The new iMac is an excellent WFH Mac — and it’s totally stunning

Mike Andronico/CNN

CNN —  

We’ve been using Apple’s new iMac as our main machine for close to a week now, and we don’t want to stop anytime soon. Apple’s revamped all-in-one desktop feels tailor-made for a work-from-home world, with a gorgeous 24-inch display, zippy performance, an excellent webcam and a beautiful design that you can comfortably set up just about anywhere.

The new iMac (starting at $1,258.99; amazon com or $1,299.99; bestbuy.com) completely refreshes Apple’s long-running desktop computer, with a slimmer-than-ever build, fun color options and the same blazing Apple M1 processor that truly wowed us on last year’s MacBooks. So what’s it like to actually work and play on this highly anticipated desktop? Let’s dive in.

The who, what and how

Who it’s for: The new iMac is ideal for anyone who wants a powerful big-screen desktop for doing both demanding creative work and everyday WFH tasks. It’s an especially good fit for those already in the Apple ecosystem, as it’ll work seamlessly with your iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch.

What you need to know: This is Apple’s most compact and powerful iMac yet, with a slim design that comes in seven fun colors and fits most work spaces. You’ll get some truly great performance out of its Apple M1 chip, though it’s light on ports and storage in the starting models.

How it compares: The new 24-inch iMac has a smaller screen and less connectivity options than last year’s 27-inch iMac, but you’re trading that for a more compact, modern design and a faster processor. You can also find more ports on Windows rivals such as the Dell Inspiron 7790 ($1,287.99, originally $1,399.99; amazon.com), but you won’t be getting the same performance or software experience.

A stunning new design that’s also practical

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The new 24-inch iMac just might be the most attractive Apple computer ever. After nearly a decade of sticking to the same silver slab-of-metal design, Apple has fully reimagined its flagship all-in-one desktop as a slim and colorful powerhouse that immediately catches the eye without taking up much space. Seriously, this thing is roughly the same size as our Dell S2417DG monitor, and it’s a full-on computer.

At just 11.5 millimeters thin and 18 inches tall, the new iMac is about 50% smaller than the previous-generation 21.5-inch iMac. As a result, it was a breeze to set up on our work desk, and left plenty of room for its included Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard. At just under 10 pounds, Apple’s desktop was easy to lug to our living room once it was time for a change of scenery.

While the new iMac is an exciting evolution of Apple’s long-standing desktop design, it’s also a loving throwback to the days when Apple computers popped with color (looking at you, iMac G3). The 24-inch iMac comes in seven hues: pink, orange, yellow, blue, purple, green, and if you really must, silver. We’ve been testing out the purple version and it’s truly gorgeous — the two-tone look is understated enough to not look like a children’s toy but vibrant enough to add some refreshing personality to our work area.

The latest iMac uses a braided, color-matched MagSafe cable for power, which attaches magnetically to the back of the computer in a snap. While the cable is incredibly easy to pop on when you’re setting up the PC, its magnetic connection made the wire surprisingly hard to pull out once attached. It’s a much firmer connection than the old MagSafe chargers that used to power MacBooks, and seems ideal for preventing any unwanted disconnects should a member of your household (human or otherwise) accidentally trip on the wire.

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As is the case with the latest MacBooks, the new iMac’s slim design comes at the expense of ports. The desktop starts with just two Thunderbolt USB 4 ports, and features an additional two USB 3.0 ports on the $1,499 model (the latter of which we tested). The Ethernet port, which is an optional upgrade on the $1,299 model and standard on the more expensive units, is neatly located on the power brick, likely to retain the iMac’s slim profile.

While having the latest Thunderbolt ports is a great perk — these allow for things such as zippy transfer speeds and support for up to a 6K external monitor — the iMac simply doesn’t give you many options when it comes to connectivity. The port options seem especially thin when you compare them to last year’s 27-inch iMac, which features two Thunderbolt ports, four USB-A ports, an SD card reader and an Ethernet jack.

We frequently found ourselves using a USB-C hub to connect things such as external microphones and audio interfaces, which added a bit of clutter to the otherwise minimalist workspace the new iMac allows for. If you’re someone who relies on lots of wired peripherals — especially those that use the old USB-A standard — you’ll likely need to do the same.

Colorful new accessories — and a Touch ID keyboard

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The iMac’s vibrant new color options extend to the accessories you get out of the box, including the Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse and optional Magic Trackpad (you also get a color-matched, braided USB-C to Lightning cable for juicing them up). These peripherals are largely the same as previous versions, with one notable upgrade — you can now opt for a Magic Keyboard with a Touch ID sensor. This allowed us to log in to the iMac using just a quick scan of our finger, which we found to be a really nice convenience that saved us a few seconds every time we booted up.

Otherwise, these are the same accessories that Apple has offered for years, and that’s mostly a good thing. The latest Magic Keyboard is an absolute delight to type on, with bouncy, responsive keys that kept our hands comfortable throughout days of heavy use. The Magic Mouse remains reliable for basic scrolling and clicking as well as gesture controls like double-tapping to see all of your open apps at once. And yes, it unfortunately and hilariously still charges from the bottom, meaning you can’t use the mouse while you juice it up.

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While it’s an optional add-on, we especially loved using the Magic Trackpad. This large touchpad gives you an expansive canvas for swiping and scrolling while also responding to different levels of pressure, allowing you to, say, long-press on a word to look it up in a dictionary. It costs an extra $50 to swap in the Magic Trackpad for the Magic Mouse, and an extra $129 if you want both. We wouldn’t say it’s an absolute necessity, but the Trackpad did make using the iMac more comfortable, especially when we were bouncing between tracks when doing some music production in Ableton Live.

It’s a small nitpick, but we do wish the colors on the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad were a bit more pronounced. While the new iMac colors completely permeate the Magic Keyboard, they’re relegated to the barely noticeable sides and bottom of the mouse and trackpad. As a result, they look like the standard all-white models at first glance, and not like a complement to Apple’s most colorful computer yet.

A multimedia monster

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The iMac’s colorful design houses an equally eye-popping display, delivering great color and brightness that made all types of media look true to life. The desktop’s 24-inch, 4.5K Retina screen is incredibly dense in detail — in sample images provided by Apple, we could make out every individual flower in a colorful field, and a close-up shot of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich looked mouthwateringly realistic.

The iMac’s display proved to be an excellent canvas for kicking back with movies and YouTube videos. In the climactic final battle of “Avengers: Endgame,” Iron Man’s bright red laser blasts and Thor’s icy blue lightning attacks both popped with bright, flashy color. When we pulled up an 8K nature documentary, we could make out every individual strand of fur on a baby cheetah, and shots of lush grassy fields looked vivid and realistic. Even basic work tasks were a joy on the iMac’s screen, thanks to a high level of brightness and deep blacks that made Google Docs and Slack text look satisfyingly inky.

The light gray bezels surrounding the iMac’s display are thinner and less pronounced than the thick black borders on last year’s 27-inch model. Still, there’s a decent amount of bezel surrounding the screen, as well as a fairly pronounced “chin” that sits under the display. We didn’t take issue with this look, but it’s not quite as seamless as the screens on some Windows alternatives such as the Asus M241DA and Dell Inspiron 7790. Also, this is more of a personal nitpick, but we found ourselves wishing that this particular iMac had a touch display — a screen that’s this big and vibrant would be perfect for drawing, marking up and doodling.

The iMac’s crisp display is complemented by a booming set of speakers, which was just as reliable for filling our bedroom with our favorite sad indie music as it was for hearing our colleagues clearly during important calls.

Those speakers gave every instrument in Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto” room to breathe, as the vocals, drums, horns and guitars all came through loudly and cleanly without overpowering one another. The bass was especially impressive here, as there was a satisfyingly thumping amount of low end to complement the sparkly guitar riffs. The heavier, electronics-infused rock of Manchester Orchestra’s “Bed Head” also shone on the iMac, as the crisp, crunchy drums immediately got our head bobbing without taking the spotlight away from the bright keyboards and layered vocal harmonies.

A camera and microphone well equipped for WFH life

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Apple calls the new iMac’s webcam the “best camera ever in a Mac,” and now that we’ve spent some time with it, we can confidently say that’s not just marketing hyperbole. With a 1080p shooter that’s sharper than what you’ll find on the latest MacBooks as well as some software magic made possible by the M1 chip (specifically the integrated image signal processor), the latest iMac always made us look bright and largely true to life — even under less than ideal lighting conditions.

We took the majority of our video calls under uneven lighting with some window light bleeding in behind us, and the iMac still managed to make our face look well lit and detailed. While there was a noticeable loss of clarity when we completely closed our blinds, our actual face still looked very bright (if a bit more red than in real life).

Once we moved somewhere with more even, direct lighting, we got some truly great shots that accurately captured our skin tone and the finer details of our scruffy black beard. In fact, the iMac camera even outperformed the Logitech C920 — our pick for the best webcam — in many of our tests, producing shots that were warmer and more detailed than Logitech’s camera, if a bit oversaturated at times.

The latest iMac packs a triple-microphone array designed to pick up your voice clearly during calls, and it held up fairly well in our testing. We got no complaints about our voice during video meetings — one colleague noted that our voice sounded crisp, and noted that the sounds of our keyboard clacking was only picked up lightly.

When listening back to recordings we made on the iMac’s mic, we noticed that it picked up more background noise and wasn’t quite as detailed as what we got from our top microphone pick in the Blue Yeti. But the fact that the iMac’s internal microphone isn’t terribly far off from a $129 USB mic means that it’s more than reliable enough for your daily Zoom meetings.

The M1 chip enables serious speed

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The iMac’s new look might be dominating the conversation, but the changes Apple made under the hood are just as significant. This is the first iMac to feature Apple’s M1 processor, which allows Apple’s new desktop to pump out better-than-ever performance within its incredibly slim design. It’s the same tech that we found to set a new standard on the latest MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in terms of speed and efficiency, and it holds up just as well on iMac.

We’ve been using Apple’s slick new computer as our primary work machine for close to a week, and it never once buckled under the heavy multitasking loads we threw at it. Even when we had a dozen apps open, browsed twice as many Chrome tabs and took a video call all at once, the new iMac never slowed down. It took a seriously extreme (and probably uncommon) workload to get some cracks to show — once we did some work in Final Cut Pro and shared our screen on a video call with about 16 apps running in the background, the iMac finally started to stutter.

We had no problem programming drums and recording live instruments on the iMac using Ableton Live, and were able to export a seven-track recording loaded up with effects in a fairly brisk 26 seconds. Exporting a 4K video in Final Cut Pro was similarly speedy, as we were able to convert the file in just 27 seconds. And our everyday go-to apps, such as Slack, Outlook, Chrome and Discord, all ran without a hitch.

While the new iMac is an absolute workhorse for creative tasks and everyday productivity, it’s more of a mixed bag when it comes to gaming. The iMac can access the 100-plus titles on Apple Arcade ($4.99 per month), and games like NBA 2K21 and The Last Campfire ran smoothly complete with full support for the latest PlayStation and Xbox controllers. But those are essentially mobile games blown up on a big screen — once we fired up some more demanding computer games, the limits of Apple’s generally beastly M1 processor started to show.

When running the benchmark for Rise of the Tomb Raider, a cinematic action-adventure game, we had to drop the resolution down to 1600 x 900 on Medium settings just to get a playable frame rate of more than 30 frames per second (this figure indicates how smoothly a game renders). So while these titles will run on the latest iMac, you’ll have to make some significant sacrifices in visual quality in order to actually play them.

There’s also the bigger issue of Macs simply not having the best support for games. While you’ll be able to play popular titles such as Fortnite, Among Us and Minecraft on macOS, higher-end games like Star Wars: Squadrons, Resident Evil Village and Apex Legends are all Windows-only for computer gamers.

Let’s talk about software

Apple

It’s worth noting that since M1 is a brand-new processor, the apps you’ll use on it generally fall into two categories. There are Universal Apps (which are optimized for Apple hardware), and apps that require Rosetta, a program that allows apps designed for Intel-based Macs to run properly on M1 machines.

All Apple apps (including Final Cut Pro and Logic) are optimized for M1, as are popular programs such as Google Chrome, Pixelmator and Microsoft Outlook. We also used a fair amount of Intel apps on our iMac — including Ableton Live, Audacity and Discord, and they largely worked smoothly. Better yet, as you continue to use these apps in Rosetta, macOS will begin to make the apps run closer to Universal ones.

However, we experienced occasional crashes with the Intel version of Spotify, and as we saw with Tomb Raider, many Intel-based Mac games aren’t optimized for M1 just yet. As it stands right now, most of the apps you’ll likely need for everyday productivity will work fine, but there are a few that still need some kinks worked out.

App concerns aside, it really feels great to use macOS Big Sur — the latest Mac operating system — on a big and powerful all-in-one computer. There’s still such a magic to being able to continue your iPhone’s iMessage conversations on desktop, or open a note or website on your iPad and beam it to your iMac with a single click.

This seamless interactivity between Apple devices has been around for years, but Big Sur brings some useful new benefits to the mix. Highlights include a revamped Control Center that makes it much easier to toggle things such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Do Not Disturb mode on the fly, and an upgraded iMessages experience that lets you pin conversations and reply to specific messages in group chats.

We still have our nitpicks with macOS — some multitasking features simply work better on Windows, and we’d like to see wider game support — but its seamless compatibility with other Apple products makes it a delight to use if you already own an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch. You can enjoy all of these features on a MacBook as well, but the new iMac’s large display makes it an especially great central hub for any Apple-heavy household.

Which version of the iMac should you buy?

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The new iMac starts at $1,299, which is pretty reasonable considering the performance, display and build quality you’re getting for the money. However, this starting model is light on ports and storage, and you may find it worth it to splurge on some worthwhile extras. Here’s how the key configurations stack up at a glance — note that orders will start shipping on May 21.

  • Apple iMac ($1,258.99; amazon.com or $1,233, originally $1,299; expercom.com): 256GB storage, 8GB RAM, two ports, 7-core GPU, Magic Keyboard. Available in blue, green, red and silver.
  • Apple iMac ($1,499; amazon.com or $1,423, originally $1,499; expercom.com): 256GB storage, 8GB RAM, four ports, 8-core GPU, Ethernet, Magic Keyboard with Touch ID. Available in all seven colors.
  • Apple iMac ($1,699; amazon.com and bhphotovideo.com): 512GB storage, 8GB RAM, four ports, Ethernet, Magic Keyboard with Touch ID. Available in all seven colors.

Considering the extra-slim port selection, you may want to consider springing for the $1,499 model for better connectivity. You can also upgrade the storage of the first two models to 512GB for an extra $200 — that’s not cheap, but it also makes your Mac a bit more future-proof, as you can’t swap in more internal storage over time.

We reviewed an upgraded version of the $1,499 configuration that includes a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD) and both a Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad, which would run you about $1,828. The Trackpad isn’t a totally necessary add-on, but we’d strongly suggest considering the upgraded storage (as well as the four-port model) for a good mix of free space and connectivity options.

If you want more breathing room for multitasking, you can also upgrade to 16GB of RAM for an extra $200. We didn’t feel very limited by our 8GB model, but this is yet another add-on worth thinking about if you want to make your iMac as future-proof as possible.

Bottom line

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With a large and vibrant display, the best Mac webcam we’ve ever used and a svelte design that can fit atop office desks and kitchen counters alike, the new 24-inch iMac is the best Apple computer you can buy for working from home.

The desktop’s blazing M1 chip can handle demanding creative tasks with ease, its keyboard feels great to type on and its internal microphones make it easy to be heard during calls. And once the workday is over, the new iMac doubles as an excellent entertainment canvas, thanks to its vibrant 4.5K screen and loud, crisp speakers.

We wish that the 24-inch iMac was a little more generous on ports, and you’ll have to pay up to get a solid amount of storage. And yes, there’s still a decent amount of display bezel. If you want a larger overall screen and more connectivity options, the older 27-inch iMac is also worth a look.

Still, the new iMac’s lively, compact design and truly excellent performance make it the best Mac desktop in Apple’s arsenal, and a worthy addition to any home office.

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