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iMac 2017 first look: perspectives from a pro video editor

iMac 2017 first look: perspectives from a pro video editor


Worth the upgrade — so far

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Apple just wrapped up one of the most hardware-focused software conferences ever. Aside from updating existing products like the MacBook with new Kaby Lake processors, and announcing the new Siri-enabled HomePod speaker, Apple decided to use WWDC to please its pro users with new iMac and iMac Pro desktop computers.

The new iMac Pro won’t ship until December, but the speed-bumped iMacs are something pro users can buy today. It's been a while since we've upgraded the iMacs in our offices, and we're currently in the midst of a switch over to 4K video editing. Combine those two factors and you can guess that we spend a lot of time staring at progress bars.

So in the short time we had, we wanted to focus on the performance of one of the updated iMacs and see how it handles 4K video editing. I set one up at my normal workstation at The Verge just a couple days ago, and have been editing 4K video (and large photo files) since then. And the difference in performance has been instantly evident.

Before we dive into that, let’s talk about the hardware. The new 21.5-inch iMac has a base price of $1,099, but ones with a larger display and more power can cost as much as $5,299. The 27-inch review unit I’ve been testing costs $2,899. It comes with the Intel Core i7 4.2 GHz chip, 500GB of SSD storage, and 16GB of RAM. If I were to buy this machine myself, I’d probably add more RAM since I tend to multitask a lot. The storage space is less important to me, since I like working off external drives. Almost any drive would work for me except the 256GB model. It’s kind of like having a 16GB iPhone.

The difference in performance was instantly evident

Most importantly for this first look, the graphics card in this iMac is the Radeon Pro 580 (with 8GB VRAM). It is the best graphics card you can get for the 27-inch 5K model. If you already think you need something better than that, you might as well just wait for the iMac Pro, the Mac Pro (expected sometime next year), or switch to Windows and deal with the transition.

For comparison, the iMac I was previously using had 3.2GHz i5 processor with 32GB of RAM and a much, much weaker graphics card: an AMD Radeon R9 M380 with 2GB of VRAM.

Aesthetically, the 2017 iMac looks identical to the old one. The back logo is the same size, the power button is in the exact same spot, and so are the fans at the bottom. There's just one external difference: the Thunderbolt 2 ports are replaced with USB-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3. Although I know some people are excited for this transition, I find these ports extremely annoying. Most of the external hard drives I use are Thunderbolt 2, forcing me once again to live that unavoidable #donglelife.

I was really blown away the first time I ever used a 5K screen; the difference was immediately apparent. But I didn’t really get the same impression with this screen. I’m assuming I’ve gotten used to the resolution at this point. Honestly, I also don’t see a major difference when it comes to its brightness. Yes, the screen pops and has vibrant and accurate colors, but I spend most of my time editing at around 70 percent of brightness anyway. Although I wish the screen was a bit less reflective.

That said, editing photos on this computer was a joy. The processing speed and accurate colors also helped, making it a fun experience. Seeing the changes happen almost instantaneously helped accelerate the editing process, but it also just made me experiment with photos more, which for a creative type does make a difference. It’s worth noting that I haven’t calibrated the monitor and have used the default color space “iMac,” which I’m assuming most of you will use anyway, and you won’t regret it.

Currently, I’m editing a Verge video that I can’t disclose just yet. It was shot with a Sony A7S II and a C100 camera. One shoots 4K, while the other captures 1080p. I’m editing in the latest version of Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2017, and I have decided to edit off of the internal SSD drive without any scratch drives, just to make it a bit more challenging on the machine. I’ve also set my previews to max render quality for the same reason... and I kept After Effects and Lightroom open in the background… and had around 15 browser tabs opened at all time for any procrastinating I felt like doing.

Export times on the new iMac were shorter, but we haven’t really tested its limits yet

The final project will be exported in 1080p, but I still wanted to edit, color, and render 4K footage to see how the iMac would handle it. So far, it’s been flawless. No major lags, the rendering has gone very smoothly, and the export times were remarkably shorter. The faster rendering was noticeable even on a short, two-minute video.

So far I've only heard the fans revving up once during the export process, which took about minute and a half on the new iMac. I brought the same project over to my old workstation and the estimated export time was already almost a minute longer: 2:20 minutes compared to 1:30. The final export on the old iMac actually took a little bit over three minutes. Even applying a simple stabilizer on one of the clips took twice as long on the old iMac. That said, this was a relatively small video, just 193MB in size. Obviously, we’d have to spend more time with this machine to test it out to its limits. We haven’t had a chance to edit or watch VR content on it yet, or do extensive motion graphics on it.

If you do a lot of video or photo editing, and really don't want to wait for the iMac Pro models coming in the next year, you’ll likely be happy with what this new iMac has to offer. While I haven’t spent as much time editing on it yet as I inevitably will, and can’t weigh in on how wear and tear and extended use will affect it over time, over the past couple days the new iMac was able to handle short, 4K videos and professional-grade photo editing without any lags, glitches, or overall frustration.

If you have an earlier (non-Pro) iMac and are wondering if you should upgrade, that all depends on your specific needs; but it is worth at least comparing your current specs with the upgraded lineup. And if you think this upgrade would be minor compared to what you have now, then you might want to wait until the iMac Pro, which will offer a boost in specs but will also cost nearly twice as much.

Otherwise, for $2,899 you can get a fast new iMac that will make you feel like you can get most projects done more efficiently. Speaking of which, I should probably go back and finish that video before my deadline.

Photography by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge