As ever when reviewing a PC, performance is something that's a little difficult to judge as it will depend on what configuration you get, with in particular an SSD making a huge difference to the overall feel of speed you'll get when using a system. But, nonetheless, even with the entry level configuration we're reviewing this new 21in iMac offers good overall performance.
The Mac OSX interface seldom hangs or feels sluggish with only larger programs such as Photoshop taking a noticeable amount of time to load (this is where an SSD really helps). For the vast majority of users any and all configurations of the new iMac should be plenty fast enough, especially as 8GB of RAM and 1TB hard drive are the minimum you can expect.
That said, what we're dealing with here is a desktop machine that's using slower 'laptop' parts because of the chassis' small size. This is typical of all-in-one PCs but it's worth noting as a differentiator compared to 'proper' desktop/tower PCs.
In particular in this 21in model, the small hard drives and low-power graphics cards are much slower than their desktop equivalents, plus maximum hard drive capacity is only 1TB. So if you’re regularly working with large files – say video editing – you may want to consider the Fusion drive upgrade for greater speed, or opt for an alternative machine altogether if you simply need more space. That said, you can get an external hard drive and utilise the iMac’s fast Thunderbolt ports for speedy file transfers.
Fusion is Apple’s name for a hybrid drive that uses a traditional hard drive for the bulk of its storage but then includes a portion of flash memory as used on SSDs. The flash memory is used to store those files that are accessed most frequently (say, operating system files, your web browser and Photoshop for instance), resulting in better performance for the majority of the time.
TrackMania Nations Forever (average fps, 720p, Medium Detail) - 94.5fps
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat (average fps, 720p, Medium Detail) - 66.3fps
Gamers, however, will be best off avoiding the 21in model altogether as its Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics card doesn’t really cope with the latest and greatest 3D games (Far Cry 3, Call of Duty Black Ops 2, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, that sort of thing). Older games do run fine and you can turn settings down (as in our benchmarks) but it's not exactly a stellar gaming experience.
The graphics card options (particularly the GTX 675MX) on the 27in iMac mean it’s more able to offer a decent gaming experience, though again if gaming is a major consideration an iMac really isn’t the way to get the best bang for your buck.
Upgrade options for the 21in iMac are very limited with just faster CPUs (from 2.7GHz to 2.9GHz or 3.1GHz), more memory (from 8GB to 16GB), and an upgrade to a 1TB Fusion drive on offer. This really does limit its potential so once again it’s worth highlighting that although more than capable for general word processing, picture editing, web browsing and the like, power users will probably find the 21in model constraining after not too long. What’s more, the price of upgrades is exorbitant. Apple limits the Fusion drive option to the 2.9GHz model, which starts at a whopping £1,249, up from £1,099 for the entry level 2.7GHz machine. And, suffice to say, the Fusion drive offers much more of an upgrade than the 200MHz processor bump. Meanwhile the 16GB memory option will set you back £160.
Perhaps one of the biggest limitations of the new iMac range is that they don’t offer touchscreens. Although the jury is still out on whether people really want to use a touchscreen on a desktop PC, the enthusiastic uptake of touchscreen laptops certainly suggests there’s some interest and plenty of rivals, such as the Dell XPS One 27 and Sony VAIO Tap 20, do offer this. In particular what these alternatives can do is fold flat for a more comfortable touchscreen experience, and we’ve found that we have actually used the touchscreen when the option is there.
The new 21.5in Apple iMac (2012) delivers in all the ways we’ve come to expect iMacs to. It’s new super slim design is streaks ahead of the competition, as is the machine’s build quality. Plus it’s competent on all other crucial fronts, with a decent set of included peripherals, good screen, excellent audio and satisfactory performance. However, not only do you pay a serious premium for that design and build but you also miss out on some functionality offered by rivals such as an optical disc drive, adjustable stand, more connectivity, a touchscreen and upgradability. As such, it’s only really worth considering for those that are absolutely sure that all they require is simply the snazziest, most compact all-in-once PC currently available, whatever the price.