The most cynical of creative professionals—even those who have been using Apple computers their entire careers—might warily sum up the new iMac Pro ($4,999) as an answer to their calls for more horsepower, rather than a revolutionary computer like the pioneering original iMac. After all, at first glance, this painfully expensive all-in-one PC appears to be simply the same iMac that has been on sale for a few years, albeit with a darker Space Gray paint job.
But the true revolution, Apple’s engineers might counter, lies beneath the hood. The computer’s design doesn’t need to change much because it was already so good. To wit, a gorgeous 27-inch 5K display and sleek aluminum enclosure packs everything from stereo speakers to the power supply. In fact, the engineers have added even more inside—Intel Xeon many-core processors and a significant increase in wattage, among other upgrades—the same enclosure, without bloating the case by so much as a millimeter in any direction.
The result is astounding computing power for many tasks that prospective iMac Pro buyers are likely to perform regularly, especially jobs like 3D rendering that get faster the more cores in your CPU. The base model iMac Pro we’re reviewing here is the highest-performing all-in-one we’ve tested on many of these tasks, which helps it steal our Editors’ Choice award away from the Dell Precision 5720 All-in-One. Buyer beware, though: Similarly priced desktop workstations and gaming towers are faster still, and the standard iMac represents a far better value for those who covet macOS and Apple’s design prowess but couldn’t care less about core counts or clock speeds.
Familiar Good Looks
Apple’s super-slim iMac has remained largely unchanged on the outside since 2012, available only in a silver color scheme. For the iMac Pro, Apple dresses up the physical enclosure with a Space Gray scheme very similair to the one it offers on MacBooks and iPhones. The difference is immediately apparent, especially when you line up the two all-in-ones side by side. The iMac Pro just looks more professional, almost as if there is a linear correlation between the darkness of the enclosure and the seriousness of the computer as a tool for accomplishing creative tasks.
In contrast to the paint on the metal, the colors on the iMac Pro’s 5,120-by-2,880 display are incredibly vibrant, which is due in part to the maximum brightness of 500 nits and in part to the wide P3 color gamut. Apart from the Space Gray color scheme, this 5K Retina display—the same as on the iMac—is the most visually striking part of the computer. As we found when we reviewed the latest iMac, at full brightness the display is almost painfully luminous, and you’ll likely adjust it downward unless you’re in a fluorescent-lit room.
The edges of the chassis are less than 0.2-inch thick, which makes the all-in-one look incredibly svelte but also means that all the ports are relegated to the back. It’s a slight inconvenience, but nowhere near as cumbersome as the ports hidden behind the stand on the competing Dell Precision 5720. There’s a 1080p HD webcam above the screen, and a total of four microphones to capture audio. Networking options include 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, and a 10GBps Ethernet port (more on that later).
Some of these components are upgrades over their counterparts on the entry-level iMac, especially the 1080p webcam and the Ethernet port. But more significant physical design improvements are noticeably absent. There isn’t even a redesigned stand to offer the screen greater freedom of movement, a key benefit of both the Precision 5720 and the Microsoft Surface Studio. It’s as if Apple is arguing that dropping in new components and slapping on darker paint is all that’s needed to transform the iMac into the ultimate tool for photographers, graphic designers, scientists, and the like. If that’s true, then the iMac Pro is the culmination of the fable of Steve Jobs’ father teaching him how to work with wood: Even though no one will ever see the back of the cabinet or fence you’re making, you can’t use plain old plywood, but instead must use the same quality wood.
Indeed, the quality of internal components doesn’t get much better than the 2.3GHz 18-core Xeon W, 128GB of memory, 4TB SSD, and Radeon Pro Vega 64 GPU that’s in a maxed-out iMac Pro. That isn’t the version that we tested, however, nor the configuration that Apple expects most customers to buy. Our review unit is the base model, with an eight-core Xeon W, 32GB of memory, a 1TB SSD, and a Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU with 8GB of dedicated RAM. Apple says that this model or a $7,199 version with a 10-core processor and a Vega 64 GPU are likely to be the sweet spots for most tasks thanks to their optimum blend of clock speed and core count.
Perhaps to compensate for the fact that the iMac Pro isn’t user-serviceable (i.e. you can’t upgrade it yourself), Apple has decided to make every processor, storage, memory, and graphics option available a la carte, instead of limiting the upper echelons of memory and storage to configurations with upgraded CPUs. In addition to the configs mentioned above, the remaining options are a 2.5GHz 14-core Intel Xeon W, 64GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD.
Space Gray Is the New Way
The iMac Pro itself isn’t the only thing in the box clad in Space Gray. Apple has also created special versions of its wireless keyboard and mouse in the same color. There’s even a Space Gray Lightning cable to charge the peripherals. And you can’t buy any of these separately; they only come with the iMac Pro, and predictably they’re already showing up on eBay for ridiculous prices.
As great as the matching keyboard and mouse look in tandem with the iMac Pro, it’s a bit disappointing that Apple has taken the same minimal-change approach with them as it has with the computer itself. The keyboard and mouse are otherwise nearly identical to the versions that ship with the Mac Pro and the standard iMac, which is a shame because they’re a prime example of form over function.
For instance, you can’t charge the mouse and use it at the same time, since the Lightning port is located on the mouse’s belly. The keyboard has extremely shallow key travel, which means it’s not comfortable for repetitive key presses like starting and stopping playback using the spacebar, a basic part of any video editor’s workflow. Finally, both peripherals connect with Bluetooth, which usually works fine but is not as reliable or precise as a 2.4GHz wireless connection to a dedicated USB receiver.
Other notable omissions that are available on its Windows competitors include nice-to-have, but-not-deal breaker features like infrared webcams that allow face recognition logins and the home theater-quality audio you can expect from the Precision 5720’s eyebrow-raising complement of 10 speakers. The iMac Pro’s stereo speakers reproduce the highs and lows in audio tracks faithfully enough, and they’re powerful enough to fill a small room, but sound engineers will likely connect their machines to external speakers or headphones anyway.
A more glaring omission is the lack of a touch screen or pen support, areas in which the Surface Studio excels with its Surface Pen and Surface Dial input tools. We weren’t expecting Apple to introduce anything like this—the company has remained steadfast in withholding touch support from macOS—but it means that the iMac Pro is of more limited use for digital graphic design.
Move Immense Mountains of Data
One of the more unique minor features on the iMac Pro is its single 10GBps Ethernet port, a first on a Mac. This is a markedly different networking approach than the one Apple uses on the Mac Pro, which has a more conventional dual Gigabit Ethernet setup. The Ethernet port on the iMac Pro can automatically switch between 1GBps, 2.5GBps, 5GBps, or 10GBps, based on the capabilities of your network infrastructure.
Like the 18-core Xeon processor, the Ethernet port will really only benefit a tiny subset of buyers, but the advantages can be significant. A video-editing studio with high-end networking equipment and immense amounts of footage stored on a network-attached storage (NAS) device could benefit from the higher speed tiers, especially if it ends up having multiple iMac Pros that are all trying to access footage on the network at the same time.
Other I/O niceties include a headphone jack, four USB Type A ports, an SDXC card slot, and a generous complement of four USB-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3. These are especially handy for expansion, since you can’t access the iMac’s components to upgrade them yourself. Starting later this year, you’ll be able to attach an external graphics card via Thunderbolt 3 for even more GPU oomph, and of course you can connect external displays (up to two 5K monitors, in fact) and hard drives as well using this interface. The iMac only includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and the Mac Pro and the Surface Studio have none.
Warranty options for the iMac Pro are the same as for any other macOS product. That means you get one year of hardware repair coverage and 90 days of telephone support for free, or you can extend both of those to three years for an additional $169.
Is This Power Worth the Premium?
The burning question, of course, is whether the beefed up components and the gorgeous, one-of-a-kind Space Gray exterior justify the price premium that the iMac Pro commands over the regular iMac. We decided to address the component upgrades first, by putting this ode to creative professionals through our standard PC benchmark regimen as well as handing it over to our photographers and videographers, who came at it with every processor-intensive task they could think of, from editing 360-degree video footage shot with a drone to processing gargantuan Raw images from a 100-megapixel camera.
This two-pronged approach allowed us to pit the iMac Pro against a wide variety of competitors. Benchmark tests serve to highlight the theoretical differences between the Pro, its Windows competition, and the most recent 27-inch iMac. Meanwhile, our photographers and videographers compared completion times for their work on the equipment they’re currently using, which includes some Apple products that are several years old. That’s a scenario similar to the one facing many independent pros and smaller studios, which makes them the prime candidates for upgrading to the iMac Pro.
To start, we called upon PCMag’s resident camera expert and longtime Mac user Jim Fisher. He works with the latest high-end cameras every day, so he’s often got files that will stress hardware—5.2K video from the GoPro Fusion and 100MP Raw images from the Phase One XF 100MP, for example.
Jim uses a trio of Macs on a weekly basis—a 2013 MacBook Pro and 2017 Retina iMac with an Intel Core i7 at home, and a 2014 iMac with a 5K display and an Intel Core i5 at the office. As you’d expect, the older MacBook Pro isn’t a top performer, but it’s fine for processing Raw camera images in Lightroom and light video-editing tasks.
The 2014 Retina iMac is up to some additional projects. It can handle editing 4K footage, although playback isn’t terribly smooth in Adobe Premiere Pro, the editing suite of choice for Jim as well as our video team. Export times after editing can be lengthy, but it’s robust enough that Jim can let the export run in the background and catch up on Slack messages or write in Pages without a problem.
The 2014 machine doesn’t do a great job with video beyond compressed 4K, though. It stutters during playback of the 5.2K 360-degree footage captured by the GoPro Fusion, dropping frames left and right, making precise editing tasks very difficult. What’s more, it takes a long, long time to render out the footage once it is cut. The 2017 iMac can handle the playback, but still requires a few hours to render out high-quality video.
Speed to Plow Through Projects
What Jim found when he switched his 5.2K project over to the iMac Pro was very promising. The iMac Pro smoothly displayed every frame without breaking a sweat. When it came time to export the file, the 2014 iMac took 5 hours to finish the 1.7GB video, the 2017 iMac clocked 3.5 hours, and the iMac Pro completed the render in 2 hours.
The next stress test involved Adobe Lightroom, where Jim opened a series of photos he took on the 100MP Phase One camera. The iMac needed about 10 seconds to show a nonpixelated preview every time he advanced to the next image, while the iMac Pro managed the same task in just 6 seconds. Exporting the images to Photoshop showed similar performance gains, and once in Photoshop, applying a resource-intensive filter like radial blur was a cinch. The iMac Pro finished blurring one of the Raw images in just 7 seconds, compared with 17 seconds for the 2014 iMac.
“If you’re tired of waiting for Lightroom to display full-resolution Raw images as you cull hundreds of images from a shoot, or work in the high-end video world, the iMac Pro’s extra processing power is welcome,” Jim explained.
Every pro’s workflow and PC needs are different, of course. What if you’re not wedded to macOS? Or perhaps you are, but you’re short on cash and long on time, so you’d rather take a long lunch break while your video renders than spend Ford Fiesta money on your computer? For a more birds-eye view of performance, we pitted the iMac Pro against the latest regular 27-inch iMac and some of its comparably priced Windows competitors using our standard benchmark tests, which approximate not only the real world creative tasks that Jim performed, but also include simulations of everyday computing and gaming performance.
As expected, the 10-core Intel Xeon W roared to life on our Handbrake video-encoding test, converting a short film (Pixar’s Dug’s Special Mission) into an iPhone-friendly format in just 30 seconds. Other high-end all-in-ones like the HP Envy 34 and the Microsoft Surface Studio took twice as long, and even the Xeon-equipped Dell Precision 5720 was 22 seconds slower.
The gulf is even wider when it comes to rendering a sample 3D image with the Cinebench CPU test, which is based on Maxon’s industry-standard Cinema 4D app. The iMac Pro’s score of 1,669 is twice as high as the Dell’s, and nearly three times better than the iMac. That’s almost entirely due to the iMac Pro’s superior CPU core count. If you frequently perform rendering tasks programmed to run across multiple cores, the iMac Pro is a no-brainer, and you’ll even want to consider moving up the 10-core, 14-core, or 18-core models.
To measure graphics performance, we use a series of video game simulations that measure how many frames per second (fps) the system’s GPU can render. The iMac Pro recorded more than 40fps on the maximum quality Heaven and Valley tests at its native 5K resolution, far exceeding the 15fps or less that its competitors recorded at their native 4K or 5K resolutions. If you turn the graphics settings down to medium, you’ll experience similar results to the Surface Studio and the Precision 5720, which hover between 100fps to 150fps.
Contrary to Jim’s experience, the one area in which the iMac Pro didn’t blow the competition out of the water on the benchmark tests is our Photoshop simulation, likely because of the smaller image file it uses. The test applies a sample of 11 filters to the image using the older CS6 version of the app, a process that the iMac Pro completed in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s about 30 seconds faster than the iMac and the Surface Studio, but about the same as the Precision 5720.
The iMac Pro’s excellent performance is made possible in part by the most unique part of its design: Apple manages to fit an 18-core processor and a 500-watt power supply into an enclosure that was never designed for the heat that such powerful components generate. The solution is to remove the 3.5-inch hard drive bay and replace it with extra cooling equipment, which results in the only noticeable external difference between the iMac Pro and the iMac (other than color): two enlarged exhaust grilles tucked behind the higher-end all-in-one’s stand.
You can hear the iMac Pro as it exhales through these grilles, even in PC Labs, which is packed with noisy machines of all kinds. It’s not an annoying, jet-engine-like screaming sound like the fans on an ultraportable laptop, but rather a gentle whoosh. If you put your hand up to the outlet, you can definitely feel the heat. We noticed the fans spool up the most when running a gaming simulation at the maximum 5K resolution, but they were whisper-quiet when installing apps and restarting the iMac Pro.
Because the conventional hard drive enclosure is absent, Apple had to make sure that the sole remaining storage option—an SSD—is robust enough to handle the immense data throughput that professional apps require. It’s not a conventional M.2 interface, which is favored by Windows PC makers for its combination of speed and space savings. Instead, it’s Apple’s own custom SSD module, which includes not only the drive itself but also support for secure booting and total drive encryption, similar to the features that Intel offers on workstations and enterprise-class Windows machines.
Who Should Go Pro?
The iMac Pro is everything that Apple wants it to be: a niche machine that’s more beautiful and far more powerful at certain multimedia-editing tasks than its mainstream sibling, the iMac. At face value, then, that sounds like an even trade for the painful effect it will have on your wallet. If you really want to convince yourself, know that a 27-inch iMac configured with the same memory and storage options as our iMac Pro review unit is $1,500 less, so the price difference isn’t actually as gargantuan as it might seem at first glance from the iMac’s $1,800 starting price.
On the other hand, if your workflow wouldn’t benefit from adding additional CPU cores or a more capable GPU and you just need a great-looking kitchen computer, then you should buy the standard iMac or a Windows all-in-one PC instead. The iMac Pro is a machine with a name that explains who it’s for, plain and simple.
But there’s a third category for whom the decision isn’t so plain and simple: those who need CPU and GPU power but don’t need an all-in-one. Plenty of photographers and video editors already have a monitor setup that they’re happy with, which means they should consider a workstation or high-end gaming desktop instead of the iMac Pro. For around the same money as the entry-level iMac Pro, machines like the Alienware Area 51 Threadripper Edition have far better multi-core performance and the added benefit of expandability.
With its promise to update the Mac Pro desktop soon, even Apple itself tacitly acknowledges that the iMac Pro isn’t a catch-all solution, and it’s likely that the upgrades will make the Mac Pro a better choice than the iMac Pro in terms of its price-to-performance ratio. That means after you’ve considered everything else that’s amazing about the iMac Pro, your ultimate decision will come down to its most visually striking element, the 5K display. If you don’t need it, consider waiting for the updated Mac Pro, or buy a Windows workstation.