Introduction, Design Features
Apple’s recent WWDC event was jam-packed with more announcements, product updates, and new-hardware teases than any conference, keynote, or product launch event in the company’s recent history. Alongside a macOS update called “High Sierra” (which was just starting to trickle out to beta testers as we wrote this), a Siri-packing HomePod speaker system, and the powerful, pricey iMac Pro (the latter two should arrive at the end of the year), Apple announced updates to its staple MacBook and iMac computer lines.
We’re looking at the latter here, in the form of the company’s flagship 27-inch, 5K Retina Display all-in-one. This pixel-dense desktop system sports the same physical look as the model we reviewed in 2015. And aside from getting a little thinner, the general design, with thin edges that bulge toward the middle, has been around since 2012.
The advances with the 2017 model involve the processor (a jump up to current-generation Intel 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” chips), the addition of a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back (a boon for serious media creators), and the 27-inch 5K screen that sits front and (just above) center on Apple’s big-screen machine.
The screen size and the panel’s whopping 5,120×2,880 resolution are the same as on previous models. But the brightness jumps up about 40 percent, to an impressive 500 nits (good for banishing glare in a brightly lit room). And the display now has the ability, according to Apple, to display up to a billion colors. In short, this is one display panel that should please both casual users and serious media creators.
Also inside the updated iMac is a 1TB Fusion drive (a hybrid solid-state/hard drive) that now ships as standard equipment, and new graphics options from AMD, up to a Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB of dedicated memory.
These are all substantive (if not exactly game-changing additions) that help keep Apple near the top of the all-in-one game in many ways. That’s despite increasingly tough competition from the likes of HP (with its Envy 34 Curved All-in-OneXPS 27Surface Studio). All three are premium all-in-ones that have the iMac in their sights.
The Surface Studio offers the iMac its stiffest competition to date, on both the design front and with digital artists. It’s both extremely svelte and attractive. And Microsoft’s device offers a touch interface and a tilt-down screen made for drawing and interaction, along with a stylus and a specialized puck-style tool that helps users draw and interact with creative and design software.
That said, with a starting price of $2,999, the Surface Studio manages to make the iMac look almost inexpensive. The entry-level 27-inch 5K iMac that Apple loaned us for review is “just” $1,799, while packing more pixels and a brighter display than any other all-in-one we know of. Let’s take it for a spin and see how this “classic” AIO holds up to some fresher, arguably flashier Windows-based competition.
As noted up top, the iMac looks the same as it has for years now. But that’s certainly not a bad thing, given its silver-metal unibody frame, trim 5mm-thick edges, and one of the best displays you can buy (which is now even better). Indeed, we don’t see how Apple could make the machine much slimmer in profile or cleaner-looking.
That said, the 2012-era design is ancient by the standards of the fast-moving consumer electronics industry. And Microsoft’s Surface Studio is arguably at least as attractive by the standards of clean-metal design and minimalism. We’d like to see Apple revamp its design to reduce the screen bezels, which are currently about 1.25 inches on all sides, plus the 2-inch-plus metal lip on the bottom.
To be clear, the iMac is still a very attractive desktop, especially given most of what you’ll be looking at is the first-rate screen. But as Microsoft and others have proven of late, there is always room for improvement, however incremental. That carries over to the built-in stand, as well. While it’s sturdy and exceedingly easy to tilt and turn, it doesn’t offer height adjustment.
The display on the 5K iMac, though, is second to none, with a 5,120×2,880-pixel native resolution that packs in a million more pixels than the Surface Studio’s 4,500×3,000-pixel resolution. The only way you’re likely to get more pixels on a screen today is to opt for Dell’s 8K UltraSharp UP3218K stand-alone monitor. But for that, you’ll have to pay $4,999 for the screen alone, and you’ll need a system with a beefy modern tower with a recent high-end graphics card (and two DisplayPort cables) to power it.
Apple has also upped the brightness of the 5K iMac’s display to a rating of 500 nits. Unless your system is sitting in a sunlit room, that level of brightness isn’t wholly necessary. We were happy to keep it a few notches from maximum in our testing in a well-lit office environment. But it’s nice to have the screen brightness in your holster if you need it to avoid glare or reflections, or you just want to kick back and watch a colorful blockbuster movie.
Sound output is also still very good for a slim all-in-one, but alas, the iMac’s speakers are far from the best in the AIO field at this point. HP’s recent Envy AIOs sport a built-in soundbar. And Dell’s recently revamped XPS 27 has a, well, sort-of-insane 10-speaker setup (with six of them front-facing) that sounds stellar, and gets massively, excessively loud at maximum volume. The iMac’s sound output is more “good enough” than great by today’s AIO standards.
As ever, you won’t find any easy-access ports on the sides of the iMac’s body, on the stand, or up front. All the wired connectivity is happening around back, to one side of the stand…
What hides back here, though, does differ from previous models. Apple has swapped the Thunderbolt 2 ports for faster, slimmer, and reversible Thunderbolt 3 ports. This latest version of Thunderbolt (which has been making its way into Windows devices since late 2015) doubles the theoretical top throughput to 40Gbps, can run a pair of 4K external displays, and can deliver up to 100 watts of power for charging devices, such as Apple’s recent laptops.
Thunderbolt 3 also gives the iMac some platform-agnostic future-proofing, as well, because it shares the same physical connector as USB Type-C. This connector has increasingly been making its way into new Android tablets and smartphones. We’re also seeing it in laptops, both of the Windows variety (such as the Dell XPS 13MacBookMacBook Pro machines.
Other ports and connections remain the same. You get an SDXC-card slot, a headphone jack, a Gigabit Ethernet port (along with 802.11ac Wi-Fi), and four USB 3.0 ports, which is plenty given that the included peripherals are wireless.
Speaking of the input devices, let’s take a look at the…
Magic KeyboardMagic Mouse 2 bundle back in 2015, and the peripherals that the company bundles with the iMac haven’t changed since then. That’s both a good and a bad thing.
The keyboard is a pleasure to type on, despite its compact design and shallow travel, as desktop keyboards go; it feels more like a rock-steady laptop keyboard. And the mouse, while it isn’t exactly exciting, works well and feels every bit the premium rodent (thanks largely to a swooping silver metal base).
But our chief complaint from 2015 about the mouse remains. The Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad 2 (the latter a $50 add-on, if you opt for it instead of the Magic Mouse 2 for your iMac’s cursor control) both have their Lightning charging ports on the back edge, where you’d expect them to be. But the Magic Mouse 2 hides its Lightning charging plug on the bottom of the mouse, near the back, not on one of the edges. This means the charging cable sticks out of the bottom of the mouse, straight out at a 90-degree angle, so you can’t mouse around while it’s charging.
The good news on that front: Apple says that charging the Magic Mouse 2 for a couple of minutes should give you more than a full workday of cursor control. So you can always plug in the Lightning cable and go grab a cup of coffee; by the time you return from your percolator or pour-over, you ought to be good to go. But given that dozens of other rechargeable mice have been available for years with horizontal-mount charging ports at the front (letting you mouse around and charge at the same time), we’re surprised that a company as design-focused as Apple would plunk the port on the bottom like this, and not change that two years on.
There isn’t even a graceful way to set the mouse on your desk while it’s charging—you’ll either have to leave it tipped on its side, like you see above, or flipped upside down, like a helpless turtle that can’t right itself. This design choice still seems very un-Apple-like.
As for the core software, for now, the iMac ships with the same macOS “Sierra” operating system as the MacBook Pro (13-Inch, 2016) we looked at late in 2016, so we’ll point you to that review if you’re unfamiliar with the Apple’s current desktop ecosystem. Of course, once the updated macOS “High Sierra” operating system arrives, first in a public beta that was just starting to trickle out was we were finishing this review, and in final form sometime after that, you’ll be able to update the iMac to Apple’s latest OS.
For details on what the update is expected to bring, you can check out the feature story 12 Cool New Features in macOS High Sierra on our sibling site, PCMag.com.
SSD 960 Pro drive of that ilk sells for $1,299 by itself.
The mid-tier 5K iMac model sports a Core i5 processor with a 3.5GHz base clock (and a higher 4.1GHz Turbo Boost clock), along with the same 8GB of RAM and 1TB Fusion Drive. This model, though, steps up the graphics to a Radeon Pro 575 graphics card with 4GB of memory. It’s tough to guess what kind of graphics abilities to expect from this configuration of the iMac (or any of these new models, really), because we’ve so far only seen these Radeon Pro graphics chips in Apple devices. Also, the Radeon Pro 575 doesn’t even have a consumer desktop-card counterpart with a similar name (unlike the Radeon Pro 570 in our review model, which has a counterpart in the Radeon RX 570).
The top-end pre-configured 5K iMac option houses a Core i5 chip with a 3.8GHz base clock and a 4.2GHz boost clock, along with 8GB of RAM, a 2TB Fusion Drive, and Radeon Pro 580 graphics with 8GB of RAM. You’ll also run across a number of options you can step up to on Apple’s site during the checkout process. Going with a 4.2GHz Core i7 processor adds $200 to the price. You can double the RAM to 16GB for $200 extra, or go wild with 32GB or even 64GB (the latter for a rather mind-boggling $1,400).
Keep in mind, though, that you can upgrade the RAM on your own quite easily, via a pop-out hatch on the back…
Note, though, that this hatch is only available on the larger 27-inch iMac. The RAM on the smaller 21.5-inch model is technically upgradable, though we wouldn’t want to try it. According to iFixIt.com, you have to cut the screen off the front and remove the logic board, then, of course, put the whole thing back together.
For the 27-incher we’re looking at here, though, our machine came with two empty SO-DIMM slots (for a total of four). And a 64GB Mac-specific SO-DIMM upgrade kit costs around $599, which is $800 less than what Apple charges. So much for what we said about Apple’s upgrade options being reasonable. With the RAM, the DIY route might save you ton.