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The case for the 4K 21-inch iMac

While the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro might outsell the venerable iMac, it occupies a special place in Apple history. It was Apple's first big success after years of selling poorly-differentiated, badly-made beige boxes, and it set the momentum for all of Apple's success through the late 90s and early 00s. In October 2014, Apple introduced the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. Since then they've created a second, lower-priced 27-inch 5K iMac model. Now it seems that before too long, a 21-inch iMac with Retina display will join the party.

There is definitely a market for a 21-inch iMac with a Retina display.

What I can say without question is that there is definitely a market for a 21-inch iMac with a Retina display.

We sell the full line of Mac laptops and desktops at the Apple reseller I work at on the weekends. My customers that shop for new desktop computers love the 27-inch iMac. The 27-inch model's screen real estate, even on the non-Retina displays, is enormous. It's an ideal machine for creative content, and it's also a spectacular home computer.

The 27-inch iMac sports gobs of power and elegant design, but it's simply too much screen for a lot of our customers, especially those shopping for a new home computer. It's as big as some televisions, and that's simply more space than many folks are willing to give up in their home, for a computer.

They turn to the 21-inch model. The 21-inch system's specs pass the initial sniff test. One of the first questions is, "Does this have the Retina display too?" They always look crestfallen when I tell them no. At 1920 x 1080 pixels, the 21-inch iMac certainly offers plenty of desktop space, but it's still a bit of a disappointment to many potential buyers that the same option isn't available. I'm sure this is a product gap that Apple is well aware of and would like to fill.

One way or the other, Apple seems poised to refresh the iMac later this year. If current rumors are anything to go on, that shouldn't be before too long. KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said this week that Apple plans to release new iMacs by the end of September.

Kuo said that Apple will introduce better-quality displays in the next round of iMacs, but he didn't specify a 4K or 5K resolution for the 21-inch model. He didn't mention what sort of processor is likely to be inside the new iMacs. It appears to be a tossup between Intel's Broadwell and Skylake microprocessors.

The case for the 4K 21-inch iMac

Broadwell processors are now in full production. Intel releases its new sixth-generation Skylake processors en masse this month. They are already making their way out into the world, according to reports.

What's more, recent beta versions of OS X 10.11 El Capitan indicate support for new graphics modes on iMacs, including what appears to be a 21-inch iMac with 4K resolution. So the pieces are falling into place for a refreshed 21-inch iMac with a much better screen than before.

I don't think we're in any danger of seeing the 21-inch iMac go Retina-only.

Having said that, I don't think we're in any danger of seeing the 21-inch iMac go Retina-only. I suspect this would appear as a premium-priced model. Apple continues to offer a 27-inch iMac model without the 5K display, for example.

The smaller iMac is available in configurations starting at $1,099. Stock configurations top out at $1,499: That nets you a faster system equipped with a discrete graphics processor — something that you'd want with a higher-resolution display. With the 27-inch iMac starting at $1,799, it's not out of the question to imagine a higher-tier 21-inch model with a bit more oomph and a 4K display to boot.

Would you be interested in a 21-inch iMac with Retina display, or do you think the 27-inch 5K iMac is a better value? Or are your days of desktop computing behind you all together? Sound off in the comments, let me know what you think.

21 Comments
  • Peter - I think it would be great if they gave the smaller iMac the retina treatment. Personally, I am interested in the 27" model though. If they do change the chip to Broadwell or Skylake on the 21" model, do you think they would also refresh the 27" model to a chip later than Haswell?
  • I run a lab-full (500+) of 21-inch iMacs. I hope they keep a decently specced non-retina model in the line. If the only way to get decent CPUs and graphics is the high-end Retina model, I'll be disappointed. Incremental costs add up over 500+ machines.
  • I think a 21 inch retina would do well as long as they can keep the price within reason. And I know users would love working on one. I have the 27" retina as my main home computer and it's been incredibly useful. And my guess is that once the price point numbers work, Mr C will pull the trigger. The retina is a pleasure to use for everything but particularly for working with photos. As a professional writer and photographer I am in Lightroom on a daily basis. And the retina display means you'r seeing the photograph at close to the resolution it would be printed at. That means my adjustments are being displayed to me at the level of detail I need even in full screen mode. I have to use my 72 dpi MacBook Air for basic photo adjustments when I'm on the road and that's like trying to work with blinders on. I do the basics on the Air but save the real post-production till I get home.
  • Personally, the 27" iMac (2560x1440) was, and is, still an great WQHD display. My eyes are not great as is, so when I was in the store I could not tell the difference between the 5k and the WQHD screen 27" displays.. so I just /shrugged it off as a flashy 'display' obsessed thing.. still do.. We're already to the point where Smartphones going any further doesn't matter. 95% of the people might SAY it does, but when put up to a blind test, they are clueless and cannot tell the difference. These are the people that just blindly go with 'more' is better.. heh
  • Too bad you can't tell the difference. I assure you there are those of us who can and we appreciate it, from text on a website to details in a photo. I have the 5k iMac and my work PC has 3 "cinema display clones" (2560x1440, 27", supposed to be the same panel, but different backlight - $450ea from Monoprice) I can honestly say there is a clear difference to me. I could put the higher res screen to better use for the CAD work I do on the PC, but I/we can't afford >$3000 for 3ea 4K displays! Sent from the iMore App
  • Pfffh screw that update the MacBook Air display to 1080p Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I would be way more into a 4k 21" than a 5k 27". The 27" is just a little too big to pick up and carry around.
  • I'd settle for a 21 with a non retina display that came with a decent graphics card.
  • Yeah, no kidding. The current iMac was outdated and over priced when it came out in 2013, and it hasn't gotten any better or cheaper. I ended up biting the 5K bullet since I saw it as a better value as far as $:performance ratio. I didn't NEED the 5K or even the 27", but the non-5K had a lesser CPU, GPU & no fusion drive, also no ThunderBolt 2, and slower Wi-Fi. And the 21" iMac was even below that (and the HDD was a 2.5" 5400rpm (vs 3.5" 7200rpm). I got an open-box 5K (original base model) for $1800 at best buy ($2300 new). The mid-grade 21" (with dedicated GPU) was $1300 open box ($1500 new!!!). That $500 got me MUCH more performance than the initial $1300. So, yeah, time for the 21" iMac to be much improved with a much reduced price, IMO. Or you know, give me all the options to spec out the iMac without it costing more than an already better 27". Sent from the iMore App
  • Will 27" 5k iMac be updated to a new processor this fall?
  • Noticed your accompanying image and again have to ask: whatever happened to Ally?! Did I miss the announcement of her departure?
  • I think that the article says it all. A 21" iMac with a *better* display is certainly in order, but 4K is not exactly an "essential" for anyone really and most of the "spec-heads" that would think they want a 4K monitor would be the same guys that would never choose a 21" iMac to begin with. 21" iMacs are bought by sensible people who just want a good basic computer. While these people are currently given short shrift by Apple and better components all around for the 21" would be helpful, 4K is overkill for the most part. It's more of a marketing feature than anything practical. Also if including it means raising the price, then it will be an option instead of a given because a raised price destroys most of the value the 21" model has in the first place.
  • True, "forcing" the retina upon the 21" would render the 21" as less of an "economy" iMac, but it was never really a great value when compared to other Macs, on a price:performance scale. Not to mention that they still haven't reduced the price on the 2013 models. Sent from the iMore App
  • Basically agree, but what gets overlooked here is that OS X is looking duller and duller on non-Retina screens. Pretty much all new developments (translucency, better typeface etc.) really only come to live on high resolution displays. It makes sense for Apple to have all devices supporting high DPI, so all users will get a comparable experience.
  • Nope. 1080p is fine on a screen that size. For someone who works on a tricked out iMac for heavy pro video and photo editing, I can see why it would make sense there, though. But then they're probably better off getting the bigger screen, so yea... Honestly, they need to bring their prices down a bit, cause the specs are falling behind the prices as more and more as time moves on.
  • TC ... Please a monitor or an iMac so that I can use the screen with the USB-C on my 12" MacBook.
  • Being some one that bought a 27 5k this year I must say, EVERY screen I look at besides my 5k stinks. Just like upgrading a couple years ago to a Retina iPad, everytime I pick up a non Retina my eyes go out of focus. Once you get used to something new its hard to go back to the old. I hope they make a 4 or 5k 21 so everyone can enjoy a better screen.
  • Of course it makes good sense. We have somewhere north of 180 20"/21" iMacs due for replacement in the company, and for many tasks 27" are simply not needed (and some people do not have that much space on their desk either). We would totally pay a premium for a more future-proof Retina version. Maybe we can "finally" get some Cinema/Thunderbolt Display replacement as well... this is getting extremely long in the tooth (no Retina, no USB 3, no Thunderbolt 2, but priced as if).
  • I think it's all about price. People who can't afford a 27" model will look at the 21.5", just like people who can't afford a Corvette will look at that butt-ugly Camaro. Of course they'll tell their friends that it was what they really wanted, but if they win the lottery they're at the Corvette store first thing in the morning.
  • Skip - I think the size of the Mac plays a part in decisions too. Many people are hard pressed to devote the space required for a 27" iMac versus the 21" model. In fact a lot of people prefer laptops because of versatility and because they don't have to make a permanent commitment of space to it. Personally I prefer the 27" and plan to get one when skylake comes out. But I do own a spec'd out 21" deployed in a spare bedroom because it takes less space.
  • I have my MacBook Pro connected to a 52 inch HD TV, so why would I want to fork out more money for an all-in-one?