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Apple's New iMac: Lower Cost, Less Power

Apple's new $1,099 iMac packs less computing power, but it could hit a sweet spot for many home and business users.
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Apple on Wednesday announced a new entry-level iMac. Rumored for months, the device hits the market at $1,099, $200 less than the previous low-end model. The rest of the iMac lineup remains unchanged.

With the new addition, Apple's iMac family now includes three 21.5-inch models, all of which offer a 1920 x 1080-pixel display, two Thunderbolt ports, and four USB 3.0 ports. The new model, however, is otherwise much more modestly configured than its siblings. On the outside, iMacs share the same sleek all-in-one design, but internally, the newest model arguably has more in common with the recently refreshed MacBook Air, which uses the same processor.

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The new iMac is built around a 1.4-GHz dual-core Intel i5 chip that can reach 2.7 GHz in Turbo mode. It also comes with 8 GB of RAM, Intel's HD Graphics 5000 GPU, and a 500-GB hard drive. Users can opt for a larger hard drive or a faster SSD drive, but the processor and RAM cannot be upgraded.

If the new model offers too little customization, Apple's $1,299 version -- previously the lineup's least expensive -- provides a solid step up in power. For an extra $200, you get everything offered by the low-end model, as well as a quad-core 2.7-GHz i5 processor, a 1-TB hard drive, and Intel's top-end integrated GPU, Intel Iris Pro Graphics.

Power users can step up further to the $1,499 model, which is the top option in the 21.5-inch range. It boasts a slightly faster processor than the mid-level iMac, as well as a discrete graphics card -- NVIDIA's GeForce GT750M. More expensive and powerful 27-inch models are also available. The newest iMac is the only model that doesn't allow RAM upgrades.

Apple has released low-cost iMacs before, but those machines were generally sold only to schools, not on the mass market. The new version won't overwhelm anyone with its computational muscle, but it should be capable enough to fill basic roles in many homes, businesses, and institutions.

That said, even if the latest iMac performs fairly well, it's still expensive; only Apple could pitch a $1,099 PC as its "budget" option. The new model could lose would-be buyers to not only cheaper Windows devices, but also discounted Macs sold through resellers. With a little patience and a sharp eye for reseller promotions, it's possible to find the more powerful quad-core iMacs for less than the $1,099 Apple wants for the new dual-core version.

High-end Mac users are likely disappointed that Apple released only the new entry-level machines rather than refreshing the entire lineup. Supply chain rumors indicate Apple might release new iMacs later this year. Based on clues in the developers' preview of OS X Yosemite, which will launch this fall, the new machines might feature Retina displays. Because iMacs feature relatively large screens, Retina displays would require greater-than-4K resolution -- and no small amount of processing power. Many commentators suspect Apple is holding off on new high-end models until Intel's next-generation "Broadwell" processors, which have been repeatedly delayed but might finally appear this fall, become available.

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