If you’re willing to entertain using macOS, Apple’s 21.5-inch iMac is one of the hottest all-in-ones contending for your cash. It’s a more comfortable size for many desks than its 27-inch sibling, after all.
Even before its 2019 update, the 21.5-inch iMac’s specs were appealing, most notably its 4K display with sharp picture quality and rich color that makes apps nice to look at, and photos and videos vibrant and detailed. (That said, the iTunes Store still doesn’t serve up 4K movies to Macs, so don’t buy one expecting that!)
This is a fine choice of desktop computer for general tasks like web browsing, email and productivity apps for managing your life. That doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of running more ambitious apps – it can. But, it’s a comfortable and neat fit for many people, especially if you don’t spend a huge amount of time in front of your computer.
Don’t rush to the 27-inch iMac because your desktop is often cluttered with windows. The Mac’s operating system offers low-friction features like Mission Control to help navigate your on-screen workspace easily. These help a great deal even on something as small as the 12-inch MacBook – and that invaluable feature in particular is triggered with a memorable gesture on Apple’s mouse.
Here is the 21.5-inch Apple iMac configuration sent to TechRadar for review
CPU: 3.0GHz Intel Core i5-8500 (six-core, 9MB cache, up to 4.1GHz with Turbo Boost)
Graphics: AMD Radeon Pro 560X (4GB VRAM)
RAM: 8GB DDR4 (2,666MHz)
Screen: 21.5-inch 4K (4,096 x 2,304) Retina display (P3 wide color)
Storage: 1TB Fusion Drive (32GB SSD plus 1TB hard disk)
Ports: 4x USB 3 (Type-A), 2x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), SDXC card slot, 3.5mm headphone jack, Gigabit Ethernet, Kensington lock slot
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2
Operating system: macOS 10.14.4 Mojave
Camera: FaceTime HD
Weight: 12.5 pounds (5.66kg)
Size: 20.8 x 6.9 x 17.7 inches (52.8 x 17.5 x 45cm; W x D x H)
Price and availability
Before we dive into what’s new in the 21.5-inch iMac, a warning is needed about the $1,099 (£1049/AUS$1,699) model at the bottom of the range. It contains older hardware: a 7th-generation Intel Core processor with relatively weak integrated graphics, a hard disk for storage and a display with a pixel density that’s likely far less sharp than the one in your phone.
If you want a bona fide entry-level 2019 iMac, they start at $1,299 (£1,249/AUS$1,999). There’s one other off-the-shelf 21.5-inch iMac configuration in the line-up, which costs $1,499 (£1,449/AUS$2,299). Both configurations feature an 8th-gen Intel Core processor.
The former has a 3.6GHz quad-core i3 that lacks Intel’s Turbo Boost tech. The latter, which we tested, is equipped with a 3.0GHz six-core i5. Turbo Boost, which can raise the clock speed of active cores when some aren’t needed, can take this Core i5’s clock speed up to 4.1GHz.
The two new 21.5-inch iMac models also differ in their graphics processors (GPU): a Radeon Pro 555X with 2GB of dedicated memory on the cheaper model, while a bigger wad of cash gets you a Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB of dedicated memory.
Storage is the other difference. Unsurprising given Apple does it on 27-inch iMacs too, neither 21.5-inch iMac includes a capacious SSD by default. The cheaper model in fact has a plain 1TB hard disk, while the other has a 1TB Fusion Drive – neither is ideal.
If you want a 21.5-inch iMac with the responsiveness that a computer deserves in 2019, budget for at least another $100 (about £90/AUS$160) beyond the stock configurations’ prices, so you can ditch the old-school storage tech. The exact amount will vary depending on which price point you start at, and the drive capacity too, naturally. If needed, allow a bit more for an external drive, too.
The 21.5-inch iMac’s looks are ultimately the same as the larger 27-inch model, so our criticisms of that – and our praise, too – hold true about its aesthetics. Even more so, in fact, because the thick bezel and tall chin stand out more without a huge screen dominating your vision.
As we’ve said about the 27-inch iMac, the design doesn’t look bad, but it’s looking old hat. Even at an overall smaller size, the graceful curved back helps the 21.5-inch iMac to blend in better with its surroundings than the thick design from before 2012.
One thing that stands out on the smaller iMac, though, is its fan. During heavier tests, like HEVC video conversion in HandBrake, it is certainly more noticeable than the 27-inch iMac fan. It still isn’t so loud that our ears need a break, but bear it in mind for creative work that benefits from quietness – in particular, anything to do with audio.
When you spend a bit extra to get a true 2019 21.5-inch iMac, the most immediately noticeable difference is its Retina 4K display.
This more than doubles the base model’s horizontal and vertical resolution to 4,096 x 2,304 pixels – true 4K, not ‘UHD’. Like the 27-inch iMac’s Retina 5K display, it supports the P3 color gamut, meaning it can display billions of colors.
Well, sort of. Temporal and spatial dithering techniques are used to alternate the color of pixels or arrange them so that human eyes interpret the effect as a blend.
Many other all-in-ones around the same screen size as the 21.5-inch iMac offer a 1,920 x 1,080 (FHD) or a 2,560 x 1,440 (QHD) display. So, you’re getting something that little bit better with the iMac’s panel. It’s ideal for photo editing, especially if your camera can capture all the colors supported by the Retina 4K display’s P3 gamut.
Some rivals, such as HP, don’t offer a 4K display in all-in-ones of this size. HP’s ProOne 600 can be configured with an 8th-gen processor, 8GB of RAM (of the same speed as the iMac’s) and a 256GB SSD for less than the 21.5-inch iMac costs. However, as we also warned in our 27-inch iMac review, you have to watch out for where compromises are made.
Though this computer is cheaper than the new 21.5-inch iMac – it’s priced closer to the older model Apple is maintaining at the bottom of its range – its IPS display has a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. It is marketed as a business PC, after all.
Creative professionals might choose the 27-inch iMac for its Retina 5K display to show more of their content at once. But what the 21-inch iMac’s Retina 4K sacrifices in workspace, it makes up for with the quality of its display relative to many rivals.
The 21.5-inch iMac comes with Apple’s Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Keyboard, which are divisive. If you don’t get on with the mouse’s sensitivity or shape, consider swapping for a Magic Trackpad 2 for $50 (£50/AU$60) at checkout. Need a numeric keypad? Then $30 (£30/AU$30) more at checkout gets you a full-length keyboard.
You may be disappointed that, even if you order a custom build through its online store, Apple does not offer an option to remove the mouse and keyboard from your purchase to save money and continue using your existing set.
That’s partly because Apple wants you to embrace its multi-touch gestures, which absolutely make a difference to benefitting from macOS features like the Mission Control workspace manager, super-smooth scrolling and zooming in on content.