has 11.3 million pixels and support for the P3 wide color gamut, over a billion colors, 500 nits of brightness, and True Tone. Apple treats the display with an anti-reflective coating to help with readability.
Design: The 24-inch iMac has a much different design than the 21.5-inch and 27-inch models. The bezels around the display are much smaller than on the other iMacs, but it still has a “chin,” a section located below the display that houses the iMac’s internals. The chin doesn’t have the Apple logo on the front. Instead, it’s on the back. Most notably, Apple the 24-inch iMac comes in several colors: The $1,299 model is available in blue, green, pink, and silver, while the $1,499 and $1,699 models are available in the same colors, as well as orange, purple, and yellow.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman tweeted that at the September 14 “California streaming” event, Apple will announce that all iMac colors will be available at the retail Apple Store. Previously, the orange, purple, and yellow models had to be purchased online.
Input devices: The wireless Magic Keyboard that comes with the 24-inch iMac is different from previous models—it now has support for Touch ID. It is a standard feature in the $1,499 and $1,699 iMacs, but you’ll have to pay extra for it on the $1,299 iMac. An extended keyboard with Touch ID is also available for $50. The 24-inch iMac comes with a wireless Magic Mouse, or you can opt for a wireless Magic Trackpad. The mouse, trackpad, and keyboard come in colors to match the iMac.
Connectivity: The $1,299 24-inch iMac has two Thunderbolt 3 ports that also work with USB-C devices. The $1,499 and $1,699 iMacs have two additional USB-C ports. If you have a USB-A device, you need to buy an adapter, such as Apple’s USB-C to USB Adapter ($19). If you have multiple USB-A devices, wired headphones, and other items, consider a Thunderbolt hub.
The 24-inch iMac, unlike the older iMacs, does not have an SDXC slot. Once again, you’ll need an adapter, such as the Anker SD Card reader ($17). However, it does have a super-cool magnetic power cord.
Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 are built-in. Apple doesn’t put a gigabit ethernet port on the 24-inch iMac—instead, it’s on the power adapter. But that ethernet-equipped power adapter comes standard with the $1,499 and $1,699 models. It’s not included with the $1,299 24-inch iMac, but you can select it as an option at the point of purchase—and yes, that means you’ll have to pay extra for it ($30).
Speed: The 24-inch iMac checks in with a performance that is similar to the Mac mini, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air. The 24-inch iMac blew away its predecessor, the 21.5-inch iMac. It’s currently among the fastest Macs Apple sells.
Macworld’s buying advice: We were quite impressed with the first set of M1 Macs, and the new 24-inch iMac doesn’t disappoint. It brings an impressive speed boost and quiet operation, and nearly every Mac app we’ve tried has run just as well as it did on our Intel Macs thanks to the new Rosetta 2 emulation. And everything else about the iMac is greatly improved, from the design to the display. We think the sweet spot is the $1,499 model, which gets you more ports, Touch ID, and ethernet, but if you don’t need those things the $1,299 model will be plenty good.
Apple offers three 27-inch models of the 27-inch iMac with Retina display, which were released in August 2020.
Processor, memory, graphics, and storage: The 27-inch iMac uses Intel processors, not the Apple M1 SoCs found in the 24-inch iMac.
$1,699: 3.1GHz 6‑core Intel Core i5 processor, 256GB SSD, and 4GB Radeon Pro 5300 graphics
$1,899: 3.3GHz 6‑core Intel Core i5 processor, 512GB SSD, and 4GB Radeon Pro 5300 graphics
$2,099: 3.8GHz 8‑core Intel Core i5 processor, 512GB SSD, and 8GB Radeon Pro 5500 XT graphics
Users can easily upgrade the RAM on the 27-inch iMac, so it’s not as important to upgrade the memory at launch. The machine has four RAM slots, accessible through the back. Apple installs the standard 8GB as a pair of 4GB memory modules, so you can add more RAM after you buy the system. Or if you prefer, you can upgrade the RAM at the point of purchase to 16GB ($180), 32GB ($540), 64GB ($900), or 128GB ($2,340).
Display: The 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display has a 5120×2880-resolution screen. It uses the P3 color space, which is often used for digital movie projection and the film industry. These screens offer 500 nits of brightness, which is an increase over the screen in older iMacs.
Input devices: The iMac comes with Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2. If you order online from the Apple Store, you can switch the keyboard to a version with a numeric keypad ($30), and switch the mouse to a Magic Trackpad 2 ($50). You can opt to get both a Magic Mouse 2 and a Magic Trackpad 2 for $129 extra.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi (802.11ac) and Bluetooth 5 are built-in. The iMac has four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.
Speed: The Retina iMacs are among Apple’s fastest computers when it comes to single-core performance. When it comes to multi-core speed, the Mac Pros with more than four cores are faster machines.
Macworld’s buying advice: The allure of the 5K Retina display is strong, but the 4.5K display on the 24-inch iMac is no slouch. Plus, the design on the 27-inch model is a little outdated now that we’ve seen the new models, and the processors, while plenty capable, are due for an upgrade to the M1 chip. So we recommend either waiting for an update or checking out one of the new 24-inch models.