When you write about technology for a living, a lot of folks ask you for buying advice. And, while we get to test the latest and greatest gear on the planet, telling others what to spend their money on is often easier than shopping for ourselves. Only a select few devices are deemed worthy of our dollars. These are the best gadgets we bought in 2015.
My wife’s seven year old iMac died this year. After years of delivering email, editing photos and being used exactly once to boot Windows XP, I’m pretty sure it was the power supply that did it in. Naturally, the only option to replace that 17-inch computer was a 27-inch, 5K Retina display iMac with a 1TB drive. The screen is amazing. It makes all those stored photos look way better than they actually are. Also, that email text is really, really crisp. It’s really great for watching Rick and Morty when your wife commandeers the TV to watch a period piece on PBS. The computer, while probably more than we needed, is making our lives a bit better. If only OS X El Capitan would stop putting it to sleep and refusing to wake back up when pinged by the network — even though I’ve set it to wake for network access. Really, if that niggle were fixed, it would be the perfect emailing, photo editing, random cartoon-watching machine.
While we shelled out a hefty chunk of cash to use only ten percent of that 5K iMac’s potential (We’ll grow into it!), I’m actually pretty thrifty. So, a few months ago I treated myself to a soldering station with a magnifying glass and two alligator clips to hold my delicate pieces of electronics while I melted metal to metal. I’ve used it to fix a few microphones (I’m in a band) and I totally intend to use it to finally put together that LED sign set I bought at DEFCON. In recent years, I find myself gravitating more towards these maker type of tech purchases. Sure, I buy a new iPhone every year or two, but as I look at the commercial hardware filling the tech world, I’m largely unimpressed. On the other hand, the DIY/Maker world is currently where the fun is at. BRB, I gotta go buy some LEDs.
Like millions of other people, I also stayed up late to pre-order the Apple Watch on the night of April 10th, 2015. I’d tried many smartwatches before that, including the original Moto 360, but none of them ever managed to become an essential part of my life. Not that I was expecting the Apple Watch to do what those couldn’t, but having recently switched back to an iPhone and it being Apple’s first take on this kind of device, I simply couldn’t resist. I did debate whether or not to pull the trigger on the stainless steel version, but ultimately decided to wait until the second generation before springing for the higher-end Watch.
So, I bought the entry-level model.
Eight months later, I find myself wearing it every day and suffering no buyer’s remorse. That’s much to my own surprise, since I’ve never been a “watch guy.” Worst case scenario, I figured I could return it to Apple if I didn’t end up using it much. But here it is, strapped to my left wrist as I type these very words. Now, the Watch is far from being a gadget I feel the need to be rockin’ on a daily basis. While it’s a nice extension of my iPhone, letting me view notifications or use Apple Pay directly from my wrist, I would be okay without either of those features. That said, the Watch is now one of the first things I grab when I start getting ready for the day, which says a lot about its effect on me.
More than anything, I just love the way it looks and feels. Unlike the Moto 360 I have, Apple’s 42mm Watch doesn’t feel big or bulky on my wrist — most of the time I forget I’m even wearing it. My favorite part of the Watch, however, is the feature that reminds me to stand up if I’ve been sitting for long periods of time. If I’m at my desk, every hour I get a notification telling my to stand up and walk around for a few minutes. Considering my job requires me to be in front of a computer for nine or more hours every day, those periodic reminders are much appreciated, since chronic sitting just might slowly be killing me. That the Watch does what it does in style is just a plus, and it really pops when paired with that Product Red band I purchased a few weeks ago.
My favorite gadget purchase this year is actually something released last year: Amazon’s Echo. I’ve written a love letter about the Echo already, but as we near the end of 2015, it’s worth reiterating just how great it is. I usually start every day by asking Alexa, the Echo’s digital assistant, to play WNYC, my local NPR station. As I’m feeding my cats, I ask about the weather. When I’m making dinner, I can have Alexa set timers and change music tracks, all hands-free. At this point, the Echo is basically the household computer I’ve always wanted.
Even today, Siri and Google Now can’t compete with the Echo when it comes to listening and responding to voice commands. Apple only recently added hands-free Siri support to the iPhone with iOS 9, a feature that’s nice to have, but has been mostly frustrating in my testing. I’ve had better luck with Google Now, but it still sometimes takes several tries of shouting “Okay Google” for it to work properly. Since the Echo is always plugged in and has an array of microphones at the ready, it’s simply better at listening to your voice.
I’m also a big fan of the Chromecast Audio, which can transform just about any speaker into a modern, connected music machine for just $35. It sounds a lot better than streaming Bluetooth audio, and it’s not locked into a proprietary platform like Apple’s AirPlay. The Chromecast standard is also far easier to connect to than either Bluetooth or AirPlay, and it also allows you to do other things with your phone without messing up music streams. And Google just made it better by adding high-res music support and multi-room syncing. If you’ve already got decent speakers, Chromecast Audio can give you a Sonos-like experience without shelling out big bucks (or being locked into a more closed ecosystem).
My favorite tech purchase this year came in the form of the Fitbit Charge HR and Aria scale — both of which I purchased as part of the #EngadgetFitnessChallenge. The Charge has been fantastic, pulling triple duty as timepiece, pedometer and health/sleep tracker. The associated FitBit app, especially its calorie tracking feature, has been a boon as well. I can see exactly how much I’ve done in a given day, plot my progress over time, check my heart rate and keep tabs on how many Doritos I’ve crammed into my face during the past 24 hours.
I initially had a couple issues with the Charge HR because, prior to the last firmware update, the unit did not automatically track my exercise and I would continually forget to manually activate the feature. Or worse, I’d forget to stop it after my workout ended and would wind up with results for 10 hours of “exercise.” Still, the Charge HR has motivated me to not only exercise consistently for the first time in years but also change my eating and sleeping habits. Armed with this information, I’ve managed to drop 8 pounds over the past two months.
The Aria, however, I despise — namely because it keeps pointing out how fat I still am whenever I stand on it.
The 5X is my third Nexus phone. My first was a Samsung Galaxy Nexus I picked up while waiting for the iPhone 5 to be released, and never looked back. I followed that up with a beautiful red Nexus 5, which served me well until two months shy of the 5X launch, when I dropped it and cracked the screen. I suffered with it for weeks, as shards of glass slowly flaked off, until my new Nexus 5X finally arrived.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from LG’s third Google offering, but I’d become a fan of its immediate predecessor’s raw Android experience, light weight and affordable price. The 5X’s ice blue shade doesn’t quite pop like the brilliant red of the 5, but it still lets me escape the mundanity of basic black and white. Sadly, Qi wireless charging — a favorite feature of mine — failed to make the cut this time around. And, being ahead of the curve with USB-C requires you to plan out your charging regimen, since compatible cables are scarce. The phone feels great, but its plastic exterior and ultra-lightweight build look a bit like a budget phone — which, to be fair, it kind of is.
OK, I lied before, this is technically my fourth Nexus phone, since I had to return my first 5X. It arrived with a speck on the inside of the lens that ruined every photo. After attempting to replace it through Nexus Protect, I learned that a) Google handles all warranty replacements itself and b) the insurance company administering claims doesn’t use email to update you — it uses actual, physical letters. Despite the archaic means of communication, my new handset arrived a few days later. Unfortunately, I still see bits of stuff on the inside of the camera lens, though they have yet to interfere with the camera. It may have something to do with the rattling noise that emanates from the phone — an issue that spans all three 5X handsets I’ve checked.
It’s not all bad, though. The second-rate camera that’s plagued the Nexus line for several iterations has been improved upon a great deal in the 5X. Photos are crisp and bright, especially in low light, so you can finally get to Instagramming at parties with the best of them. Another great leap forward is the 5X’s fingerprint sensor that provides quick and secure access to the phone. The rear placement meshes well with how I hold the thing and it’s saved me a lot of time compared to entering a pin code repeatedly.
Could it be better? Sure, but the price, feature set and design make it a worthwhile purchase. Being first in line for Android updates is also a nice bonus. Android 6.0 Marshmallow works well, feels comfortable and doesn’t suffer from skinning or bloatware like many forked versions. Thus far, I’m happy enough with this most recent Nexus that I see Google reference phones in my hand for the foreseeable future.
Though I often tell people that I am not a gamer, the truth is that I do enjoy and play video games. I have fond memories of Doom, The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst, and I had Atari and SNES consoles as a kid. I’ve even owned a PS2 and an Xbox 360. But I’m really more of a casual gamer with a closer affinity to Threes than Halo or Call of Duty. That fact — combined with my nostalgic love for Nintendo titles like Super Mario Bros and Zelda — is why I bought the Nintendo Wii U this year instead of an Xbox One or PS4.
The first two titles I bought were Splatoon and Mario Kart 8; the former was more for my husband, while I’ve always been a fan of the quintessential kart racing game. While I rarely partake in Splatoon, I still enjoy watching my husband wreak havoc in paint-festooned battlegrounds, blasting his opponents with blanket color bombs. But the real fun comes when we compete against each other in Mario Kart — few things are more satisfying than yelling “BLUE TURTLESHELL INCOMING” to your spouse and laughing (perhaps a bit too loudly) at his misfortune when it hits home.
Since then, we’ve expanded our repertoire with Super Mario Bros 3D World and, most recently, Yoshi’s Wooly World, which is the most delightful game I’ve played this year. Little Yoshis made of yarn? Swallowing enemies and then pooping them out as yarn balls? It’s charming game that never fails to lift my mood every time I play. This combination of whimsy and solid gameplay is precisely why I bought the Wii U, and why Nintendo will always hold a special place in my heart.
Earlier this year I found myself on the basement level of a mall in China standing face-to-face with the MOTQRONA, a hideous gold knock-off of a Zach Morris-era Motorola phone. I obviously couldn’t leave without it (never mind the price), and it’s by far the best gadget I bought in 2015. It might even be the best gadget I’ve ever purchased, period, because it’s so damned versatile.
Goodness, where to even start? First off, it’s enormous, and the huge battery wedged in its back should make the MOTQRONA an effective weapon in a pinch. That battery pulls double duty, too — thanks to a full-size USB port, the MOTQRONA also works as a power bank, though I dare not use it to charge anything I actually like. There’s a big LED embedded in the top of the phone for lighting up those dark, wintry New York City streets, too. And next to that, the already-long antenna telescopes outward to become even more ridiculous looking, yet ideal for picking up radio stations and OTA television signals. (That TV capability is pretty much useless here in the States, but I did manage to watch a few moments of… something… in my Shenzhen hotel room.)
Did I mention that the MOTQRONA also has the loudest speakers known to man? Just ask anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot when I’ve turned the phone on or off — the phone plays a traditional melody that would be delightful if it wasn’t loud enough to burst an eardrum or two. Even better, there’s no way to turn that insanely loud greeting off. At this point, I’m fairly sure no one in our New York office can stand the sight of me or my hulking gold monstrosity. And the pièce de résistance: whoever made this phone slavishly copied iOS’s design, from the slide-to-unlock mechanic (yes, it has a touchscreen) to just about every single icon. Oh, and the MOTQRONA gets bonus points for speaking aloud the names of menu items in Mandarin, just because.
Apple’s latest 4K and 5K iMacs support a 10-bit graphics driver on OS X El Capitan, allowing for smoother color transitions, according to German website Mac & i. The 10-bit color output enables 1024 gradations per color channel, a significant increase from 256 with 8-bit depth on previous iMacs.
30 bit pixel depth — 10 bit for each RGB color (Image: cinema5D)
Digital filmmaking news website cinema5D explains the technical benefits of 10-bit color depth for professional colorists, photographers and editors:
Professionals know that 10-bit screen color is the desired color depth for serious color correction. When you work in 8-bit you often see banding artefacts and lose detail on soft gradients which makes editing harder and less accurate.
This is not to be confused with the bit depth of your source files. We all know that working with video DSLRs or other heavily compressed video footage that is limited to 8 bit color depth gives you less options during grading and 10 bit, 12 bit or even 16 bit color photos and videos are better. On the screen side 10 bit is the desired depth to let you view the end result without gradation steps.
The new 10-bit color depth reportedly only works within the Preview and Photos applications for now, but other third-party software should eventually take advantage of the technology. The 2014 5K iMac also supports 10-bit color depth on OS X El Capitan, according to these reports.
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I can’t believe it’s already been 20 episodes! You guys have been awesome about sending in questions, so thank you. But enough sentimental stuff, let’s get to the questions!
First up, we look at your responses from our recent emoji poll on audiobooks vs. reading. You had some thoughts on this one, like this tweet from John:
— John Upton (@jwareup) October 8, 2015
Don’t worry John, you’re commenting in the right place. Though I have to disagree, I think the pause button can be put to excellent use in that scenario!
We also had a great question from Chris via email about modern-day video game emulators, which is answered by Engadget editor Tim Seppala. I also tackle some inquiries about podcasting on Spotify, and how to make your old school iMac run at tolerable speeds.
Thanks for watching, and make sure to keep sending those questions in for future episodes, either via email or on social media with the hashtag #DearVeronica.
Design seems to be at the heart of every new Apple product. In the company’s eyes, a new laptop or tablet shouldn’t just perform well — it has to look, feel and sound right too. But just how far does the company go to maintain this vision? Ridiculously far, it turns out. To coincide with the latest iMacs, Backchannel was given an exclusive look at the Input Design Lab where Apple tests new keyboard, trackpad and mouse prototypes. The methods used are numerous, extensive and eye-opening; in one, Apple attaches sensors to testers to measure muscle fatigue and memory, acoustics and accuracy. In another, robots type repeatedly on keys and move mice around to measure their general performance, endurance, and adaptability on different surfaces. Some of these tests can reportedly require up to five million key taps. It’s rare for Apple to give this much insight into its R&D facilities, so hit up Backchannel‘s article for all of the photos and intriguing tidbits.
[Image Credit: Jason Henry, Backchannel]
Apple’s line of newly updated 5K Retina 27-inch iMacs with Skylake will support up to 64GB of RAM, an upgrade from the previous-generation 27-inch Retina iMacs that would only support a maximum of 32GB of RAM. According to OWC, The current 27-inch Retina iMac includes four memory slots that support up to 16GB of memory per slot for a total of 64GB.
Image via OWC
Build-to-order options for the 27-inch Retina iMacs only allow it to be purchased from Apple with a maximum of 32GB RAM, but OWC will offer 16GB modules in 48GB and 64GB configurations for the new iMac. OWC plans to start selling its new 48 and 64GB kits tomorrow, but pricing is not yet available.
The new 27-inch iMacs were announced this morning and are available from Apple retail stores and Apple’s online store. Pricing for the machines starts at $1,799 for a 3.2GHz quad-core processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, and an AMD Radeon R9 M380 graphics card.
Apple today launched new 4K and 5K iMacs alongside the Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Trackpad 2. The refreshed all-in-one desktop computers feature faster processors and graphics, two Thunderbolt 2 ports and more affordable Fusion Drive storage upgrade options.
Following the announcement, several media outlets have published hands-on reviews and first impressions of the new iMacs, including Ars Technica, CNET, Engadget, Macworld, Mashable, Tech Insider and The Wall Street Journal. Many of the reviews also provide a closer look at the new Magic accessories.
The early reviews of the new iMacs are generally favorable, with high marks awarded to their improved displays with wider color gamut. The 2015 models are widely considered among the best desktop computers available, but some critics view the lack of USB-C and base configuration of 5400 RPM hard drives as shortcomings.
Then there are the frustrating choices Apple has made across the lineup: No Thunderbolt 3 or USB Type-C even though those technologies are apparently ready to go, and no standard Fusion Drive or SSD in any but the top-end 27-inch iMacs. At $100, the jump to a Fusion Drive (albeit a smaller one than in years past) is cheaper than ever, but Apple could really afford to stick that 24GB drive inside every single one of these iMacs to alleviate the unmitigated misery that is using a 5400RPM hard drive in a $1500 desktop computer in this the year of our Lord 2015.
If you’re OK with the list of omissions and you can spring for the storage upgrade, the 4K iMac gets you a great professional-quality screen and a powerful quad-core processor for a pretty reasonable price. The 27-inch iMac is the computer that most blurs the line between consumer all-in-one and high-end workstation, but as long as you aren’t gaming you can get some pretty serious work done on the 21.5-inch iMac. But if Apple can make Fusion Drives and 4K screens standard on all iMacs when the Skylake refresh comes around, we won’t have much left to complain about.
For everyone else, even if you don’t regularly view 4K content, a sharp-looking Retina-level display is one of those things that’s nearly impossible to give up once you get used to it, and the new 4K iMac is competitively priced with the handful of 4K-display Windows PCs we’ve reviewed.
If you have a model from the past few years, this isn’t a must-have upgrade, but it may certainly be worth picking up the new keyboard and mouse or trackpad to give your older iMac a facelift.
The iMac is still the best all-in-one, with an attractive (if predictable) design, near-standard 4K and 5K screens, and even better color accuracy than before. The 21.5-inch version is in some ways the more interesting of the two models, as this is the first time the smaller Mac has been offered with a Retina display. […]
As you can see, then, the iMac mostly hits the right notes, although I wish Apple were more generous with the other specs — besides display quality and resolution, that is. The 21.5-inch version is no longer offered with discrete graphics, not even on the 4K edition, which seems like a mistake. Meanwhile, hybrid Fusion drives only come standard on machines priced from $1,999.
When four pixels are doing the work that only one used to do, the El Capitan interface really shines. Everything’s sharper. Photos look startlingly real, almost like they were printed on paper. And then there’s text, which looks razor sharp like it just rolled out of a laser printer. Even toolbars and Dock icons are more pleasant because all the on-screen graphics have added subtle details that were impossible at lower resolutions. […]
The base storage configuration of the 4K iMac is a 1TB, 5400rpm hard drive. It’s been a few years since I regularly used a Mac with a spinning disk as its primary hard drive, and man, did it feel slow. Starting up was slow. Launching apps was slow. Everything… just… took… longer. It’s disconcerting to take a brand-new, top-of-its-line Mac out of the box and be disappointed by how sluggish it feels, but that’s what I experienced, and it’s pretty much down to that slow hard drive.
Apple did change how the Fusion Drive works in 2015. To allow for a lower-cost Fusion Drive option, Apple paired a 1TB hard drive with a 24GB SSD. In the past, the 1TB Fusion Drive matched a 1TB standard hard drive with a 128GB SSD. Now, if you want the 128GB SSD, you’ll need to have a 2TB or 3TB Fusion Drive offering.
The upside of the new Fusion Drive configuration is that it makes the feature — and its faster response times — affordable for anyone. The downside is you don’t see speed improvements of documents and apps offloaded to the SSD as much because the cache is smaller.
It’s not just about resolution though. The new iMac screens can show color better too. […]
But the average person probably won’t notice. I had to look at side-by-side comparisons to really see what has changed. This feature is better for photo and video professionals, not necessarily regular users who just want to do some light editing of photos they took with their iPhone. Just know that you’re getting a really nice screen and that Apple took the extra step to make sure it keeps getting better. Nothing wrong with that.
When you look at these new iMac screens, reds and greens in particular look brighter or more vibrant, like somebody cranked up the saturation dial to 11. With 25% more colors to work with, there’s also more detail because the monitors aren’t eliminating certain hues.
With an old and new iMac side by side, I could spot the difference on some photos, but not all. One problem is that many of our photos—including ones taken with the latest iPhone 6s—are saved in a reduced color palette called sRGB. To take advantage of the new screens, you need images or video saved in a format called DCI-P3. (Not coincidentally, the Mac’s Photos app can now save to that format, but you’ll have to start with high-quality images, like from a DSLR.) […]
Amid this flurry of iMac improvements, two mysteries remain. First, amid the rabbit warren of ports at the back of the iMac, Apple didn’t include a port called USB Type-C—used on the new MacBook laptop (with some controversy) for charging and input alike. Not including USB Type-C on the iMac sends an odd message about Apple’s commitment to that burgeoning standard.
Magic Keyboard, Mouse 2 and Trackpad 2:
I haven’t had a chance to test how long the batteries last, but Apple reports all three can go for about month on a single charge, and the mouse can give you a nine-hour day’s worth of pointing and clicking with a two-minute charge.
Apple’s new 4K and 5K iMacs, Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Trackpad 2 are available today.
Apple’s big fall keynote happened more than a month ago, so it’s a bit late for Tim Cook to be saying “one more thing.” Sure enough, though, the company just unveiled a refreshed line of iMacs, including a 21.5-inch model with an optional 4K (4,096 x 2,304) screen. That last bit shouldn’t come as a surprise: The internet has already been abuzz with rumors that the smaller iMac would finally get a Retina display option, as opposed to just plain old 1080p. All told, the 4K iMac has 4.5 times the resolution of Full HD, with the same pixel density as the 5K version. Speaking of the sort, the 27-inch model now comes standard with a 5,120 x 2,880 panel, whereas 5K resolution was once reserved for a $2,499 flagship edition. Across the board, both the 4K and 5K iMacs bring a 25 percent wider color range, and upgrading to Apple’s hybrid Fusion Drives costs about half as much as it used to ($100, down from $200 to $250). That said, it’s a shame that 5,400 rpm HDDs are still the standard throughout much of the iMac lineup.
In addition, Apple redesigned its mouse, wireless keyboard and Magic Trackpad with built-in batteries that recharge via a Lightning cable (fricking finally). The keyboard in particular now takes up 13 percent less space on your desk, but still has larger buttons, while the Trackpad now has 29 percent more surface area and supports pressure-sensitive Force Touch gestures. The mouse basically looks the same, and supports the same multitouch gestures as ever, but it’s lighter and redesigned feet on the bottom promise smoother gliding.Slideshow-328146
Under the hood, the 27-inch model steps up to sixth-generation Intel Core processors and AMD R9 M300-series graphics. The 21.5-inch version is no longer offered with a discrete GPU, and instead makes use of Intel’s higher-end integrated graphics, the Iris Pro 6200 chipset. As it happens, the only desktop chips that pair with Intel’s Iris Pro graphics are from Intel’s fifth-generation Core series, but before you get too upset, know that these particular chips were only released a few months ago, so it’s not like they’re old, exactly. Still, it’s a bummer that the dedicated GPU has been axed just as the 4K Retina display is arriving, though chances are, if you had your heart set on a dedicated GPU, you would have been more likely to go with the 27-inch edition anyway.
The new iMacs are available today and as it happens, we’ve already published a review of the 4K 21.5-inch model. If you choose to buy one yourself, the starting prices are the same as before: $1,099 for the smaller edition and $1,799 for the 27-incher. If you want the 4K iMac in particular, that starts at $1,499. Each comes standard with the keyboard and mouse, though you can swap in the trackpad for an extra $50, or choose to have both in the box. By the way, if you own an old iMac, you can purchase the new input devices individually, with the keyboard prices at $99, the mouse at $79 and the trackpad at $129.
No, it’s not just a CPU refresh. Apple started selling a new line of iMacs today, and yes, while they have fresh processors and graphics cards inside, that’s really the least of it. Going forward, all the 27-inch models have a 5K screen — not just the flagship we reviewed last year — while the 21.5-inch version now has an optional 4K panel. Across the board, too, these new 4K and 5K displays have a wider color gamut, although the difference is fairly subtle. Possibly more important than the iMac itself, though, are the input devices: Apple redesigned the wireless keyboard, mouse and trackpad, adding rechargeable batteries and, in the case of the touchpad, pressure-sensitive Force Touch gestures.
I’ve been spending a few days with the new iMac, and chose to review the 4K 21.5-inch edition in particular since this is the first “small” iMac with a Retina display. Between the crisper screen, compact footprint and a lower price than the 27-inch models, it has the potential to hit the sweet spot for a lot of people. Just be sure to upgrade the hard drive before you place your order.Slideshow-327729
I felt a little nervous at first, using this unannounced computer out in the open at my office desk. What if someone walked by, uploaded a spy shot to Twitter and blew my cover? What if someone at our sister site TechCrunch saw? The truth is, it was the new keyboard and trackpad that I had to hide; the Mac itself has the same design as ever. Same dimensions. Same unibody aluminum enclosure. Same metal stand with a pass-through for the power cable. The bezels still measure 5mm thick, and are still pretty to look at from the side, although they don’t have any bearing on the overall footprint.
To that end, the iMac still puffs out in the back to accommodate all the circuitry inside. The ports are the same except the two Thunderbolt sockets have been replaced with Thunderbolt 2 connections, which have the same shape and labeling. Finally, the speakers are still hidden under the lower bezel, and they’re still loud.
Truly, the only potentially visible change is the color gamut, but I’m pretty sure anyone with discerning enough eyes to immediately tell the difference is working at Pixar, not Engadget.
Now that I’ve flown through all the same-y stuff, let’s focus on one of the few things that has changed: the screen. Although the 21.5-inch iMac used to max out at 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, you can now get it with an optional 4K (4,096 x 2,304) Retina display. Meanwhile, on the 27-inch version, 5K resolution (5,120 x 2,880) is now the standard, whereas before it was originally reserved for a flagship $2,499 configuration (with lower-end models later offered starting at $1,999).
Either way, Apple says the screen density is now the same on the 4K 21.5-inch iMac as it is on the 27-inch 5K version. Previously, the lower-end 27-inch iMacs had 2,560 x 1,440 resolution, which means the pixel count is now quadrupled. In the case of the 21.5-inch version I reviewed, the difference is more dramatic: Those 9.4 million pixels amount to more than 4.5 times the resolution of the previous generation. And for a certain kind of shopper, that will come as a relief. Maybe you don’t have enough room on your desk to comfortably use the bigger 27-inch version, but still want the sharpest-possible display. If that’s you, you’ll happily pay a $400 premium to get the 4K iMac over the entry-level Full HD one. (I’d say the iMac could also make for a lovely secondary display, but alas, you still can’t use it as a monitor for your laptop or Mac Mini.)
Regardless of the size, both the 4K and 5K screens extend beyond the sRGB color gamut in the previous generation to the wider P3 range. It offers 25 percent more available colors, according to Apple, particularly in the red and green areas of the spectrum. Blues are about the same versus sRGB, but you’ll still theoretically notice a difference in cases where blues are combined with either reds or greens (say, purples and shades like cyan). To make this happen, Apple moved from white LEDs to red-green phosphor LEDs that can capture more red and green light to appear onscreen. Apple says it already covered 100 percent of sRGB in older iMacs, and moved to P3 because many of its customers are already using DSLRs and pro video cameras capable of capturing colors that aren’t always recognized in the sRGB spectrum.
As you all know, I don’t represent that target market: I’m neither a photography nor a video enthusiast, and my job as an Engadget editor doesn’t require me to have a discerning eye for color. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the benefits of P3 are somewhat lost on me. I had the opportunity to view some “before and after” photos with colors representing what you’d see on the old sRGB panel and the new P3 one, and the differences were generally subtle; colors look slightly punchier than they would have otherwise. There’s also slightly better detail preservation, particularly in shadowy parts of the image. What I’m about to say isn’t a technically correct explanation, but it almost looks as if someone bumped up the saturation, or as if the images were taken in HDR mode. Again, that’s not actually what’s going on behind the scenes, but it’s the best way I can explain the difference here — especially to shoppers who might not get to see the same comparison images that I did.
The funny thing is that while I might not have noticed the richer colors on my own, now that someone has pointed them out, they’re hard to un-see. Things that I see every day — dock icons, an orange label in Google Calendar, the red font I use to highlight important things in emails to my team — look different. Not just brighter, but truer; more pristine. Reds are closer to true reds. Oranges are more orange. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, there’s little else I can do to help illustrate the difference, since chances are you’re using an older sRGB screen yourself, if that. My best recommendation, then, is to head over to an Apple Store if possible and take a look at the screen in person. Perhaps you’ll even get to see one of the new P3-grade iMacs displayed next to an entry-level sRGB one, but no promises there. Barring that, you’re just going to have to trust me when I say that the P3 panel is indeed more color-rich, and that the difference can also be tough to spot unless you know what to look for.
Keyboard, mouse and trackpad
If the iMac’s new color gamut and CPU choices seem like modest changes, it’s the bundled input devices that make this a more substantial update than it may initially seem. All of the iMac’s matching peripherals — the wireless keyboard, mouse and trackpad — now recharge through a Lightning port. Yep, that’s right, gone are the AAs, and so is the battery barrel that housed them.Slideshow-327730
In all, you should expect to get a month’s use out of each device before you have to recharge. In the case of the mouse, the Lightning port’s location on the bottom side means you can’t use it while it’s rejuicing. But, because the keyboard’s and trackpad’s charging ports are each tucked away on a back edge, you can indeed use them while they charge. Accordingly, the new peripherals come with a Lightning cable in the box. As before, too, they ship pre-paired with your system, but if you’re using them with an older machine, they’ll automatically pair when you connect to the iMac via a Lightning cable for the first time. In fact, I had to do this with the Trackpad, which came in a separate box, as if I had bought it separately.
Speaking of the sort, the keyboard and mouse come in the box by default, with the Trackpad offered as an upgrade option on the configure-to-order page. If you’re the owner of an older iMac and want to swap in the new peripherals, they cost $99 for the keyboard, $79 for the mouse and $129 for the trackpad.
Without that battery compartment, too, Apple was able to make each of these devices lighter and, in the case of the trackpad and keyboard, thinner as well. Because the keyboard is now missing that cylindrical battery barrel, it has a slimmer design and lies at a flatter angle. I found it comfortable to type on, although I don’t recall having any complaints about the previous design, and unfortunately I don’t have an older keyboard lying around that I can use for comparison purposes.
Additionally, the keyboard’s footprint is 13 percent smaller than before, yet despite that the individual buttons are actually larger now, with the Function row in particular reaching the same vertical height as all the other buttons. You’ll also find the key spacing is more in line with what we saw on the 12-inch MacBook. Lastly, Apple says it reengineered each of the keys, adopting a refined “scissor” mechanism to help the buttons move up and down in an even, reliable way. All told, Apple is promising 33 percent better key stability, which is to say even if your finger strikes the corner of the key instead of the center, it’ll be that much more likely to register as a “normal” press.
For my part, I was always able to hit the button I meant to, even without looking. I generally made few typos, too, though occasionally a key would still fail to register my press — a problem I’ve noticed on flat, shallow keyboards in general. Perhaps in a future update, Apple will adopt the same underlying keyboard mechanism in use on the 12-inch MacBook.
Magic Mouse 2
Like the iMac itself, the new Magic Mouse is difficult to tell from its predecessor, at least at a quick glance. As before, the mouse has a glassy white surface that responds not just to button presses, but also to multitouch gestures, similar to what you’d otherwise do on a trackpad. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that while the Magic Mouse 2 is as thick as before, it’s noticeably lighter, thanks to the lack of AA batteries inside. Apple also redesigned the feet on the bottom for smoother gliding. As I said about the keyboard’s flatter angle, the new foot design here works, but I also had no complaints about the glide factor on the previous model; the old version also worked well on a variety of surfaces.
If anything, the rechargeable battery is a bigger deal than the new feet. In particular, the mouse has a quick-charging feature that allows it to regain nine hours of use after just two minutes of charging. That’s important, since the mouse can’t be used while it’s charging, the way the keyboard can.
Ultimately, whether you choose the mouse or trackpad boils down to personal preference. Personally, I’ve always been a mouse person: Mice are comfortable to rest my hand on, and I enjoy the tactile feedback of pressing a button (as I’ve argued before, Apple’s pressure-sensitive Force Touch trackpads don’t quite feel like the real thing). That said, the button on the Magic Mouse is a little noisy; if that annoys you, using the Magic Trackpad with tap-to-click enabled could be a good alternative.
Magic Trackpad 2
As I hinted earlier, I’m not a huge fan of the Force Touch trackpads on MacBooks; I miss the tactile feel of being able to press a button on the old touchpad. But, I enjoy Force Touch a good deal more on the new Magic Trackpad. I’m going to chalk that up to ergonomics: According to Apple, the underlying technology here is the same as on the MacBook, which means there’s nothing different going on under the hood. In case you need a refresher, there are four pressure-sensitive force sensors plus a so-called Taptic Engine that uses vibrating feedback to simulate the feeling of a button press (neither the Magic Trackpad nor MacBook touchpad really have a button; both feel like stiff pieces of glass when powered off). As on the MacBook, you can use a long-press, or “Force touch,” to do everything from peek at files in Finder to quickly fast-forward movies in iTunes.
For people who already own one of the new Force Touch-enabled MacBooks (or even a Force Touch gadget like the Apple Watch or iPhone 6s with its 3D Touch screen), these gestures and tricks will all seem familiar. If you found them useful before, that may well convince you to use the Magic Trackpad instead of the mouse. If, like me, you think Force Touch is a little gimmicky in OS X, it comes down more to ergonomics.
Indeed, that’s why the trackpad has enormous appeal for me. The second-gen Magic Trackpad has 29 percent more surface area than the original, and you obviously get way more space than you would on a Magic Mouse or MacBook touchpad. I find the increase in surface area alone makes Force Touch easier to use here than on a laptop. Also, when the pad is placed farther away from the keyboard (as opposed to right below it), that has an effect on where I rest my hand, and it puts my wrist in a more natural position. Between that and the quieter “button” feedback I’d otherwise get on the Magic Mouse, I ended up getting a lot of use out of the trackpad — even if I’m otherwise indifferent to Force Touch.
|Geekbench (multi-core)||Xbench||Blackmagic (average read/write speeds)|
|iMac (2015, 21.5-inch, 3.1GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, Iris Pro 6200 Graphics)||11,331 (32-bit) / 12,679 (64-bit)||654.01||95.2/93.2 MB/s|
|iMac with Retina display (2014, 27-inch, 3.5GHz Core i5, 8GB RAM, 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M290X)||11,344 (32-bit) / 12,394 (64-bit)||643.65||659.0/311.5 MB/s|
|Mac Pro (2013, 3.7GHz Intel Xeon E5-1620, 16GB RAM, dual 2GB AMD FirePro D300 GPUs)||12,650 (32-bit) / 14,207 (64-bit)||601.98||918.6/761.2 MB/s|
|iMac (2013, 27-inch, 3.4GHz Core i5, 8GB RAM, 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M)||10,920 (32-bit) / 11,867 (64-bit)||
|iMac (2012, 27-inch, 3.4GHz Core i7, 8GB RAM, 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680MX)||13,045 (32-bit)||
|iMac (2012, 21.5-inch, 3.1GHz Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512MB NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M)||12,577 (32-bit)||
While the 27-inch models received an upgrade to Intel’s new sixth-gen Core processors and fresh AMD R9 M300-series graphics, the 21.5-inch version runs fifth-gen CPUs with up to Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics. This would make sense, since Intel doesn’t yet seem to have any sixth-gen desktop chips that work with Iris Pro; as of this writing, the list is limited to five fifth-gen processors, all of which were released not long before the refreshed iMac came out. (Which is to say, these processors aren’t exactly old, per se.) What’s vexing is that until today, Apple was in fact selling the 21.5-inch model with an optional NVIDIA graphics card, so this would seem to represent a change of heart. Aside from trying to keep the smaller model affordable for casual users, I imagine the company is trying to incentivize folks to pay more for the bigger version — and it’s betting power users will be willing to do just that. That’s a shame, because a 4K display is probably at its best with a dedicated GPU.
The unit I’ve been testing is one of the higher-end 21.5-inch configurations, one with a 4K screen, 3.1GHz quad-core Core i5-5675R processor, 8GB of 1,867MHz DDR3 RAM and Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics. Performance was fine for web browsing and light multitasking, with benchmark scores that matched the flagship 5K iMac I tested last year. The 802.11ac wireless radio also delivered fast speeds, although I admittedly spent most of my time with an Ethernet cable plugged in the back. I did unfortunately encounter the occasional bout of sluggishness. One time, for instance, Spotlight search paused before displaying results, leaving some artifacting on the screen. I also sometimes found that if I tried to do something immediately after boot-up — say, open a file in Finder — I’d be met with a short delay. In moments like this, I felt as if I hadn’t fully regained control of the system, even though the desktop appeared to have loaded. Thankfully, at least, hiccups like these were the exception, not the rule.
If you’re not careful, you also might end up with frustrating disk speeds. Even on my review unit, which would cost $1,499 at retail, I have just a traditional hard drive, one that spins at a modest 5,400 revolutions per minute. (Seriously, what year is this?) I routinely waited through a lengthy startup of around 47 seconds, with the machine taking seven seconds just to show the splash screen. In contrast, an iMac with a Fusion Drive that I tested last year (and the year before that), booted up in just 15 seconds or so. What’s more, in the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, the new iMac rarely broke 100 megabytes per second on either read or write speeds, not even when I simulated the lightest-possible workload. That would be fine for basic use, like email and Facebook, but people who intend to use their 4K iMac to do things like edit 4K video shot on their new iPhone 6s might be disappointed.
From Apple’s perspective, the company is doing shoppers a favor by offering Fusion Drives on more configurations, and charging less for an up-sell. Specifically, the company is now offering them standard in models starting at $1,999, and upgrading to one on the configure-to-order page now costs $100, down from a range of $200 to $250 in the last generation. This is a step in the right direction, and I get that Apple wants to keep the iMac’s starting price down to lure in more budget-conscious shoppers, but at least make Fusion Drives standard on some of the more expensive configurations, like the $1,499 sku I tested. To me, this feels like the “16GB iPhone” debate, redux: 5,400 rpm hard drives are about as passé as 16GB of storage is on flagship phones, and in both cases, the rest of the industry has moved on.
Both the 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs have the same starting prices as before, with the smaller model going for $1,099 and up and the bigger one priced from $1,799. Starting with the 21.5-inch size I reviewed, the base-level specs include a dual-core 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, a 1,920 x 1,080 display and integrated Intel HD 6000 graphics. The next model up, a $1,299 configuration, steps up to a 2.8GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics. Finally, there’s the high-end unit I tested, which for $1,499 brings a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, that 4K Retina display with the expanded color range and the same Iris Pro 6200 graphics as on the model just below it. Regardless, each of these comes standard with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB, 5,400 rpm hard drive.
From there, you have some configuration options. You can double the RAM to 16GB regardless of the model you buy. There’s also a quad-core Core i7 CPU available, but it’s only offered as an upgrade option on the top-end $1,499 edition. Throughout, too, you can swap in different storage solutions, although your options get more plentiful as you step up to the $1,499 configuration. For instance, on the $1,099 model you only have the choice of upgrading to a 1TB Fusion Drive or a 256GB SSD. With the $1,299 version, your choices include a 2TB Fusion Drive and either 256GB or 512GB of solid-state storage. It’s only on the $1,499 configuration that you can choose any of the above.
While I have you here, let’s go over what you get on the 27-inch version — after all, many of you will want the same color range as on the unit I reviewed, just with more screen real estate and stronger performance. As I said, the larger iMac starts at $1,799, a price that includes a 3.2GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, a 2GB AMD R9 M380 GPU and a 1TB hard drive spinning at 7,200 rpm. If you step up to the $1,999 model, you get the same CPU, but a slightly faster GPU (a 2GB R9 M390) and a 1TB Fusion Drive instead of a traditional HDD. Finally, the highest-end $2,299 model has a slightly faster 3.3GHz quad-core Core i5 processor, AMD R9 M395 graphics with 2GB of video memory and a 2TB Fusion Drive. Across the board, you get a 5K (5,120 x 2,880) display with the expanded P3 color range and 8GB of memory.
Real quick, the 27-inch iMac has some up-sell options of its own. The two higher-end configs can be had with a 4.0GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, while a 4GB AMD R9 M395X GPU is offered on all three models. More RAM — 16GB or 32GB — is also an option across the board. You will find that storage options vary somewhat: the entry-level $1,799 model can be had with a 1TB, 2TB or 3TB Fusion Drive or a 256GB or 512GB SSD, while the two higher-end configurations add a 1TB SSD option. (You can’t upgrade to a 1TB Fusion Drive on the two more expensive models; just 2TB and 3TB.)
The upgraded iMac doesn’t have much competition, especially for the smaller 21.5-inch model. If you’re OS-agnostic enough to consider a Windows machine, I’d normally point you toward Dell’s premium XPS line. The problem, though, is that as of this writing, the XPS 27 listed on Dell’s site runs fourth-generation Core processors, compared with sixth-gen in the refreshed 27-inch iMac. Meanwhile, Dell’s XPS 18 is actually a battery-powered, portable all-in-one, putting it in a different category altogether than the iMac. If you’re in the market for a 27-inch machine, the XPS 27 has a Quad HD screen, and starts at a more reasonable $1,700, but I suggest waiting for Dell to refresh the internals. It’s a similar story with Lenovo: The 23.8-inch A540 and 27-inch A740 listed on the company’s site could in theory make decent alternatives, but as of this writing they’re being sold with fourth-gen Intel CPUs.
If anything, your best alternative might come from HP. The company just last week unveiled a pair of refreshed Envy-series all-in-ones, with 23.8- and 27-inch Technicolor-certified screens, optional 4K resolution and sixth-gen Core processors. Like the iMacs, too, they support up to 16GB of RAM and your choice of an SSD, HDD or hybrid disk. They’re not on sale yet, but they will be soon: Look for them on November 1st, starting at $1,000 for the Envy 24 and $1,200 for the 27.
The iMac is still the best all-in-one, with an attractive (if predictable) design, near-standard 4K and 5K screens, and even better color accuracy than before. The 21.5-inch version is in some ways the more interesting of the two models, as this is the first time the smaller Mac has been offered with a Retina display. That’s good news for people who are willing to pay a premium for a sharper screen, but don’t quite have the desk space for the bigger 27-inch model. In addition to the computer itself, the peripherals come close to stealing the show: They’re finally rechargeable, for one, and the keyboard in particular takes up less space, despite having larger buttons. The Magic Trackpad now supports Force Touch too, so if you happen to enjoy those pressure-sensitive gestures on the MacBook Pro, Apple Watch or iPhone 6s, you can now have the same experience here.
As you can see, then, the iMac mostly hits the right notes, although I wish Apple were more generous with the other specs — besides display quality and resolution, that is. The 21.5-inch version is no longer offered with discrete graphics, not even on the 4K edition, which seems like a mistake. Meanwhile, hybrid Fusion drives only come standard on machines priced from $1,999. Again, I love the improved screen, but having faster storage for the money and the option of more robust graphics would have improved my boot time and maybe eliminated the few hiccups I experienced. It’s great that more iMacs now have 4K and 5K panels, but until Apple redesigns the hardware, which has looked the same for several years now, the best thing the company can do is double-down on performance.
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Apple will announce an updated 21.5-inch iMac with a 4K display at the end of October alongside the release of OS X El Capitan, reports 9to5Mac. The new iMac will then begin shipping out to customers in early November.
A new 21.5-inch Retina iMac has been anticipated for several months, following the discovery of code in OS X El Capitan that pointed towards a 21.5-inch machine with a resolution of 4096 x 2304. That code pointed towards Broadwell chips with Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200 and AMD Radeon M380 – M395X discrete graphics, which may hint at the hardware we’ll see in the updated iMac.
Reliable KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo also said in early August that the iMac line would receive a refresh this quarter, adding new processors and improved display quality that brings greater color saturation.
Apple began updating its iMac lineup last October, with the launch of the 27-inch Retina iMac. Updates across the line have been slow, however, due to Intel’s ongoing Broadwell chip delays, and the 21.5-inch iMac has not seen an update since 2013.
It is not clear if Apple will release multiple 21.5-inch iMac models during the October refresh, or which chips those machines might use. Skylake chips appropriate for the iMac are launching “later this year,” but there are a handful of Broadwell chips appropriate for various 21.5-inch iMac models.