Storage & Fusion Drive

By default all of the iMacs come with a 2.5" or 3.5” (21.5/27" iMac) mechanical hard drive. It’s been quite a while since I’ve forced myself to use a system with only a HDD, and going back to one now just reaffirms what I’ve been thinking for a while: HDD-only systems have been killing the PC industry for a while now. The experience just isn’t great. OS X continues to do a great job caching frequently used data in main memory, something the iMac has plenty of in its default 8GB configuration, so the HDD-only option does quickly become bearable. However, shooting for bearable is aiming too low in my opinion.

The iMac is an unusual member of Apple’s Mac lineup in that it is one of the only systems to ship with a HDD by default. Both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display are SSD-only, and the same will be true for the coming Mac Pro. My guess is that Apple views the iMac as targeting a slightly different audience than those systems, an audience more used to large, single-volume storage.

Long term I believe Apple has a solution to this problem other than forcing everyone to accept a two-volume approach to storage (or, alternatively, dealing with small/fast local storage and putting everything else in the cloud). That solution is Fusion Drive.

I went through a deep analysis of Apple’s Fusion Drive with the 2012 iMac, so I’ll spare you the details here. At a high level, Fusion Drive is a software managed SSD “caching” solution on top of a 128GB SSD and 1TB or 3TB HDD. I put caching in quotes because Fusion Drive doesn’t actually act like a cache but rather a software managed, spanned storage volume. Fusion Drive appears as a single volume equal to the capacity of SSD + HDD, with the software layer intelligently managing what data ends up on the SSD and what ends up on the HDD. Fusion Drive is similar to what you’d do manually if you had a small SSD and large HDD in a single system. You’d put frequently used applications on the SSD and relegate everything else to the HDD. The difference is that Fusion Drive can manage storage on a block level, whereas you’re only able to move data between drives at a file/application level. In theory, if you had a workload that could fit entirely on the 128GB SSD, Fusion Drive would be indistinguishable from a user managed SSD + HDD setup.

In real world testing, Apple’s Fusion Drive continues to be the closest approximation to an SSD experience from a hybrid setup that I’ve tested. The reason why is quite simple: Apple’s Fusion Drive comes with sufficient NAND to cache the overwhelming majority of IO. While most hybrid setups use somewhere between 8GB and 32GB of NAND, Fusion Drive only has a single option: 128GB. I’m a bit disappointed that Apple didn’t increase that to 256GB with this most recent upgrade to the iMac, but my 128GB/1TB Fusion Drive configuration has been great for the past year. It’ll be interesting to see whether Apple eventually moves to a 256GB SSD component or if it instead makes Fusion Drive a standard option on next year’s iMacs as NAND prices drop.

My personal preference is still for a large SSD that I manage myself, combined with a large external HDD array (perhaps over Thunderbolt), but if you need a single storage volume, Fusion Drive is absolutely the way to go. I remember writing a similar line back during my initial evaluation of the Fusion Drive but thinking to myself: there can’t be that many people who really fall into this category. It turns out I was wrong.

Over the past year I’ve also had a fairly regular argument with a friend of mine who was researching computer options for his sister and brother-in-law. They are both Mac users and I kept steering him towards a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, but he kept pushing back saying that they needed at least 1TB of storage and it had to be inside the system as a single volume. No amount of reasoning had any affect, both individuals ended up with 13-inch MacBook Pros, complete with hard drives. I’m more of the force users to adopt sort of person, but I do understand that old habits die hard for many.

Fusion Drive is of course still offered on both of the new iMacs and it’s $50 cheaper than it was at the 2012 iMac introduction. Fusion Drive should honestly be a minimum requirement for anyone buying one of these systems. I understand why Apple still offers mechanical storage as the default configuration for both iMac models, but to anyone considering either - you’ll want to at least spring for the Fusion Drive upgrade.

Doing so brings the price of the entry level 21.5-inch iMac up to $1499, the same price it would be if you opted for a 256GB SSD instead. Either option is fine, just make sure you choose one of them - even if the target user for the system is someone else. For years I’ve gone into detail as to why solid state storage is better than traditional HDDs, so I won’t go into any depth here. The experience really is night and day, and it’s honestly a must-have for any modern computer.

GPU Performance: Iris Pro in the Wild The Display
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  • Calista - Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - link

    They have become pretty inexpensive nowadays. A Dell 21" Dell Ultrasharp IPS-screen is only 40-50 USD more expensive than the cheapest TN-panel. Still don't think people are fair when complaining about the cost of the iMac. It's quiet, it looks good, it holds a great resale value. A lot of people would think twice about dropping $500 a month of their car, why not spend a few extra quid on a computer? Back in the days a computer was expensive, now it's so cheap it's almost silly. Reply
  • repoman27 - Monday, October 7, 2013 - link

    Not that I'd buy a base model 21.5-inch iMac, but I think most consumers could care less about their CPU and GPU specs and are looking more at the overall package. For most office desk jockeys, school computer labs, customer use / internet kiosks, parents, etc., the iMac probably makes more sense than a custom built overclocked gaming rig.

    It also depends on how much you value what you get in said package. The i5-4570R is essentially an i5-4430S with Iris Pro 5200, so it's likely a $240-270 part. Then there's the rather well calibrated 1920x1080 IPS panel which would run another $150 or so. The keyboard and mouse that are included have a combined retail price of $138. Then there's the 3x3:3 802.11ac Wi-Fi plus Bluetooth 4.0, Broadcom GbE NIC and SDXC UHS-I card reader, Thunderbolt, 720p camera, dual microphones, built-in amp and stereo speakers, plus whatever value you put on OS X and the bundled iLife suite.
    Reply
  • Flunk - Monday, October 7, 2013 - link

    Screen, form-factor, OS. Performance isn't the number one concern for many people. Reply
  • Dug - Monday, October 7, 2013 - link

    Someone that wants everything built in that doesn't sound or look like a piece of crap.
    Add up everything that is included and it's not that expensive. Especially when you consider the cpu is quad core (almost all laptop i5's are dual core), 802.11ac, dual mics, webcam, speakers, bluetooth, sdxc, thunderbolt, wireless keyboard and trackpad, a calibrated IPS monitor, and the best part is no noise and only one cable with no power brick. Try and do that with any diy build and tell me how much it is.
    Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Monday, October 7, 2013 - link

    IPS screens aren't cheap, nor are AIO designs. Dell, HP, and Lenovo can't get lower prices when they try to compete in specs or display quality either.

    A $500 laptop isn't going to have a good display, keyboard, or trackpad either, and resale value is going to be nothing. Comparing a trash laptop to something with much higher quality components that holds value over time doesn't make sense.
    Reply
  • robsparko - Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - link

    This argument is getting old and inaccurate. People don't always want laptops. Additionally, bottom of the barrel hardware has a very short life span. Sometimes, it is nice to have a well integrated AIO without cables running everywhere. Sure, not everyone wants a computer that will last 3+ years and that is perfectly fine.

    But, just for fun, here's some pricing from NewEgg parts I believe would be of similar quality to an iMac. Yes, you can find cheaper cases/PSU/etc, but an iMac isn't built using the cheapest components. Likewise, feel free to buy a Dell! But, to call people who buy an iMac ignorant/ out of the mind/ etc is just proving a lack of insight into the situation and market pricing.

    250 i5 cpu w/ IRIS (good luck finding it! NewEgg's uses HD4600)
    150 mobo
    75 case
    75 psu
    235 IPS 21.5" lcd
    65 hdd
    50 webcam w/ mic
    75 ram
    140 windows
    65 wireless kb/mouse
    35 speakers
    ?? shipping/tax
    ?? Time to built
    ----------------
    1215 Total + extra
    Reply
  • Calista - Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - link

    What you did is a game created to let Apple look good. I made a similar list with parts from Newegg. It was only $1150 but included a Shuttle case, a 27" IPS-display from Dell, a 240 GB Intel SSD and 16 GB of RAM. And Windows 8 Retail obviously. A similar config but with a 21" display from Apple was $1870. The 27" iMac with similar configuration was almost $2400, i.e. twice as expensive as the PC. Reply
  • web2dot0 - Saturday, October 12, 2013 - link

    Let me guess, your parts are the same part quality as Apple's ? :)

    The case isn't worth anything, a calibrated monitor isn't worth anything, AIO isn't worth anything, fusion drive isn't worth anything, .... That's cool.

    I can play that game too jackass
    Reply
  • foolio5 - Monday, October 14, 2013 - link

    Are you really equating an inflated price to higher quality parts? Quick tell me the difference between Kingston and Samsung Ram! How do you know his PSU isn't a Seasonic? What exactly is the brand HDD Apple uses? I heard this all the time about quality parts when everything Apple uses is Samsung or Foxconn. Yes Foxconn... the epitome of quality OEMs!

    You are adding a lot of money for having an AIO. He is using a Dell 27" IPS, that should clue you into the fact that it is an Ultrasharp which is calibrated, also hes using an SSD so again tell me how a Hybrid beats out an SSD.

    Lastly, are you 12 or something. Your name calling is immature.
    Reply
  • abazigal - Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - link

    I would (if I didn't already own a 2011 27" imac), which I found to be worth every cent.

    It makes perfect financial sense when you realise that you are not so much buying a computer, as you are getting an integrated solution that's ready to use right out of the box. I find that Macs come with excellent functionality without me having to spend much time setting it up.

    Already, it comes preloaded with the excellent iLife suite, a great pdf annotation reader (preview), a stable OS that continues to run smoothly 2 years on without me needing to do anything to maintain it, entry to the Apple ecosystem, and access to fairly inexpensive Mac software.

    Then, there is the good aftercare service. Once, my Imac developed screen issues. I made a call to the service centre. 20 minutes later, an appointment was made. They came down to my house the next day, brought it back for servicing, and delivered it back to my house 2 days later. Problem solved with minimal effort or stress on my part.

    So in the end, the extra that I am paying is well worth it for the promise of a seamless and hassle-free computing experience. Which I value more than if I were to simply build a desktop using parts sourced individually (and then having to deal with all the troubleshooting on my own subsequently).
    Reply

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