Update June 5 2017: Apple has announced improved iMac 5K models as well as the iMac 5K Pro.
The late 2015 iMac 5K was the first iMac that MPG could ever take seriously for photography, mainly because it could finally accept 64GB of memory (note: prices are rising on memory) but also because its GPU and 4GHz CPU outrun even the fastest Mac Pro on some tasks—a little faster or a little slower. A perfect trifecta of solidly competitive.
The downsides of the iMac 5K are several:
- Inferior cooling ability and increased noise under loads that would make a Mac Pro barely audible; the iMac 5K is not suitable for sustained loads and not likely to survive sustained loads for the years I would expect a Mac Pro to chug along easily.
- 4 CPU cores max.
- 64GB memory limit was a huge move forward (vs 32GB), but the Mac Pro can take 128GB.
- GPU memory for big jobs for video and similar.
- Too few ports for robust workstation systems.
The limits above are not much of an issue for many users but they are very real for some pros, like myself: the 2013 Mac Pro has been 'bulletproof', quiet, and just darn solid with 8 cores of grunt.
So here’s what I’d like to see Apple do to the iMac, not trying to make it into a Mac Pro, but to make it a more serious and more appealing machine. Call it the iMac Pro:
- I see the lifespan of the iMac 5K as around 3 years, versus 5 years for a Mac Pro. Design a proper cooling system that can handle sustained full CPU and GPU load without so much noise. It doesn’t inspire longevity confidence with the current model. The tiny venting area at the rear of the machine is sacrificing form for function: there is no reason that a vertical venting system could not be designed in, though it might make the machine slightly thicker. Nor is there any reason that venting has to be limited to one small porthole area.
- iMac 6K display in 32" form factor (stretch goal iMac 8K in 36" form factor), that is, build on the primary strength, of being the best display available today for sheer viewing pleasure. Stretch goal: more vertical pixels more amenable to 3:2 and 4:3 images (eg what virtually all cameras produce). Update: aside from cost, it now appears than a 32-inch iMac 8K is technically feasible.
- Offer a 6 core CPU at a high clock speed. Six cores is a sweet spot, saving the day when jobs are running in the background and/or on big Photoshop or Lightroom jobs, etc. This might require another generation of lower power chips however.
- A truly bad-ass GPU (which would be needed for a 6K display anyway). The limit here would be power dissipation, but something 2X faster should be achievable.
- Don’t create connectivity nuisances: dual Thunderbolt 3 busses with eight ports, or at least 6 ports.
- Stretch goal: six and preferably 8 memory slots accepting up to 128GB: don’t make me pay a huge premium for ultra high density modules.
Some of the above may require more time, such as the availability of 6K or 8K displays, a 6-core CPU with the same TPD as the current 4 GHz 4 core CPUm sufficient memory densities. And it might be that Intel simply won’t straddle the pro/consumer boundary with a 6-core CPU (which is often wasted anyway). And in the end, an iMac is an iMac, and these features are desirable mainly in the context of a 6K display—so let it be an iMac.
Aside from having a poorly engineered cooling approach, the top-end iMac may be left that way—as an iMac, with the Mac Pro the logical place to stuff all these goodies. Still, there are ways to move the iMac forward that build on its core all-in-one strengths.
- Improved cooling system, perhaps with separate fans/cooling venting on CPU and GPU and memory, for cooler and quieter operation and better longevity: a focus on longevity and reliabilty over time. This stuff could be folded into the case design without ruining the aesthetics.
- Six Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports, ideally on two busses.
- High-quality sterio speakers.
- A built-in touchbar—a bonus given that real function keys are a good thing, and the touchbar really ought to supplement function keys, not replace them.
- Option for 2TB SSD
- 6K display in a new 32" form factor with GPU about twice as fast. That would make for a 30-way lineup of an iMac 21.5" 4K, iMac 27" 5K, iMac 32" 6K.