Gene Steinberg's MacRadio Newsletter — Issue #1015

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
Issue #1015
April 21, 2021

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THE M1 iMAC — A DISAPPOINTMENT?

Note:
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but not to worry. I haven’t given up on this site or this newsletter. But it’s also true that not a lot of things have happened with Apple other than hauling in record amounts of cash and selling iPhones at a greater rate than the analysts expected. But I expect to update more often going forward.

And there are, of course, those “Spring Loaded” products Apple introduced on April 20th. But an iPad Pro isn’t on my shopping list; never has been. I gave up on Apple TV with the acquisition of a VIZIO SmartCast set some years back; the Apple TV app and AirPlay 2 are supported. So my third-generation Apple TV stays unused.

But when it comes to iMacs, I have 24 years experience with them, and therein lies a tale.

At one time in my life I was a member of Apple’s CQF (Customer Quality Feedback) program, where I was given a chance to test not just software but the occasional prerelease Mac. I remember receiving a G3 variant at one time that Apple opted not to produce, so they asked me to turn it in for recycling. It’s long enough not to be breaking any secrecy agreements, so I can tell you that its code name was “Gazelle.”

I also received one of the original Bondi Blue iMacs for testing. It was essentially a shipping unit without the CD-ROM drive faceplate. As you recall, the iMac was essentially built of PowerBook innards driving a 13-inch CRT display. It wasn’t the fastest best on the planet, but quite good enough for word processing and other tasks that weren’t drive and/or CPU intensive.

Towards the end of the test period, my Apple contact called me and asked a few questions about my experience. He told me that they were seeding a final firmware update ahead of release. But it was possible the update wouldn’t “take,” and thus might brick the unit. If it worked, I could keep it (he’d send the missing CD drive faceplate).

Now I always felt he was just setting me up. The update was, as I expected, unsuccessful, and there was no way to actually fix it. It would no longer boot, so I sent it back. However, I was able to get a sort of scoop when, after it was released, I write a column for the Arizona Republic in which I interviewed designer Jonathan Ive. That was before he became a cult figure.

In any case, I had several of those earlier iMacs over the next few years, but stepped away from the product after Grayson graduated from college in 2008 and moved to Madrid. His MacBook served his computing needs until it breathed its last a few years later.

The following year, Apple released a new generation 27-inch iMac with powerful parts that made it competitive with the Mac Pro for heavy-duty tasks. I actually downgraded my display from a 30-inch Dell and sold it and my Mac Pro to a fellow writer.

In any case, that iMac served me well enough, except for its slow hard drive. That shortcoming was resolved a few years later, when I made an arrangement to review a 1TB SSD from MacSales, which I installed myself, a not-terribly-friendly process involving the use of suction cups to remove the display to get to its insides. In passing, the latest generation iMac design uses an adhesive tape, making a difficult process a total non-starter for anyone but someone skilled at such dreadful tasks.

Or one who wants to live dangerously.

I acquired my current iMac, one of the Late 2014 5K Retina Display models, in early 2015. It has also served me well, although it did require a costly Fusion Drive replacement in late 2019. During the repair process, I had Apple clean out the interior of dust and double-check the rest of the components to make sure it would hang together another couple of years or so until I could see my way clear to send it out to pasture. Well, at least before I’m sent out to pasture.

In any case, Apple’s announcement of an M1 iMac essentially confirmed the rumors of a new slimmer design with narrower bezels, a 24-inch display and a choice of multiple colors.

It hardly seems worth watching Apple events nowadays, because much of the action is already foretold. So what I generally do is to avoid boring myself with slick corporate sales pitches. I prefer to just check out the press release and specs.

Now the rumors weren’t quite right on two fronts: One that there’d be a larger model to replace the 27-inch 5K version, and that the new models would contain an enhanced M1x processor. Instead, the internal hardware is very similar to that of the M1 Mac mini with the same M1 CPU, a maximum of 16GB RAM and a 2TB SSD if fully outfitted.

In terms of its marketing position, the 2021 iMac appears to be slotted towards the low-end of the market, same as that Mac mini, the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. This would appear to indicate that there will indeed be a larger iMac in the near future, plus a replacement for the 16-inch MacBook Pro and perhaps a new 14-inch version. As with the 2006 Intel transition, the Mac Pro may not go Apple Silicon until the end of the transition period, perhaps late this year or early next, when an Apple Silicon chip is available that will handily beat a 28-core Xeon.

So with just one new iMac around, no indication of when the next one will arrive, where does that leave owners of previous iMacs or other desktop computers?

Well unless you bought a new iMac in the last couple of years, the 24-inch model might be a choice compromise, even for those who own gear with 27-inch displays.

Like me.

So my iMac has a 3TB Fusion Drive, of which about 1TB is in use. It was customized with the high-end 4 GHz Core i7 CPU and AMD Radeon R9 M295X display card. The original 16GB RAM configuration was supplemented with an additional 16GB.

So the M1 iMac would appear to suffer in comparison, but it doesn’t.

You see, GeekBench scores indicate that it’s substantially faster than my iMac. A 2TB SSD has more than enough space, with speedier performance than a Fusion Drive. 16GB RAM ought to be sufficient for my needs, which include recording and editing audio waveforms, with a smattering of video.

Giving up 3 inches of display space is rather trivial. I could move the unit a couple of inches closer to compensate, and the fewer pixels isn’t such a big deal, or shouldn’t be. The modest design changes, with the narrower bezel, don’t matter one way or the other to me.

Having a six-speaker audio system means I may be able to dispense with the external speaker system. I am skeptical that the three-mic system will replace my outboard audio gear, but I’ll never know until I try it.

Apple probably won’t activate the new iMac’s customization options until you can actually order the new gear at the end of April, but I used the configuration page for the M1 Mac mini to estimate a fully-outfitted version based on the $1,699 iMac, plus an upgrade to 16GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD. It comes to $2,499, which is rather less than I paid for my current iMac.

If and when Apple comes out with a larger version, I would expect a similar configuration would sell for $500-1,000 more, assuming the larger display, and possibly choices of more RAM and discrete graphics.

Right now, my budget for any new computer is essentially zero, but the 24-inch iMac option is quite tempting nonetheless. A six-year-old Mac has to be borderline as far as its expected lifetime is concerned.

I also see the wisdom in Apple’s move. Only a small percentage of users of Macs or Windows PCs would fine the new iMac unsatisfactory for their needs. But with more than a year to go in its transition to Apple Silicon, there’s a lot more good stuff coming. Choices, choices.

THE FINAL WORD

Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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