2021 Apple M1 iMac (24-inch) Review: The best ‘starter’ Mac for creators

Introduction

The new M1 iMac is a sleek, stylish and surprisingly affordable photo and video editing machine.
Photo by DL Cade

First, the elephant in the room: the redesigned 24-inch iMac was not created for photographers and video editors. It’s a family-friendly Mac that’s much more concerned with aesthetic sensibility than Adobe Premiere Pro performance. Despite this, it’s arguably the best starter Mac for anybody who is interested in exploring their creative side.

In terms of photo and video editing performance, the new iMac is on par with every other M1 Mac, meaning: excellent. And Apple has combined that performance with a color-accurate 4.5K Retina display and crammed it all inside an impossibly thin and playfully designed package.

Apple has combined M1 performance with a color-accurate 4.5K Retina display and crammed it all inside an impossibly thin and playfully designed package.

Like very other M1 Mac, it has its frustrating limitations – some of Apple’s design choices have left professionals scratching their heads. But if you view the new 24-inch iMac through the lens of Apple’s intentions for this product, the creative potential of this machine comes into focus and you begin to understand who should (and who shouldn’t) buy this new machine.



Key specifications:

Base Model
Our Review Unit
Recommended
CPU
M1 8-core

GPU

M1 7-core
M1 8-core
RAM
8GB
16GB

Storage

256GB
512GB
1TB
Display
24-inch 4.5K Retina Display
I/O
2x USB 4 Type-C
1x Audio Port
2x USB 4 Type-C
2x USB 3 Type-C
1x Gigabit Ethernet
1x Audio Port
Price
$1,300
$1,900
$2,100

The M1 iMac we received for review sits near the top of the configuration spectrum. It features the 8-core CPU/8-core GPU variant of the M1, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and all of the extra ports and cooling that come along with the higher-end configs.

You can get the 24-inch iMac for as little as $1,300, but this involves a lot of sacrifices. The entry-level price point includes the 8-core CPU/7-core GPU variant of the M1, only 8GB of RAM, a measly 256GB of built-in storage, no ethernet port on the power brick, one cooling fan instead of two and only two ports on the whole machine.

For creative work, we’d recommend stepping up to at least 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM, like our review unit, or possibly going a step further by upgrading the storage to 1TB. That configuration will cost you $2,100, or approximately $800 more than an identical M1 Mac mini. Given the quality and resolution of the iMac’s display, $800 seems like a reasonable price to pay if you’re happy with a 24-inch display.


Design, build and usability

The iMac’s 24-inch 4.5K Retina display might seem a bit small if you’re used to editing on a 27- or 32-inch monitor.
Photo by DL Cade

The first thing I noticed when I unboxed and set the redesigned 24-inch iMac on my desk was just how small it is. Not just thin and lightweight – it genuinely looks like a huge iPad Pro on an aluminum stand – but the screen size itself. I can’t remember the last time I used a display that was smaller than 27 inches, opting for 32 whenever I can, and the downgrade to 24 inches was jarring.

The second and third things I noticed were the white bezels and the classic iMac chin, two characteristics that prompted much mockery on announcement day.

While the 24-inch screen size continued to bother me long after day one, the bezels and chin faded from consciousness almost immediately. Maybe it’s just me, but the idea that white bezels somehow disqualify this computer from being used for photo and video editing seems ridiculous on the face of it. The bezels, especially when placed against a white wall, simply fade into the background as you focus on the content at hand.

As for the chin, it has been an integral part of the iMac’s design language from the very start. I may not love it, but I’m not surprised that Apple has chosen to keep it.

Almost the entire computer is housed inside the controversial “chin” of the iMac.
Photo by DL Cade
The new iMac’s 1080p webcam takes advantage of the “Neural Engine” built into the M1 chip to improve image quality on the fly.
Photo by DL Cade

Fortunately, there are benefits to some of these design elements.

Thanks to the huge chin, the entire space behind the screen was reserved for large air chambers that fill out the sound coming from the iMac’s five speakers. This helps the iMac produce more and better-quality sound than you would expect given its size. At full volume, it can compete with some high-quality Bluetooth speakers.

Thanks to the relatively large bezels, Apple was able to squeeze in a high-quality 1080p FaceTime HD webcam that takes advantage of the M1’s Neural Engine to apply some AI magic to your feed in real time. Trying it out for the first time the other day, the quality of the video output genuinely surprised me.

In terms of ports, there is a significant difference between the lower and higher-end configuration.

If you go with the entry-level model, you’re stuck with just two USB 4 Type-C ports and a headphone jack. If you upgrade to the higher-end configuration, you get an additional two USB Type-C ports on the back (not Thunderbolt, meaning 10Gb/s max transfer speeds compared to 40Gb/s, and no display output) and a Gigabit ethernet port that’s built into the power brick. Even on the high end, that’s not a lot of connectivity.

The higher-end configurations of the M1 iMac come with four USB-C ports, but only two of them are proper USB 4 ports.
Photo by DL Cade
Because the new iMac is so thin, Apple was forced to put the headphone jack on the side of the computer. At least they didn’t remove it entirely…
Photo by DL Cade

Speaking of the power brick, in order to keep the iMac as thin as possible Apple has removed the power supply from inside the iMac’s chassis and stuck it inside of an external brick, just like a laptop. The brick connects to the iMac using a color-matched braided cable that ends in a proprietary magnetic connector, which twists into the right orientation all on its own and snaps into place with a satisfying chonk.

If you go with the entry-level model, you’re stuck with just two USB 4 Type-C ports and a headphone jack.

Note that it’s not a MagSafe connector. Given the strength of these magnets and the lightweight design of the iMac, you can easily pull the computer off a table using the power cable. Its purpose is to maintain the clean, furniture-like aesthetic of the iMac and to provide one more port (if you go with the high-end configuration).

The new iMac plugs into the wall through a proprietary magnetic (but not MagSafe) connector.
Photo by DL Cade
In order to achieve such a thin design, Apple had to put the iMac’s power supply inside of an external power brick. On the plus side, some configurations use the brick to add a Gigabit ethernet port.
Photo by DL Cade

How you react to the design of the 24-inch iMac is largely down to your expectations. If you’re looking for a high-powered creator Mac, this isn’t it. Apple’s focus on aesthetics comes at a cost: too few ports, the relatively thick white bezels, the huge chin and the external power brick, to name the most obvious.

But there’s no denying the computer’s minimalist and modern aesthetic. Apple was going for a playful and approachable redesign, and they hit that nail on the head.

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Performance benchmarks

Like every other M1 Mac, the new iMac is surprisingly fast in both photo and video editing applications.
Photo by DL Cade

When it comes to performance, the 24-inch iMac is pretty much identical to every other M1 Mac that features active cooling (i.e. an internal fan). You can expect it to perform similarly to the M1 MacBook Pro and the M1 Mac mini.

But what exactly does this mean in terms of photo and video editing performance? And how does it compare to Intel- and AMD-based PCs with similar core specs?

We came up with a set of benchmarks that we can use to test performance on the most common photo and video editing tasks.

In order to answer these questions and provide a solid basis for comparison moving forward, we came up with a set of benchmarks that we can use to test performance on the most common photo and video editing tasks. No Geekbench or Cinebench; these are real-world import, export and rendering tasks that we timed manually, testing several different computers at once so that we can compare the results against one another.

Our Benchmarks

In Lightroom Classic and Capture One 21, we tested importing/preview generation and exporting using 100 raw files from four different cameras: the Canon EOS R6 (20MP), the Nikon Z7 II (47MP), the Sony a7R IV (61MP) and the Fujifilm GFX 100 (100MP). In the interest of consistency and comparability, we ran our tests using 100 copies of the studio scene photo from each of these cameras, ensuring that the lighting and content of our test photos never changes.

In Adobe Lightroom, previews were rendered in 1:1 quality. In Capture One, previews were set at the default 2560px. In both programs, we used an identical preset/style to apply heavy post-processing and then exported the variants as full-resolution 100% JPEGs set to sRGB.

In Adobe Photoshop, we relied on the excellent PugetBench benchmark created by Washington State’s own Puget Systems. PugetBench tests a variety of common Photoshop tools and filters, measures how long it takes to perform each task and assigning a score after performing the full complement of tests three times in a row. We’ve chosen to use an older version of the benchmark (v0.8) instead of the most recent build, because it was the last build to include a Photo Merge test.

The results are split into an Overall score and a set of Category scores that rate the General, GPU, Filter, and PhotoMerge performance of each computer.

A sample score sheet from Puget Systems’ PugetBench v0.8 Beta. The scores reported in our reviews are based on three consecutive runs of this benchmark.

Note: the GPU score is based on the performance of five Photoshop tools: Rotate, Smart Sharpen, Field Blur, Tilt-Shift Blur and Iris Blur. These tools take full advantage of GPU acceleration, but they’re also sensitive to CPU and RAM, so the GPU score is not comparable across devices unless they are identical in every other way.

Finally, for video editing performance, we came up with a set of standard benchmarks in Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro, which you can learn more about in our Head to Head comparison published last month.

In summary, we created two identical 4K timelines using 8K footage from a Sony a1, and then performed five tests: we rendered previews in 4K ProRes 4:2:2, exported the master file using previews, encoded an H.264 file, encoded an HEVC/H.265 file, and applied Warp Stabilization to a 15-second clip. You can watch the video we use for our Premiere and Final Cut tests below:

Testing the M1 iMac

For this review, we compared the M1 iMac against an Intel MacBook Pro, an Intel-based Razer Blade 15 Advanced and an AMD-based ASUS G14. You can see the specifications of our test machines below:

iMac MacBook Pro Blade 15 ASUS G14
CPU M1 (8-core) Intel Core i7-1068NG7 Intel Core i7-10875H AMD Ryzen 9-5900HS
GPU M1 (8-core) Intel Iris Plus Graphics

NVIDIA RTX 3080

16GB VRAM

NVIDIA RTX 3060

6GB VRAM

RAM 16GB Unified Memory 32GB LPDDR4X 3733MHz 32GB DDR4 2933MHz 32GB DDR4 3200MHz
Storage 512GB NVMe SSD 4TB NVMe SSD 1TB NVMe M.2 SSD 1TB NVMe M.2 SSD
Display

24-inch 4.5K Retina Display

100% Display P3

13-inch Retina Display

100% Display P3

15-Inch 4K OLED

100% DCI-P3

14-inch WQHD LCD

100% DCI-P3

Price

$1,900 $3,600 $3,300 $2,000

We also tested an M1 Mac mini with identical specs to the iMac and, as expected, their performance was essentially identical. As such, we’re not including the Mac mini results in the tables and charts below.

Adobe Lightroom Classic

In Lightroom Classic, the iMac is surprisingly fast thanks to its Unified Memory Architecture (UMA).

Based on our testing, the speed of a Lightroom import and preview generation is determined largely by CPU performance, while the speed of the Export is determined by a combination of CPU performance, RAM amount and RAM speed. The M1 Macs all feature “unified” memory that is much faster than the DDR4 sticks found in most computers, giving it an edge. That’s how it was able to out-export computers with more RAM in certain situations.

As file sizes get bigger though, the amount of RAM plays a larger role and the competitors begin to pull away.

Canon EOS R6 Import Nikon Z7 II Import Sony a7R IV Import Fuji GFX 100 Import
M1 iMac 1:44 2:55 3:06 8:40
MacBook Pro 2:22 3:42 4:02 10:12
Blade 15 1:55 3:23 3:52 8:26
ASUS G14 1:38 2:59 3:30

7:35

Canon EOS R6 Export Nikon Z7 II Export Sony a7R IV Export Fuji GFX 100 Export
M1 iMac 4:10 9:24 14:43 38:29
MacBook Pro 5:55 12:01 15:35 26:46
Blade 15 4:25 9:41 12:50 30:38
ASUS G14 3:58 8:55 11:41 23:40

Capture One 21

This same pattern does not play out in Capture One 21. Unlike Adobe Lightroom, Capture One takes much better advantage of GPU acceleration, giving the ASUS G14 and Blade 15 a significant boost in export performance thanks to the NVIDIA RTX 30-series GPUs packed inside. The iMac held its own when importing and generating previews, but it lost to both PCs in every export test, with the gap widening as resolution/file size increased.

CPU speed and RAM still play a role, which is how the iMac is able to keep up at all, but the benefits of a full-featured PC are much more obvious in a program that’s well-optimized to take advantage of a discrete GPU.

Canon EOS R6 Import Nikon Z7 II Import Sony a7R IV Import Fuji GFX 100 Import
M1 iMac 0:44 1:05 1:19 2:01
MacBook Pro 0:47 1:42 2:12 3:12
Blade 15 0:49 1:10 1:25 2:02
ASUS G14 0:40 0:59 1:12

1:50

Canon EOS R6 Export Nikon Z7 II Export Sony a7R IV Export Fuji GFX 100 Export
M1 iMac 2:15 5:31 6:56 12:48
MacBook Pro 4:57 12:50 16:18 27:38
Blade 15 2:01 4:21 5:09 8:51
ASUS G14 1:35 3:12 3:50 6:53

Adobe Photoshop

In Photoshop, the speed of the M1 CPU and the Unified Memory once again give the iMac a big boost in performance. Since most Photoshop filters and tools are not optimized to take full advantage of a discrete GPU, the Mac steals the show by winning the Overall, General and PhotoMerge categories.

The iMac’s PhotoMerge score in particular is just staggering. Where the Blade 15 takes about 97 seconds to merge six 45MP Nikon raw files into a panorama, the M1 iMac does this same task in just 69 seconds, which is why its category score is so much higher. No surprise: that task is heavily RAM and CPU dependent.

Overall General GPU Filter PhotoMerge
M1 iMac 1010.4 99.6 82.2 82.1 141.8
MacBook Pro 597.7 65.4 32.6 52.8 62.6
Blade 15 827.8 87.0 84.5 72.1 95.6
ASUS G14 973.6 99.0 97.3 86.9 115.0

Apple Final Cut and Adobe Premiere Pro

In our final test, we ran identical benchmarks in both Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro. We shared some of these results in our Head to Head comparison last month, but that was before we were able to throw an AMD contender into the mix.

The iMac is exceptionally fast in Apple’s own Final Cut Pro – no surprise there – but it’s also impressively fast in Premiere. Using the ARM-optimized Beta of Premiere Pro, we clocked render and export times that are within spitting distance of both the Razer Blade 15 and the ASUS G14, both of which feature beefy NVIDIA GPUs that can take full advantage of CUDA hardware acceleration.

For Final Cut, we could only compare the iMac against the Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro, since the program is not available on Windows. It won’t surprise you to learn that the iMac is nearly twice as fast overall as its Intel-based sibling:

Render All Export Master File Export H.264 Export HEVC/H.265 Final Cut Stabilize
M1 iMac 5:21 1:24 4:19 1:55 0:25
MacBook Pro 9:57 2:07 6:55 2:59 0:55

For Premiere, we once again compared all four machines.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Warp Stabilize is a GPU accelerated effect, it’s the only category where the iMac was the fastest of the bunch. In rendering and export tasks it fell short of our Intel- and AMD-based PC: approximately 12% slower at rendering and 18% slower when encoding H.264 and HEVC files.

The poor 13-inch MacBook Pro never stood a chance. It’s so much slower that we actually had to remove it from the graphical version of these results in order to better compare performance between the other three.

Render All Export Master File Export H.264 Export HEVC/H.265 Warp Stabilize
M1 iMac 7:40 0:16 7:28 7:16 2:06
MacBook Pro 25:53 0:37 26:12 25:09 2:36
Blade 15 6:47 0:12 6:05 5:57 3:13
ASUS G14 6:40 0:15 6:06 5:59 2:33

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The takeaways

The M1 iMac doesn’t sit at the pinnacle of performance. Of the four computers tested here, the AMD-based ASUS G14 earns that distinction by topping most of our tests, and the Intel-based Razer Blade 15 Advanced has a great showing as well. What’s frankly shocking though is that this consumer-focused iMac can keep up at all.

Remember, this computer features half the RAM, an “entry-level” CPU and an integrated GPU. We should really be comparing it against the 21.5-inch iMac that it replaced, which featured a measly 8th generation 6-core Intel Core i7 processor. Instead, we see it keeping up with high-end gaming laptops that boast flagship laptop CPUs and the latest NVIDIA graphics cards.

What’s frankly shocking is that this consumer-focused iMac can keep up at all

In tasks where the GPU plays no role, both the ASUS and the Razer would have struggled against the Mac if not for their 32GB of RAM; in tasks that do involve the GPU, we never expected the Mac to come so close.

All in all, we were very impressed with the performance of the M1 against such stiff competition. It’s more than fast enough for serious photo and video editing, just as long as you don’t mind the limitations inherent in an entry-level computer that was never designed to handle the huge files that accompany most professional workflows.

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Conclusion

In our opinion, the M1 iMac is the best “starter” Mac for aspiring creatives who are looking for a do-everything device that’s just as fashionable as it is functional.
Photo by DL Cade
What We Like What We Don’t Like
  • Professional grade performance
  • Color-accurate 4.5K display
  • Excellent build quality
  • Thin, stylish design
  • High-quality webcam
  • Great speakers
  • Small-ish screen
  • Limited to 16GB of RAM
  • Limited to 2TB of storage
  • Poor port selection
  • External power brick
  • No 10-gigabit ethernet option

Given its RAM, storage, screen size and port limitations, the M1 iMac will be a no-go for the most demanding professionals, but it’s a very compelling options for beginners and enthusiasts. That’s why we’re calling it the best “starter” Mac for creatives. Thanks to the power of its M1 chip, the quality of its 4.5K display and a price-to-performance sweet spot around $2,000, the M1 iMac is a great all-in-one desktop for fans of the Apple ecosystem.

If you’re looking for a do-everything device that’s just as fashionable as it is functional, the M1 iMac does not disappoint.

If you’re just starting out on your creative journey, and you want to embark on that journey nestled comfortably in the controlling bosom of Apple and MacOS, it’s hard to argue against the value proposition of the new M1 Mac.

Savvy buyers will want to consider their priorities first. If you need portability, you may choose the M1 MacBook Pro. If you want a larger screen and more ports, the smarter purchase is an M1 Mac mini and a color accurate 27- or 32-inch display. And of course, if you’re not enamored of the Apple ecosystem, a high-end Windows machine with a dedicated GPU is hard to beat. But if you’re looking for a do-everything device that’s just as fashionable as it is functional, the M1 iMac does not disappoint.

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