2014 iMac reviewed, new low-cost consumer Mac

Apple has updated its range of iMacs for 2014, reducing prices across the range and also introducing a new low-cost model that costs £899, but is significantly slower than last year's entry-level iMac. Read on for our lab tests of the new budget iMac.

In this review we will also be comparing the new 2014 £899 iMac with other similarly priced and speced Macs, including the MacBook Air, the Mac Mini, and the previous entry-level iMac from 2013 (which is still available now for £1,049).

We also offer the following iMac reviews

Not sure which Mac to buy? Read our Best Mac buyers guide

Budget iMac – how much does the new 2014 iMac cost?

The rumours were true - Apple has indeed launched a new entry-level iMac. You can now get an iMac for £899, where previously the entry-level iMac cost £1,149. That's a saving of £250.

Back in 2009 the entry-level 20in iMac cost £782, and there was also a 20in £929 model, so this isn't the cheapest ever iMac, however, it is the cheapest iMac for a few years.

As for whether it's worth £899, that depends. It's good that there is a lower price option for the iMac range, but it's a high price to pay for what is essentially a very low spec machine, as you will see if you read on.

The obvious comparison is with the MacBook Air, which offers a similar spec at a similar price. You can read our comparison of the two models below. However, we will start by looking at how the new 1.4GHz iMac compares with the 2013 entry-level iMac.

2014 entry-level iMac versus 2013 entry-level iMac

This year's entry-level iMac is a completely new mode. Rather than drop the price on last year's £1,149 21.5in model, which offered a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive and Intel Iris Pro graphics; this year's lowest cost option offers 1.4GHz, 8GB RAM, 500GB hard drive, and Intel HD Graphics 5000, for £899.

Those specs are more comparable to the MacBook Air as you will see below. It is very much an entry-level model reminiscent of Apple's eMac which was designed for education and discontinued some years ago.

It appears that to arrive at the new lower priced iMac Apple has made a number of trade-offs, as you will see as we take a closer look at the specs of the machines and revealed our test results below.

New 2014 iMac spec - how much slower is the new £899 model?

How does the spec of the new iMac line up compare to the 2013 iMac models? And specifically, just how much slower than the 2013 entry-level iMac than the next model up in the range?

Macworld Labs has tested the new entry-level iMac and compared it to 2013's entry-level model (now available for £1,049). The new 21.5in 1.4GHz iMac scored 116 in our Speedmark 9 tests. Last year's 2.7GHz iMac scored 179. This means that last year's entry-level iMac has a score that is 54% higher than this year's entry-level iMac. 

If you examine the specs shown below it isn't surprising that the new model is slower, but it is significantly slower than what was previously the entry-level model, which Apple sold for £1,149 until it recently reduced the price.

It's worth keeping an eye on Apple's refurbished store for deals on the 2013 model. For example, you can currently pick up a refurbished 21.5-inch iMac 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 from September 2013 for £999 (if you buy it new that model costs £1,199).

How does the new budget iMac compare to the 2.7GHz entry-level model from 2013?

With the new £899 iMac Apple has made some price-versus-power choices. As we said above, the new entry-level iMac has more in common with the MacBook Air range than the previous entry-level iMac.

The 2013 entry-level iMac features the same 21.5in screen, but it boasts a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; Intel Iris Pro graphics. And when it launched it cost £250 more at £1,149. However, now it has had a price drop you can buy it for £1,049.

By comparison, the new 2014 entry-level iMac offers a 21.5in screen but a slower, 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, the same 8GB RAM, a smaller 500TB hard drive; and slower Intel HD Graphics 5000. It costs £150 less at £899.

The upgrade options on the new £899 iMac are also pretty much non existent when compared with the rest of the range. There is no incremental processor upgrade, no graphics upgrade and no RAM upgrades available (indeed it is impossible to upgrade the RAM because Apple is using LPDDR3 RAM that is soldered on to the motherboard).

The other iMacs in the line can be upgraded to 16GB at the time of purchase. RAM in these Macs isn't easy to update yourself but it can be done.

However, you can choose to include a 1TB Fusion Drive when you purchase this iMac from Apple. As you will see from our review of the budget iMac with Fusion Drive we recommend that you do this as the SSD drive makes a significant improvement to the machine that warrants the extra £200 (full price £1,099), indeed we would recommend doing this over buying the 2.7GHz iMac at £1,049. 

As you can see from our bench mark results, there is a wide performance gap between the low-end iMac of 2014 and last year's entry-level model.

Read:

How does the new range of iMacs compare to 2013's line up?

If you ignore the newly added entry-level iMac, there is little difference in the specs of the new machines compared to the rest of the range - which are last year's models. The real change appears to be the price, which is as much as £150 less for the 27in models. Read our review of the rest of the 2014 iMac range. Read on to compare the specs of the new and old machines.

The 2013 iMac line up was as follows:

  • 21.5in, 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; Intel Iris Pro graphics; £1,149
  • 21.5in, 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics with 1GB memory; £1,299
  • 27in, 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M graphics with 1GB memory; £1,599
  • 27in, 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; NVIDIA GeForce GT 775M graphics with 2GB memory; £1,749

The 2014 iMac line up is as follows:

  • 21.5in, 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 500TB hard drive; Intel HD Graphics 5000; £899
  • 21.5in, 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; Intel Iris Pro graphics; £1,049 (the new price means you can save £100 on last year's price for the same model)
  • 21.5in, 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics with 1GB memory; £1,199 (the new price means you can save £100 on last year's price for the same model)
  • 27in, 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M graphics with 1GB memory; £1,449 (this is a saving of £150 on last year's price)
  • 27in, 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; NVIDIA GeForce GT 775M graphics with 2GB memory; £1,599 (this is a saving of £150 on last year's price)

2014 iMac versus 2014 MacBook Air

This new low cost iMac costs £150 more than the entry-level 11in MacBook Air and is the same price as the other 11in MacBook Air. The iMac and MacBook Airs have comparable features at comparable prices, so these models are crying out for comparison. 

Both Macs offer a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and Intel's HD Graphics 5000 graphics chip.

However the iMac offers 8GB memory rather than the 4GB offered as standard in the MacBook Air, and the iMac offers a 500GB hard drive, as opposed to the 128GB SSD flash drive in the £749 MacBook Air, or the 256GB SSD in the £899 MacBook Air.

Macworld Labs has tested the £899 iMac and the £899 MacBook Air. In our Speedmark 9 tests the 1.4GHz MacBook Air scored 139, compared to the 116 score of the iMac. This suggests that the MacBook Air is a faster machine, as well as costing the same, or £150 less at £749 depending on which model you choose.

It is likely that the main reason the MacBook Air is faster is its SSD drive (flash memory is faster than a standard hard drive). Indeed, when we added a 1TB Fusion Drive (which combines a hard drive with an SSD and costs an additional £200 as a build to order option) to the new 1.4GHz iMac it managed a score of 143.

Flash copies files faster than a hard drive, hence we saw the 500GB hard drive in the 1.4GHz iMac take 151 seconds to copy a 6GB set of files and folders compared to the Fusion Drive which finished the same task in just 41 seconds. Similarly, unzipping a compressed version of this data set took over three minutes with the 500GB hard drive, but just 67 seconds with the Fusion Drive in the CTO system. Even with the boost of the Fusion Drive the iMac is still slowed by its 1.4GHz processor.

The key difference between the MacBook Air and the new entry-level iMac, other than portability, is the storage available. Either you opt for a slower 500GB hard drive, or you can get 128GB of flash storage and a faster system overall. For the same price of £899 you could get a 256GB flash drive in your MacBook Air. We'd happily pay for an external hard drive for extra storage and use flash storage on a daily basis for the speed boost.

RAM is the other big difference. The new entry-level iMac comes with 8GB RAM as standard. This is not upgradable, not even at point of purchase, as it is soldered on. The MacBook Air comes with 4GB RAM as standard, but this can be upgraded to 8GB for an additional £80 (and we always recommend adding more RAM).

In some tests the iMac with its 8GB RAM was slightly faster than the MacBook Air with 4GB RAM. For example, in graphics tests the £899 iMac posted frame rates between 11 and 15 percent higher than the MacBook Air. The new iMac was also faster than the MacBook Air in the iMovie test. Overall, however, the new low-end iMac was 17 percent slower than the MacBook Air.

Read our review of the 2014 11in MacBook Air and 2014 13in MacBook Air.

Budget iMac specs: processor

The 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor is the same one as you will find in the 11in MacBook Air. It is therefore not surprising that the two machines returned similar results in our Geekbench 3 tests.

The iMac was, however, a fraction faster, with the MacBook Air storing 2838 points for a single core and 5464 points for multi-core operation, while the 11-inch MacBook Air scored 2762 and 5392 points respectively, giving the iMac very slight advantage of around 2 percent.

In our Cinebench R11.5 tests we also saw exactly the same scores from the MacBook and budget iMac. Both machines returned returning 1.13 and 2.58 points respectively.

Budget iMac specs: storage

The entry-level iMac comes with a 500GB hard drive, this is a slow hard drive running at 5400-rpm that would normally be destined for a laptop. The other 21.5in iMacs also feature 5400 rpm drives while the 27in models offer faster 7200-rpm drives.

All iMacs ship as standard with hard drives not SSD flash drives. This is a factor that works against the iMac as a whole, as a SSD will speed up the machine considerably. Luckily there are upgrade options available at point of sale.

We ran a number of hard drive tests on the entry-level iMac. OS X took 1 min 13 sec to start up; it took 3 min 43 seconds to 3GB directory of 40,000 files was compressed and unzipped; and zipping an app to create a single homogeneous file of 12GB took 5 min 20 sec.

With the SSD part of the Fusion Drive equipped iMac the results for these same tests were: 11 seconds; 1 minutes 38 seconds; and 57 seconds respectively.

Read about how installing a Fusion Drive in this iMac for an extra £200 will improve the speed of the machine.

Budget iMac specs: graphics

Where the 2013 entry-level model, now available for £1,049 features an Iris Pro, also known as the Intel HD Graphics 5200 graphics processor - the same as that fitted to the entry-level 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. The new low-price iMac ships with the same Intel HD Graphics 5000 graphics card that features in the current MacBook Air line up.

In our graphics tests (using the OpenGL section of Cinebench R11.5) of both the MacBook Air and entry-level iMac, we saw the latter pulling ahead slightly – 21.7 fps against the MacBook Air’s 18.5 fps.

If you are a game player this is not the Mac for you. We tested using Tomb Raider and Batman Arkham City and in both cases game play was poor due to frame rate limitations. Running Tomb Raider at reduced ‘1280 x 960’-pixel resolution and Low detail we saw a just-playable average frame rate of 29 fps, for example. In fact Feral warned us that this iMac does not meet minimum requirements for the game.

Budget iMac specs: screen

If you own an older iMac with a glossy screen then upgrading to a new iMac will at least rid you of that problem. The current range of iMacs are a lot less reflective than older models.

We tested using a Datacolor Spyder4Elite and found that the screen hit 100 percent coverage figure of the industry-standard sRGB colour gamut, and up to 80 per cent of the Adobe RGB gamut. Colour calibration and colour accuracy were also good.

2014 iMac specs: ports

With the exception of the new budget iMac, the current iMac line up is the same as the 2013 line up, but Apple has dropped prices. There are few differences to those iMacs that launched in October 2012, with their super-thin 5mm edge design and the glossy 1920-by-1080 IPS screen which is less reflective than older iMac models. Unfortunately for some, the thinner edges mean that the iMac cannot accommodate an optical drive. If you wish to purchase a SuperDrive from Apple, it costs £65.

Like the rest of the range, the new iMac offers the following ports:

  • Headphone
  • SDXC card slot
  • Four USB 3 ports (compatible with USB 2)
  • Two Thunderbolt ports
  • 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45 connector)

What configuration options will be available for the new £899 iMac

Apple offers various build to order options that you can add at the time of purchase. It is wise to do so, because it is rarely easy to upgrade a Mac after this time and doing so is likely to void your warranty.

However, as we mentioned above, the build-to-order (BTO) options on the new entry-level iMac for 2014 are limited compared with the rest of the range. We do recommend the Fusion Drive for an extra £200.

BTO options for the 2014 entry-level iMac:

  • 1TB hard drive, £40
  • 1TB Fusion Drive (combining a flash drive and a hard drive), £200
  • 256GB flash Storage, £200

There is no opportunity to add more RAM or change the processor in this model. Indeed, it is impossible to upgrade or change the RAM in the new entry-level iMac as the 8GB RAM that comes as standard is soldered on.

BTO options for top of the range 2014 iMac:

By comparison, if you were to look at the top of the range iMac in 2014 you could add the following build-to-order options:

  • 3.5GHz Quad-core Intel i7, £190
  • 16GB RAM, £160
  • 32GB RAM, £480
  • 3TB hard drive, £120
  • 1TB Fusion Drive, £160
  • 3TB Fusion Drive, £280
  • 256GB flash drive, £160
  • 512 flash drive, £400
  • 1TB flash drive, £800
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M with 4GB memory, £130

2014 budget iMac versus the Mac mini

Another Mac that begs for comparison with the new entry-level iMac is the Mac mini.

The Mac mini still hasn't been updated - it was last upgraded in October 2012 leading some to suppose that it is going to eventually be discontinued.

The price of the Mac mini was reduced in Europe when the new iMacs went on sale, but the entry-level Mac mini still retails at £499 in the UK. This is still £400 less than the entry-level iMac, but the iMac does include a screen, mouse, keyboard, and a superior processor and graphics.

When we benchmarked the almost two year old 2.3GHz Quad-Core Mac mini it scored 149 points - compared to the 116 points of the new entry-level iMac.

We expect that Apple will update the Mac mini soon and when it does (if it does) this new iMac will really look hard done by.

Read our review of the 2012 Mac mini here.

Where is the Retina display iMac?

There are rumours that Apple will launch a Retina display iMac at some point this year. The company has not yet launched this model - probably because of the graphics capabilities that would be required to power such a display.

You can add another display to an iMac by plugging in the second display using the Thunderbolt port.

Is the entry-level, £899 iMac good enough?

You don't need the horsepower of a high-end Mac to surf the internet, run office applications, send email, or take care of other everyday computer chores. It is likely that the majority of consumers don't really need to invest in the latest PCIe-connected flash storage, quad-core i7 processors, and discrete GPUs capable of supporting 4K video. It is these budget-minded consumers that Apple has in mind with its latest, lower-priced iMac.

The big question is whether a 15 percent lower price is worth 50 percent lower performance? If you are just looking for a beautiful machine for browsing the web, sending email, and running the most popular applications, as well as offering integration with iOS devices, then this Mac could be a great buy.

You could pay £150 more and get a decent iMac with a 2.7GHz quad-core processor and 1TB hard drive, but if you have that cash to space, why not add another £50 and pay £200 more for a Fusion Drive.

OUR VERDICT

The new entry-level iMac is interesting because it means the whole iMac range now starts at £899, £250 less than the entry-level for 2013's range. If you are buying based on price, this is a good price for an iMac, however, it's not the best low-cost Mac you can buy. If you want a cheaper Mac look at the MacBook Air, if you are set on a iMac, pay £200 more and include the Fusion Drive with this model.

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