Apple 2021 iMac review: M1 power in a colorful desktop shell

Apple's new iMac is an all-in-one desktop computer makes excellent use of its latest chip.

Apple publicly announced its breakup with Intel less than a year ago. Tim Cook took the stage in June 2020 to reveal that Apple would make its own silicon to power every apple computer—the M1 chip was all it needed. Since the split, Apple has been living out the lyrics of a Lizzo song. If the M1-powered MacBooks were Apple’s hair toss, then the new M1 iMac is the company checking its nails. Ultimately, the whole situation seems to be working out “good as hell.” And while the new iMac computer isn’t for everyone, it’s an impressive machine that you’re justified in wanting, even if it’s not particularly practical for your computing needs.

The throwback iMac

Typically, a review like this would start with the technical specs. With the company’s new “let’s cram the M1 chip into every new Apple computer” approach; however, that really doesn’t make much sense. From a technical standpoint, you’ll find the same basic guts in the new MacBook Air, the new MacBook Pro, the Mac Mini, and even the upcoming iPad Pro. The real differences come from other things like form factor and design.

Looking back on the original 1998 iMac now, it looks profoundly cheesy. That chunky CRT iMac monitor adorned with period-appropriate translucent plastic has aged about as well as that banana you forgot in your desk at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Purple keyboard of the new iMac Apple desktop computer
The color-matched accessories will only be available with the iMac, not separately. Stan Horaczek

For the era, however, it represented a serious stylistic upgrade compared to many of the machines on the market. My family, like so many others at the time, relied entirely on a single bulky computer, plucked from the shelves of CompUSA and plunked on a cheap computer desk amongst an impossible tangle of cords in our living room. It was a communal machine that everyone used—a concept that has faded as computing devices became cheap and accessible enough to give everyone their own device. 

With the new iMac, however, Apple envisions a return to that communal computer. The new Magic Keyboard that comes with the Apple iMac includes TouchID, which can automatically switch between user accounts as soon as someone taps the sensor. It supports “Hey Siri” commands, so people can shout questions to it like a smart display. It has a single MagSafe power cord that allows for easy setup even in unusual areas like the kitchen. It makes sense in places where desktop computers—even small ones like the Mac Mini—don’t typically belong.

iMac design

Apple iMac desktop computer on a desk next to a plant
It measures less than a half-inch thick.

The overall Apple iMac concept hasn’t changed all that much since Apple adopted the “big, flat monitor on a bent stick” design from 2004’s iMag G4. The new M1 iMac, however, takes that flatness to an extreme. At less than a half-inch thick, the 24-inch display really does feel like it could be a giant iPad Pro. From the front, the chunky, white bezel feels a bit like a throwback, especially the thick bar at the bottom. It has a real chin on it. 

You’ll find the ports on the back of the machine in the bottom-right corner. The base model gets a pair of Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports. The upgraded models also get a pair of USB 3 Ports. They’re easy enough to access, but I’m still living the dongle life with some of my external storage and other accessories, which puts a bit of a damper on the iMac’s whole floating slab aesthetic. 

The new color options are excellent, though. They’re not nearly as bold as the original plastic iMac. If the 1998 model was a Fanta orange soda, then the new M1 iMac is more like a tangerine La Croix. 

The M1 iMacs also come with color matched accessories, including a Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse. For an extra $50, you can swap the Magic Mouse for a standalone trackpad, or you can pay an extra $129 and get both. Apple only sells the color-matched accessories with the new iMac, so don’t get too excited for a splashy new keyboard unless you’re planning to take the plunge on a new computer. Though, the company did the same thing with the black iMac Pro accessories and eventually caved on selling them individually.

It’s also worth noting that you still can’t raise or lower the height of the stand—it only tilts. I added an aftermarket mod in the form of a thick photography texbook underneath to raise it to my preferred eye level. It’s not as pretty as the rest of the setup, but it works and it didn’t cost $1,000 like the slick adjustable arm that comes with Apple’s Pro Display XDR.

Apple M1 chip performance

Now that the M1 MacBooks and Mac Mini have been in the wild for several months, we know basically what to expect from a machine like this, and the Apple iMac didn’t provide any huge surprises in that regard. I ran the new iMac through the popular benchmarking tool Geekbench 5 and found that it performed a little bit better than similarly equipped MacBooks under some rather casual testing conditions. 

While bench numbers are nice to have, it’s real world experience that matters most. Unsurprisingly, the M1 really delivers when you use it as intended. During everyday use, the iMac flies through typical tasks. It quickly switches between tabs, even when I have too many of them open. It scrolls through overcrowded folders filled with photos without stuttering. It plays YouTube videos that sufficiently fill its 24-inch 4.5K screen. 

It’s fast, but it’s also not magic. Once you start pushing it on tasks that typically require heavy duty GPUs and processing power, like gaming or high-res video editing, it can get bogged down. Still, it’s a lot more resilient than you might think. I spent two hours in Adobe Lightroom editing through more than 600 45-megapixel photos from a Canon EOS R5 and it wasn’t bad, especially considering that this review model only has 8 GB of RAM (compared to a max of just 16 GB). 

The Apple iMac easily handled some basic video editing as well. If you’re expecting to do this kind of heavy duty creative work every day, then you’ll almost certainly want to step up to something more powerful with discrete graphics. But, unless you’re a working pro, this is likely plenty of horsepower.

How about that iMac monitor?

For now, you only have one option when it comes to the iMac monitor: It’s a 24-inch 4.5K screen with a total resolution of 4,480 x 2,520, which is a step up from its predecessor’s 4,096 x 2,304 screen. For the sake of science, I turned off TrueTone (which automatically adjusts the display’s color temperature to appear consistent in ambient light) and ran an X-Rite color calibration test on it. It turned out to be very close to color accurate out of the box, though it ran very slightly cool, which is something I’ve found to be fairly typical with Mac monitors. 

Overall, however, the screen is bright and does an excellent job fighting through glare despite its relatively glossy screen. 

As a final note about the display: No, it’s still not a touchscreen. By now, that shouldn’t surprise you, though, since it’s true for every new Apple computer.

A big video conferencing upgrade

While the new iMac still offers a 1080p front-facing camera, Apple has done some serious work on the image signal processing that goes along with it. I tried out the Apple iMac with several video chatting apps including Google Meet and Zoom. The new camera looks much better than my older 16-inch MacBook Pro and even shows a considerable improvement when compared to the M1 MacBook Air. The iMac’s picture quality has a very iPhone-like image quality to it. It has an HDR look that does everything in its power to prevent areas of the image from blowing out. It also emphasizes high frequency details so everything looks very sharp. 

From a sound perspective, I was impressed by the sheer volume of sound the built-in speakers can produce. In many circumstances, however, I found the overall sound profile a bit muddy, especially when it came to some deeper voices. The bass overshadowed the clarity a bit, which required my ears to adjust. Overall, the sound is sufficient, but I preferred to just wear headphones when sitting in front of the machine when possible.

Who should buy the new iMac?

With a starting price of $1,299, the Apple iMac certainly isn’t cheap. There are plenty of all-in-one machines out there—many of which offer touchscreens—for considerably less money. Even if you want to get in on the new Apple M1 chip, you can get a Mac Mini for $699, which leaves you plenty of scratch to buy a truly impressive (obnoxious, even) monitor. But that has never really been the point of these computers. 

If you do decide to take the leap, you should buy the most powerful version you’re comfortable purchasing because you won’t be able to make any internal upgrades after the fact. You can add external storage if you want, but you can’t easily replace the hard drive or upgrade the RAM.

The Apple iMac is one of the simplest, most enjoyable, and overall best desktop computer experiences I’ve had in a while. Setup is stupidly easy and it really does look beautiful. It’s simple to move around thanks to the MagSafe adapter and its ridiculously slim form factor. If you’re willing to pay extra for design and convenience, then the iMac computer provides plenty of both. And it will almost certainly age a lot more gracefully than the 1998 Blueberry Mac that I could never convince my family to buy.