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Apple 27-Inch iMac (Late 2013) Review, Haswell Inside
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Date: Oct 28, 2013
Section:Systems
Author: Paul Lilly
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Introduction & Specifications
It's hard to believe there's a full fledged system packed inside Apple's slim and sexy iMac chassis. It was roughly a year ago when Apple revamped its all-in-one line, tasking the company's engineers to flatten the design as much as possible without sacrificing performance. What emerged was a sleek display measuring just 5mm at its edge with up to 40 percent less volume than the previous generation. It was such a radical design change that Apple had to abandon traditional welding methods in favor of a process called friction-stir welding, which combines friction-generated heat and pressure to force molecules from two separate aluminum surfaces to mingle with one another. It's a process commonly found on mission critical applications, such as the construction of rocket booster tanks.

Apple's late 2013 edition iMacs are largely unchanged in external form, though they're upgraded in function with a revamped foundation that now pairs Intel's Haswell 4th Generation Core processors with NVIDIA's GeForce 700 Series graphics (still based on Kepler). The Cupertino company also outfitted these latest models with faster flash storage options, including support for PCI-E based storage, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi technology, all wrapped in a gorgeous 21.5-inch (1920x1080) or, as reviewed here, 27-inch IPS display with a 2560x1440 resolution.


Apple 27-inch iMac Late 2013 with Intel's 4th Generation Haswell Core Processor
Specifications & Features
  • Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
  • 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz) with 6MB shared L3 cache
  • 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
  • 1TB (7200 RPM) hard drive
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M 1024MB
  • 27-inch LED-backlit IPS display (2560x1440 resolution)
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • SDXC card slot
  • Four USB 3.0 ports
  • Two Thunderbolt ports
  • Mini DisplayPort output with support for DVI, VGA, and dual-link DVI (adapters sold separately)
  • 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45 connector)
  • Kensington lock slot
  • Stereo speakers
  • Dual microphones
  • Headphone port
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard
  • Magic Mouse (multi-touch surface)
  • 20.3 inches (H) by 25.6 inches (W) by 8 inches (D); 21 pounds




While upgrade options aren't quite as robust as what you'll find from boutique system builders and even some competing OEMs, Apple does allow you a little bit of leeway to customize your iMac when ordering, such as adding more RAM, increasing and/or changing the type of storage, and adding accessories. Unfortunately, some upgrades are tied to specific baseline models. For example, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M and 780M graphics options are only offered on the most expensive iMac starting at $1,999, and not the one we received. The limitation feels arbitrary, though at the same time, paying $200 extra to step up from the model we received to the highest end starting points yields a faster processor (3.4GHz quad-core Intel core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz) and burlier graphics (GeForce GTX 775M).

Just days after we received our review model, Apple introduced Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks as a free upgrade. The benchmarks on the following pages were run with the new operating system, save for the Windows testing (via Boot Camp), in which we loaded up a partition with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit with Service Pack 1. We'll get to performance in a bit, but first, let's have a look at the system itself.
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Design & Layout
It's interesting to look back at the evolution of the iMac. It started back in 1998 with the introduction of a bulky CRT monitor form factor, which was slightly refined in 2000. Two years later, Apple revamped the design with a flat screen panel, and in 2004, the company altered the stand and overall design once more. It's that model that each of the next four major alternations evolved from.



The current generation iMacs sport either a 21.5-inch IPS display with a Full HD 1080p (1920x1080) resolution, or a 27-inch IPS display with a 2560x1440 resolution. It's the larger model we received, and while it's not quite as big as a 30-inch panel, the resolution is comparable (most 30-inch monitors rock a 2560x1600 resolution), offering up nearly as much on-screen real estate.

Apple makes some of the best looking monitors around, and the iMac is no exception. A black bezel frames the viewable area, and underneath that is an aluminum strip with Apple's logo sitting dead center. This strip hides the built-in stereo speakers and also houses the integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality. The stereo speakers put out a decent amount of volume and are much higher quality that what you'll find in most all-in-one systems, which often sound tinny. It's clear these speakers are here to enhance the experience and aren't included simply as an afterthought.

Up top is the FaceTime HD camera flanked by dual microphones and an ambient light sensor. The dual mics use beam-forming technology for clearer dictation and also to reduce background noise.


We don't want to belabor the point about how thin the iMac is, but it truly is a marvel in engineering, especially when you stop and think about the hardware inside. This isn't an underpowered system with janky components shoved inside, but a reasonably powerful all-in-one with some of the latest hardware available. It also feels incredibly solid and not the least bit flimsy even though it hardly takes up an space on your desktop.

Not everything is peaches and cream, however (or Apple cobbler, if you will). If we're to find fault with the iMac, it would be the stand, which only offers tilt adjustments. You can't raise or lower the display, nor does it pivot or rotate. These aren't deal killers by any means, but they are tradeoffs that are worth mentioning.



Around back is a second Apple logo plastered onto the aluminum chassis. If you were able to detach the stand (and you can't), the iMac would look like a ginormous iPad, only heavier, more powerful, and without the touchscreen support, a feature that's sorely lacking here.

On the bottom left are a series of connectivity options, including a headphone jack, SD card slot, four SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and a gigabit Ethernet port. The power cord plugs right into the center of the iMac's backside, and you can route the cable through a circular cutout in the stand.


Aesthetically, Apple made the right decision to banish every single port to the iMac's backside where they're out of sight, but functionally, it's a bit of an inconvenience. How much of an inconvenience depends on how often you plug in external devices like USB thumb drives, especially since the included keyboard doesn't come with any built-in USB ports.
 
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Included Software & Experience
The 27-inch iMac we received came with OS X 10.8.5, the latest version of Apple's Mountain Lion OS. Shortly after, however, Apple launched Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks, the tenth major release of OS X. It was made available immediately and at no cost, so that's what we ran with for this review.



As with previous version of OS X, Mavericks comes with several helpful applications and utilities, including GarageBand, iMovie, and more. In addition to making Mavericks free, Apple is also now giving away its iWork productivity suite consisting of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, the company's equivalent of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in Microsoft Office. These applications used to cost $10 a pop.



For fans of Apple's Safari browser, you'll be happy to know that Adobe's Flash Player is now sandboxed in Safari in Mavericks, thereby offering superior protection against malware and poorly coded Flash applications. By running in a sandbox, dirty Flash code is kept isolated from from the OS. Peleus Uhley, Platform Security Strategist for Adobe, had the following to say about Flash in being sandboxed in Safari:

"For the technically minded, this means that there is a specific com.macromedia.Flash Player.plugin.sb file defining the security permissions for Flash Player when it runs within the sandboxed plugin process. As you might expect, Flash Player’s capabilities to read and write files will be limited to only those locations it needs to function properly. The sandbox also limits Flash Player’s local connections to device resources and inter-process communication (IPC) channels. Finally, the sandbox limits Flash Player’s networking privileges to prevent unnecessary connection capabilities.

Safari's showing up fashionably late to the party here, as sandboxing Flash is already available in all the other major browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox). Better late than never though, right?



Tabs are everywhere these days, even in the unlikeliest places, such as Finder. In Mavericks, Finder tabs are intended to declutter your desktop by allowing you to consolidate multiple Finder windows into one. It's the same general concept as tabbed browsing, only now it's been converted over to the desktop. For example, you might want to have separate tabs open for Applications, AirDrop, and All My Files. You can move files from tab to tab simply by dragging and dropping them.
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Max OS X Performance Testing
Our Test Methodologies: We've recorded two sets of benchmark numbers for various metrics here in our evaluation of the late 2013 edition 27-inch iMac. The first set of tests were run on Apple Mac OS X with either cross-platform capable benchmarks or Mac-only benchmark suites that limit us to comparing reference data only from other Apple products.

However, on the next page, you'll find benchmark results of the iMac running Windows 7 64-bit using Boot Camp. This allows us to see how the iMac compares to several Windows-based systems.

CineBench R11.5 (64-bit)
Content Creation Performance
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and it tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads to process more than 300,000 total polygons; while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.




Cinebench is one of those benchmarks that doesn't take any prisoners, and as you can see, some of the previous generation all-in-one systems really struggled here. The iMac did really well comparatively, especially in the OpenGL portion where the NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M was able to flex its muscles, posting the third best score among AIOs we've tested.

Mac OS X Performance Benchmarks:  Geekbench
General system performance
To touch on overall system performance, we chose Geekbench, by Primate Labs. This is a widely used, highly respected Mac benchmarking suite that "provides a comprehensive set of benchmarks engineered to quickly and accurately measure processor and memory performance."



We know it's not really fair to pit an all-in-one against notebook machines running lower power processors, but it's what we have to work with in the Apple category. Regardless, we can see how performance scales as you move up to higher end desktop parts where Haswell is able to spread its wings, as well as NVIDIA's GeForce 700 Series graphics architecture.

Mac OS X Performance Benchmarks:  XBench
Individual Subsystem Performance
XBench, created by Spiny Software, is another widely used, respected Mac benchmarking suite that touches on nearly every aspect of performance, from CPU to graphics and storage subsystem metrics.
 



Xbench was able to root out a relative weak spot in the 27-inch iMac by exposing the performance of the mechanical hard drive versus systems running NAND flash-based solid state storage solutions. Even though the drive is spinning at 7200 RPM and not 5400 RPM, it's still not nearly as fast a solid state drive or one of Apple's Fusion solutions. Meanwhile, the fast Haswell chip and burly GPU were able to showboat.



We decided to take a closer look at the iMac's storage performance. Read and write transfers both averaged a little better than 190MB/s, though you can spy some pretty low dips depending on the type of transfer being tested. As configured, the 1TB hard drive trades raw performance for storage capacity and a friendlier price tag. However, if you want faster storage (or more capacity, you can configure the 27-inch iMac with one of several alternative options:

  • 3TB Serial ATA Drive @ 7200 RPM [Add $150]
  • 1TB Fusion Drive [Add $200]
  • 3TB Fusion Drive [Add $350]
  • 256GB Flash Storage [Add $200]
  • 512GB Flash Storage [Add $500]
  • 1TB Flash Storage [Add $1,000]

Choose wisely at the outset because you can't pop open the iMac and swap out the storage at a later date on your own.

 

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Windows 7 Boot Camp Performance Testing
Here we're evaluating the 27-inch iMac's performance in Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, which we installed using Apple's Boot Camp utility. Boot Camp sets up a separate partition so that you can have a multi-boot environment on your Intel-based Mac system (yes, it only works with Intel) -- one for Mac OS X and the other for Windows 7. The neat thing about Boot Camp is that it allows you to run Windows natively, so you don't have to worry about losing performance to overhead like you do with virtualized solutions.



After installing Windows 7, we applied all the current updates and patches, including Service Pack 1. Holding down the "Option" button upon bootup with the iMac presents you with the above partition select option screen. It works quite well and is a pretty convenient way of running either operating system when you need it.

Futuremark PCMark 7
Simulate Application Performance
This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system components in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC--watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth--is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.



Running PCMark 7 in Windows 7 via Boot Camp allows us to compare the 27-inch iMac to a wide range of systems, including several all-in-one rigs. The 27-inch iMac fell somewhere in the middle in the pack, which is to be expected since PCMark 7 puts such a heavy emphasis on storage performance. Systems using NAND flashed based storage solutions have a huge advantage in this benchmark, and the iMac is running a mechanical hard drive.

Futuremark 3DMark 11
Simulated DX11 Gaming Performance
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11 uses the advanced visual technologies and 3D effects that are only available with DirectX 11. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the MacBook Air with 3DMark11's Performance preset option enabled.





We're really impressed with the strong performance in Futuremark's 3DMark 11 benchmark. Gaming on a Mac system is not only viable these days, it's highly encouraged when you have a system with a reasonably well powered GPU, such as this one. And if you prefer to game in Windows, for the cost of a Windows license you get two systems for the price of one courtesy of Boot Camp, and without any annoying performance hit since it's an actual dual-booting environment and not a virtual machine.

Lost Planet 2
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance



Depending on the title, gaming on the iMac's native 2560x1440 resolution might prove problematic, though you can get away with it on older games and/or titles that aren't particularly demanding, especially if dialing down the visual quality settings. Lost Planet 2 isn't one of those games. Here the iMac teetered on the edge of being playable at 1920x1080, though we also ran the benchmark on High with 4xAA. Compared against other AIOs, this is actually an impressive showing for the iMac, which came in second place.
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Summary & Conclusion
Performance Summary:  The late 2013 edition iMac line leverages the performance punch of Haswell and follows it up with NVIDIA GeForce 700 Series graphics. As configured, the 27-inch iMac reviewed here bolted through our benchmarks with ease and posted especially impressive figures in our gaming tests, including a 3DMark 11 score of 3,068 in Windows 7 (via Boot Camp). Running Cinebench 11.5 in Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks also helped showcase the CPU and GPU combination. Storage benchmarks weren't nearly as impressive, though Apple offers faster solutions than the 1TB (7200 RPM) mechanical hard drive that came in our test system.



Apple's attention to detail when it comes to designing products is arguably second to none, and certainly we feel the modern generation iMac is the best looking all-in-one system on the market. The aluminum unibody construction that Apple is so fond of translates nicely to the iMac's form factor in terms of sex appeal, and it's remarkably thin too boot. If we're to find fault with this design, it's because there's no way to service the machine or upgrade components on your own, not without specialized tools and some uncommon skills, anyway. This has become Apple's calling card -- build gorgeous systems that set the bar in style, but lock users out of tinkering. It's a bitter sweet proposition.

The 27-inch iMac starts at $1,799 and that's the configuration we received. While that seems high for a system these days, it's important not to overlook the fact that you're getting a premium IPS panel with a 2560x1440 resolution. Name brand monitors boasting similar specs typically start at around $550. Inside the brilliant display is a solid foundation consisting of a 3.4GHz quad-core Core i5 Haswell processor and NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M graphics, the two of which provide plenty of power to drive a 27-inch system. Only the 1TB HDD is a bit of a buzz kill, though at least Apple gives you the option of choosing something faster.

In terms of software, we're far more geeked about Boot Camp's capabilities than we are with OS X 10.9 Mavericks being a free OS. We like Mavericks just fine, but making it free only amounts to a $20 savings. Boot Camp, however, is also free, and it allows you to partition the hard drive to install Windows. For the cost of a Windows license, you can have the best of both worlds here.

Bottom line? The late 2013 edition iMac is an easy recommendation provided you're willing to spend a premium for a machine that looks as well as it performs, and are interested in OS X. If not, there are more affordable all-in-one systems out there that solely run Windows.

   
 
  • Haswell and NVIDIA form a powerful foundation
  • Best looking all-in-one on the market, period
  • Incredibly thin
  • High end panel looks great from all angles
  • Built in speakers aren't crap
  • Boot Camp allows you to run Windows without a perforance hit
 
  • Expensive compared to Windows systems
  • Connectivity ports are inconveniently placed on the back of the iMac



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