Review: Apple's new 5K iMac -- powerful, pixel-ful and pricey

Apple's latest 27-in. desktop comes with an impressive Retina display, great performance and a sleek design.

imac 27 yosemite
Credit: Apple

There are 14.7 million reasons to want Apple's latest iMac -- the 14.7 million pixels that make up its stunning 27-in. 5K Retina display. At $2,499, the new iMac isn't cheap, but its screen makes this desktop a great value -- if you can afford it.

Though the tech behind iMac displays has changed over time, the one constant on the 27-in. iMac has been the resolution: 2560 x 1440. Even as pixel densities have increased on other Apple devices -- starting with the iPhone 4 and then the iPad and MacBook Pro -- a Retina-class display on a desktop Mac was elusive. No longer -- on this new iMac, the LED display features a mind-boggling resolution of 5120 x 2880 pixels. And despite the display's capabilities, Apple claims it uses 30% less power than previous models.

In order to make this high-end screen work, Apple had to introduce some innovative technologies. For example, to create a Retina display this size, the Oxide TFT technology -- which gives each individual pixel its charge -- had to be more precise, offer a quicker charge per pixel and deliver a consistent brightness across the entire 14.7 million-pixel array. In addition, Apple said had to create its own timing controller -- called a TCON -- to handle the high number of pixels.

Tech details aside, this display has to be seen to be appreciated. Fonts render sharp and crisp, regardless of size, while high-quality images and videos pop. But the 5K resolution has one unfortunate side effect: Low-resolution media looks pixelated when expanded to normal viewing sizes.

A refined design and impressive specs

I've always been a fan of the iMac lineup, from the ease of setup to the designs. I thought the original bubble design was cute, loved the swiveling Luxo-lamp iMac G4 and thought the G5's plastic white look was adequate. Apple shifted to aluminum and glass materials in 2007, and has since refined the overall style, shrinking the unit's weight and thickness.

The latest iMac is still housed in an aluminum frame. The glass display is bordered by a black frame that hides the iSight camera. Below the black border is a wide band of aluminum that bears, front and center, the Apple logo. If you're a fan of well-built hardware like I am, what you will notice is a seemingly unbroken frame -- joined by a process called friction welding -- and the tight tolerances between the glass and aluminum materials. The iMac is a thing of beauty.

And it performs well, too. The $2,499 Retina iMac runs on the Haswell chipset, powered by a quad-core 3.5GHz Intel Core i5 (with Turbo Boost capabilities that can push processing speeds up to 3.9GHz as needed), 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory, a 1TB Fusion Drive for storage, and graphics powered by the AMD Radeon R9 M290x with 2GB of GDDR5 memory.

You can upgrade the processor to a quad-core 4GHz Intel Core i7 (with a Turbo Boost of 4.4GHz) for an additional $250; memory can be upgraded to 16GB for an additional $200 or to 32GB for $600 more. This iMac includes a port that allows access to four SO-DIMM slots. If you can swing it, I would recommend going with the upgrade to the Core i7, since you can always add memory down the line.

During the time I spent with the iMac, performance was pretty consistent, and the onscreen graphics hardly ever dropped any frames when playing videos or working through operating system animations. But if you think you're going to want more performance, you should opt for the AMD Radeon R9 M295x 4GB GDDR5 graphics card. That upgrade will cost you $250 more.

Storage choices

The iMac comes standard with what Apple marketing calls a Fusion Drive -- a mechanical hard drive combined with 128GB of flash storage. Managed by background software, the Fusion Drive automatically figures out what files you use most often and puts them on the faster flash drive for quicker access. (The operating system and frequently used applications are also stored on the flash drive.) Larger data files -- or files that are infrequently accessed -- reside on the slower mechanical drive. The difference is pretty noticeable if you're constantly working on large files.

If you want more storage, you can configure the iMac with a 3TB Fusion Drive for an additional $150.You can also can swap the 1TB Fusion drive for a 256GB flash storage drive for no change in price -- trading storage space for consistent speed. You can also purchase a 512GB SSD for $300 more or a 1TB SSD for $800 more.

You can also add an external SuperDrive for an additional $79 if you intend to view or create CDs and DVDs, and you can swap out the Magic Mouse for a Magic Trackpad, which supports gesture and touch input. (I highly recommend the Magic Trackpad, by the way; if you're already using an iPad or iPhone and are accustomed to gestures, the trackpad is the choice -- even if you have been wronged by trackpads in the past. This Apple trackpad is different; trust me.)

In the rear, the iMac has a headphone port, SDXC card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and a Gigabit Ethernet port. As for wireless, the iMac supports 802.11ac, and is a/b/g/n compatible; there's also support for Bluetooth 4.0.

The speakers sound good, considering the sound comes from the bottom of the iMac. You won't be throwing any high-powered raves, but it's more than sufficient for filling the immediate area.

Keep your cool

One thing that was noticeable was how quiet this iMac runs. Even with the processors working full blast for extended periods of time, the fans were never louder than ambient room noise.

During heavy processing, however, the iMac's internal fan will vent hot air through the grill hidden by the stand, so make sure that is never covered. The rest of the iMac remained cool and even cold to the touch towards the edges, but warmed as I neared the center and vent.

My only real caveat with this iMac -- which in my opinion is probably the best all-around Mac that Apple has ever shipped -- is that it's self-contained. It's likely that the 5K display will outlive the usefulness of the now-current Haswell-class Intel chipset and AMD GPU. But this iMac doesn't support Target Display Mode -- a feature built into previous iMacs that allows you to connect another computer to use the iMac's display, as you would any other monitor. This is something potential buyers should be aware of.

Bottom line

This iMac represents the best all-in-one computer for novices who want to be up and running out of the box immediately, while at the same time packing enough horsepower to make high-end users warrant a look -- especially if your job requires that you stare at a display all day. The price is high, but, given the technology, you may find it an excellent investment.

The march toward exascale computers
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