Apple’s Last Dance With Intel: iMac 27″ 2020 Teardown (With X-rays)

Apple’s Last Dance With Intel: iMac 27″ 2020 Teardown (With X-rays)

Apple’s aging 27” iMac got one last jolt of electricity last week, in the form of updated 10th-gen Intel Core processors, new speakers and microphones, and a storage “upgrade” (more on that last one in a moment). Still, given Apple’s recent ARM announcement, and rumors of a fully redesigned iMac waiting in the wings, our brand-new base model felt tired even before we unboxed it. But we wasted no time taking it apart in order to document the last iMac of the Intel era, and to see what, if anything, we can divine about the iMac’s future.

But first—X-rays! Even though our partnership with Creative Electron dates all the way back to 2014, we’ve somehow never had the opportunity to collaborate on this generation of iMac. Well, we couldn’t let that slide. And it’s a good thing we didn’t, because seriously, just look at it:

X-ray image of the 2020 iMac 27"

Click that image and expand it to inspect every nook and cranny of the outgoing iMac. The darkest areas are the densest, consisting of things like speaker driver magnets, reinforced hinges, and copper heat pipes. 

As if that weren’t enough, our friends in the X-ray business also scanned the keyboard and mouse—while it was still in the box. Because why bother unboxing anything when you can see right through everything? At this point they’re just showing off, but we have no complaints.

When you’re through ogling, it’s time for some more conventional teardowning. Rumor has it we’ll find some storage that can’t be upgraded, but thank goodness there’s still a handy door around back allowing users to replace and upgrade the RAM. You won’t need any tools for that particular procedure, which, believe it or not, hasn’t changed since 2013. In this case, that’s a good thing. Beneath the hatch, you can install up to four standard 260-pin DDR4 sticks.

But that’s where the easy part ends. The massive 27” screen from LG still has to be carved from its standard gluey frame and carefully maneuvered free.

New mic and webcam, at just the right time

Apple’s upgraded webcam, which we expected to find mounted at the top of the iMac’s aluminum enclosure like in years past, is now screwed onto the back of the display panel. That means there’s one extra cable to disconnect when removing the display—already an awkward procedure—but in the scheme of things, this “booby trap” cable is but a quibble. It’s still mostly modular, and remote workers will be pleased with the upgrade to full 1080p resolution. But we’re puzzled: no Face ID? Since the hardware fits into an iPhone, it seems like there’d be plenty of room for it here. Does the iMac’s lack of portability imply more security? Is the viewing angle wrong? Are they saving that for their Apple-driven desktop? Perhaps time will tell—but for now, the iMac still lacks biometrics of any kind.

Another upgrade that will please the homebound: where once there was but one lower mic, now there are two—hiding behind two tiny dots in the lower frame, where the display rests. Dual mics help with triangulation and noise reduction, improving the quality of your audio during all your many Zoom meetings. (And don’t forget there’s still a third mic, up top near the camera.)

With display and Zoom-accessories accoutrements dispatched, we turn to the guts. Surprise, surprise: looks like Apple has filled that vacant hard drive space with … nothing! The huge 3.5” desktop drive that used to occupy the spot above the power supply may have been past its prime, but we appreciated how easy it was to find replacements and procure upgrades. Since the space isn’t being used, we can only hope  Apple left the SATA headers in place on the back of the logic board. Fingers crossed that upgrades are still viable—we’ll find out for sure once the board is out.

One repair casualty unfortunately carried over from the 2019 iMac: the formerly modular wireless card is soldered to the logic board. Not the end of the world, but, why? This move didn’t free up any space, and will make associated repairs more expensive.

Remember Apple’s infamous, do-everything T2 “security” chip? This marks the first time we’ve found it in a non-Pro iMac, and as usual, it’s got a lot of jobs: hardware-based encryption, SSD control, processing microphone input—and, these new speakers get some support as well. From Apple: “the T2 Security Chip also works with the speakers to enable variable EQ for better balance, higher fidelity, and deeper bass.” Not super necessary to hear your coworkers tinny conference-call voices, but probably good for bumping work-from-home tunes.

Speakers removed from the 2020 iMac 27"

Not much remains besides the logic board, and since its outward-facing side doesn’t have many other secrets to share, let’s go straight to the hidden stuff on the back.

Removing the logic board from the 2020 iMac 27"

Here’s where things start getting bleak

Hiding out under a metal shield, smack in the middle of this board: the T2 chip. Not hiding out on this board (or anywhere): socketed storage or SATA headers of any kind. Nothing. Zilch. This machine has exactly the same amount of internal storage serviceability as an iPad, which is to say: none. We celebrate that Apple is keeping people’s data safe, but we’ve seen them pair the T2 chip with upgradable storage before (twice, actually!), and we think this machine is Pro enough to deserve the same. 

Near the T2 chip is a shiny silver Toshiba 128 GB flash storage module, with a twin on the other side of the board, making for a total of 256 GB. To the right of the T2, partially hidden under the RAM cage, you’ll find the LGA1200 CPU socket—that’s right, this machine is Pro enough for an upgradeable CPU, apparently. Ours is currently populated with the new Intel Core i5 10500. To the right side of our board are two SK hynix 4 GB DDR4 DRAM sticks. Finally, front and center (even outlined in gold for us) is AMD’s Radeon Pro 5300 GPU, surrounded by four 1 GB GDDR6 memory chips. 

Last thing to note on this board is the group of solder-pads and an accompanying screw mount hiding in plain sight above the I/O block. It’s hard to say for certain whether these are purely leftovers from previous models with removable PCIe storage blades, or a placeholder for a “flash storage expansion board” as reported by MacRumors in higher-end 4 TB and 8 TB configurations. We suspect the latter, and it’s at this moment we’re wishing we had shelled out a bit more on order day. We’ll update this post if and when we get to the bottom of this mystery.

Logic board of the 2020 iMac 27"

With the newest iMac sufficiently dismantled, we turn our attention to the repairability score. The dead-simple RAM replacement procedure—even easier than most tower PCs!—truly saves this machine from abject repairability disaster.

Apple’s iMac 27” Retina 5K Display (2020) earns a 4 out of 10 on our repairability scale (10 is easiest to repair):

  • RAM is easily user-replaceable with off-the-shelf parts.
  • Once inside, most components are modular and fairly straightforward to remove using standard Torx and Phillips drivers.
  • You can replace or upgrade the socketed (LGA 1200) CPU.
  • Cutting into the iMac is awkward even with the right tools, and closing it up afterward requires patience and access to Apple’s custom-cut adhesive strips.
  • As always, the exposed power supply adds an element of… excitement.
  • There’s no possibility of altering the internal storage—a major blow to repairs, upgrades, data recovery, and in some cases, security.

One repairability point that Apple seems to be forfeiting this year, after briefly reclaiming it last year, is for publishing its service manual. At the time of writing, there’s no service manual for this iMac on Apple’s support site. We understand posting last year’s manuals was a controversial decision within Apple, but it was the right thing to do—and we’ll happily revise this score to a 5 out of 10 should Apple choose to publish in the future. Oh, and while it’s not worth a point, we won’t complain if the manuals just happen to appear on our site or elsewhere on the internet. 

Failing that, here’s hoping the rumored ARM-based redesign takes a few serviceability cues from the 2019 Mac Pro—we’re still reeling from an Apple device that scored a 9/10.

iMac 2020 27" parts laid out after teardown