By the start of 2017, professional photographers and videographers were starting to get desperate, waiting for Apple to update their flagship computer, the Mac Pro. The company had last updated their high-end system in 2013, and some of the company’s (and the competitor’s) other products were starting to arrive with features not found on the now-aging desktop. USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, and faster processors could be had elsewhere. Tech bloggers everywhere began to proclaim that pro support at Apple was dead.
Apple combatted this notion with a one-two punch of product announcements, the first being the ground-up redesign of the Mac Pro, to be available “in 2018” and featuring the best technology available. The second announcement was the iMac Pro, a souped-up iMac that shares the same form factor of the existing iMac, but with internal components powerful enough to knock the 2013 Mac Pro—as well as most other computers—off their feet. For many users, this new iMac Pro will be the go-to system for photo and video editing, thanks to a level of performance that can handle any task thrown at it.
The iMac Pro
The look of the iMac Pro belies the performance, in fact when I first saw the iMac Pro demoed at a Final Cut Pro briefing, I thought it would be fast, but not as fast as it ended up being. Both in those original demos and in our own testing, I’ve been able to chew through Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, Premiere and other projects with speed that makes my personal 2016 MacBook Pro look downright pokey by comparison. As our demo moved from a 27” iMac rendering 4K video to the iMac Pro, my jaw dropped as we edited 8K footage—real 8K footage, not proxy media—in real time without the need for the footage to render.
This power is made possible by the collaborative horsepower of some new and updated internal systems. Our test model (and the one that Apple feels will best meet the needs of most pro videographers and photographers) is the 10-Core system, though the iMac Pro is available in configurations from 8-Core to 18-Core. The 10-Core is a sweet spot, as the 3.0GHz Intel Xeon W chip has a Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz. Turbo Boost allows the system to run at a higher level of performance for specific processor-intensive tasks, and the 10-Core system has the fastest Turbo Boost clock speed. This clock speed boost gives the iMac Pro the ability to take advantage of the multiple cores in tasks—like video rendering in Final Cut Pro—but also handle single core tasks at a fast pace.
The processor works with the new Radeon Pro Vega graphics cards, available in two flavors. Our test unit had the Radeon Pro Vega 64, which is the upgraded configuration, and the one I recommend. This card offers twice the performance of the video card in the 5K iMac, and 3x the performance of the 2013 MacPro. It’s a good idea to get the fastest video card possible, and the upgrade from the Radeon Pro 56 to the Radeon Pro Vega 64 only adds $600 to the base sticker price—which I’ll address in a moment.
The iMac Pro and its Thunderbolt 3 ports is capable of driving two additional 5K displays, for a massive amount of screen real-estate. All the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports operate at the full bandwidth, and there are plenty of these—and other—ports on the iMac Pro, with four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C jacks, four USB 3 connectors, and an SDXC card slot, which supports the faster UHS-II SD card. A quick note to Apple product managers: I still wish the SD card slot were on the side or bottom of the display as reaching around to the back and trying to find the card slot amongst my tangle of cords is frustrating. For wired networking, this is the first Mac with 10Gb Ethernet, a considerable upgrade for the studio or office using NAS systems for file sharing.
Just about everything has been updated on the iMac Pro, from the FaceTime camera (now 1080p), to the microphones (now arrayed to do sound-forming for better dictation and Siri use) to the onboard processing of files. Apple has moved a lot of system operations to a dedicated Apple-designed chip, and this change allows the iMac Pro to encrypt every file on the Mac, in real time, with no processor overhead. That means that if someone steals your iMac Pro, they’re not going to have access to the projects living on it.
iMac Pro Peformance Tests
I put the iMac Pro through a battery of tests, both real world, and benchmark, and the results were tremendous. For photographers, the speed is ludicrous. I was able to import images and begin working on them in Capture One Pro without any lag time. Previews were rendered several times faster than on my MacBook Pro, and I was able to work on large raw files from the Nikon D850 and Sony a7R III without any spinning beachball. Multi-core tasks like exporting images were incredibly fast in everything from Lightroom to Final Cut Pro. Part of this is due to the speed of the various core components (processor, DDR4 RAM, video card), and part is due to the built-in SSD drive. Apple has removed the “traditional” hard drive option on the iMac Pro, which both boosts speed and gave them some room to cram other parts inside.
In my real world daily use, the iMac Pro was able to tackle anything I threw at it. I was able to import the 5.2K ProRes 4444 files I shot for the test of the Zenmuse X7 and edit them without rendering proxies. Cuts, dissolves, edits and effects were seamless, and I was able to start editing clips in the timeline as soon as I had let go of the Import button.
While VR glasses didn’t arrive in time for this review, those working in VR should look to the iMac Pro, as the new Vega processor was designed with VR editing tasks in mind, so should be considerably faster than other systems.
iMac Pro Pricing
Returning to the issue of price, I feel the iMac Pro is nicely balanced in the price-to-performance ratio but certainly overkill for some photographers. When you’re importing and editing footage from an 8K RED Weapon that has a base price of $49,500 (not including lenses, or other necessary parts) a $10,000 workstation is a no-brainer but for someone that doesn’t need massive video-editing horsepower. Instead, I’d recommend the 8-Core iMac Pro with 64GB of RAM, 1TB SSD and the upgraded Vega 64 card, for a system that’s versatile and not over-the-top expensive. This configuration puts the iMac Pro at $6400 and changing the video card to the Vega 56K drops the price to $5800.
A standard iMac with 64Gb of RAM and 1TB hard drive, plus Quad-Core i7 comes out to be $4499, which makes the iMac Pro look like a bargain. Everything about the iMac Pro is faster—which means its more future-proof as well—and it seems like a better choice at this point.
The iMac Pro certainly delivered on Apple’s promise of continuing hardware development for the professional, and it’s going to be a tremendous boost to any photographer or videographer upgrading to one.
Our MacBook Pro 2016 Review