“Apple doesn’t care about the Mac anymore” is the overarching narrative that’s been tossed around over the last few years.
There’s some truth to the sentiment, even if you’re a long-time Apple user and Mac supporter.
The MacBook’s still too underpowered, overpriced, and still only has a single USB-C port. The new MacBook Pros force you into dongle hell and if you get the Touch Bar model, it’s still not clear what value the OLED touch strip really brings or why anyone should pay extra for it. And let’s not even talk about why the MacBook Air hasn’t gotten any meaningful update in years.
Things aren’t better for Apple’s desktop Macs. The trash can-shaped Mac Pro was such an utter failure that Apple had to essentially admit it screwed up big time. It’s very clear Apple doesn’t care about the Mac mini (it hasn’t been updated in almost three years) and if not for a recent update to the iMac, you’d have thought Apple didn’t care about it either, since it was last updated nearly two years ago.
I get that Apple extremely busy working on iPhone, iPad Pro, Apple Watch, and all of its myriad software and services, but surely it could dedicate some of its brilliant engineers to keep Macs updated on a year cycle, right?
At WWDC this year, Apple corrected course for the Mac. It refreshed the MacBook and MacBook Pros with more performance, announced the ridiculous space gray iMac Pro that’ll start at $5,000 and ship in December, and refreshed the iMac.
The 21.5-inch Retina 4K display iMac now starts at a more affordable $1,299 and the 27-inch Retina 5K display iMac at $1,799.
I’ve been using the 27-inch 5K Retina display iMac as my main work machine for about two weeks. Was it worth the wait? Or should you wait for the iMac Pro? Do desktops even matter anymore?
Can’t stop staring into the screen
At first glance, the new 27-inch 5K iMac looks no different from previous 27-inch 5K iMacs. But you’d be wrong to think so.
Yes, the new iMac is virtually identical externally — the only cosmetic change is the two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports that have replaced the two previous Thunderbolt 2 (Mini DisplayPort) ports — but Apple’s given it upgrades that matter on an all-in-on computer.
Like the previous 27-inch iMac’s 5K-resolution Retina display, the 2017’s 5,120 x 2,880 screen is almost too stunning to put into words.
Everything on it looks so sharp, so clear, and so bright, and that’s because Apple’s made it 43 percent brighter with 500 nits of brightness. I’ve yet to see a better screen on an all-in-on computer.
“The screen is so crisp you literally want to crawl inside,” said former Mashable Senior Tech Correspondent Christina Warren when she reviewed the 27-inch iMac’s last update in 2015.
For creatives, like graphic designers, photographers, and video editors, the iMac’s improved Retina display is too good to pass on.
Nothing’s changed since then. I still want to crawl inside of the new iMac’s screen. I’d lick the screen’s pixels (or lack of visible pixels, rather) if it wasn’t such a disgusting thing to do.
By default, the Retina screen’s scaled to look like “2,560 x 1,440” which already gives tons of screen real estate to open full-screen windows side-by-side. But you could crank things up to look like “3,200 x 1,800” to get even more workspace. And if you want the true native 5K resolution without any kind of pixel-doubling for that extra-crispiness, you could use an app like QuickRes that’ll unlock it. Scaling up the resolution, however, does come with one major caveat: text appears way smaller.
For creatives, like graphic designers, photographers, and video editors, the iMac’s improved Retina display is too good to pass on. Wide color gamut (DCI-P3) means more displayable colors, greater dynamic range, and even overall more color accuracy for your work.
I challenge you to find a better display on an all-in-one computer. Chances are you won’t, because I’ve looked.
Upgrading is a must
There’s only one piece of advice I have whenever people ask me which Mac they should get: Never buy the base, entry-level model. Just don’t do it.
Apple designs its Macs so that they’re impossible to, or next to impossible to upgrade the internal parts later. And after testing out the new 5K iMac for a few weeks, I’m saddened to see that my “never buy the base model” still holds true, sorta.
Apple sent over the $1,799 base 27-inch 5K iMac with seventh-generation 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz), 8GB of 2400MHz DDR4 RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, and AMD Radeon Pro 570 discrete graphics with 4GB of VRAM.
I’ll spare you the technical benchmarks (you can find them here if you really care). What matters more to me than synthetic benchmark tests is how the iMac actually performs on a daily basis.
For the base model, its performance is so-so. I consider myself a power user, and if you’re buying a 27-inch 5K iMac, you might consider yourself one, too. So it’s not crazy to demand some real oomph from it.
Now, I’m not a video editor, so I don’t often crunch a lot of video in industry-used apps like Adobe Premiere Pro CC or Final Cut X. I’m a tech journalist and live in Chrome, a word processor, and Adobe Photoshop CC all day.
My computer needs to be able to handle 50+ open Chrome tabs, while simultaneously processing dozens of photos in Photoshop.
On multiple occasions, the base model 5K iMac just couldn’t handle the workload. I saw it slow down, stutter, and generally give me the spinning beach ball. I don’t consider lots of Chrome tabs heavy work for a desktop; my 2014 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro handles the same Chrome tabs and Photoshop CC processing fine and it’s only got integrated graphics.
Closing the number of tabs in Chrome and unused images in Photoshop helped improve the iMac’s performance and return it to normal.
It’s not that the iMac’s processor or graphics isn’t up to par, but that 8GB of RAM is simply not enough for a machine with this high-resolution screen. It bottlenecks too quickly. You absolutely need more.
If you’re thinking of buying the 5K iMac, I highly recommend upgrading the RAM to 16GB or 32GB and the lagginess should disappear. If you’re afraid of opening up your iMac, Apple will charge you $200 and $600, respectively, for the RAM upgrade, which is totally nuts in my opinion.
But since the 5K iMac is the only iMac with user-upgradable RAM (it’s as easy as opening the RAM hatch on the back), you could save yourself hundreds by swapping it out yourself. OWC sells 16GB and 32GB RAM for $150 and $295.
Bigger is better
Apple sells the iMac in two screen sizes: 21.5-inch and 27-inch. The entry-level 21-inch iMac has a smaller 4K Retina display and costs $500 less than the entry-level 27-inch iMac.
The smaller iMac isn’t bad, but its screen is just too puny compared to the 27-inch. It’s also not as beefy with less powerful graphics and RAM that’s not user-upgradeable.
If there’s any single reason to buy the new 5K iMac, it’s the display. It’s just spectacular.
There’s really no going back to non-Retina computer screens after you’ve lived with a Retina one every day. It’s gonna really suck the day I return my iMac loaner and go back to my non-Retina MacBook Air and crappy 1080p Asus monitor issued by our IT department. (If our IT guy, Kyle, is reading this, can I get an upgrade to a new iMac?)
As for if you should buy the refreshed iMacs or wait until the end of the year for the iMac Pro…that really depends on if you’d ever blow $5,000 on an all-in-one computer. Most people will probably say no — hell no. The iMac Pro will be a computer that’s in a completely different league.
If you’re looking for a kickass desktop, go ahead and buy the base model. Just make sure to add more RAM to really make it fly.
27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display (2017)
Even brighter 5K Retina display than before • $200 cheaper than previous entry-level • Wicked fast Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports • Fusion Drive standard on all models
Sluggish performance with 8GB of RAM
The Bottom Line
The 2017 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display is an incredible all-in-one computer, but only after you add more RAM.