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iMac 2017 and old iMacs compared: Needed updates, one bummer

Apple could have gone further on the consumer models, and the iMac Pro might go too far.

James Martin/CNET
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If you've been champing at the bit waiting to buy a new iMac but waiting for Apple to update the components of the once cutting-edge but now tired old model, then most of the iMac 2017 updates really were worth waiting for: the 27-inch model, at least, is deffinitely a 2017 system inside and out. Here's a breakout and analysis of the changes, including what the iMac Pro brings to the party and where Apple missed opportunities.

More power

Across all the iMacs Apple brought the systems into 2017 with the latest seventh-generation versions of Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors and an update to DDR4 memory with higher clock speeds; memory clock speed seems to make a big difference as well, so the processing subsystem will likely be faster in all cases. While seventh-generation changes don't make the new CPUs significantly faster than the sixth-generation ones, Apple was actually using fifth-generation on the 21.5-inch models; that means they should be much faster than before. But the 27-inch models were already using sixth-generation CPUs, so while there will probably be performance increases, they'll likely vary a lot more with configuration. They're still all Core i5 or i7s, though.

Only the HD 21.5-inch iMac still uses an integrated graphics processor (IGP), and that's been boosted to use the higher-performance Intel Iris Pro series. The 5K models incorporate discrete graphics, with most-recent Mac-only AMD Radeon Pro 500 series options, a variant on the for-everyone-else RX 500 series. Those should deliver a far better gaming experience on the iMac, and it also increases the number of external monitors you can connect. Only the top-end 5K model is rated VR-ready, though, making Apple's VR entry point $2,300.

Ports and connectivity

The design remains unchanged, but Apple has swapped out the two Mini DisplayPort connectors for USB-C/Thunderbolt connectors, which ups the maximum transfer rate to 40 gigabits per second. Since they're smaller, Apple fit in a fourth USB 3 Type-A connector. The iMac also supports Bluetooth 4.2 now, which is faster and more secure than Bluetooth 4 in the older models.

5K display update

While I'm not sure if it's a new panel, the 4K model is brighter -- at 500 nits, it's brighter than a typical display, most of which top out at closer to 400 nits. I'm not sure how much that matters from a daily use perspective: 400 nits is quite bright enough for everyday use, and 500 nits isn't bright enough to be video HDR qualified. But if the extra brightness latitude helps with rendering a broader tonal range, then yay! It also displays more than 8 bits of color -- referred to as "millions of colors" --  by dithering to simulate a 10-bit gamut or "one billion" colors. (I'm not sure exactly how it's dithering yet.) That's a win for general-purpose use.

iMac Pro

This all-new addition to the line won't ship till the end of the year, so I wouldn't be surprised if the specs change in the interim.They're pretty vague now, as it's not clear which Intel Xeon CPU it will have and where the Radeon Vega GPUs rank in comparison to their Nvidia Quadro Pascal equivalents. But I also believe that Apple went too far to the other extreme for this model; folks who need that much power and workstation components -- and who are willing to pay $5,000 for the base configuration -- probably want something more upgradable with a bigger, better display for the money. 

And it might not have quite enough connections for VR development. Plus, while it's probably a good display (I won't know until I test it), it's not designed for color-critical work, which means you'll have to spend an extra $1,000 or more for a second true 10-bit, color-accurate display.  I'm still on the fence about whether it needs touch and pressure-sensitive stylus support like the Microsoft Surface Studio, though that's unlikely to happen from Apple anytime soon. (If it were planning on introducing touch, Apple would have put hooks in MacOS High Sierra so developers could start programming for it.)

I think this is more about making a statement -- Come back, pros! We can do power! -- and trying to generate developer excitement for incorporating cutting-edge capabilities rather than creating a product people want or need. Every hardware manufacturer makes these aspirational flagships, like the $9,000 Acer Predator 21 X, but they're usually not intended to sell well. Then again, it's possible Apple is initially only pursuing users who've really missed Apple pro-level products.

The same chassis with a Core i7 or Core i9, Radeon RX 580, 64GB ECC memory and 1TB fusion drive at about $3,500-$4,000 would be more approachable for what I'll call the "mainstream" pro, such as fleets of video-production folks sitting in cubes, where most of the assets are stored on a network or in the cloud and the need is for good enough but not critically accurate color. Then there could be an option with a workstation-class Radeon GPU and Intel CPU for applications that require certified systems. One problem is there are no midrange, AIO-friendly workstation Radeon options based on the latest Vega architecture as yet; it's all still Polaris-based. I'm hoping that changes between now and when the Pro ships.

Missed opportunity

One problem with the line is that a 21.5-inch display is tiny. I don't recommend anyone buy that size, except possibly for kids. The iMac hasn't been significantly redesigned since 2009 when the 21.5-inch model was launched -- it got thinner between 2009 and 2012, but that's about it -- and at the time that display size was considered big. If your budget is so tight that you can't afford a larger one, then you probably shouldn't be buying an Apple for $1,100. Comparable Windows-based all-in-one systems run about $500, a better choice for the cash-strapped. 

The smallest display size I think any mainstream user should buy in 2017 is 24 inches. That makes the cheapest iMac worth recommending the base-model 27-inch, which is $1,800 -- not to mention the aforementioned $2,300 entry price if you want something rated as VR-capable. Part of that issue, I suspect, is that (at least based on specs) it looks the Radeon Pro line for Mac has lower bandwidth than the RX 500-series equivalents that the rest of PC manufacturers use. So, for example, the Dell XPS 27, which claims VR-readiness with a Radeon RX 570, will start you off at $2,150 -- and that has a very nice 4K 27-inch display. However, it's also possible that Apple's just being conservative and the $2,000 Pro 575-based model can handle it, too. Only testing will tell us that.

Furthermore, in an age where many (too many, I think) people are judging displays by the size of their bezels, the iMac still sports big, fat 2015-type black borders, which means the "iconic" look actually means it's a little dated. I'd normally tell people who don't need to span games across applications to disregard bezel width, but this is Apple, a company with a reputation for a laser focus on design.

iMac 21.5-inch HD


Old iMac 21.5-inch iMac 21.5-inch 2017
Starting price (USD) $1,099 $1,099
Display 21.5-inch 1,920x1,080 16:9 aspect ratio 21.5-inch 1,920x1,080 16:9 aspect ratio
Pixel density 103dpi 103dpi
Color gamut 8-bit sRGB 8-bit sRGB
Max brightness 320 nits 320 nits
Processor options (Apple doesn't indicate specific processors, so these are estimated based on the specs.) Intel Core i5-5250U, i5-5575R/5675, i7-5775R Intel Core i5-7360U
Graphics Integrated Intel HD Graphics 6000 Integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640
Storage 1TB 5,400rpm HDD up to 2TB Fusion drive or 256GB SSD, SD card slot 1TB 5,400rpm HDD, 1TB Fusion drive, 256GB SSD; SD card slot
RAM Up to 16GB 1,867MHz LPDDR3 Up to 16GB 2133MHz DDR4
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
USB 3.0 Type A 3 4
USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 0 2
Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2 2 0
Number of additional monitors supported 1 4K UHD 1 5K, 2 4K UHD/Retina 4K
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 2 mics Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 2 mics
Camera FaceTime HD FaceTime HD

iMac 21.5-inch 4K


Old iMac 21.5-inch 4K iMac 21.5-inch 4K 2017
Starting price (USD) $1,499 $1,299
Display 21.5-inch 4,096x2,304 16:9 aspect ratio 21.5-inch 4,096x2,304 16:9 aspect ratio
Pixel density 219dpi 219dpi
Color gamut 8-bit sRGB 8-bit P3 (with dithering to simulate 10 bits)
Max brightness n/a 500 nits
Processor options (Apple doesn't indicate specific processors, so these are estimated based on the specs.)   Intel Core i5-5575R/5675, i7-5775R Intel Core i5-7500, i7-7700
Graphics Integrated Intel HD Graphics 6200 2GB AMD Radeon Pro 555 or 4GB Radeon Pro 560
Storage 1TB 5,400rpm HDD up to 2TB Fusion drive or 512GB SSD, SD card slot 1TB 5,400rpm HDD, 1TB Fusion drive, 256GB to 1TB SSD; SD card slot
RAM Up to 16GB 1,867MHz LPDDR3 Up to 32GB 2,400MHz DDR4
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
USB 3.0 Type A 3 4
USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 0 2
Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2 2 0
Additional monitors supported 1 Retina 4K 1 5K, 2 4K UHD/Retina 4K
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 2 mics Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 2 mics
Camera FaceTime HD FaceTime HD

iMac 27-inch 5K


Old iMac 27-inch 5K iMac 27-inch 5K 2017 iMac Pro
Starting price (USD) $1,799 $1,799 $4,999
Display 27-inch 5,120x2,880 16:9 aspect ratio 27-inch 5,120x2,880 16:9 aspect ratio 27-inch 5,120x2,880 16:9 aspect ratio
Pixel density 218ppi 218dpi 218dpi
Color gamut 8-bit sRGB 8-bit P3 (with dithering to simulate 10 bits)   8-bit P3 (with dithering to simulate 10 bits)  
Max brightness n/a 500 nits 500 nits
Processor options Intel Core i5-6500/6600, i7-6700K Intel Core i5-7500, i5-7600/7600K, i7-7700K Intel Xeon 8, 10 or 18 core
Graphics 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M380, M390, M395 or 4GB R9 M395X 4GB AMD Radeon Pro 570, 575; 8GB Radeon Pro 580 8GB Radeon Pro Vega 56 up to 16GB Radeon Pro Vega 64
Storage 1TB 7,200rpm HDD up to 3TB Fusion drive or 1TB SSD, SD card slot Up to 3TB Fusion drive or up to 2TB SSD; SD card slot Up to 4TB SSD; UHS II SD card slot
RAM Up to 16GB 1,867Mhz DDR3 Up to 64GB 2,400MHz DDR4 Up to 128GB 2,666Hz DDR4 ECC
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2 10 Gb Nbase-T Ethernet, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2
USB 3.0 Type A 3 4 4
USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 0 2 4
Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2 2 0 0
Additional monitors supported 2 4K UHD displays or 1 5K 1 5K, 2 4K UHD/Retina 4K 2 5K, 4 4K UHD/Retina 4K
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 2 mics Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 2 mics Stereo speakers, headphone jack, 4 mics
Camera FaceTime HD FaceTime HD Facetime 1080p