What’s an all-in-one computer? It combines at least a monitor, CPU, storage, and speakers into a single package that tidies up your desk. It’s not a form factor invented by Apple; rather, it was pioneered by Hewlett-Packard with its HP 9830 programmable calculator from the early 1970s. And IBM’s all-in-one SCAMP prototype was built in 1973, which evolved into the company’s “portable” IBM 5100 (a predecessor to the “PC” namesake-carrying IBM Personal Computer in 1981).
Regardless of the design’s origin, all-in-ones are still often associated with Apple computers since the company popularized it for the home computer market with the Macintosh in 1984. And before that, some may also remember the “OK” Lisa computer Apple released 40 years ago (at least The Verge does).
But that’s all ancient history, or should I say “obsolete,” as Apple officially deems its older products. If you’re looking for the true renaissance of the all-in-one computer, it came in 1998 with the release of the colorful and fun-tastically transparent iMac.
Since then, the iMac has become one of the most popular desktop computer lines ever. The design has evolved from bulbous cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor all-in-ones to versions that look like contemporary table lamps — and eventually toward the slim aluminum plaques on stands that adorn doctor offices everywhere today. Alongside that, the tech inside has gone from PowerPC chips to x86 Intel processors and, now, to the Arm-based Apple Silicon design.
In 2011, The Verge’s editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, wrote in a review for the 27-inch iMac, “Every year I review the iMac, and every year my conclusion is the same: the iMac remains the single best all-in-one computer available.”
But today, interest may be shifting. Some Mac desktop computers are becoming less appealing since Apple’s laptops are so performant for power users, and working from home (or anywhere) is more desirable than being tethered to a desk. And Mac sales are slumping thanks to less overall demand for computers after technology purchases peaked during the covid pandemic, accompanied by increased costs and shortages of components.
But for now, the all-in-one champion iMac will continue to live on and keep evolving (at least we hope). Let’s take a trip down memory lane and appreciate the beauty and evolution of each iMac design:
iMac G3 CRT (1998)
Models: 1998, 1999 flavors, 1999 slot loading, summer 2000, early 2001, and summer 2001
First OS: Mac OS 8.1-Rev A
Final OS: Mac OS X 10.4.11 (Tiger)
In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, reclaimed his position as CEO (interim at the time), and clicked with the company’s design lead, Jony Ive (you may have heard of him). Engineers and designers at Apple ended up with the bulbous and fun iMac G3 computer that shipped on August 15th, 1998 — 25 years before this article you’re reading was first published. The original model released with the now iconic bondi blue color and then, a year later, a slew of colors with flavor names: tangerine, grape, lime, strawberry, and blueberry. It was a hit and helped propel Apple back to profitability.
The iMac G3 was translucent and showed off the electronics underneath, which was a tech design trend at the time (and is kind of coming back). In a surprise to many at the time, the iMac G3 lacked the ancient but widely used 3.5-inch floppy disk drive; it was one of Apple’s early displays of “courage.” What the iMac G3 had instead was a CD-ROM tray, which was later replaced with a slot loading one in late 1999 and USB ports, making it one of the first consumer computers to use the new USB standard. Overall, it was of stark contrast to the boring beige (but functionally flexible and cost-effective) appliance boxes that filled the PC market during the time.
iMac G4 Flat Panel (2002)
15-inch models: 2002, early 2003, 2003 USB 2.0
17-inch models: 2002, 2003 1GHz, 2003 USB 2.0
20-inch models: 2003 USB 2.0
First OS: Mac OS 9.2.2
Final OS: Mac OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard)
The next iMac design was a dramatic evolution. Apple called it the “Flat Panel,” which points to the fact that the bulky CRT display was gone in place of a sleek new LCD. This “new iMac” would later be known as iMac G4, simply because it used a PowerPC G4 processor.
Regardless of the name, this iMac design generation was really known for looking like a contemporary table lamp. Basically, the whole computer was stuffed into a dome base, which included a stealthy CD-ROM tray. And from the dome’s peak, a metallic arm extended to hold up a TFT LCD display, which could be adjusted to any position in its range of motion without having the computer tip over. It was also all white — like Apple’s original iPod music player that was introduced in late 2001.
For the first time, every iMac in this era came with FireWire 400 ports, and the 2003 models introduced “high-speed” USB 2.0 ports. By late 2002, the iMac G4 no longer shipped with Mac OS 9, sunsetting the classic Mac operating system in favor of Mac OS X. Jobs held a ceremony for the OS at WWDC 2002, but software made for the system could still work with the Classic environment compatibility software layer.
iMac G5 (2004)
17-inch models: 2004, 2005 ALS, and 2005 iSight
20-inch models: 2004, 2005 ALS, and 2005 iSight
First OS: Mac OS X 10.3.5 (Panther)
Final OS: Mac OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard)
By 2004, the iMac G5’s table lamp was gone and the white picture frame design had taken its place. This model set the course for iMac’s design direction for basically every future model. The 2004 G5 models had optional AirPort cards for Wi-Fi, but it became standard in later models. In 2005, Apple added ambient light sensors so the screen could auto-adjust brightness for better clarity depending on room lighting. The final iMac G5 models added iSight webcams for easy iChat video calling via Jabber and AIM services. Plus, DVD-burning SuperDrives became standard issue on both sizes. The iSight models also got rid of the internal 56K dial-up modem, as broadband connections became much more common in homes by this time.
Early iMac G5 models had another really great design feature that wasn’t celebrated enough: serviceability. A few bottom screws were all it took to remove the full rear and get access to all the computer’s main components. But the iSight models introduced a more cumbersome front frame removal servicing process, a design that unfortunately continued over to the next iMac.
iMac Intel white (2006)
17-inch models: early 2006, mid-2006, late 2006 CD, and late 2006
20-inch models: early 2006 and late 2006
24-inch models: 2006
First OS: Mac OS X 10.4.4 (Tiger)
Final OS: Mac OS X 10.7.5 (Lion)
Say goodbye to PowerPC, these iMacs were now using Intel processors — starting with the Core Duo and later with the Core 2 Duo. Design-wise, these models were very similar to the last iMac G5 with iSight models but included a new Mini-DVI port for high-resolution external monitor support and introduced 802.11n Wi-Fi on later models. The Intel “white” iMac shipped with Mac OS X Tiger, which was the first of two operating systems that Apple engineered to work with both PowerPC and Intel processors.
After the white Intel iMac, Apple started going a completely different material direction. It was also the last model to include Apple’s plastic white keyboards with longer key travel.
iMac 24-inch and iMac 20-inch aluminum frame (2007)
20-inch models: mid-2007, early 2008, early 2009, and mid-2009
24-inch models: mid-2007, early 2008, and early 2009
First OS: Mac OS X 10.4.10 (Tiger)
Final OS: Mac OS X 10.11.6 (El Capitan)
Apple had a whole lot of aluminum and knew what to do with it. The 20- and 24-inch iMac designs in this era featured a magnetic glass cover over glossy LCD screens and, around the large black bezel, included a full aluminum frame that was attached to a black plastic rear case. Many of Apple’s high-end features from the white iMac line were now standard, including a FireWire 800 port, a dual-layer DVD SuperDrive, and AirPort Extreme with Wireless N. In 2009, Apple introduced Mini DisplayPort to the lineup.
Apple made a whole new aluminum keyboard with white chiclet keys to match the iMacs as well as a wireless version that used AA batteries. Meanwhile, the Apple Mighty Mouse remained the same from the previous iMac generation.
iMac 27-inch and iMac 21.5-inch aluminum block (2009)
21.5-inch models: late 2009, mid-2010, mid-2011, and late 2011
27-inch models: late 2009, mid-2010, and mid-2011
First OS: Mac OS X 10.6.1 (Snow Leopard)
Final OS: macOS 10.13.6 (High Sierra)
These redesigned aluminum iMacs were a huge upgrade. Ranging from late 2009 though 2011, they included larger screens at higher resolutions, faster Intel Core i5 and i7 processor options, more RAM, more connectivity, more configurations, and were more upgradable than ever before. Now with widescreen displays, the 21.5-inch iMac had a 1080p resolution, while the largest-ever 27-inch model had a 1440p one. Photographers benefited from more accurate color reproduction thanks to IPS screen technology and the built-in SD card reader.
The 27-inch mid-2010 iMac had the first-ever SSD option for the line. And the 2011 one introduced Thunderbolt connectivity for fast external storage and daisy-chained displays, plus new quad-core Intel processor options.
iMac 27-inch and iMac 21.5-inch slim aluminum (2012)
21.5-inch models: late 2012, early 2013, late 2013, mid-2014, late 2015, and 2017
27-inch models: late 2012 and late 2013
First OS: Mac OS X 10.8.2 (Mountain Lion)
Final OS 27-inch: macOS 10.15.7 (Catalina)
Final OS 21.5-inch: latest version of macOS 13 (Ventura)
Technically, the slimmer and lighter weight aluminum iMacs were an improvement over their predecessors since they had better processors, faster 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, gained an extra Thunderbolt port, and introduced a hybrid HDD and SSD “Fusion Drive” option for cost-effective high-speed storage. But they also lost the built-in optical SuperDrive, and the design also became less repairable. The displays looked more vivid since they were laminated to the glass — but that made it more expensive to replace if it cracked. And it was no longer magnetically attached to the frame, so you’d have to cut adhesives to open up and service the iMac.
The 21.5-inch models had many more releases than the 27-inch one, bringing options for faster Thunderbolt 2 and 3 ports plus up to 32GB of DDR4 memory on the 2017 version. Meanwhile, the 27-inch versions only had two iterations through late 2013, but that’s because they got replaced with something even better.
Retina displays, now on iMac. Apple souped up the graphics abilities on these models so they could support new 5K screens on the 27-inch iMacs and 4K ones on the 21.5-inch versions. Graphics included AMD Radeon R9 cards, followed by Radeon Pro, Vega, and RDNA-architecture options later. Notably, Apple ditched Nvidia graphics starting with this lineup. Later models featured Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports.
These were also Apple’s last iMacs to feature Intel Core processors, with the 10th-generation Comet Lake ending up as the final one to grace the line on the 27-inch 2020 model.
First OS: macOS 10.13.2 (High Sierra)
Final OS: (latest version of macOS supported)
The 2013 Mac Pro, a shiny and black capsule-shaped workstation desktop for professionals (aka the trash can), became a mess for Apple. The company admitted that it had designed itself into a thermal corner and would need time to redesign it — and it finally did with the cheese grader 2019 Mac Pro. But within that time gap, Apple needed to appease the pros with another desktop. So it took the preexisting iMac slim aluminum design, added some more airflow, stuck in workstation-level ECC RAM and Intel Xeon chips, and gave it a very pro space gray paint job. And that’s how we got the $4,999-and-up iMac Pro. It was the only iMac Pro Apple released and never even got an update in its time on the shelf, but hey, at least it came with really cool matching Magic Keyboard \ mouse \ trackpad options!
First OS: macOS 11.3 (Big Sur)
Final OS: (latest version of macOS supported)
In 2021, Apple brought color back to the iMac. These models introduced Apple Silicon M1 chips to the line… but also removed a whole lot of hardware options. There’s only a 24-inch 4.5K resolution model that comes with either just two USB4 ports or a version that additionally includes two USB3 ports plus an ethernet port — which is embedded on this model’s less elegant external AC adapter. This new model was Apple’s thinnest overall iMac, and it no longer had an Apple logo printed on the front like every model that came before it.
Apple has a whole lot of options for the still-current 2021 iMac: it comes in seven colors (silver, pink, blue, green, purple, orange, and yellow) alongside seven different Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad options and 21 Magic Keyboards (with and without Touch ID and numeric pad versions). As of this writing, Apple has yet to update this iMac with the newer M2 processor, but rumors suggest an M3 version may be coming.