The 21” iMac’s Design Compromises

Andrew Cunningham writes a great review of the new 21” iMac over at Ars. To summarise, the new 21” iMac is better than the previous 21” iMac in almost every way. But it’s not all roses:

In a desktop computer, though, the pursuit of thinness at the cost of features makes less sense. The vast majority of the time, it’s going to be sitting on your desk, and users will be interacting with a separate keyboard and mouse, pausing only occasionally to plug something in or adjust the screen’s angle. Giving up desirable features like user-upgradeable RAM just to make a thinner desktop seems like the wrong move, even if it’s one that only IT people and power users will notice or care about.

Marco links to the same Ars review, and adds:

The thinness also made the speakers worse and didn’t leave enough room for a 3.5” (“desktop”-sized) hard drive in the 21.5” model. (The 27” model still uses 3.5” drives.) Even though the gap is narrowing, 3.5” drives are still significantly faster and larger-capacity than 2.5” (“laptop”) drives from the same generation. With 1 TB laptop drives standard and Fusion Drives only available at $1,749 and up, there’s even less of an advantage than usual of choosing the iMac over a MacBook.

Marco notes how the thinness of the computer negatively impacts performance compared to the previous generation: the speakers have poorer bass response (because they’re crammed in a much smaller space) and the spinning hard drives have changed from the regular, desktop-class 3.5” flavour to the slower, laptop-sized 2.5” models. Further, user-upgradeable RAM has disappeared from the 21” iMac.

Apple compromised performance in order to slim down the computer. Was this the right move?

Putting form over function in a desktop computer initially sounds nuts: why would the thinness matter if performance suffers? There’s plenty of space on a desk, and desks don’t complain about weight.

I’d argue that the move, although unfortunate for some users, was the right thing to do. This becomes clearer after examining the 21” iMac’s bigger sibling, the 27” model.

The 27” iMac received the same thinness treatment as the 21” did, but it didn’t suffer the same performance hit: the spinning hard drives in the larger iMac are still 3.5” desktop drives and RAM is user-replaceable. The only hiccups in the new 27” iMac compared to the previous 27” model are the thinner, less bass-intensive speakers. However, speakers are not vital to the actual performance of a computer: they’re merely a nice addition.

Anyone who cares enough about audio equipment to notice the poor bass response in the newer iMac speakers is likely to already have a great set of external speakers. Dedicated speakers have always been significantly better than any integrated computer speakers. This will likely remain the case.

Apple places value in unity within product lines and between product themselves. Anyone who has seen one Apple laptop will almost certainly recognise another. The same goes for all their products: from iOS devices to iMacs.

The 21” iMac and the 27” iMac are almost identical in form: one just houses a larger display. The rest of the product is scaled up or down appropriately. The 21” and 27” iMacs are two peas in a pod.

In order for both iMac sizes to look equally elegant, the space within the iMac’s chassis for components had to be proportionally scaled. The 21” iMac has much less internal component space than the 27” model.

If Apple shipped the same, larger-size hard drives in both iMacs, the 21” model would look disproportionally thick and ugly. It wouldn’t be a unified design: the 21” model would look like the 27” iMac’s ugly sister.

This is a logical reason why the 21” iMac has a laptop-sized hard drive—and quite possibly the reason it doesn’t have user-upgradeable RAM. With much less space to play with, perhaps the RAM couldn’t be positioned in such a way to allow end users to access it. With the reduction of internal fans, from three in last year’s iMac down to just one, compromises in component layout would have had to be made.

The iMac is in a weird transition stage: no Retina display and not yet fully SSD-based1. The 27” iMac is a more solid machine: faster internals and more storage and RAM options. If you’re considering an iMac, I’d recommend a 27” model, perhaps with some upgrades.

That’s what I’m ordering for myself.

1: No stock configuration iMac includes all-SSD storage.