We purchased an Apple M1 iMac for our reviewer to test. Read our full product review.
The Apple M1 iMac (2021) is the first major update to the lineup since 2016. It’s the first iMac to feature Apple’s silicone under the hood, but it also harkens back to a bygone era with an imaginative color palette.
This iteration of the hardware features a larger display, improved microphone, speakers, and camera, as well as an optional Touch ID-enabled Magic Keyboard, along with numerous other updates and design changes to the latest Intel iMac.
After spending a lot of time with the MacBook Air M1 and Mac mini that Apple released in 2020, I was quite curious how similar hardware could be implemented in the iMac line. I chose the entry-level model for the test, which was decorated in a soothing two-tone metallic blue, freeing up desk space and replacing my usual tools for about a month.
During my month with the iMac M1, I’ve tested things like network performance and gaming benchmarks in particular, but I’ve also used it for work, media, voice and video calls, and gaming. There have been a few instances where I’ve had to ditch my Windows settings, especially for unsupported games, but the iMac M1 handled almost everything else smoothly.
Design: Colors are back and more beautiful than ever
Apple could have taken the easy way out and replaced the M1 hardware with the current iMac lineup, but the iMac M1 represents a completely new design from the ground up. The basic look is pretty much the same, but the new design features sleek lines, a consistently thin body, slimmer display bezels, and several eye-catching colors.
The latter represents a bit of a throwback to the form, as the iMac line was once known for its bright and friendly color options, but the latest iterations were only available in white, silver and grey.
While the front of the new iMac looks quite similar to the previous version, with thick bezels and a large chin, the resemblance dissipates when you look at the car from the side. Instead of a big bulge in the back that fits inside, the iMac M1 is flat like a tablet. The contents are all in the chin, which is why it’s still so big.
The stand has also been redesigned as it no longer flares out at the base. It actually looks a lot like the $999 Pro Stand, though it only has a simple hinge to tilt the screen back and forth instead of raising and lowering it slightly. Even without the glow, it provides a solid foundation.
The USB ports are located on the back left of the iMac M1. The base model is limited to two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, while the upgraded version adds two USB-C ports. There is also a microphone jack on the left side of the case, and some models have an Ethernet port built into the power supply. The base model I tested only had two Thunderbolt ports and no Ethernet ports.
Regardless of which model you’re looking at, the bottom line is that the 2021 iMac doesn’t have enough ports. The four Thunderbolt and USB-C ports on the more expensive model aren’t enough, and the meager two ports on the cheaper model really don’t match. You can invest in a USB-C hub if you don’t already have one.
While Apple’s silicon jump is the biggest story here, Apple has really knocked the design out of the park as well. This is an all-in-one that looks good from every angle. It’s a shame it’s held back by small issues like the incredible lack of doors, but that doesn’t stop it from looking great on your desk.
Display: Beautiful 24-inch retina display
Apple has increased the screen size from 21.5 inches to 24 inches in the iMac M1 update, and the difference is noticeable. Apple calls the panel a 4.5K Retina display with a resolution of 4480 x 2520 and a pixel density of 218ppi in actual numbers.
The colors are also brilliant, as the screen covers the entire DCI-P3 range and is also quite bright. I found myself using it at about 60% most of the time, despite the large south-facing windows in my office.
Performance: the M1 chip continues to amaze
The 2021 iMac includes the same M1 chip first seen in 2020 Mac minis and Mac Books, and it’s just as impressive here. The hardware version I tested came with an 8-core CPU and a 7-core GPU, but you can also get the 2021 iMac with an 8-core GPU if you need the extra performance.
Like other Mac M1s, the CPU is divided into four high-performance cores and four energy-efficient cores. This means it is more energy efficient than many competitors, with remarkably high single-core performance, but only mediocre multi-core performance.
To get a performance base you can compare to other devices, I ran a handful of benchmarks. I started with Cine bench, which has both single and multi-core tests. As expected, the iMac M1 performed exceptionally well in the single-core test, but less well in the multi-core test.
The iMac M1 achieved a score of 1492 single-core in the Cine bench test, just below the 1532 of the 11th generation Intel Core i7. In the multicore test, he scored 6893 lower. These numbers are both slightly lower than what I’ve seen from the M1 Mac Mini, which scored 1521 single-core and 7662 multi-core.
After Cine bench I downloaded GFXBench Metal to run some game testing. The first I ran was Aztec Ruins (High Tier), which simulates a high-end game with real-time lighting and other effects. In that comparison, the iMac M1 managed to run around 22 FPS. It’s far from ideal, but on the edge of the game.
I then ran the Car Case benchmark, which simulates a fast-paced racing game. In that comparison, the iMac M1 managed about 21 FPS. It’s a little low, but I saw a better result when I ran the less intense T-Rex benchmark. In this comparison, the iMac M1 achieved 60 FPS.
Productivity: Pro users may want to wait, but the iMac M1 is ready to go
Apple’s powerful M1 chip and large 4.5K display make the 2021 iMac a productivity powerhouse. I’ve been using it on my main computer for about a month now, mainly for word processing, image processing, and other productivity tasks. I especially liked the size and resolution of the image processing screen. While I don’t have a particular need for a wide range of professional colors, it’s there for those who do.
Sound: Excellent built-in speakers and decent Bluetooth for wireless headphones
The 2021 iMac has a surprisingly competent six-speaker system that supports surround sound in its slim bezel. I’m a regular headphone and earphone user, but I found the built-in speakers more than adequate.
The speakers are loud enough to fill a large room and I didn’t notice a hint of distortion even at high volumes. There’s also a bit more bass than I expected, although a decent set of bookshelf speakers or headphones will still provide an excellent listening experience.
Network: Excellent speeds over Ethernet and Wi-Fi 6
The iMac M1 2021 does not have a built-in Ethernet port, but some models do have an Ethernet port in the power rail. However, each version supports Wi-Fi 6 and is backward compatible with Wi-Fi 5 if you haven’t upgraded your router yet. I’ve spent most of my time with the iMac connected to the Euro Wi-Fi 5 network, which I use because range is more important to me than speed, but I also tested it on Wi-Fi 6 and an Ethernet adapter.
Camera: 1080p FaceTime Camera
The iMac M1 is equipped with a Full HD 1080P FaceTime camera powered by Apple’s M1 image signal processor. In practice, the camera produces a consistent and decent image in various lighting conditions, even in low light, which many webcams really struggle with. It’s a big improvement over the MacBook Pro’s camera, although the image can look a little soft or blurred in some lighting conditions.
In addition to the improved camera, the iMac M1 also features a vastly improved integrated microphone array. Three high-performance microphones use directional beamforming and a high signal-to-noise ratio to achieve surprisingly good results.
Software: Big Sur with beautiful custom wallpapers
Like the first round of the M1 Mac, the 2021 iMac ships with macOS 11.4 Big Sur. Apple created this version of macOS with M1 hardware in mind, and each update includes only M1-specific improvements.