How I chose the 21.5‑inch iMac with Retina 4K display, and first impressions

Tech Life

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I have been busier than usual, lately, and the heat and humidity here where I live haven’t helped. I’m all for taking things slowly and going against the frantic pace life seems to impose us nowadays, but heat slows me down in an especially uncomfortable way. Not everything has been great, but one thing I’m truly happy about is that I’ve finally had the opportunity to upgrade my main Mac.

Exceptional service

I’m speaking of course of the Mac I’ve been using until now: a mid-2009 15-inch MacBook Pro, with a 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 8 GB of RAM (upgraded from the original 4 GB), a 240 GB SSD + 500 GB hard drive (upgraded from the original 320 GB hard drive and optical drive). Purchased new exactly nine years ago, this laptop has worked really well ever since. I’ve been progressively upgrading it as needs dictated (which is what every machine worth a ‘pro’ moniker should allow); first by adding more RAM, then a bigger hard drive, then a solid-state drive while using the bigger hard drive as secondary internal storage after getting rid of the optical drive. The optical drive has been the only disappointing feature of this MacBook Pro: it stopped working after about two years. Battery performance, instead, has been exceptional. At the beginning of 2017 the MacBook Pro could still last a bit more than three hours with moderate usage; most astounding, considering that it was still its original battery, and that this machine has rarely been turned off in nine years of use.

However, in the last twelve months or so, the MacBook Pro started displaying signs of old age: first it started refusing to switch to the dedicated NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT graphics card; then some of the thermal sensors stopped reporting information (I could tell thanks to the excellent iStat Menus 6), leading to the fans erratically activating at full speed, and leading me to search and install a utility to manually control them (the one that has done its job very well is Macs Fan Control, very reliable and easy to use). The last scare happened in March, when the battery suddenly died, and I thought it killed the SSD in the process because on reboot it didn’t mount and the Mac wasn’t recognising it (thankfully everything was back to normal after leaving the Mac turned off and connected to the AC adapter for a few hours).

But really, apart from these recent ailments, I only have positive things to say about this 2009 MacBook Pro — a true workhorse, a true pro machine built to last.

A new Mac was needed — but which one?

It was time to upgrade, not only due to the MacBook Pro’s hardware-related issues, but also because it could not be updated past Mac OS X 10.11.6[1], and since for work reasons I needed to test and localise Mac applications that require 10.12 Sierra or 10.13 High Sierra — and in some cases even better hardware — continuing with this 2009 machine in 2018 wasn’t feasible. (Note, however, that for many other tasks, this MacBook Pro is still quite capable).

But which Mac to upgrade to? For what I do, I don’t need an extraordinarily powerful Mac. Yet, since I don’t change Macs that frequently, choosing a more powerful machine is a way to make it last longer for me. This time the choice was difficult. Considering my limited budget, my options were as follows:

  • MacBook (base model) — Pros: very lightweight, portable, retina display. Cons: underpowered, dreadful keyboard, impossible to upgrade it in the future, only one port, inability to connect it to anything I currently have without purchasing a bagful of dongles.
  • MacBook Air (1.8 GHz model with 256 GB SSD) — Pros: great battery life, great keyboard, good array of useful ports (including MagSafe). Cons: no retina display, older-generation Broadwell CPU.
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2 Thunderbolt ports, base model) — Pros: lightweight, portable, retina display, powerful enough for my needs. Cons: dreadful keyboard, impossible to upgrade the RAM later on (and choosing 16 GB at purchase time would exceed my budget), only 128 GB of storage, too few ports, inability to connect it to anything I currently have without purchasing a bagful of dongles.
  • Mac mini (high-end model) — Pros: affordable, small footprint. Cons: — old, old, old, old…
  • iMac (21.5-inch, retina 4K display, base 3 GHz model, enough budget for one configuration upgrade) — Pros: enough powerful to last me a while, retina display, good array of useful ports (four USB 3, two Thunderbolt 3, Gigabit Ethernet, SD card slot), ample storage. Cons: well, being a desktop Mac is not a con, per se, but a laptop can be more versatile; the base model still has a mechanical 5,400rpm hard drive as internal storage (more on this below).

My dilemma is that I was really in the market for a new laptop, but Apple’s redesign of the MacBook Pro in 2016 has turned it into a machine that’s just not for me. While I can appreciate the overall design in an abstract sort of way, that damned keyboard is the main deal-breaker for me. Apart from the actual issues we all know too well now, I really find it uncomfortable for long typing sessions, and I find that such keyboard redesign was absolutely unnecessary, a fix for something that wasn’t broken at all.

And the ports, in the MacBook Pro I could have afforded, would have been too few and… too new. When setting it up to be used in a desktop configuration, I would have needed a dongle to connect it to an external display, another to connect it to my wired mechanical keyboard, and… well, at this point I would have had to look for a whole USB hub or mini-dock of some sort, because what can you do when one USB-C port is in use by the AC adapter, the other is used to connect to the external display, and you still have to connect the wired keyboard, maybe a Time Machine drive, maybe the occasional USB flash drive to transfer some files, and the CompactFlash card reader to copy the photos from the DSLR?

The only possible choice in Apple’s laptop line would have been the MacBook Air… but I wasn’t too thrilled by the display and the CPU.

And the moment I opted for a desktop Mac, the choice was obvious. The iMac with Retina 4K display had three main attractive factors: decent specs with regard to CPU and GPU, a retina display, and an array of ports that comfortably met my needs. The benefits clearly outweighed the reduced versatility due to it not being a laptop. I thought, Well, when I need a laptop, I’ll just use the old MacBook Pro. I’ll have to take care of its ailments, but it’s still a viable solution. So the first dilemma was solved. As for the second…

Customise your iMac

As I said above, my budget was enough for one configuration upgrade. Thanks to Apple still putting mechanical hard drives in their desktop Macs in 2018, and not making the RAM in the 21.5-inch iMacs user-upgradable (in the 27-inch models the RAM is accessible by opening a panel on the back), I was torn between two choices:

  1. Leave the RAM at the base 8 GB, and choose a 256 GB SSD as internal storage.
  2. Leave the mechanical hard drive as internal storage, and choose to have 16 GB of RAM installed.

After a bit of internal debate, I chose option №2. While it’s hard going back to a mechanical hard drive once you get accustomed to the speed of an SSD, I thought that if I wanted a more future-proof machine, 8 GB of RAM weren’t enough. Further, it may seem like an inelegant solution, but I can always add an external SSD connected via Thunderbolt 3 and use it as a startup disk. Transfer speeds should be pretty decent.

First impressions

Those who follow me on Twitter have already had a taste, but here’s a bulleted list of very first impressions after a few days of use.

  • I forgot Apple has removed the startup chime in recent Macs. This iMac is mute at boot and upon restart, and for a long-time Mac user like me it feels weird. The familiar ‘bong’ at boot was not just a nice, charming touch; it was also useful feedback, as it signalled that the RAM was okay and that the machine POSTed correctly, while a series of different beeps could mean different hardware errors.
  • Another missing element — and after a few exchanges on Twitter I realised it has been removed since iMacs went to polycarbonate white to aluminium — is the pulsating sleep light. When you look at the iMac with the display turned off, you can’t tell whether the machine is switched off, sleeping, or with the display turned off after a period of no user activity. Again, I think the pulsating sleep light provides useful feedback. Intel Macs take longer to enter sleep than PowerPC Macs; when you finally see the sleep light ‘breathing’ off and on, you know that the Mac has successfully entered sleep mode. Without a light, you don’t know; there might be a rogue process preventing sleep after the Mac has turned off the display; in some instances you may not be able to wake back the display, and there’s little you can do except forcefully shutting the Mac down and boot it up again.
  • The retina display is astounding. This is hardly surprising, it’s not my first retina display; but it’s the first one this big. The biggest one I had seen before was on 15-inch MacBook Pros. It is literally a sight for sore eyes. I can read small text without struggling. It’s like having new prescription glasses. The colours are also gorgeous. As corny as it may sound, this display gives me a moment of happiness every time I wake the iMac. It’s also a path with no return, as now every other screen looks worse, and it takes me a few moments to readjust.
  • The iMac is very quiet. Perhaps it’s because I’m coming from an exhausted, overworked MacBook Pro with a lot of fan activity, therefore the contrast is starker, but in normal operation, and keeping the iMac at a normal distance, I can’t hear any noise coming from it. Its fan also has a lower minimum speed than the ones in the MacBook Pro (1200rpm vs. 2000rpm). I’ve tried to do a stress test with a couple of graphic-intensive games, but evidently they weren’t intensive enough, because the iMac stayed quiet all the time. For comparison, these games would make my MacBook Pro fans spin up to at least 4500–5500rpm, making the machine hot and loud.
  • I honestly expected a worse performance from the internal mechanical drive. Coming from an SSD, I was concerned things would start feeling sluggish pretty soon, but overall I can’t complain. Yes, this iMac is slower to cold-boot compared to the SSD-powered MacBook Pro, and yes, it does look silly that a more powerful, eight-year younger machine would take more time to boot, but once boot is completed, the iMac performs very well in normal operations. I guess that the more powerful CPU and the 16 GB of RAM compensate for the slower physical speed of the hard drive. In case you’re curious, here’s an informal comparison of cold-boot times (measured from the appearance of the Apple logo to the Mac desktop fully loaded):
    • 2009 MacBook Pro (8 GB RAM), when it used to boot from the 500 GB mechanical hard drive: 3 minutes, 46 seconds.
    • 2009 MacBook Pro (8 GB RAM), booting from the 240 GB solid-state drive: 37 seconds.
    • 2017 iMac Retina 4K (16 GB RAM), booting from the 1 TB mechanical hard drive: 1 minute, 41 seconds.

    The time difference between the two hard drives must be due to the SATA interface, which is 3 Gbps for the MacBook Pro, and 6 Gbps for the iMac. And if you compare the difference between the boot time of the MacBook Pro with SSD and the iMac, the iMac is basically just one minute slower. It’s entirely tolerable.

  • The Magic Keyboard is better than I feared, giving its similarity with the keyboards in the current MacBook and MacBook Pro. Key travel is still somewhat disappointing (too short for my taste), but at least I don’t have the sensation of banging my fingers on a hard surface, like I had when I tried using a MacBook’s keyboard. It’s a non-issue, anyway, since I’m going to keep using this other magic keyboard with the iMac.
  • Another detail that left me positively impressed are the iMac’s internal speakers. My very first impression is that they’re pleasantly loud and clear, with a decent punch when reproducing bass and drums in a song. A bit surprising considering the iMac’s thinness where the speakers are located.

Data migration

Migration Assistant did its usual great job at transferring my data and preferences from the MacBook Pro, but I still think this utility should be just a little more granular in letting you choose what exactly you want to transfer. In my case, I connected the MacBook Pro’s external Time Machine drive, and since it backs up both the SSD and the hard drive of the MacBook Pro, I first had to choose which volume I wanted to migrate data from. Having set up the SSD and hard drive in a sort of ‘fusion drive’ configuration (system, apps, and frequently-accessed projects on the SSD; photos, movies, large documents, some games and other miscellaneous stuff on the hard drive), I first migrated the contents of the SSD. When it was time to migrate the data from the hard drive, and I reached this screen in Migration Assistant…

Macos high sierra migration assistant select items
(This is the sample image taken from Apple Support’s page)

…my “Other files and folders” entry was more than 280 GB of materials, and I didn’t have the option to pick exactly what I wanted to import from this “Other files and folders” cauldron (for instance, I wanted to import all my library of photos and photography-related manuals and documents, but not all the movies and games). I ended up cancelling the migration and copying my selection of stuff manually. Not a huge deal, granted, but this made the whole process a little less smooth.

The right decision

Everyone rationalises and justifies their purchases — it comes naturally — but in the end my disappointment for having to go with a desktop Mac instead of a laptop pretty much vanished after spending a few hours with this iMac. It’s a powerful Mac and it should serve me well for a few years. It’s not a controversial machine as the MacBook Pro; it’s not an underpowered machine like the 12-inch MacBook; I have a selection of I/O ports I can immediately take advantage of without resorting to external adapters; and most importantly (given that I type a lot) I can choose the keyboard I want, and if something breaks, I can use another keyboard. Instead of putting the MacBook Pro to rest and leave it like it is now — with thermal issues, one unresponsive GPU, and a dead battery — as I had originally planned, I’ll try to fix it up properly and use it when I need to do something work-related on the go that requires an Intel Mac.

When I was thinking aloud on Twitter about considering the purchase of this iMac, someone wrote to me privately asking, Aren’t you concerned that there may be an iMac refresh round the corner (these iMacs were introduced a year ago), and that you could be buying a machine that’ll get old sooner rather than later?

This thought crossed my mind, of course, but 1) I couldn’t afford to wait more; I couldn’t afford to keep working on a MacBook Pro that is unfortunately less reliable than it once was and needs constant babysitting. And 2) better to get it now than facing the possible scenario of refreshed iMacs equipped with just USB-C ports and nothing else. USB-C may be the future, but this train is moving much more slowly than anticipated, and my needs right now involve ‘legacy’ ports. So no, if new iMacs were introduced at the end of July or in September, I wouldn’t regret buying now. The only possible exception would regard the hard drive, since it’s obvious that the next iMacs will have a fusion drive as base option. Anyway.

In the end, truth be told, the iMac with 4K Retina display was the only really attractive proposition among the choices I could afford, and definitely the best option in the price-to-performance ratio department. I’m left with the feeling I have invested my very-hard-earned money wisely. And now excuse me while I check how many applications are still 32-bit…

 


  • 1. I know that there are hacks to allow the installation of Mac OS 10.12 and 10.13, but although they’re advertised as safe, I really didn’t want to take the risk on my main work machine; plus I’ve found El Capitan to be really stable and reliable on this MacBook Pro. ↩︎

 

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!