Is the Mid 2014 iMac Really a Road Apple?

Road Apples. That’s our category for the worst products Apple ever made. Products such as the Apple III and the Performa 5200 that just had to many compromises or reliability issues for us to ever recommend using them. We think it’s fitting to name them after horse droppings.

21-inch iMac

In June, Chris Carson took a look at the recently-announced Mid 2014 iMac and declared it a Road Apple. The October issue of Macworld reviewed it and called it a poor performer considering how much more power you can get for just $200 more.

That said, this is Low End Mac, and we tend to take a different perspective on things. We are fans of hardware you can upgrade, so this low-end iMac loses points for having a fixed 8 GB of memory that you can never upgrade. Somewhere down the road, it might make sense to go beyond that, but if you own this iMac, you can’t do that.

Every MacBook Air (MBA) also looses a point for fixed memory, and the early models with just 2 GB of RAM are too far behind the curve to run anything newer than OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard well. MBA’s with 4 GB are still useful but are going to be running out of steam soon.

At least there are third-party SSD upgrades for the MBA, and the new iMac allows you to upgrade the hard drive, buy an SSD, or get a Fusion Drive.

Let’s Be Practical

I have two Intel-based Macs. Both run 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo CPUs. The 2007 Mac mini has 3 GB of system memory, its maximum, and it runs OS X 10.6 very nicely. That’s nice, because I still have some PowerPC software (AppleWorks and Office 2004 top the list), and Snow Leopard was the last version of OS X to support these apps using Rosetta.

The other is a Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook with 4 GB of RAM (8 GB possible) and Nvidia graphics (vs. the Mini’s integrated Intel graphics). It runs Snow Leopard nicely, and I usually run OS X 10.9 Mavericks on it. I also have OS X 10.10 Yosemite Beta on a second partition so I can try it out. I have to say this MacBook performs quite nicely even with the most modern versions of OS X.

There are times when these aging Macs are a bit slow, and there are times when they run tight on memory. They both have 7200 rpm hard drives with large caches, so the only way to speed up disk access is with an SSD. The Aluminum MacBook would run better with 8 GB of RAM, but I can’t justify the expense.

How Does the 2014 iMac Compare?

Running Geekbench in 64-bit multicore mode, the Mac mini scores 2063. The MacBook hits 2053, so the raw processing power of the two models is comparable. (The 2.4 GHz Aluminum MacBook reaches 2464.)

21" iMacYou’d think a 1.4 GHz CPU would provide a lot less power than a 2.0 GHz one, but in this case you’d be wrong. Intel i5 CPUs can overclock themselves from their nominal, energy-saving rated speed to a faster speed using Turbo Boost. In the case of this 1.4 GHz i5, it can run at 2.7 GHz when called upon. Instead of being one-third slower than a 2.0 GHz CPU, it’s one-third faster – and almost twice what you’d expect from a chip with a 1.4 GHz label.

That plus other efficiencies used in Intel’s Core i family of processors gives the newest iMac an unexpected level of performance, achieving 5365 on the same 64-bit multicore Geekbench 3 test as my Mac mini and MacBook. That’s 2.6 times the power of the Mac mini and over twice the power of the 2.4 GHz Aluminum MacBook.

Relative to my newest Macs, this iMac is a powerhouse. It comes with the maximum amount of RAM I can put in the MacBook, and its SATA II data bus has twice the bandwidth of SATA I in early Intel Macs. On top of that, it supports a Fusion Drive, which was never an option for these older Macs.

Compared to what I’m using, this would be a massive performance upgrade.

But for $200 More….

Yes, you can get a 4-core iMac with a 10225 Geekbench score for just $200 more. That’s 90% more processing power for just 27% more money. And you can expand memory. And it has a dedicated graphics processor.

Bondi iMacAs a long-term value, the 21.5″ Late 2013 2.7 GHz i5 iMac is the winner. I won’t deny that. But some Macs aren’t designed for power users. Consumer MacBooks, MacBook Airs, and Mac minis are not designed for the power hungry, although a 4-core Mac mini is a lot of power in a small box. The original iMac wasn’t designed for power users either, that’s something that has happened over time as the iMac’s screen grew from 15″ CRT to 15″ flat panel to 17″ to 20″ to 24″ and then to 27″.

People buying a 21.5″ iMac have different needs than those buying top-end 27″ monstrosities. And for those whose needs are minimal – browsing the Web, messaging, email, watching YouTube videos and Netflix content, playing online games – this iMac is more than enough and should be sufficient for years to come.

Conclusion

I was fully prepared to not like the 2014 iMac when it was first announced. A 1.4 GHz CPU? Seriously? What was Apple thinking?

But now that benchmark scores have been posted and reviews published, it turns out to be quite a bit more Mac than the 1.4 GHz CPU would have indicated. I would gladly own one, although I lean toward something I can use with my existing 1600 x 1200 display instead of a built-in screen.

Maybe the 2014 Mac mini will give me that!

In the end, this is not a Road Apple. It is not as forward-looking as many would like, especially with its soldered in place RAM, but that only earns it the Compromised Mac label. On our scoring system, it takes a 3 or 4 score to be a Road Apple. This iMac gets a one for RAM limitations. Outside of that, it’s a winner.

In terms of value, you could argue for a score of two. After all, the extra power and expandability you get for $200 more is impressive, but while the 2014 iMac should perhaps have a lower price by comparison, it is what it is, and that is a good buy.

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