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 entry-level model.

In this we will 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.

Read our preview of the rest of the iMac 2014 line up here.

Cheaper 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.

Read about the 2014 Retina iMac release date

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 tradeoffs, as you will see as we take a closer look at the specs of the machines and reveal 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 is the 2014 model?

Macworld Labs has tested the new entry-level iMac and compared it to 2013's entry-level model. 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 in 2013.

It's worth keeping an eye on Apple's refurbished store for deals on last year's 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.

[Read our review of the 2013 iMac line up here]

How does the 2014 low-end iMac compare to the 2013 model?

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 featured the same 21.5in screen, but it boasted a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive; Intel Iris Pro graphics. And cost £250 more at £1,149.

By comparison, the 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 £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.

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.

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 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 equivalent model, the graphics card hasn't changed)
  • 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 equivalent model, the graphics card hasn't changed)
  • 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 model, the graphics card hasn't changed)
  • 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 model, the graphics card hasn't changed)

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.

2014 iMac ports

The new 2014 iMacs look the same as the 2013 line up, and those 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 accomodate an optical drive. If you wish to purchase a SuperDrive from Apple, it costs £65.

Like the 2013 model, 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.

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 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 for 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 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 a 4K display to an iMac by plugging in the second display using the Thunderbold 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-connnected 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.

But you could pay £150 more and get a decent iMac with a 2.7GHz quad-core processor and 1TB hard drive. It seems like a no-brainer really.

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. However, this isn't the cheapest ever iMac starting price. Back in 2009 the entry-level iMac cost £782, and there was also a £929 model. If you are buying based on price, this is a good price for an iMac, unfortunately it's not the best low-cost Mac you can buy. If you want a cheaper Mac look at the MacBook Air, if you want an iMac, pay £150 more and get the 2.7GHz model.

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