Apple’s M3 iMac disappoints 27-inch display devotees, but does anyone really need that?

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Jason Hiner/ZDNET

This week, during what was probably the shortest Apple event in history, the 24-inch M1 iMac was replaced with an M3 processor.

But there’s something missing, folks. Where’s the larger iMac display?

For nearly 20 years, there have always been two active models of iMacs: a smaller one and a bigger one.

When iMacs first moved to flat panels back in 2002, Apple introduced a 15-inch and a 17-inch model. This dynamic duo of 15- and 17-inch displays lasted until November 2003, when Apple upped its game (and its display size), offering 17-inch and 20-inch displays on the newest generation of iMacs for that time.

Also: MacBook Pro (M3 Max) review: A desktop-class laptop for an AI-powered age

The 17- and 20-inch models made it until 2006. That year, Apple began to offer three iMac screen sizes: 17-inch, 20-inch, and 24-inch. By this time, Apple also had switched processor platforms, having moved from the PowerPC platform to the Intel platform earlier that year.

iMacs sold in 20-inch and 24-inch models survived until April 2009. In October of that year, Apple jumped up to 21.5-inch and 27-inch models. This form factor survived for a full decade, with the last 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs introduced in 2019. By this time, display resolutions had jumped; while the screen sizes remained the same, the 21.5-inch model was rocking a 4K display and the 27-inch model was packing a full 5K screen.

It should be noted that the short-lived iMac Pro, which Apple sold from June 2017 through March 2021, used the same 27-inch form factor as the non-Pro iMac.

And then, in May of 2021, Apple introduced its 24-inch Apple Silicon M1-based iMac. One could argue that this model — at 24 inches — was positioned squarely between the 21.5-inch display and the 27-inch display, and should suit everyone.

The Apple silicon generation

However, there were users who continued to want bigger and better displays. Apple shipped iMacs in two display sizes for nearly 20 years, and users expected to see a 27-inch M1 or possibly even something better, like a 32-inch or 38-inch display.

But that didn’t happen. Worse, after Apple updated most of its line to the M2 processor last year, the 24-inch iMac didn’t make the jump.

Also: How Apple’s new M3 silicon compares to the M1 and M2 chips – from GPU cores to transistors

And then, this week, Apple announced its M3 chip lineup in what was probably the shortest Apple event in history.

Along with that lineup, Apple replaced the M2 MacBook Pros with M3 models. Apple also replaced the 24-inch M1 iMac with an M3 processor.

Something ain’t right

It’s nice that Apple upgraded the iMac, but it’s also a bit of a head-scratcher. First, the iMac is available only with the base M3 processor. There’s no sign of the M3 Pro or M3 Max. If Apple can fit the Pro or Max chip inside of a MacBook Pro, surely it can fit them inside of an iMac.

Quinn Nelson, host of the Snazzy Labs YouTube channel, contends that there are shortages for the higher-end chips, because Apple is using TSMC’s 3 nanometer process that has lower-than-ideal yields. Perhaps Apple is releasing iMacs with just the base M3 processor to allocate demand.

Also: The best large monitors to handle your school and remote work with ease

And, ahem, where’s the larger display?

Do you need a larger display?

Let me answer that. You always need a larger display. No matter how big your display is, you need more screen real estate. At least I do. The above question should have read, “Do you need a larger iMac display?”

And that’s debatable.

My last iMac was a 27-inch Intel model I bought back in 2013. I loved that thing…until I didn’t. The display became obsolete far earlier than the computer itself. But I found that I had to lug the display around because it was the computer. By the time I retired it, the system had spent two years face down, providing some server functionality. It was face down so it would take as little space as possible given my available rack room.

Also: How to choose the right monitor layout for work

I, and many other users, prefer separating the computer from the display. This allows you to reconfigure the display, add new screens, hang them off of display arms, and otherwise change up the workspace as time moves on. We have, for example, two Mac minis hanging off of a big-screen TV in our conference area.

I have another Mac mini rocking a 38-inch LG display, an ancient Apple Studio Display from the early 2010s, a TCL Roku TV, and a Westinghouse curved display. My main work computer is now the Mac Studio, and it’s attached to a 30-inch 4K display on the end of a three-foot monitor arm, so I can move it wherever I need.

You can’t even really make the case that pricing is a win with the iMac. The base M3 24-inch iMac with a 4.5K display is $1,299. While we don’t yet have M3 Mac minis, the base M2 Mac mini is $599. A nice LG 4k 27-inch(!) display is $369 from Amazon. That’s $968. That leaves $331 in savings, more than enough to get a mouse and a keyboard — even a mouse that doesn’t have Apple’s ludicrous bottom charging port.

At the higher end, you could go all out. You could pick up a 27-inch 5K Apple Studio Display for $1,599 or go for the $4,999 Pro XDR Display. (Add a $1,000 if you want it to stand on your desk — seriously.) Those of you who need the XDR display know who you are; and for your needs, it’s actually a pretty good deal. For the rest of us, the Studio Display is just fine.

Also: The Apple products you shouldn’t buy this month 

If you want to save a few bucks and get a 27-inch 5K display, LG has a nice model for just under $1,000. You can even get a 24-inch model for a few hundred bucks less.

The thing is, if you use a Mac mini or a Mac Studio, or even hang a display off of your MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, you can get this wonderbeast. We’re talking a 5K LG ultrawide that’s 40 inches of pure screen real estate, all for $1,578. And yes, this is what I want for Christmas (although, at 26 pounds, it’s a little too heavy to hang off my monitor arm).

What’s the bottom line for buyers?

There are two thoughts to keep in mind. First, Apple has shipped two screen sizes for iMacs for almost 20 years and it’s disconcerting that the company isn’t doing that anymore. Second, if you want a bigger screen, the flexibility of using a separate computer and monitor might mean that there’s just no reason for that second iMac size.

Either of these choices is perfectly valid, depending on your work style. Just remember: If you go with Camp Standalone, you’ll have more choices in the future; if you buy an iMac, you’ve got that iMac. Period.

What do you think? Are you in Camp 27-inch iMac? Or are you in Camp Standalone Monitor? Let us know in the comments below.


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