When Apple first announced it would switch to processors of its own design for Macs, and that the transition to fully replacing its Intel-based computers would take two years, it also introduced a period of uncertainty for those who needed to buy a new Mac sooner rather than later. Go ahead and get an Intel-based Mac now? Or wait for just the right Mac with an M1 chip to be released?
I was one of those folks. I needed to replace my aging 2012 Mac mini, which would not be able to run macOS 11 Big Sur. At the time, the first M1 Macs hadn’t been released, and I wanted to replace the mini with an iMac. At the time, the Apple tea leaves indicated it would be a while before we’d see a version of the all-in-ones with the new chip.
Whenever anyone asks if they should buy a new computer or wait, my counsel generally has been: “If you need a new computer now, buy it now. There will always be something new coming; you could wait forever.” I took my own advice and in August bought a 27-inch 2020 iMac. I justified the cost to myself (and my lovely wife) as an early birthday present.
Ten months later, I’ve got a 2021 24-inch iMac sitting on my review desk, across from the larger, Intel-based iMac I own. Now that I can compare the two different iMacs – one being the pinnacle of Apple’s past architecture, the other being the start of its future designs – I can finally determine if I made the right call.
So far, with only a few caveats, I have no regrets.
I ordered the mid-range 27-inch iMac, with a 3.3-GHz 6-core Intel Core i5 processor, 16 gigabytes of RAM and a 1-terabyte of SSD storage. It comes with an AMD Radeon Pro 5300 graphics adapter with four GB of video memory. It’s in the silver-and-black aluminum design that has been in the hallmark of iMacs since 2012. Even though it doesn’t sport the highest-end specs that are available for this model, as I wrote in a review of it last year, it is still a beast. It set me back almost $2,500 at the time.
The 24-inch M1 iMac Apple sent for review is also a mid-range model, with 8 GB of Unified Memory and Apple’s 8-core graphics processor, along with a 500-GB SSD. It’s available with a maximum of 16-GB of RAM and a 2-TB SSD. It costs about $1,700.
While the 27-inch iMac can accept up to 128-GB of RAM, the M1 handles memory differently, and surprisingly 8 GB may be just fine for most day-to-day use. Still, I like knowing that I can upgrade the memory in my iMac myself; on the 24-inch model, it’s soldered down.
Apple sells its new iMacs in seven different colors, and I was sent one described as “pink.” Indeed, while the so-called “chin” below the display is pink-ish, the keyboard, mouse and stand are decidedly rose gold. And the back of the iMac is a very hot pink; most who see it believe it’s red. If I bought one, it’s the color I’d choose.
I never thought the bigger iMac had enough ports, with a headphone jack, an SD-card slog, four USB-A ports, two USB-C ports that also work with Thunderbolt 3 and a Gigabit Ethernet port. The newer iMac is much stingier in its connectivity, with four USB-C ports, two of which support Thunderbolt 4, and a headphone jack on the left edge of the computer. (The lower-tier models come with just two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports.) On the higher-end models, there’s an Ethernet connection on the external power brick, which is also a $30 option on the lower-end versions.
But the new iMac has a leg up on the old model when it comes to wireless connectivity. The 27-inch iMac only supports the older 802.11ac, or Wi-Fi 5, standard. The newer model works with 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6. I was mystified when Apple refreshed the bigger iMac last year but didn’t update the Wi-Fi radio in it, as its iPhones have supported Wi-Fi 6 for some time.
I ordered the 27-inch iMac with the wireless Magic Keyboard that includes a numeric keypad and the Magic Trackpad 2. The 24-inch review unit came with the smaller keyboard with a Touch ID pad built in, and the Magic Mouse. And yes, for some bizarre reason Apple still puts the Lightning charging port on the bottom of the mouse, rendering it unusable while it’s recharging. WTF, Apple?
Running Geekbench 5 tests on both machines, the M1 iMac smokes the Intel version in benchmark numbers. But performing day-to-day productivity tasks, both machines feel equally zippy. For example, Apple’s GarageBand app, by no means a “lite” software application, opened in about three seconds on both machines. All of Apple’s own apps on both machines launched without delay.
Apple’s M1 processor is based on ARM processors, which are more efficient and draw less power than Intel’s chips. That translates to longer battery life on portable computers, but is less of an issue on a desktop like the iMac, other than saving electricity costs.
One thing I really liked about the M1-based iMac was Touch ID on its keyboard. I use my Apple Watch to unlock my 27-inch iMac, a process also used to allow actions such as software installation or settings changes. I didn’t turn this on for the M1 iMac, and was just as happy using the keyboard feature instead.
The displays on both machines are excellent, with the 27-inch iMac supporting 5K resolution and the the 24-inch iMac doing 4.5K. But after using the larger display since last summer, working on the smaller display felt claustrophobic. Fortunately, the smaller iMac can power an external monitor up to 6K in resolution.
One feature the M1 iMacs have over the Intel versions: They can run iOS and iPadOS apps, as they have a variation of the same processors found in iPhones and iPads. I first tried this in a MacBook Pro I reviewed earlier this year, and not all the mobile apps ran smoothly. But since then, Apple has smoothed out those rough edges and every iOS app I tried on the M1 iMac worked great.
For those still working from home or doing lots of teleconferencing from their desks, the M1 iMac has better video and audio. Both the 27-inch iMac and the M1 model sport 1080p webcams, but the processing of video is significantly better on the latter because of the signal-processing capabilities of the M1 chip. Microphones in the M1 are also improved, making the audio you transmit clearer. The M1 is a much better Zoom/FaceTime machine.
There’s one other thing that iMac buyers need to consider when deciding which system to buy. While Apple has said it will continue to support its Intel Macs on upcoming releases of macOS for years, not all new features will be available.
When the company announced details about macOS Monterey last week at the kickoff of WWDC, its news releases indicated a handful of features wouldn’t work on Intel-based Macs. These include one of the most useful I saw, called Live Text, which lets you search for text in images and then copy/paste that text into other applications. (And I’ve got a workaround for users of Intel-based Macs in the T.I.L. section of this newsletter this week.)
As new versions of macOS roll out, there will be more and more of these. Intel Mac owners will have to get their Zen on about it.
Frankly, I don’t have many. For productivity, photo editing, music and video consumption, the 27-inch iMac is excellent. I expect Apple to support this machine for at least five years, hopefully more. At the moment, the ability to add more memory and the larger screen make this a winner for me over the M1 version – if I was choosing an iMac today, I’d still pick this one.
But ask me again when the larger-display M1 iMac comes out later this year or early next, as is expected. The current rumor has it arriving with a 32-inch display, a more-powerful Apple Silicon processor and the ability to handle more RAM. That said, I’m glad I didn’t wait for what may or may not happen.