By Neil Bennett | on February 24, 2016
Price: Base price: £1,270 plus VAT/US$1799. Models reviewed: £1,540/$2,299 & £1,758/$2,621
Pros: Desktop-level performance. Super detailed colour-accurate screen with a wide gamut. Graceful design
Cons: Screen not able to produce 100% of Adobe RGB colour space. Less powerful GPU reduces performance in accelerated apps.
Apple's 5k 27-inch iMac – or, to give it its formal title, the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display – is the computer of choice for many designers, artists and photographers. While some have been tempted away by the pick-up-and-pop-to-Starbucks portability of laptops like Apple's own MacBook Pro or mobile workstations like Dell's super-powerful Precision 5510, or a more easily upgradable PC desktop and monitor combo – the appeal of having everything you need in one beautifully designed case is difficult to ignore.
Apple launched its latest 5k iMac back in November, but we've held off reviewing it as until now we've been unable to accurately measure the quality of its much-hyped new screen – which Apple boasts that it has better colour accuracy and a wider colour gamut. New behind-the-screen is Intel’s Skylake platform, which enables faster processors and up to 32GB of RAM, plus a choice of larger storage options and more powerful graphics chips.
Apple iMac 5k review: Design
Here I'm going to assume you're sold on the concept of an iMac. You don't mind that you can't replace or upgrade the screen or graphics card – or the processor, but then that's beyond most of us. You can't add additional internal drives, though you've got a Thunderbolt 2 port at the back to add external ones.
Instead what you've got is an aesthetically beautiful piece of product design that you'll use til it breaks, then get it repaired or just buy a new one. The design of this 5k iMac has been around for a couple of years now, so it's perhaps easy to forget just how incredible it is – simple, clean with the soft metal curves that are as much part of Apple's brand as the bitten fruit logo. It's more in proportion to a TV than a computer, a giant iPad on a slender base and self-possessed in its own design that it feels comfortable whether your studio is designed in organic woods or clinical glass.
If you want a real perspective on the 5k iMac's design, put it next to only other professional level all-in-one workstation, HP's Z1 G2 (below right). The Z1 is black, chunky and industrial – feeling like a piece of engineering not design. In one way, the Z1 G2 has a better design than the 5k iMac – you can quickly bend it over and pop its top off to get to it's internal gubbins and replace/upgrade bits. But this makes it thicker and heavy and you can't gracefully pivot it on its bottom with a mere touch to show a colleague what you're working on – which you'll do way more often.
Apple iMac 5k review: Screen
Looking past the chassis design, the thing that really makes the 5k iMac sing is the screen. Or, to put it more properly, that screen. Everything you put on it looks gorgeous. Or awful. Or terrifying. Or whatever emotion you want to elicit from the user, times ten (though conversely, any imperfection in your design or marks or retouching is instantly, embarrasingly awful).
The 5,120 x 2,800 resolution means that you can see everything in exquisite detail – but the double-sized, Retina Display-friendly interfaces of all major creative Mac apps are perfectly usable. No squinting needed here.
The screen's colour reproduction is more open to question, but using DataColor's Spyder5Elite colourimeter and the latest version of its software, we've finally been able to establish its credentials.
There are two factors when establishing the quality of a screen. First is the gamut – the range of colours that a monitor can reproduce – and then there's how accurately it can reproduce these. There are quite dramatic differences between professional-level monitors – and I'm including the 5k iMac's screen in this category – and the kind of screen you pick up on the cheap in PC World for gaming or office work. And even the best laptop screens such as that found on Apple's own MacBook Pro can't match up to the colour capabilities of a pro display.
Using the Spyder5Elite, we discovered that the 5K iMac's screen excels in both the size of its gamut and in its accuracy. Compared to the two latest 27-inch pro monitors we've looked at, the Philips 272P4A and the BenQ SW2700PT, the 5k iMac's screen bested both in terms of overall gamut size and accuracy – and in resolution, of course (both of those monitors have a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440).
However, with gamut, size isn't everything. Adobe’s applications all use an internal range of colours called the Adobe RGB colour space, so if you primarily use Adobe’s tools then how much of this your monitor can output really matters. The Philips 272P4A and the BenQ SW2700PT can output all (100%) and 99% of the Adobe RGB colours. The 5k iMac can output 92%, so you won’t see as many shades of green on the iMac as on those monitors.
Apple has instead chosen to match its monitor’s gamut to the DCI-P3 colour space, as used by cinema projectors. So your iMac can display all of the colour tones you need for digital cinema – which is great for watching or editing films – but not everything Photoshop, InDesign or Lightroom can output.
Apple iMac 5k review: Performance
We’ve looked at two models here: a mid-range version provided by Apple and a more powerful version that we bought for our video producer and photographer Dominik. The mid-range version has a 3.3GHz Core i5 chip with 8GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon R9 graphics chip with 2GB of its own RAM, and a 2TB 'Fusion Drive’ (a hard disk with a small flash drive that’s essentially a cache to make it faster). For just over a grand and a half, this is a solid configuration – except for the RAM. For creative work these days, 16GB should be your minimum – though it’s much cheaper to buy the additional memory from the likes of Crucial than the £133 plus VAT/$200 Apple will charge you for increasing 8GB to 16GB.
It costs around £31/$44 to get an additional 8GB from Crucial – though that does fill all of the available four RAM slots (two with the original 4GB RAM sticks that make up the original 8GB put in by Apple, and two 4GB that come from Crucial – RAM sticks always come in pairs), so future upgrading would require throwing away some of these. A better deal would be to spend £51/$72 on 16GB of RAM for a total of 24GB – which works out with you being £80 better off and having 8GB more than if you’d plumped for Apple’s 16GB option.
This is exactly what we did to our Dominik’s iMac. So alongside 24GB of RAM, this was configured with the top-of-the-line 4GHz Core i7 chip and a 256GB SSD (SSDs are essential for video editing).
Whatever amount of RAM you plump for, it’s slightly disappointing that the iMac’s motherboard has DD3 RAM, not the faster DD4 RAM that the Intel ’Skylake’ platform that underpins the new iMac also supports.
One issue for some creatives is going to be the choice of graphics chip. Being an all-in-one, the iMac has a laptop graphics chip rather than a full graphics card – so the performance is going to lower than a full-on desktop computer, both for 3D graphics and non-3D features that tap the GPU, as many creative tools do.
On top of this, the iMac 5k has an AMD chip. We’re brand-agnostic, but it appears Adobe isn’t as its applications perform better when using Nvidia’s chips for non-3D work (using Nvidia’s CUDA platform rather than OpenCL, which AMD uses).
This, of course, doesn't apply if you primarily use non-Adobe tools such as Final Cut Pro, Sketch or QuarkXPress (yes, really, some designers do use Quark). If you're one of those Final Cut Pro holdouts – hi Dominik – the 5k iMac is an effective edit station offering more-than-adequate performance for working with high-quality HD footage and motion graphics. if you've moved onto Adobe's Premiere Pro, you'll get greater performance from a PC workstation with an Nvidia graphics card in it.
I was pleasantly surprised by the iMac 5k’s performance. In the past, the iMac’s performance has been nearer to a laptop than a desktop – but in the Cinebench rendering benchmark it was the equal of a PC desktop (considering the chip – though you can’t overclock it as Scan has done with its 3XS GW-HT10). The full-size graphics card still gives a tricked-out desktop like Scan’s a definite advantage over all-in-ones like the iMac in a lot of applications though.
The design of the iMac means that you can only fit a since drive inside it – but if you go for the SSD option, you get a PCIe-connected drive that’s blisteringly fast (averaging 857MBps write and 2,058MBps read speeds, throughput aficionados). You can connect additional storage via one of the two Thunderbolt 2 ports (we’re starting to see computers with Thunderbolt 3 now, which offers twice the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2 – but storage systems that can take advantage of Thunderbolt 3 aren’t available yet).
Apple iMac 5k review: Benchmarks
Cinebench R15 runs an animation and renders a scene using Maxon Cinema 4D R15. The rendering test reveals the performance of the processor alone, while the real-time 3D test uses the graphics card. The results are in Cinebench's proprietary units. Longer bars are better.
Adobe After Effects/Premiere Pro
In this After Effects test, we render a scene that includes four layers of HD video (with effects) being transformed in 3D space (with lights and cameras) – plus 3D elements rendered using Cineware. We rendered it using the Raytraced renderer (which delivers better results by can only be GPU-accelerated using an Nvidia graphics chip) and the classic renderer. In the Premiere Pro test, we encoded an HD edit to H.264 with GPU acceleration (CUDA or OpenCL). Results are in minutes – so shorter bars are better.
Apple iMac 5k review: Keyboard, Mouse and Trackpad
Something deeply strange has gone on with the design of Apple's latest keyboard and mouse. On an average day on your desk, they look great – sleek and simple and wire-free. However, this minimalist aesthetic has lead to some odd product design decisions.
First off the keyboard is a fraction smaller than the older USB keyboards – but that fraction makes typing harder unless you've got particularly slim fingers. Older keyboards also had the numeric keyboard, which conventional wisdom says is just for accountants but many of us use for specific shortcuts in our apps – so I really noticed it being there. Worse, there's no Delete key – just Backspace – which has a different function in some apps.
There's an internal rechargeable battery in the keyboard, and Apple says that a fully charged keyboard will last you a month (if you remember to turn it on and off when you're not using it for long periods, using the little switch on the back).
The keyboard is charged using a Lightning connector, which is innovative and useful in itself as you can also use the same USB-to-Lightning lead to charge your mouse or trackpad or connect/charge your phone or iPad. However, because the keyboard is wireless, you can't plug USB thumb drives – yes, even in an age of AirDrop and Dropbox we do still use these 'USB keys' to quickly move big files from our computer to a colleague or client's.
So I plugged in the full-size USB keyboard from my old iMac and didn't touch the new keyboard again.
Day-to-day, the wireless Magic Mouse is the same as before. Apple still accepts our desire to right-click grudgingly – you have to turn it on in System Preferences – and the swipe-to-scroll function is still loved and hated by designers in equal measure (you can turn it off easily).
The oddness is when you want to charge it, as you plug the Lightning connector into its bottom. From a purely functional perspective, this works perfectly – but it just looks ugly and really at odds with the rest of the iMac's perfect aesthetics.
Apple offers an optional Magic Trackpad 2 for £91. If you're into trackpads, this is a great one. It supports multi-touch and Apple's Force touch – essentially 'press harder to right click'. However, I really wish it could work as a graphics tablet with the iPad Pro's Pencil (and was also available in an A4 size). This would make it a viable alternative to Wacom's Intuos range for designers and artists who prefer the slim Pencil to Wacom's chunky pen.
Apple iMac 5k review: Conclusion
If you only care about performance, buy a desktop PC. If you only care about colour accurary, buy an Eizo ColorEdge monitor and attach it to a desktop PC.
If you want performance and colour accuracy that's good enough for most of us – and you also want a super-detailed screen and something that looks stylish on your desk – go buy an iMac 5k.