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Will the iMac Pro Be Worth The Cost?

See also Assessing the Dec 2017 Apple iMac Pro.

It’s about 6 weeks until the alleged debut of the 2017 iMac Pro, and nary a peep from Apple.

The best 2017 iMac 5K with 1TB SSD has been $200 off at B&H Photo on and off recently. At about half the price of the most basic iMac Pro. That “best” presumes an upgrade to 32GB or 64GB of memory. Even better is the best 2017 iMac 5K with 2TB SSD. Both are a lot less than the imac Pro.

See best deals on Apple desktops and best deals on Apple laptops.

What do you get for the extra $2200 or so of a starter iMac Pro over the 2017 iMac 5K, and does it matter to most users?

Early-access test results

Early-access tests using GeekBench state the following, emphasis added. The author seems clueless about the implications of what he has written, including the fact that the 18 core is likely to be even slower than the 8 core or 10 core CPU on single threaded tests.

When it comes to actual scores, the 8-core iMac Pro averages at 23,536 in multi-core tests, making it the highest performance of any iMac ever, nearly 22% faster than the top-of-the-line 5K iMac.

The 10-core iMac does even better, reaching a multi-core score of 35,917, some 41% better than the high-end Mac Pro featuring a 12-core Xeon E5 processor.

The single-core result, 5,345, is faster than all but the highest 5K iMac released this year. If that’s not enough, then you should remember that Apple will also have an 18-core iMac Pro on sale this December, but that model was not benchmarked yet.

Let’s restate the biased viewpoint above in its proper context:

  • With 8 CPU cores on the iMac Pro vs 4 cores for the 2017 iMac 5K (double the core count!), there is a pathetic 22% gain over the 4-core top of the line 2017 iMac 5K.
  • The single-core speed of the iMac Pro is inferior to the fastest 2017 iMac 5K. Since many programs run with only a single core much of the time, the iMac Pro is going to be slower than the 2017 iMac 5K for many common tasks.

The implications here are that for many users, the iMac Pro will perform less well than the 2017 iMac 5K 4.2 Ghz on many tasks, at a huge price premium. The iMac Pro might make sense for video users and applications driving all the cores for significant periods of time, but it seems doubtful to be of much benefit for Photoshop users, since Photoshop rarely uses more than 2 CPU cores except in short bursts.

The about $3079 top-of-the-line 2017 iMac 5K is starting to look like a bargain for most users, particularly when discounted by $200 or more, as has happened recently.

Feature set

  • Choice of 8 or 10 or 18 core CPU. Even for my work, 8 cores is going to do little to speed up my work unless there are other jobs running at the same time. And the lower clock speed might actually make it inferior to the 2017 iMac 5K since the most time wasting part of my work usually does not hit more then 3 cores due to Photoshop limitations. My instinct on this for *my* workflow is that 8 cores will be enough. But there is reduced bandwidth (apparently) for the 8 core CPU, so that pushes me to the 10 core, and that will probably be another $500 or $1000.
  • Dual Thunderbolt 3 busses. This is a win, but maybe makes no difference in my everyday workflow and imparts hassles like not being able to directly connect a Mini DisplayPort display like my NEC PA302W. Ironically, it is also the most important feature to me—for testing a new crop of high performance Thunderbolt peripherals.
  • 10 gigabit ethernet port. This is a win if/when it applies. But it has zero value for most users, who won’t have a 2nd or 3rd Mac also having 10 gigabit. I don’t plan on buying a pair of $5K to $15K iMac Pro systems.
  • Up to 128GB of ECC memory. ECC memory is important in some cases, but for most users it offers no benefit. For my uses 64GB is enough and the 2017 iMac 5K already offers that. So the ECC memory is the advantage for me, but not a compelling one.
  • Faster GPU. This is a win for Photoshop presumably, but quite possibly the real world Photoshop performance gains will be fractional for my work, so it’s no clear win until I actually see what actually happens in real world work.
  • Display is apparently no better. What a pity it isn’t at least a 6K display in a 30" form factor.
  • Support for external 4K or 5K displays is a clear win for the iMac Pro, and it might even be able to support an 8K display by using both Thunderbolt 3 busses via Multi Stream Transport. Now that is something that gets exciting, but such displays might be 1-2 years off.

There you have it—no clear win for any but specialized users.

To add a small insult to injury, Apple has discontinued the full size keyboard and changed the position of the control keys on the toy wireless keyboard, breaking years of “finger training” for me.

Still, I am likely to consider the iMac Pro rather than wait for the new Mac Pro, which is still vaporware on the distant horizon—because of the dual Thunderbolt 3 busses for testing coming high performance peripherals. Waiting another 12-18 months for a mythical 2019 Mac Pro is not appealing.

Martin D writes:

I’m pretty sure the iMac Pro is 95% for 3D (games, video effects and VR development), and for (a rather pitiful and short-lived form of) bragging rights.

Of course, you can build a cheaper, more powerful 3D system, today, if you’re willing to use Windows, which, of course, is where most of the 3D software is anyway. The other 5% would be Xcode programmers who think it will be a comparatively helpful architecture to speed compiling.

MPG: I'll stay open to being 'sold' if 8K support is possible and when I test one and see if it outperforms for my actual real-world tasks. I’d also like a design that makes it easy to clean out dust, which the iMac Pro looks to not have, making it a non-pro machine from the outset.

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