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The iMac Pro is a beast, but it's not for everybody

‘Pro’ means something different on the iMac than on the MacBook

Photography by James Bareham

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The iMac Pro is available to order today, and if you're a Mac user, you're almost surely going to covet it. But for most people, it's a better idea to covet this machine than it is to actually acquire it. It starts at $4,999 and configuring its various options will rocket the price up from there.

Apple originally announced the iMac Pro back in June, so if you're in the market for a computer like this, you likely already know most of what I'm about to tell you. The dearth of extremely high-powered Macs since the "trash can" Mac Pro has raised the stakes and the interest level among pros for this machine. So people are paying attention and probably are already speccing out their dream machine even as you read this.

But for the sake of completeness, here's the deal: the iMac Pro features Intel Xeon W-class processors with 8, 10, 14, or 18 cores — though for most tasks, Apple seems to be directing people to the 10-core model because its higher frequency is often more important than simply adding cores. You can also choose between two Radeon Pro Vega graphics options.

It comes with four Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, four USB-A ports, 10Gb Ethernet, an SDXC card slot that supports UHS-II speeds, and a headphone jack. It has the same screen as the current 27-inch iMac Retina 5K and it is as beautiful on the Pro as it is on that other machine.

The iMac Pro also has the usual complement of RAM and storage options — though "usual" in this case of course means top-flight components and the opportunity to get as much as 128GB of RAM. (The base model has 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage.) Apple says that the entire system has been optimized throughout so the iMac Pro will perform better than a custom-built workstation using the same components. Apple also argues that building a comparable workstation with comparable components will end up costing you as much or more than the iMac Pro.

Much of that integration comes thanks to new, custom silicon that Apple is calling the T2. It's an integrated system that handles a ton of the deep computer controls that are usually handled by disparate parts of the motherboard. It handles audio, the image processing for the upgraded 1080p camera, and other system management functions. It also acts as a more powerful SSD controller, handling the compute load of file encryption directly rather than having it bog down your main processor.

If all those specs make your eyes glaze over, there's a simpler bottom line: where the MacBook Pro is a computer that makes sense for pretty much anybody, the iMac Pro really is meant for "professionals."

Defining that word in the context of the iMac Pro is tricky, but in a general sense it's people who are going to need very powerful processors and modern graphics cards to do intensive computing tasks. Think VR development, working natively with 8K video, scientific modeling, machine learning, and the like.

Apple made the aggressive decision to cram all of that power into a form factor that's essentially identical to the current 27-inch iMac. It has the same 5K screen, the same dimensions, and the same stand. The differences on the outside are subtle. The air vent on the back is a little bigger and blows out a little hotter, but it still should remain silent most of the time. It comes in a darker Space Gray color and comes with black accessories — even the power cable and included Lightning cable are black (and no, you can't buy them separately, sorry).

Apple says that people really do love that form factor. But I also have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that I would want a machine of this caliber that is not user-upgradeable in any way. Theoretically, a service provider could upgrade some of the parts in this machine. Practically, that won't really happen. The only accommodation Apple made is allowing users to remove the stand and replace it with a standard VESA mount themselves.

If you're going to buy this machine, my opinion is that you should know precisely what you plan on using it for — with more clarity than other computer purchases require. That's not just because the price is exorbitant compared to consumer-grade computers, either. It's also because if you simply need a radically powerful machine, there's another professional-grade Mac coming next year, the announced but as-yet unseen Mac Pro.

I don't deny that there is a market for an all-in-one, non-upgradeable "pro" machine. As much as we all assume the "pros" want to be able to go in and tinker and upgrade, that's not always the case. Also, Apple executives point out that many people just need something this powerful now and will happily reassign those machines to other purposes when the Mac Pro comes out.

If you're looking for full reviews to help inform your purchase decision, you'll have to wait. In the meanwhile, Apple seeded units to a hand-picked group of professionals and influencers, so you can find some thoughts and impressions from engineers, photographers, and YouTubers. Yesterday, Apple led several packs of journalists through a series of demonstrations with third party developers whose applications take special advantage of the powerful processors and GPUs inside the iMac Pro. So I have had a chance to see a bunch of really impressive demonstrations.

There are new versions of Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro available today that take advantage of the iMac Pro's power. We listened to songs with a truly stupid number of instrument tracks play along without spiking the 10 cores (20, if you count the hyperthreading). Final Cut was able to play back unrendered 8K video with some color correction and other effects applied without skipping a frame.

We saw a virtuoso demonstration of 3D modeling in VR, game engines reapplied to purposes like architectural rendering where entire forests could be pasted into a giant, open field with no lag or loss of visual detail. We saw body scans converted from thousands of slices into full 3D models of a human body magically appear without having to wait for the computer to render anything. We watched an Apple engineer run three simultaneous iOS emulators doing a test run on an app while running three more virtual machines (Windows 10, Ubuntu, and an older version of macOS) without a hiccup.

Should you want the iMac Pro? Yes, of course. It's the most powerful Mac available today by a very wide margin. Should you buy the iMac Pro? More than with other computers, that's not a question I can answer for you. It's the most expensive Mac available today by a very wide margin, and for most people, just getting the "best Mac" isn't worth the extra money unless you have work that is currently, significantly hampered by the speed of your computer.

Then I'm afraid there's yet another question you need to ask: "Do I need an iMac with all that power, or should I wait for the Mac Pro?" Apple has repeatedly said the Mac Pro will be for customers who need more "modularity," and you'll need to ask yourself if you would actually upgrade components on a regular basis.

If you absolutely must have the most powerful computer Apple makes right now — regardless of cost — you're going to be impressed as hell with what the iMac Pro can do.


James Bareham / The Verge