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Remember how different the first iMac looked? That giant bulge, the whole computer one candy-colored piece? Who had seen anything like it? The new iMac is a head turner too, with a less-giant bulge in back, tapering to an impossibly thin edge, just 5 millimeters thick. It's also 40 percent smaller by volume, and it dropped 10 pounds. But there's no more optical drive. And forget about adding more RAM yourself.
The best part of the new iMac design is the screen, which is fitting because that (and not the edge) is what you'll be looking at all day. Apple fully laminated the glass to the LCD, eliminating a 2-millimeter gap in previous models, and used a new plasma deposition process to apply a very thin layer of antireflective coating. Guess what, it worked. Even surrounded by windows, the iMac screen barely registered any reflection at all. Colors are bright, blacks are deep, and it's just a pleasure to use, even without true Retina pixel density. (Native resolution on this iMac is 1920x1080.)
Another addition, far more useful than tapered sides, is the new omnidirectional stereo speakers. They're much louder than before, and they thump when playing music and push out detailed sound when watching movies. Apple also tossed in dual mics with beam forming technology to reduce background noise, for clearer voice chats and more accurate dictation.
Both 21.5-inch iMac configurations have Intel's quad-core Core i5 processors, but our review unit got the 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 upgrade. 8GB of RAM comes standard, but we recommend upgrading to the 16GB limit for $200 when you purchase your iMac, because you can't access the RAM slots and add more later. (You can on the 27-inch iMac.) The new iMac has better ports than before: the four USB ports are now 3.0, and you get two Thunderbolt ports instead of one. Apple ditched the FireWire 800 port, but you can bring it back with Apple's $29 Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter.
And the Fusion Drive (1TB is a $250 option when purchasing) screams. Our iMac booted up in just 20 seconds, and we enjoyed SSD speeds while still having a full terabyte of storage. Apple offers an all-flash option for the 27-inch iMac, but not the 21.5-inch, and it's unfortunate that the stock hard drive is only a 5,400-rpm model, but Fusion Drive is a great compromise.
The bottom line. It's a radical redesign, but after 10 minutes with the new screen and its utter lack of distracting reflections, we didn't miss the optical drive at all.
21.5-inch iMac (late 2012)
Specifications: 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with 6MB L3 cache, 16GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with 512MB GDDR5 memory, 1TB Fusion Drive, two Thunderbolt ports, four USB 3.0 ports, SDXC card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers, dual microphones, headphone/optical digital audio output, Apple Wireless Keyboard, choice of Magic Mouse or Magic Trackpad
Almost no screen reflections. Great new processors. Fusion drive.
No optical drive.