Can I get some service here? The new 27-inch iMac forgoes replaceable storage for soldered innards

Spudger-flingers rate it 4 out of 10, note an 'artificially short lifespan'

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The 2020 27-inch iMac is almost certainly Cupertino’s final Intel swan song before it departs into the uncharted waters of Apple Silicon.

And while it would be easy to dismiss this as a final iterative upgrade designed to freshen up its product line while it transitions, that isn’t really the case as a new teardown from iFixit shows.

Ripping into the innards of Apple’s latest all-in-one showed few surprises. The upgraded webcam and microphone are slightly more fiddly to excise, but still fairly serviceable. Meanwhile, the machine’s networking card is soldered to the logic board, just as its predecessor from 2019.

As expected, iFixit stumbled upon Apple’s new T2 security chip. This custom-designed coprocessor handles a bunch of mac-specific security tasks, like biometrics and disk encryption. Sadly, positioned next to it were two soldered flash storage modules.

That’s right: if the SSD on your pricey desktop fails, it cannot be replaced without first getting a brand new logic board. Or, as iFixit bleakly put it: “This machine has exactly the same amount of internal storage serviceability as an iPad, which is to say: none.”

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That’s hardly surprising, given the trend for Apple to limit repairability, but it’s still somehow disappointing. The 27-inch iMac is a huge beast, and there’s no reason why Apple couldn’t have used standard M.2 drives. As pointed out by iFixit, the T2 chip can happily coexist with removable storage, as demonstrated by the latest iMac Pro and Mac Pro models. Apple just didn’t want to give punters the option.

The base 27-inch iMac (which retails at £1,799) comes with 256GB of internal storage. You can’t actually customise that during purchase — rather, you have to pay an extra £200 for the next model up, which comes with a 512GB SSD and the option to increase that to either 1TB or 2TB. Those options cost an extra £200 and £600 respectively.

Keeping track

If you want your iMac to come with 1TB of internal storage, you’ll have to pay £2,199, or an additional £400 on the base model. For comparison, you can get a 1TB Western Digital M.2 drive for just £95 on Amazon. And if you’re willing to take a risk with your data, you can get a drive from a random Chinese vendor for even less. It boggles the mind.

But this approach from Apple matters because the iMac is no longer a consumer device, like the original technicolour G3 machine. The 27-inch iMac is a work machine. It’s used by developers and designers and filmmakers. And those people tend to need to store lots of stuff: be they codebases, image assets, or b-roll.

More to the point: all SSD drives will eventually fail. Even the best have a finite amount of write cycles. As the findings from iFixit so clearly demonstrate, Apple has given the 27-inch iMac an artificially short lifespan, unless punters are prepared to use inelegant workarounds like booting from an external Thunderbolt drive.

Fortunately, Apple hasn’t (yet) dished out the same treatment to the iMac’s RAM, which remains user-serviceable and uses standard 260-pin DDR4 sticks. As with previous generations, this is hidden behind a shield on the machine’s rear, and can be opened without any proprietary tools.

iFixit ultimately gave the 27-inch iMac a repairability score of just four out of ten. It won points for the use of a socketed (and thus, upgradable) CPU, as well as the user-serviceable RAM. But the soldered internal storage, lack of service manuals, and difficulty in reassembly lost the machine serious points.

Speaking personally as someone with a penchant for repairing retro Apple computers, this news is a bit of a bummer to this hack. One of my hobbies is keeping old Apple kit alive. Computing history is history, after all. The oldest item in my collection is an ancient Powerbook G3 Lombard, which has been cleaned up and upgraded with fresh new components, like an mSATA drive and RAM pilfered from a network printer.

Other people have preserved even older devices, like those from the early Macintosh and Apple II lines. They’ve replaced faulty components, stripped leaking capacitors, and generally kept them in good nick for future generations to enjoy.

And try as we might, we just can’t see that happening with Apple’s latest fare — including the 2020 iMac 27-inch. Ah well, there's always the classic Mac coffee table. ®

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