Apple updates iMac with Haswell, 802.11ac, Nvidia 700 graphics

Apple on Tuesday announced updated iMac computers equipped with Intel's fourth-generation Core "Haswell" microprocessors and other improvements. They're available beginning today at the same prices as before: 21.5-inch iMacs start at $1,299, while 27-inch models start at $1,799.

The 21.5-inch iMac comes with a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and eschews discrete graphics for Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics, which Apple claims offers "discrete graphics-level performance."

The higher-end 21.5-inch model and both 27-inch models come with quad-core i5 processors and Nvidia GeForce 700-series discrete graphics processors that Apple says are up to 40 percent faster, with twice the video memory. Configure-to-order options include quad-core i7 processors and Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M graphics.

Like the MacBook Air, the first Mac model to feature Haswell processors, the iMac gets 802.11ac, or "gigabit Wi-Fi," which Apple claims is up to three times faster than the 802.11n Wi-Fi found on previous iMacs (when paired with an 802.11ac router like Apple's 2013 AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule).

Storage options include conventional hard drive, "Fusion" drive which combine flash and regular hard drive, and all-flash storage. The iMac gets PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage this time around, yielding faster performance (hard drives in iMacs are still SATA-based).

iMacs come standard with 8GB of RAM, configurable to 32GB, and 1TB of hard drive. Two external Thunderbolt ports and four USB 3.0 ports enable you to attach external peripherals; an SDXC card slot, headphone jack and Gigabit Ethernet port round out the connections found on the back of the iMac - all unchanged from last year. Bluetooth 4.0 is also carried over.

Apple unveiled the iMac amid much fanfare in an October event last year, but it was slow to get the new model to stores - in part, we are told, because of fabrication issues with the new glass screens produced for last year's model.

This iMac is an iterative change; the design is the same as last year, so Apple won't have the same production issues as 2012 - in fact, the company says the new models are available immediately.

Performance of the 21.5-inch machine is, on paper, pretty much the same - both models have processors running at the same clock speed as last year: 2.7 GHz for the low-end model; 2.9 GHz for the high end 21.5-inch iMac. The 27-inch model gets a bit of a bump - the $1,799 model went from 2.9 GHz to 3.2 GHz, while the $1,999 model bounced from 3.2 GHz to 3.4.

None of this should be too surprising: improving core processor performance isn't a hallmark of the Haswell architecture. Improving integrated graphics performance certainly is, which is why Apple opted for the integrated Intel Iris Pro instead of a more expensive discrete chip from Nvidia, which the rest of the iMac product line enjoys. Time will tell how well the Iris Pro performs.

We know the Mac Pro will be getting Thunderbolt 2 when it debuts later this year - delivering twice the peripheral bandwidth as the Thunderbolt found on other Macs. The absence of Thunderbolt 2 shouldn't be unexpected on the new iMac, as it's based around the same basic processor architecture used in the MacBook Air, which has the original Thunderbolt as well. It also helps Apple to differentiate the iMac from the Mac Pro, for this year, at least.

The MacBook Air heralded a new generation of Macs equipped with the latest generation of Intel Core processors, and other enhancements to improve efficiency and productivity. We fully expected Apple to adopt the technology in other Mac products, so this is a welcome enhancement. It's been a long wait since the new MacBook Air rolled off the production line in June. Refreshed MacBook Pros and a new Mac mini are sure to follow. The question then, becomes "When?"

Mavericks will be out in October, and based on Apple's history, they will release new Mac hardware around the same time as their Q4 fiscal results call. (Apple's fourth fiscal quarter for FY2013 is over at the end of this month; they typically report those results by mid to late October.) We know the Mac Pro is coming before the end of the year, but the bread and butter of the Mac line is the MacBook Pro - Apple sells more of those than anything else. Given the significant impact the Haswell processor has had on the refreshed MacBook Air, which has been a hot seller ever since its June debut, I expect Apple wanted the iMacs out of the way so it can shine a separate spotlight on the new MacBook Pros.

What do you think about the new iMac? Is Haswell, 802.11ac, and some of the other enhancements enough to make you want to buy a new desktop machine? Or are you more interested in a new laptop? Sound off in the comments.

Peter Cohen