Apple’s iMac began life as a purely consumer-level computer—blob-shaped and pointy, the revolutionary all-in-one computer was born out of a need for computing simplicity, not computing power. As computers gained more and more power, the iMac remained largely a product for families and small businesses.
Computing power evolves rapidly, much more rapidly than the technology inside digital cameras and video cameras. Pro-level digital cameras have had sensors around 20 megapixels and high-res digital cameras have had around 50 megapixels for many years. Even video processing needs haven’t increased until recently, with 1080p HD being the highest quality available on anything but cinema equipment and 4K only recently becoming nearly ubiquitous in digital cameras.
That has allowed the humble iMac to catch up to digital photography and (for the most part) digital videography through a series of advances in technology, and now the iMac is more than enough of a machine to tackle a professional workflow although with not quite enough muscle for a full-time video studio to rely on it.
Apple hasn’t updated the Mac Pro in years, leaving users to wonder if the company was abandoning pro users. In an unusual move, Apple pre-announced a new Mac Pro coming in 2018, and then also pre-announced the new iMac Pro, slated to be released in December.
The company also provided a hefty update to the iMac, updating both the 21.5-inch and 27-inch models. The top-end 27-inch iMac Retina 5K was upgraded with a powerful 4.2 GHz Core i7 processor, Radeon Pro 580, as much as 64 GB of DDR RAM and up to a 2 TB SSD drive. I tested the 27-inch iMac Retina 5K and it’s a surprisingly powerful system, and a great bargain—if you pick the right configuration.
Apple sent us the machine with the 4.2 GHz quad-core 7th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD. This isn’t exactly the configuration as we’d recommend it for the pro photographer, or for the photographer working on 4K video—more on that in a moment—but it was enough to show us the power of today’s “consumer” iMac and to indicate where the iMac Pro will take this.
The iMac operated about twice as quickly in most key applications as my 2016 MacBook Pro, providing a great boost to Photoshop work, to outputting batches of images in Capture One Pro and editing in video tools like Final Cut Pro. In fact, the machine is finally fast enough for me to be able to edit multiple native 4K video streams, although this requires a fast companion hard drive to be able to keep up with that data. There was nothing in my regular photo and video editing workflow that the iMac couldn’t handle with enough speed to keep me going.
For complex 4K video editing I needed to switch to Proxy video to avoid skipping frames, but that’s a function of the speed of the drives my footage is stored on and the 16 GB of RAM. Since my MacBook Pro doesn’t have enough horsepower for several 4K streams, I keep video on a drive that’s large, but not particularly fast. When I want to edit native 4K video, I usually have enough room to move a project to my internal SSD because they operate about five times faster than most traditional hard drives. The 512 MB model SSD in the test iMac was too small to do this, so while it was fast, we’d recommend upgrading to the 1 TB or 2 TB model.
The display in the iMac 5K (and now in Apple’s whole line of products) displays images in what Apple calls the Wide Color gamut, which means it can display a much wider array of colors than a traditional monitor. (See our coverage of Wide Color and its implications here: www.digitalphotopro.com/gear/imaging-tech/apples-wide-color.) This makes the iMac particularly suited for photo-editing tasks.
While the iMac 5K Retina was, as tested, fast enough to get a sample of the power of the system, I’d recommend photographers to beef up a few specs. The 16 GB of RAM isn’t enough for working with multiple photo and video applications open; a minimum of 32 GB would be better. While the 512 GB SSD is fast, a larger-capacity drive would have allowed me to put my 4K video projects on the internal drive during editing for a faster workflow.
The iMac is also a bit stingy on USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, with only two built-in ports on the back of the machine, complementing the four USB ports, SD slot and Ethernet jack. There isn’t a proliferation of USB-C devices yet, but that’s the future of connectivity. If you’re planning to work with USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 drives, you’ll need to think about daisy-chaining.
The upcoming iMac Pro will take the all-in-one system even further, adding up to an 18-core processor, 4 TB of storage and the new Radeon Pro Vega 56 graphics processor in a new Space Gray enclosure. This machine, though, may mark the first time that the “pro” in the name refers to someone needing more power than the average photographer who also shoots some video. The iMac Pro might make a great investment for someone looking to buy a machine and then not have to think about upgrading it for five or six years, but the starting price base model of the system will be $4,999. Photographers with high-end video-editing needs might consider waiting for the iMac Pro, as the base configuration should easily beat out the current iMac even with upgrades.
The price of the current iMac configuration with our suggested upgrades that would be a champion of a system for photographers is $3,699, which is a perfect combination of price and performance, and will provide more than enough horsepower to get any photo job done.