Apple's $1,099 iMac: Who should buy one?

Apple's $1,099 iMac: Who should buy one?

Who's the target market for Apple's new low-end iMac?

Apple on Wednesday introduced a new iMac model priced at $1,099, $200 less than the previous low end model. Who's the new iMac aimed at, and how successful is Apple likely to be with it?

Before today, the low-end 21.5-inch iMac sported a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i5 quad-core processor, 8 GB RAM, Intel Iris integrated graphics and a 1 TB hard disk drive. That machine is still available, and it's still priced at $1,299, but there's a new low end machine to consider.

That 21.5-inch iMac comes equipped with a 1.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor that's a dual-core, not a quad-core. It's mated to Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, and at least superficially, it looks like the same combo that powers Apple's standard specification MacBook Air.

That configuration serves the MacBook Air well. Both the 11-inch and 13-inch MBA models have all-day batteries, and no one would accuse them of being particularly slow.

But MacBook Airs have another reason to be fast — they're equipped with PCIe-based flash storage in place of a conventional hard drive. Adding flash storage to any Mac will make it vastly more responsive, because so much of what you do is dependent on reading data and writing data to the storage system.

Flash storage isn't standard equipment on the iMac. It comes with a conventional hard disk drive, which will operate more slowly. What's more, it's 500 GB, half the standard capacity of other iMacs.

You can certainly opt for an iMac configuration that includes a 1 TB "Fusion" drive, in which Apple pairs together a 128 GB flash drive with a 1 TB hard drive to create a 1 TB logical volume that operates much faster than a regular hard drive; or you can go with a 256 GB flash drive instead.

But either option will cost you more money, and will put that new low-priced iMac into the territory of its more expensive brethren.

Fortunately, there is an upside: The $1099 iMac has 8 GB RAM, twice as much RAM as the standard MacBook Air. That's a standard configuration for the iMac, but it also means it'll be able to run more apps and have larger files resident in memory without slowing down to page virtual memory, which hits the hard drive and can really drag down performance.

Dual core versus quad core

Besides the obvious clock speed difference between the $1099 iMac and its brethren, there's another difference to consider: The number of cores. The $1099 model is equipped with a dual-core i5 processor, while all other iMac models have a quad-core processor.

If all you're doing is casual web surfing, e-mail, and light office work on your iMac, you're unlikely to notice a big difference between a dual-core and quad-core processor, processor speed notwithstanding.

Some software applications are a different story, however. Some applications (and even many system processes running in OS X) have been well-optimized to take advantage of multi-core processors. If you're using the iMac to do any sort of heavy image, video or audio processing, or run other software optimized for multi-core machines, you're going to quickly run into bottlenecks with that slower, less-capable iMac.

So who's this iMac aimed at, anyway?

Obviously not everyone needs the horsepower of a quad-core iMac to get their job done. Many of us are perfectly comfortable with the processing performance a dual-core i5 provides, even at 1.4 GHz.

Some consumers who are looking for better value for the iMac are going to be impressed with the new lower price, and at least when they're demoing the system in an Apple retail store or elsewhere, they're not going to notice a big difference for what they're doing. And if they do, it's an opportunity for the salesperson to upsell the $1299 model as a more capable system.

Others who may find the new less expensive iMac appealing include institutional buyers — corporations looking for desktop computers for their employees that are fast enough to keep up with business tasks. That 21.5-inch screen and slim design offer a killer combination of usability features that make the iMac a great business workstation, and not everyone who needs one is a content creator who may end up tasking the processor and graphics.

Educational institutions that continue to invest in desktop machines may also find the new iMac appealing, though Apple's decision to wait until mid June to introduce it doesn't jibe very well with the educational buying season. With summer vacation up on, school IT staff will begin rolling out new hardware for the fall in just a few weeks, and presumably have already made most of their purchases.

If you're a student or teacher looking to pick up a low-end iMac for yourself, you'll pay $1049, or $50 off the regular retail price. That means schools buying them in bulk should be able to get the new machine for less than $999 — the same price the education-only eMac debuted for back in 2002.

Great expectations

This is the second time in the past few months Apple has price-corrected its Mac product line. Last time it was the MacBook Air, getting a very modest CPU bump from 1.3 GHz to 1.4 GHz and a $100 across the board price drop. Now the iMac is available for $200 less, albeit in a less capable configuration.

Apple's waiting for Intel to get its Broadwell microprocessor into production. Broadwell will continue Haswell's legacy of improved efficiency with much better integrated graphics performance and other enhancements.

Broadwell will power the next generation of Mac hardware through 2015. But Intel's behind schedule, and it doesn't look like we're going to see Macs with the new chip until later this year.

It's possible Apple's just trying to prod interest in the Mac until that Broadwell transition can get underway; it's also possible that Apple's trying to calibrate expectations for new Mac hardware it's working on this fall.

The bottom line

As soon as the new low-end iMac was announced Wednesday, tech press and others lit up social media with head-scratching comments. A less expensive iMac, sure. But one with a hobbled CPU? Why bother?

The fact is that many people out there simply don't need the horsepower of the 2.7 GHz iMac. And up until now, they've been expected to pay for capabilities they simply won't use.

So a new iMac at a lower prices means that people (and businesses) buying Macs have another option that can save them money. If it suits their needs, that's a good thing.

Are you interested in the new iMac? Or is a 1.4 GHz processor too slow for your needs? Sound off in the comments — I want to hear from you.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Apple's $1,099 iMac: Who should buy one?

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Exactly the type of price and machine I need for line staff at my non-profit. Will browse, do email, run Office and FileMaker, all the basic stuff a line employee needs. Hard to justify a Mac when a PC is so much cheaper, this will be a perfect office desktop. In the long run, Macs last longer and require significantly less support, but the initial price has been hard to justify to others higher up. This will help quite a bit.

I think that is where this iMac is being targeted. Offices, schools, or even parents who were thinking about springing for a Mac but it was too expensive compared to a PC, while it is still more expensive, it is a lot more attractive.

To be honest for the majority of users this is an ideal iMac. Great for those that really want a larger screen or prefer a desktop but don't need that processing power. Certainly if I hadn't been gluttonous when purchasing my iMac it would have been just a 21.5 inch screen and the minimal configuration rather than my urge to spend spend spend and spend more to get the fastest and most expanded I could, especially since I really don't do much these days other than browser based applications and the 27 inch screen is kind "huge" and a lot of that screen real estate is really wasted. I still use a second screen though I really could get by with just the single screen. Though again, the smaller screen would have been more than adequate and the lower power system. In fact the only thing that I didn't upgrade and should have upgraded was the drive to just a 256GB SSD and that would have/should have been the only upgrade that I should have made. This model would have been more than adequate for my needs!

I've been pricing new computers for myself and of course Apple would be ideal for me since every other device I have is Apple. When you start talking about processors and speed, it all sounds like another language to me. All I want to do on the computer is surf the web, twitter, light word processing in Pages, download/watch a lot of movies and listen to a lot of music on iTunes... and play The Sims. Will this computer work for me, or would I have problems with it?

I run Star Wars Old Republic inside of VMWare (Software that lets you run Windows apps without rebooting in Boot Camp) and my Mac mini is quite sufficient for a fast-paced game like that.

That said, it's a faster CPU with more cores (each core can execute one instruction at a time, so the more of them you have, the more your computer can do) but it's an older chip with lesser graphics. Add to it Sims games aren't very graphically intense due to the fact that the camera is typically fixed, and it's not trying to animate 50 stormtroopers fighting against jedi knights.

I'd think it would handle the sims pretty well. Don't expect to have your socks blown off but it'll be pretty solid. Biggest bottleneck is that hard disk, it's going to make loading the game take longer, but it doesn't affect it's speed when it's running.

"If all you're doing is casual web surfing, e-mail, and light office work on your iMac, you're unlikely to notice a big difference between a dual-core and quad-core processor, processor speed notwithstanding."

And you'd be the target demographic for the new low-end iMac.
And I'd guess that there are many millions of people in that demographic.
I was wondering if and when Apple would ever release a more affordable iMac.

Also makes perfect sense for people using an iPad as their mobile computer. No need to buy an MBA with its small and still low res screen for home use in addition to a tablet.

Actually, the low-end "appliance" iMac would be a good choice for Apple's first use of the ARM chip in a desktop. Or maybe the low-end Mac mini. The final technical barrier was removed when Apple released the 64-bit A7 last year. OS X has been 64-bit-only since 10.7 "Lion" so it really needs a 64-bit system.

Of course, it wouldn't be just a simple cross-compile of the OS and apps. There are, of course, thousands of 3rd party apps for OS X, some of which would require some significant work before they could run on an ARM chip. And there are many major software developers out there (like Adobe) who drag their feet when it comes to adopting new OS X technologies.

So what? Few if any low-end iMac users care about the latest Creative Cloud release. Email, web surfing, tweeting, etc. don't require Adobe bloatware. But many people do care about prices. And an ARM-based iMac would avoid the "Intel Tax." The top-shelf Intel processors cost a few hundred $US. The top-shelf A7 costs something like $17. The difference is smaller at the low end, but it's still significant.

I wouldn't be surprised to see a low-end iMac with an AX chip or two in the next few years.

There's no reason to go ARM in a desktop though. Power isn't an issue there by definition. At best you get power parity, at worst, it's a step back. Then you have the overhead of updating OS X and developers have to update their apps.

ARM, if it comes to the Mac line, will have to be speed comparable with whatever the then current Intel CPU is AND offer something like 2x the battery life. The challenge is that above a certain point more battery life isn't as compelling. I'm on my Air right now, 91% left and it has at least 5 more hours left. Doubling that back to 10 hours would be compelling. But doubling it again from 10 to 20 and I don't care. Sure that would be nice in some edge cases (forget the adapter on a trip) but... meh.

If you ever see an ARM CPU in a Mac, it will be a co-processor letting OS X run iOS apps natively without emulation.

An Apple-designed x86 CPU is a different story altogether. I doubt they would give up Intel for most of their line, but a low power, custom designed x86 chip could make the MacBook Air even thinner and lighter.

@Peter Both of my daughters (age 5 & 6) are entering a new Magnet school in the fall with an advanced curriculum that is based heavily on school work done thru computers. A portion of the classrooms have Google Chromebooks for each child and others have Macs. At this new price point this weekend is the optimal time for me to go ahead and get them a Mac desktop of their own. As always thank you for your point of view on who could benefit from this new model.

I think this works well for retail because I see many stores now use the iMac as the PSI system instead of the traditional cash machine.

Thinking of this for my mother - it will run Safari, Mail, iPhoto and Word just fine, and the all-in-one housing is perfect for her desk.

I haven't done a comprehensive spec comparison, but it basically seems to me like a MacBook Air 13" in an iMac chassis.

My MBA-13" does everything I can possibly currently need (including web / iOS / OSX development). I'm sure I will eventually run into some speed annoyances when my projects grow large enough, but the MBA-13" is a freaking workhorse. It even plays games reasonably (I play largely Blizzard games and a few Steam games, but it handles those amicably).

The *only* concern I would have is assuming it's pushing a lot more pixels with the HD5000 integrated GPU.

I think it could *easily* drive the majority of home computer usages. I'm considering picking up one of these little guys... :)

If all you do is browse the web and do light office work, with a processor that weak, you're not going to buy a $1,000 computer. You're going to buy something half that price.

Apple is really misstepping lately. Stop focusing on useless junk and give your customers what they want! An updated Mac mini already! How many times do you need to hear people post this and cover it in the news?????

Apparently Apple has not heard the sales 101 phrase that it's far easier to keep an existing customer than get a new one. What they don't realize is keeping a customer involves LISTENING TO THEM!

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I am often baffled when a multi-core processor running at gigahertz+ speeds is considered "slow". It is within, I'm sure, the core memory of most of the people here that it wasn't too long ago when half or less of that power cost twice as much, and you still got your work done. Add to that an integral 2 megapixel display, 8 gigs of ram, and affordable storage to whatever you want, we live in the best of all worlds right now. This new offering from Apple is just the Plymouth Rock of that new world for millions.

I suppose if you always looked behind instead of current or forward you would think anything was great. I guess by that standard we should all be buying 8-track cassettes and convince ourselves that at one time it was great so it must still be great. Computer tech has always, and will always continue to outperform itself every 6-12 months. If Apple was charging customers an fair price for it's outdated processors and systems - that would be one thing - but to once again mark up an outdated system, slap on a nice display and price it as though it's a modern pinnacle performer, I'm sorry but I'm not buying it. I suppose all you sheeple will be convinced it's great and continue to baa along in your blindness.

...and if that's the case, I've got some 1+ year old systems I'd love to sell you for more than what they're worth also - feel free to IM me.

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This is, not in anyway, a dumbed down machine. It still has the best display of any desktop PC of any kind. The specs aren't impressive but believe me, they are still more than enough for the iMac to be a great general computing and entertainment machine.

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