On the iMac’s place in the world

iMac timeline

Since its groundbreaking introduction in 1998, the iMac has been at the heart of the Macintosh line. Even as notebooks have consumed most of the market, the iMac holds its ground, outlasting the PowerMac and having a heritage richer than that of the Mac mini. While the 12-inch Retina MacBook may be a wonder of engineering, the iMac is still the spiritual leader of the Mac family.

It wasn’t always this way. While the iMac helped bring Apple back from the brink in the late 1990s, it was just one machine. For years, it was easy to understand the iMac’s place in Apple’s grid of products: it was the consumer desktop machine:

Grid of 4

Of course, things have changed over the last 18 years, and not just in regards to the technology packed inside the ever-thinning iMac.

The Grid of 4 is no more. The Mac mini was introduced below the iMac, making the Mac more affordable than ever. On the high-end, the PowerMac and Mac Pro towers are gone, replaced by the current Mac Pro that is more marginalized than ever.

This has led to the iMac’s territory spreading out, making it the de facto choice for more and more desktop users.

The low-end, $1099 iMac is fine for home users and schools. It’s not a speed demon with that slow spinning hard drive, but it gets the job done. Way upstream is the $2,299 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display. There was a time where to do any audio or video work, you had to buy a tower; that’s simply not the case anymore with this monster.

This spreading out has left the iMac carrying the weight of the desktop Mac experience on its shoulders. Apple has to have an offering for the masses, while pushing the entire line forward at the high-end. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it has led to some weird decisions, like the use of notebook components and slow hard drives on some models.

It also makes me wonder where Apple could take the machine in the future. Any future iMac will need to continue to meet the need of all of its users, from the budget-minded consumer, all the way up to the audio and video editors who are using them these days.

There are some obvious things that need to be done, like moving away from 5400 RPM drives and eventually the Fusion Drive, once SSD prices fall far enough.

I’d also like to see the company bring back the ability to upgrade the RAM in 21.5-inch model. With the redesign in 2012, the iMac’s RAM sockets are locked away, unreachable except on the 27-inch models. For a machine that can be used (and is supported by OS X) for longer than ever, it’s a shame that users can’t upgrade them down the road.

While I expect the “screen and foot” design to remain basically the same for the life of the iMac, reducing the size of the black bezel and aluminum chin would help modernize things a good bit. If you squint a little, the current design looks like the original aluminum iMacs from 2007.

In our increasingly mobile world, there may be some who think the iMac is built around a dated idea, doomed to go the way of the dodo. While that may be the case, I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime in the foreseeable future. It’s served Apple and users well for 18 years, and is the company’s longest-running nameplate. I think it’s got plenty of life left in it.

Current iMac