Monday, July 13, 2015

Tech review: Apple iMac 21"

Apple has been pretty slow to update its iMac line, apart from adding some higher-spec models with 5K screens at the top end of the line which, in my opinion, doesn't really count.

They're probably waiting for the next generation of Intel processors or something, but to a consumer like me I don't care. When I look at their online store and can only afford to buy the November 2013 model (yes, almost two years old), I'm pretty disappointed.

Yeah, I know – poor me.

Why I bought an iMac in the first place (or, justification for purchasing an overpriced calculator)

For some time I needed to get a new Mac for my businesses as my laptop (a 2011 model) was starting to show signs of getting old and I didn't want to risk the thing going kaput in the middle of a crucial edit. If there wasn't such an urgency, I would have waited until there was a complete refresh but I had no idea how long Apple would take to do this.

Some would argue that I might as well get a PC, but I'm still very much wary of Windows and its inherent awfulness. OS X is not perfect but I would choose it over Microsoft's offering any day. At least, for now....

So, I decided to bite the bullet and get the machine on finance. I opted for a build-to-order option with a more powerful processor so it took a few weeks to arrive (via Kazakhstan no less). Thankfully my laptop stayed alive until it did (and is still going strong!).

An honest review

Well, it's slim and great looking. iMacs always have been (even the older, fruit-flavoured Macs were pleasing to the eye back when the only option was a CRT monitor). In fact, the thinness is pretty remarkable. Looking at it, you have to marvel at how they pack all the internal gubbins into such a slight frame. Essentially, it's a laptop with a huge screen welded to it.

I'd ordered a wired keyboard because I like the larger form with the arrow keys and side keypad on the right. I much prefer it to the smaller bluetooth keyboards that come as standard, which need their batteries replaced periodically. Plus, I ditched the magic mouse as well. Even though they're pretty nifty with their trackpad thingy on top, they are an ergonomic deathwish. Horrible things to use. Are Apple seriously trying to cripple their users??? 

With most Apple offerings, the great design and appearance is a given. What about using the thing?
Well, overall I am pretty disappointed. We've had iMacs in the home since the early 2000s, and this is the first one where I've been let down by the speed. We have an older, family iMac which is about 5 years old running Snow Leopard and even though it's ancient in computer terms, it's quite responsive. My new iMac has a 3.1Ghz quad-core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and 1GB of video memory. Not particularly underpowered, it would seem, so why so slow? I think it's actually the OS (Yosemite) which is the problem.

For example, click on the 'About This Mac' from the Apple menu in my old iMac and it comes up almost instantly. Do the same on this new one and you might as well go and make a cup of tea while you wait – and that's for just a simple operation. Imagine what you have to do when you've actually working.

I mainly use this new machine to do video editing in Premiere Pro and After Effects, with a bit of work in Photoshop. While these applications can be a bit slow at times (and occasionally crash, which is infuriating), they work OK. The only time when the raw power of the machine (which is there, somewhere) comes into play is when I'm rendering. At least then, it seems like the computer is actually working hard for me and all that money I'm forking out doesn't seem a complete waste. Rendering is much quicker than on my laptop, and shorter render times are ultimately what's important for my business. Time is, after all, money.

Then there's the fact that there's no DVD drive.

Now, actually I don't mind this. It kind of makes sense. Apple has a reputation for ditching old technology before it's completely disappeared. Disc drives are truly a thing of the noughties, and now that we have high-capacity USB drives, streaming and cloud storage the need for them is becoming less and less. DVD and its newer cousin Blu-Ray aren't completely gone yet but they soon will be, just like the humble cassette tape, so it isn't totally daft that Apple are ahead of the game in this area.

It used to be that I always had to supply videos to clients on DVD or CD but this is becoming less and less common as virtual storage becomes more acceptable. If I need to create a DVD I can always use my laptop (as long as it's still working!), and at some point I'll probably invest in an external disc drive (one that burns Blu-Rays as well) anyway.

One final niggle is the fact that it's not easy to upgrade the machine. Because of its small and slim form-factor, replacing the RAM is a feat only to be accomplished by professional, Apple-certified technicians. It involves removing the screen and other essential parts that only the bold and brave should attempt. Doing it myself would not only void the warranty but probably render the computer inoperable due to my butter-finger bumbling clumsiness. Put simply, I would kill it.

This is OK, I guess, but given that it would cost in the region of an eye-watering £200.00 just to beef up the RAM to 16GB (it won't go higher than that, unbelievably) it seems unfair and mean especially as they've taken away the disc drive. Apple should start with a minimum of 16GB for base models with an option to upgrade it to 32GB if people really wanted. 8GB seems just too little for a modern computer (and a premium one, at that), especially given the clunkiness of Yosemite which clearly needs more oomph to make it run smoothly.

So where do we go from here?
My experience with this new machine is disappointing, to say the least, and makes me wonder if Apple really does give a monkeys about its computer division. It feels like they are updating computers more infrequently (the Mac Pro, it's high-end supercomputer offering, hasn't had an update for almost two years either), and when they are they don't seem to bother with much of a power-boost or any truly innovative features. Not that I want my iMac to have a touchscreen or fingerprint ID recognition or anything like that – I just want it to power through tasks effortlessly.

While Apple is more of a mobile tech company now than it is a computer company, there is some sense in still maintaining its computer line, purely because – as someone has pointed out – its mobile devices rely so much on developers who use Macintosh computers to create apps for iPhones and iPads. So in that sense, I'd be very surprised if Apple suddenly does away with its computers. They are updating them, just not very often, which I guess is a move away from the olden days when Macs were the primary source of income for the company.

There's also the issue that your average, everyday consumer doesn't need that much power. Most of today's computers can handle HD video quite happily and that will probably be the most processor-intensive task required of it (apart from games, I suppose). If you're doing hyper-realistic 3D graphics or scientific calculations, a top-of-the-range powerhouse will be needed – but then price won't be such an issue to big organisations as it is to the average consumer, so they can shell out for the top-of-the-line models with gobs of RAM.

I'm hoping the OS X issue will be fixed when the new version of OS X (El Capitan) comes along in the autumn. Apple claims that the new version of its operating system has been tweaked to deliver performance enhancements and will run faster than Yosemite, so I wait with eager anticipation.

If things don't improve, there's a real danger this Mac fanboy just might turn to the dark side and consider delving into the world of PCs.

And that would be a shame. A real shame.

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