It hasn’t even been six months since we reviewed the first 5K Retina iMac, and yet here we are with a new model. What’s changed, and does Apple still have the edge in desktop design?
Apple’s all-in-one desktop iMac might not seem like the perfect candidate for an update since its refresh late last year, but here we are again if you can believe it.
The 2015 refresh isn’t much of a change, though, with most of it focused on processing as Apple and Intel join forces for a bit of an update.
That update means the new computers brings the Apple iMac up to Intel’s very latest processors, with the fourth-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors updated to the fifth-generation, or from Haswell to Broadwell if you’ve memorised your Intel codenames.
The Apple 2015 iMac 27 inch with Retina 5K now starts with a quad-core 3.3GHz Intel Core i5 fifth-gen, offering that on the base model without a configuration path, or the secondary model which offers either a quad-core 3.5GHz Core i5 to start with configurable to a quad-core 4GHz Intel Core i7 processor.
Memory is the same, starting at 8GB in all the models, but with configuration options including 16GB and 32GB RAM, while the hard drive now starts with a 1TB basic hard drive (base model) and can be configured to include either a 3TB standard drive, 1 or 3TB Fusion drive, of solid-state options catering for 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB.
Graphics options are also semi-configurable, with the base model stuck with the AMD Radeon R9 M290 with 2GB graphics, but the secondary model set to the slightly faster R9 M290X with 2GB graphics, configurable before purchase to the M295X with 4GB graphics.
Apple’s Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” arrives on this computer, and no matter which version of the 27 inch with Retina you select, you still get the 5K Retina display, which brings a 5120×2880 In-Plane Switching display to the 27 inch size.
As far as connections go, Apple’s 27 inch iMac remains unchanged, offering up four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, an SDXC card slot, one Gigabit Ethernet port for wired networking, and a 3.5mm headset jack, all of these located on the back.
Wireless connections are also unchanged, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac offered up for wireless networking, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.
You’ll also find a FaceTime HD 720p camera above the screen, with two microphones sitting above this and at the back.
A wireless keyboard and mouse are included in the box.
The model used in this review was the $2799 base model, featuring an Intel 3.3GHz quad-core Intel i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, AMD Radeon R9 M290 with 2GB graphics, Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite”, and the 5K Retina display.
You have to feel a little sorry for anyone who decides to buy something new and impressive the moment it’s announced.
Take the Apple iMac 27 inch with 5K Retina, a machine that only saw release around seven months ago, but brought some pretty impressive technology with it for its $3000 starting price.
Granted, Apple didn’t update the Intel processors inside, keeping it strictly fourth-generation despite the fifth-gen chips being out (Apple didn’t officially get them until this year, 2015), but it did find a way to make its 27 inch iMac even more impressive, with a screen the likes of which no one else had, and even managed to best many of the 4K monitors out there with a 5K screen — that’s a resolution of 5120×2880 for those of you playing at home.
That was just seven months ago, and if you bought one in that time, you didn’t just feel like you had bought something amazing, but also something cutting edge.
Just a week ago, Apple announced a follow-up: the early-2015 edition of the iMac 27 inch with Retina 5K.
Again, this is another machine bringing that very sharp and high resolution 5K display, but while the late-2014 model was about updating the screen, this year’s edition is about updating the specs to bring it more in line with modern computing.
In a way, you’d kind of like both to happen at the once, but that wasn’t to be the case, possibly due to some exclusive agreements with Intel and some other computer makers, or another reason altogether. Regardless, the iMac now has the rights to the new Intel chips, and this is the update.
So what does the 2015 edition of the iMac 27 inch with Retina bring to the table?
New processors, a slight change to the video card, and a smaller price tag.
That’s mostly it, though there are some catches.
Apple hasn’t changed everything for this model, keeping 8GB as the standard memory amount upgradeable if need be, and has gone with a very similar video card in the AMD Radeon R9 M290 with 2GB video RAM (the 290X was used in the first model), though this can be changed at the point of ordering, too.
There’s even the same storage amounts offered, though the drive technology has changed slightly.
You see while solid-state drives and Apple’s hybrid “Fusion” drive tech are both offered as options, the stock model here comes with a standard 1TB hard drive, a saving of around $200-300 compared with the equivalent 1TB Fusion drive. Some won’t worry about that, and others will, but while it might seem like Apple is shaving off some of the price tag, we suspect the shift from Fusion drive to standard drive is where the price drop is really coming from.
Using the computer, most people aren’t likely to notice a difference.
Unless you’re really into something that requires super speedy hard drive access, say video editing, photo work, or something that really requires a special hard drive setup, the 1TB 7200RPM drive is a great starting point, providing a price cut for those who don’t really see the difference and never will.
Granted, we’d take the better technology, with Fusion allowing faster access to files by sending the most frequently used files to 128GB of solid-state flash storage, providing faster access equivalent to relying on a solid-state drive, but keeping a larger amount of space provided for everything else, and meaning the other files are accessed from the slower hard drive.
As we said, most won’t notice a difference, but some will, and if you feel like you might, you’ll want to configure either the base model or go with the next one up which starts with a Fusion drive and boost both the graphics and main processor a little.
That said, performance during our tests with the 2015 edition of the 27 inch 5K Retina iMac were just as good as we remembered, with virtually no slowdowns during any apps.
Gaming was also perfectly acceptable here, and with a similar video card to the one we used last time — AMD’s Radeon R9 M290 with 2GB RAM — we found one title “Thomas Was Alone” ran at the 5120×2880 resolution without any issues, while our regular benchmarking title of “Portal 2” could only manage the 2560×1440, with the resolution double (the actual listed resolution of the 5K display) suffering from a texture glitch that basically stopped us from playing the game.
That could be an issue with the title, and it could be an issue with the video driver for the 5K display.
We don’t recall the same problem popping up when we played with the first generation of the 5K, but we also didn’t write much about the gaming performance so are willing to put this down to a bug in the title, rather than a bug in the hardware.
That being said, there are minor differences between the video hardware in this variant compared to the older one, and you can likely see this affect the price as well as titles. It might not seem like much, but an “X” could appear to make all the difference, with the M290 in the May 2015 27 inch 5K Apple iMac, and the M290X in the one before it.
Is it a little insane? Possibly, and we stand by our logic that few will likely notice the difference, but until all the games and graphics-heavy apps are patched up, you may find the odd niggle here and there.
Performance overall seemed to be quite good, however, something we’re not terribly surprised at given the use of fifth-gen Intel Core processors, which so rarely seem to throw up any red flags in any computer we’ve looked at.
We should point out that while Intel’s Broadwell chips can be fan-less — that’s the fifth-generation of Intel’s Core processor for those playing along at home that aren’t familiar with Intel’s codenames — the chips used inside the new iMac machines are still installed with a fan.
You can’t hear it very much, mind you, and we had to push the graphics pretty aggressively to get the fan to spin up in a way that was audible, but when it did, it still wasn’t overly loud, sounding more like someone who was frustrated with us and was huffing and puffing like a very quiet two year old who was steaming he hadn’t been given some sweets.
Apple’s screen is also still worth noting, and if we’re fair, the primary reason people will be drawn to this computer.
It’s not enough to want a desktop these days, but the big screen — that big screen with a 5120×2880 resolution — is the main thing drawing your eyes over to this all-in-one.
Desktop computers aren’t doing tremendously well in the real world, either. You can’t find many, but the few you can find generally sit at either 21, 23, 24, and 27 inch sizes, with the occasional bigger unit, and some TVs with small computers attached to the back (these aren’t the same, but are sometimes offered up as solutions).
In this area, Apple has generally produced a market-leading solid competitor, with few manufacturers offering a metal-bodied high-spec’d machine, at least not at the level the Apple iMac is.
Even if they do, none have been updated to include a screen beyond Full HD, and that’s where Apple is now, and was when the company released the 5K iMac in late 2014.
Last year, 4K was a pretty big deal, as it is this year with more televisions being released to support the Ultra HD technology. But Apple aims to go beyond them, and has included a custom-built 5K panel, boasting more resolution, strong colours, and the ability to show a full 4K image on the one monitor and still have room left over, something 4K displays can’t do.
This makes the 5K screen great for 4K video editors, because they don’t need to run the 4K preview window at a smaller size, and can see things the way they’re meant to: at 100 percent.
But beyond the use for those in the video world, the 5K screen also brings Apple’s flair for excellent hardware to the fore, with detail that makes images pop off the screen in a way few other computers can do, a faster custom timing controller made to keep the visuals great, and some spectroradiometric technology that keeps colour calibrated.
Creatives will likely see the most use from that last one, but knowing that your colour is always solid and always excellent means you never have to worry about seeing photos or videos that way they shouldn’t be, and this is one display that will always, always have your attention.
There’s also that design, and Apple hasn’t changed anything, leaving the ultra-thin aluminium unibody intact, and pretty much keeping everything the way we know it.
That means the SD card slot’s still questionable placement is there, found on the back when it’s kind of an awkward location that can be a little bit of a pain to get at if you constantly want to plug in camera cards and get images out. We still think the side would be better, even the side on the bottom of the right edge, but Apple seems content with leaving it on the back, and that is totally its prerogative.
Despite this little niggle, Apple’s design is hard to fault, providing an excellent body, metal build, and a sense of minimalism that few hardware makers can compete with.
We’re not even sure we know of any, actually.
Desktops are sadly becoming a thing of the past, as more people embrace laptops and let these get plugged into monitors as and when you need something that sits on the desk.
With this change in computer types, it’s still nice to see something modern and solid made for the desk, because these are becoming rarer. Despite this rarity in form-factor, Apple is still producing solid efforts, and the latest iMac 27 inch is no different, showing that Apple still has the edge in desktop design.
While the price drop from Apple on this one seems a little artificial — you’re losing a Fusion drive in this price drop and getting a standard hard drive, as well as a slight change in graphics, making that cut in price less about being generous and more about changing hardware — that change in price does make the 27 inch iMac without Retina less of a thing anyone would want.
Indeed, there is now a good $300 price difference between the older 27 inch iMac without Retina and the 27 inch iMac with Retina, and that last one — the one this review is focused on — has better specs in general, with newer processing and graphics technology.
With that sort of cheddar dividing up the iMac 27s, it makes the older model there to only provide a cheaper option, and while it’s still a great desktop, we’d easily pick the Retina over it, which we suspect this price drop has been designed to push people over to.
And that’s fine, because with the spec improvement, the excellent build, the simple design that fits well in any environment, and that screen — oh that screen — Apple’s 27 inch iMac with Retina is still one of the best desktop machines you can own, outclassing pretty much every all-in-one you’re likely to see.
It’s even better than the last iMac, just marginally so.