Apple may have kickstarted the whole “Retina” high-resolution screen thing in computers with its MacBook Pro, but its desktop computers have never really shared the love. Until now, that is, as Apple’s iMac gets a dose of a Retina reality, and we wish it never had to leave.
A new iMac is here, but it’s not necessarily an iMac for everyone, as Apple finds a way to make its all-in-one even better by making the screen revolutionary.
The new machine starts at $2999 in Australia, and while that’s a far cry and nearly a grand off the base model 27 inch iMac, the machine is a little different, with faster innards, more graphical grunt, and a screen that will make other computer makers go scrambling to update their competitors.
First, though, let’s get to the insides, because in the iMac 27 inch Retina, you’ll find Intel’s fourth-generation processors, with two options available, the quad-core i5 clocked at 3.5GHz in the base model, though it can be upgraded to a 4GHz quad-core i7, as well.
System memory starts at 8GB, though like the processor, this can be upgraded too, with 16 and 32GB choices, with upgrades also available on the storage side of things, starting at 1TB Fusion Drive (Apple’s combined conventional hard disk drive and solid-state drive concept), but providing either a 3TB Fusion Drive, or several flash-based choices with either 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB.
And there are even choices on the graphics side of things, as Apple moves to AMD for providing the graphics on this generation of iMac, starting with the Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB on the base model, but expanding it to a 4GB variant of the M295X graphics processor.
The display can’t be changed or upgraded, but if you head the way of the iMac with Retina, you’re getting a different screen than the convention iMac, regardless.
While a regular iMac 27 inch relies on an In-Plane Switching (IPS) display supporting a resolution of 2560×1440, the Retina version of the iMac takes the same sized screen and uses an IPS panel sporting the resolution of 5120×2880, a resolution which is technically classed as 5K, higher than that of the 4K displays we’re seeing coming out now both on various laptops, computer monitors, and even TVs.
Beyond this, though, and a few other chips inside the computer to keep that 5K screen from misbehaving, the iMac is mostly the same thing you’re used to seeing in the past, with stereo speakers, two microphones, and a FaceTime HD camera up front above the display.
Wireless technologies are still included, with 802.11ac support found on the iMac with Retina 5K, with backwards compatibility for 802.11a/b/g/n networks, while also including support for Bluetooth 4.0.
The iMac is still very thin, and still made with the same aluminium chassis Apple has been using for a few years now, with the back featuring ports for headphone, SDXC memory card, four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and two Thunderbolt ports that are now rated for the faster version, Thunderbolt 2, making these a slight change on other iMac models.
Thunderbolt 2 is backwards compatible with Thunderbolt (1), and supports 20Gbps, which is twice the maximum speed of the first-generation, which only reached 10Gbps.
It also still supports Mini DisplayPort through this port, making it the port to use if you need to plug in a separate monitor.
Is it really time for a new iMac?
Depending on how old the one you currently have sitting on your desk is, or if you’ve been thinking of buying one anyway, the answer might be yes, and that’s because Apple has something new for people who want something evolutionary.
The iMac has been through some changes over the years, from humble beginnings as a quirky little education-friendly machine to something far thinner and still great for the home, but while the design is generally the area Apple focuses on, for this release, it has its eyes on something else altogether.
In fact, Apple has its eyes on a component that will make your eyes jump for joy when you see it, when you take it in, because it’s the screen that Apple is looking at, and changing for the better.
In 2012, when Apple rethought the design for the iMac for its current incarnation, it also thought about laptop screens, and found a way to make them better, releasing the first generation of Retina screens for the MacBook Pro 15, a machine that featured a display with roughly double the pixels as many of the 15 inch screens out there.
At the time, many 15 inch laptops were relying on resolutions closer to to 1366×768 — just above high definition — and possibly a bit bigger, with 1440×900, 1680×1080, and the odd Full HD 1920×1080 panel making an appearance.
But most sat around the 1366×768 mark, and it was always a sore point with us, because that resolution on a screen on 13 or 15 inches would always look big and pixelated, and while it was often easy to read, it wasn’t particularly good looking, and for some people wasn’t thoroughly comfortable, either.
So Apple doubled the pixel amount, doing what it first did on the iPhone 4 with its phone-based “Retina” display that started the whole high-end screen revolution on portable devices, and eventually made a beautifully high resolution display for a laptop, a move that PC makers only started properly competing with last year.
For the iMac, Apple has long been rumoured to be doing something similar, with a higher quality screen hitting the rumour mill often.
Fortunately, it’s here, and it could just be the best desktop you’ll see all year, so let’s get stuck into it.
When it comes to design, Apple pretty much leads the pack, and here in the iMac 27 with Retina, well, it’s the same story told time and time again.
If you’ve ever loved the design of the previous model, you loved the sleek metal body with black backing for the display, a huge chunk of glass protecting the screen, and the simplicity of the stand, it’s all still here, still waiting for a desk to look as clean and minimalist as it does.
Switch the iMac on and as usual, Apple’s OS will greet you, but while it has always looked good, on the iMac 5K, it looks absolutely freakin’ gorgeous, bordering somewhere between stunning and breath-taking, and yet totally mesmerising.
The screen is bright, crisp, and clear, and with Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite loaded, you’ll even find a 5K image of Yosemite National Park staring back at you, allowing your eyes to hone in on every little detail.
Technically put, the 5K resolution Apple shows — 5120×2880 — is comparable to a 14 megapixel image, greater in size even than the 4K screens we started seeing a few years ago and their ability to show 8 megapixels of goodness in 1:1 detail.
That means that if you’re editing an image, getting up close and seeing the sharpness can take over the whole screen and show more of the photo. It means that video editors working in Ultra HD or slightly higher at full 4K can see the full video while they edit, removing the need for an extra screen.
And if you don’t do either of these creative things, if you’re not an animator or an After Effects wizard or a sound professional or anything else that generally takes up more viewports; if you don’t do any of these activities, the extra resolution will yield a pixel clarity similar to the MacBook Pro 15 with Retina, relying on 218 pixels per inch, which is far sharper than the 109 pixels per inch of the iMac 27 without Retina.
What does this mean?
From a viewing distance of around a metre — where most of us will generally work from while using a desktop — the screen is clear and vibrant, and the text is sharp, almost like looking at real life. Fonts are clearer, images look better, and staring at the computer for hours on end won’t feel like as much of a chore, unless you’re doing chores, and they’ll likely be more comfortable digital chores at that.
It’s awesome stuff, and we wish we didn’t have to give it back.
Worth nothing, too, is that Apple has done more than just throw in a 5K panel, with a timing controller designed for the iMac to not only speed up the transmission of information to the panel, but to keep everything running well.
This might sound like gibberish, but in essence, Apple’s specialty timing chip means the 5K screen can receive the information it needs to not skip a beat, losing out on pixels the computer is sending its way, and giving you the visuals you’re asking.
There are other things at play helping the iMac, such as low-power LEDs and an oxide thin-film transistor in the panel all working together to cut down on power consumption, while compensation film helps with light coming out at angles to make the IPS panel viewable from all angles, and the use of spectroradiometer sensors to make keep the colour calibrated on the system.
But overall, you just need to know that the screen is brilliant when you look at it, and it really is hard to take your eyes off something that is a thing of beauty, of which this most definitely is.
Performance is also very impressive, and with some desktop chips loaded in the iMac, you won’t ever really have to worry about the iMac not pulling its game when you’re working.
We chose to review the low-end model. We say “low-end”, but really, the spec on the iMac at its base model are hardly low-end, with a 3.5GHz fourth-generation quad-core Intel i5 (“Haswell”), 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, and an AMD Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB RAM making up the graphics side of things.
Those are the base specs, and as far as our benchmarks went, they floored our programs, showing how fast the processing was on the side of the CPU and GPU.
Sufficed to say, you won’t have any problems with this machine if you’re gaming, editing photos, working on videos, making sound come alive, or really doing anything, and given the specs, we suspect you could squeeze a fair amount of long-term life out of the Retina iMac. But as we said, this was the base model, and Apple gives you a fair amount of room to move.
You can — if you have the money — choose to push this 5K iMac to a quad-core 4GHz Core i7, include as much as 32GB RAM, opt for either 3TB Fusion storage or go for speed and end up with 1TB flash storage utilising solid-state technology. And over on the video side of things, the slightly faster Radeon R9 M295X with even more memory (4GB) can be chosen.
If you check all the boxes and go this route, you’re looking at a little over five grand, but if you have that sort of cash to play with and need high-end goods, this will definitely offer a solid dose of system performance, evident from our play with that base model.
While it might seem like Apple has nailed the iMac with Retina — and it mostly has — our one quibble is something we’ve taken issue with ever since Apple rolled out its uber-thin iMac design, and that remains on this machine, which takes the same design but throws in a new screen.
And it’s not the display — that’s lovely — and it’s not the speed or insides — they’re great too.
No, it’s the placement of one of the slots on the back. Specifically, it’s the placement of the SD card slot, which is still in the rather silly location of the back.
We’re not sure if you’ve ever used an iMac, but Apple at one point had the SD card slot on the side, which made it convenient, though a little dangerous since it sad underneath the slot loading DVD drive, and if you accidentally put the SD card in the optical slot, well, chaos ensued.
Apple’s relocation to the back of the computer made that problem go away, but it introduced a new one, with the back being a major hassle for connecting up an SD card to a Mac.
We complained about it in 2012 when it was first introduced, in 2013 when Apple persisted with it, and again, as you can probably guess, we’re mentioning it one more time because we still believe the side of the computer would make more sense, since it wouldn’t mean awkwardly making your way around the back, hugging the screen to get your memory card in the computer.
That said, the SD card thing is the only real issue we have with Apple’s iMac with Retina, except for that of the price, which is expensive, but you are getting a screen unlike any other, so that one kind of balances out. Kind of.
If the Mac Pro is out of reach and you just don’t have enough to splurge on the amazeballs Darth Vader-esque machine that sits in Apple’s top-end, the iMac with Retina is an ideal second place, upgrading the already excellent iMac with a monitor that really rates as one of the best you’ll ever see.
We do need to note Apple’s 5K display isn’t the only 27 inch 5K display out there, as Dell has its own arriving on the form of the UP2715K. The two devices aren’t the same, with one being a computer with the monitor integrated, and the other being a monitor by itself.
Really, if you need to plug in a computer you already own, or want to attach a gaming system to the iMac, you’re out of luck, because there are no inputs here, and only the Dell works that way because, well, it’s a monitor, and not a terribly cheap one at that, with a price well over the $2000 mark.
But if you need a new a stunning screen for your work, then you’ll find the iMac 5K is an excellent machine, not just because Apple has provided one of the most brilliant screens we’ve ever set our eyes on, with colour that astounds and stays accurate, and oodles of brightness, but because it packs in the performance, too.
Photographers, videographers, animators, and anyone else creative out there, listen up: the Apple iMac with Retina 5K display is one of the computers you should be looking at this year, and this is now the benchmark for all other all-in-one computers. Highly recommended.