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Apple iMac with Retina 5K display review

Well would you look at that

Every once in a while, a gadget completely resets the curve. Once I started wearing good, expensive headphones, I suddenly couldn’t even tolerate Apple’s EarPods anymore. When I first grabbed my friend’s BlackBerry because I needed to answer an email, I knew instantly I wasn’t going back to texting with T9. I drove an Audi and never looked at my Saturn the same way again. Remember the first time you used a capacitive touchscreen, threw your 56k modem out the window and switched to broadband, or switched from standard-def TV to 1080p?

It only took about ten minutes of using Apple’s new iMac with Retina display to make me wonder how I’m ever supposed to go back. Back to a world where pixels are visible on any screen, even one this big. Back to only having enough screen space to do two things at a time. Back to dropped frames, spinning wheels, and waiting for files to copy from one place to another.

For $2,499 and up, this is Apple’s newest desktop: it’s designed for photographers and videographers and anyone who wants to look at their computer a little differently. As Apple has placed its mainstream focus on laptops and tablets, its desktops have become the province of professionals, and they have become quickly and remarkably more powerful machines. The iMac with Retina display, a monster of a consumer desktop, falls right in line.

Personally, I don’t really have use for one. I bought an iMac four months ago, and it works just fine. I write and use the internet for a living. But all it took was ten minutes — now I’m trying desperately to find a reason to upgrade.

Apple iMac with Retina 5K display

If Apple had its way, the iMac would just be a slab of glass you prop up on your desk. It’s not quite there, of course, but it’s close. It’s been close for two years. The iMac with Retina display looks just like last year’s model, which looks just like the previous year’s model: its silver aluminum shell slims to 5mm thick on the edges, and bulges in the back to accommodate the many parts that make this machine go. Everything is hidden here: there are two Thunderbolt 2 ports, four USB 3 slots, an SD card slot, a headphone jack, and an Ethernet port, all on the back-right side of the iMac. It’s powered by a single, brick-free cable, which threads through the round hole in the base. I like the layout and the clean design afforded by the port location, though it forever annoys me not having a more accessible headphone jack.

Apple didn't change the iMac's design, and it didn't really need to

The iMac with Retina display weighs 21 pounds, and it’s eight inches deep including the base. Of course, none of that matters; this is a desktop machine, made to be placed somewhere and left there. As long as you have room for its 25.6 inches across and 20.3 inches tall, this machine will look good and fit right anywhere. Apple clearly feels it’s figured out the designs for its Macs; none have changed materially in a couple of years. And it’s hard to really have a problem with that.

But let’s get back to that slab of glass. The 27-inch screen on the iMac with Retina display is, in a word, awesome. I just don’t mean that it’s very good — I mean it is genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s the kind of screen you look at and your jaw drops. You look at it and you don’t want to look away. It’s the kind of screen that makes my tweets look somehow more impressive by virtue of sheer, spectacular clarity.

The display measures 5,120 pixels wide by 2,880 pixels tall. That’s 14.7 million pixels, 218 per inch. It’s seven times as many pixels as your 1080p TV (which is probably also much larger), nearly three times as many as the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. Neither of those comparisons is actually useful, of course; nor is telling you that the iMac with Retina display has 150 times as many pixels as the Moto 360. The point is simply this: the iMac with Retina display has a lot of pixels, and there’s a lot you can do with all those pixels.

By default, the iMac displays at a resolution of 2560 x 1440. Apple uses a calculation it calls "points" to determine how things look on the display; points represent physical distance, so at the default resolution you’re seeing everything at exactly the same size you’d see it on a lower-res iMac. The difference is that where the non-Retina iMac displays only one pixel per point, the Retina display shows a square of four; that’s four times as much detail, four times as many opportunities to create sharper edges and cleaner lines. (Apple’s been doing this on iOS devices for years, to make everything look the same no matter which iPhone you own.) That’s why text looks incredible on the Retina iMac, why I love reading on this computer in a way I never have on the iMac I bought just a few months ago, why Bioshock Infinite, at the same settings and resolution as my iMac, looks much cleaner and crisper. More pixels makes everything look the same, only better.

What are you going to do with all those pixels?

You can change the setting, if you’re so inclined, and actually use all 14.7 million pixels on the iMac at its native resolution. At that point, everything is outrageously small (though still shockingly readable), and you can fit a legitimately hilarious number of things onto your screen at once.

iMac Yosemite

I left it at the default setting — there’s already plenty of space on a 27-inch screen, and it’s in the middle ground that the iMac is most impressive anyway. If you’re editing 4K video, the iMac's content awareness means you'll be able to see the footage pixel-for-pixel and still have your editing toolbars around it in crystal clarity. Likewise, a gigantic photo gives you incredible detail and all your sliders without having to flip in and out of full-screen. Really, anytime you have insanely high-res content, this screen shines.

Trouble is, there’s not a lot of that content yet. There are a lot of iMac users who aren’t editing a lot of video; they’re using the iMac as the family computer, for Netflix and YouTube and gaming, for running their nail salon or real estate business. Netflix doesn’t stream its 4K content to PCs, so you’re stuck with fuzzy, soft movies. Even YouTube’s 4K videos are obviously compressed and mushy. It’s not that it’s worse than on any other computer, of course, only that the contrast with the rest of the experience is much more stark. If you’re sitting at TV distance, a living room away, anything on the screen looks great, but if you’re at a desk with the iMac you’ll notice when the content can’t keep up.

It takes high-end power to keep 14.7 million pixels running – expensive power

It’ll take a little while for developers, content providers, and (ahem) Netflix to get up to speed, but soon enough everything will good on the iMac’s Retina display. Already, things that look good, look great. Apple reconfigured the display’s underlying tech to make it faster and improve viewing angles, and it was worth it: colors are gorgeous and vivid and accurate, viewing angles are impossibly wide. It’s a little too reflective and can be too bright on my eyes in a dark room, but it’s flat-out the best computer monitor I’ve ever used.

Actually, I should mention one thing: you can’t use this remarkable display as a secondary computer monitor. It requires so much horsepower to keep 14.7 million pixels active that you can’t use the iMac’s display as a secondary display for any other device. Dell’s own 5K display may be more expensive and not even come with a computer inside, but if all you want is a monitor, that’s the one to get.

Apple iMac with Retina 5K display

It really does take a lot of power to keep this display churning. I’ve been using the absolute top-of-the-line Retina iMac, the one you spec out on the website just to see how much it costs. (The answer: $4,399.00.) My review unit has a 4.0GHz Intel Core i7 processor, AMD’s Radeon R9 M295X graphics with 4GB of video memory, 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB solid-state drive. That is a ludicrous amount of power, and the iMac acts like it. It’s fast and usable in any situation, from gaming to video editing to just opening as many YouTube videos as I possibly could.

But even with all this horsepower, I get the occasional sense I’m right at the threshold of what the iMac with Retina display can handle. For all it can do, for all the seamless editing in Premiere and 60 frames-per-second gaming, I still see videos stutter when I scroll fast in a Safari window. I still occasionally get the dreaded beach ball as something loads. Some of this is certainly software, but it feels very much as if I’m making complete use of what the iMac with Retina display can do.

If you're buying the base model retina iMac, consider what you'll use it for

This is hardly new: when Apple adds a Retina display to one of its devices, it often takes a year of revision and optimization before the combination feels right. Intel’s upcoming Broadwell processors (which have been delayed, and which I can’t help but think were supposed to be in this device) will help too. I’d feel no worry or anxiety about buying the high-end iMac right now, which is I suspect the one most professional photographers and video editors — the folks who most need what the iMac with Retina display offers — will be shopping for anyway. If you’re looking at the base model, on the other hand — 3.5GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, $2,499 — you’ll want to tread carefully. There’s no way to upgrade anything but the RAM, either, so make sure you know what you’re getting. Maybe see if you can surreptitiously load some 4K video and a game onto one of the display models at the Apple store.

The iMac is explicitly designed for people who work with video; that’s who Tim Cook talked about at the launch event, it’s who’s featured on Apple’s website and in its marketing. Luckily, The Verge’s video team mostly uses iMacs for their editing and everyday work, so I dropped a Retina iMac onto the desk of Director John Lagomarsino to see how he felt about the upgrade.

iMac Retina display

John Lagomarsino: I had the chance to edit our iPad Air 2 review on this machine, using the new iMac and Adobe Premiere. It’s fast: there was zero lag or delay in playing back 1080p footage on a timeline, even with a moderate number of real-time color effects in play. Scrubbing through a timeline is extremely responsive, probably thanks to our review unit’s 1TB solid-state drive. I was particularly impressed with Premiere’s ability to immediately begin reverse playback on the timeline, something which other Macs in our office, including the Retina MacBook Pro, seem to struggle with. It’s quite nice to work with HD video with this monitor; a normal-sized playback window can contain native pixel-for-pixel 1080p content, with plenty of room for additional panels and timelines. This may not be necessary for editing, but it certainly makes cutting more enjoyable.

But solid 1080p performance in Premiere is pretty much a given these days. So I imported a few 5K RED Epic files to see how the machine fared. In the native RED codec, playback on the timeline at full or one-half quality was fairly choppy, even when the media resided on the internal SSD. When the footage was converted to ProRes 422, Premiere was able to play back at full 5K, fullscreen, without any noticeable stutters or delays (and boy, does 5K footage look incredible on this screen).

After Effects was similarly zippy. Warp Stabilizer, 3D tracking, and motion blur all processed and rendered very quickly on this iMac. I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the graphics card versus the CPU, but something about this combination made After Effects really move. I should also say that during all this processing, the iMac remained, for all intents and purposes, silent. Even under a full CPU load, I couldn’t hear the fans spin up over the minimal ambient background noise in the room. Likewise, the back of the machine didn’t seem to become all that hot to the touch during renders.

That said, I’d be curious to try the base model of this iMac for video work. While our unit was certainly very fast, I wasn’t quite as blown away by its performance as I was by the new Mac Pro. With a weaker configuration than our very expensive review model, I’m not sure the 5K display would be enough of a draw to get me to sacrifice any power.

Apple iMac with Retina 5K display

DP: Most people I know who buy iMacs tend to keep them for longer than your average computer. Given that, if you’re in the market for a new iMac today and you can afford this one, you should absolutely buy the iMac with Retina display. There’s no question whatsoever that Retina is the future of the iMac, that developers will continue to up-res and support these gorgeous new displays. The iMac with Retina display is the rare gadget that will actually get better over time, as there are more things to do more beautifully.

For virtually every purpose, this machine is excellent: it’s powerful and attractive and well-suited to almost any task. Most importantly, it’s a genuine pleasure to use. The screen is so big, so deep, so vivid, that I find myself eschewing phone or tablet more than ever in favor of sitting down in front of this remarkable 27-inch display.

Retina is the future of the iMac, make no mistake

This screen will be everything you need a year from now. Two years from now. Ten. But the iMac’s performance, especially the base model, might not be. When the content and the games do catch up to the iMac’s resolution, it’s going to have to work hard to process it all, and I don’t know how much more headroom there is in the base iMac with Retina display. If your computer needs include Safari and Spotify and Twitter and Office, then buy away. Everything you do will look better than it ever has. But if you need more than that, and you can wait another year, you’ll almost certainly benefit from another year of Apple learning how to power a display this good.

One piece of advice, though: if you don’t want to buy an iMac with Retina display, don’t use one. Don’t even look at one. Because as soon as you do you’ll wonder how you’re ever supposed to look at anything that came before.

Photography by Sean O'Kane

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