For most of its early life, thanks to technologies such as PostScript and laser printers kick-starting the desktop publishing revolution, Apple was the natural and obvious choice for creatives. But with the arrival of the iPod in 2001, the appeal of the mass-market started to seduce Apple.
Today – with apps such as InDesign and Photoshop running with feature-parity on Windows as on Mac; with PC makers finally waking up to our desire for beautiful hardware; with Apple’s focus being directed away from raw computing grunt at the very high end; with over half of Apple’s revenue coming from the iPhone alone; and with new platforms like VR making such huge demands on hardware – Apple has to work hard to reassure us not only that it cares about creative pros, but that it cares about the Mac at all.
And so at its developer conference this year, it teased the iMac Pro – what it calls a workstation-class computer in the iconic iMac all-in-one design.
iMac Pro: release date
Apple says that it’s coming in December. Be warned, though, that the last time Apple introduced a pro-level Mac, the ’trash can’ Mac Pro, supplies were so constrained that although orders opened mid-December, ship dates quickly slipped to February and then April.
It’s unlikely this will happen with the iMac Pro, though, both since it should be simpler to make, being based on a familiar chassis, and also because there’s not quite the same level of pent-up desire for it as there was for the Mac Pro following years of neglect of the metal tower design.
Expect shipping early in 2018.
iMac Pro: rumours
It looks just like the existing 27-inch iMac 5K, save for the fact that it’s black – ‘space grey’ – and dammit, Apple, your juvenile little trick has worked. It looks awesome – the shiny black glass bezel now playing with the matt dark grey ‘chin’ rather than fighting the silvery aluminium. There’s a black trackpad and mouse too, and a black keyboard which now also includes a numeric keypad.
Powerful components generate a lot of heat, though, and that’s part of why slim all-in-ones like the iMac have often used laptop-grade CPUs, GPUs and so on.
The iMac Pro has implemented two huge – though probably very quiet – fans as well as a large heatsink and extra venting to give it an 80 per cent increase in thermal capacity; basically, ’things can run hotter and it will be okay’.
And that’s good, because you can configure the CPU up to 18-cores (up from the default 8, or 10), Turbo Boost-ing up to 4.5GHz. Graphics is courtesy of a brand new chip making its debut in the iMac Pro, the Radeon Pro Vega (in 8 or 16GB), offering up to 11 teraflops single-precision computing power – three times faster than the previous best iMac GPU.
You can run two additional 5K displays off it, for a total of more than 44,000,000 pixels. Plus, RAM config now tops out at 128GB, double the previous iMac limit.
I/O is fast too, with four Thunderbolt 3 ports (sharing two controllers) and, for the first time, 10Gb Ethernet – though of course your network has to be spec-matched if you want to take advantage of this additional speed.
So there's vast power to be tapped, but remember that even if you're a creative pro at the top of your game, you might not need – never mind be able to access – all that power. An 18-core CPU doesn’t necessarily mean ’things will be faster’; the apps you use have to be programmed to run across multiple cores.
If you do a lot of compute-heavy tasks, such as 3D rendering or video exporting, or if you’re working in visual effects or VR, the CPU/GPU pairing here is going to make your life easier. But for more traditional 2D or print-focussed designers, plenty of RAM and a fast SSD in a less meaty machine would be more relevant.
But we do know it will start at $4,999. That’s a big number, but – apples-and-oranges and incomplete though the comparison may be – Apple says a comparable built PC is a couple of grand more, and of course wouldn’t run macOS.
As beautiful as the iMac and its wide colour-gamut 5K Retina display is, though, it might simply be the wrong set of compromises for compute-heavy, it’s-never-fast-enough pro users.
You’re dependent on Thunderbolt for expansion and future-proofing, and despite the improved thermal conductivity, there’s an inherent dichotomy in putting the very most powerful components in a slim all-in-one.
Happily, Apple also teased that, basically, they’re having yet another crack at getting the ‘Mac Pro’ right, saying that they are “working on a completely redesigned, next-generation Mac Pro architected for pro customers who need the highest-end, high-throughput system in a modular design, as well as a new high-end pro display.” That’s all we know for now, but Apple definitely has our attention.
Is the iMac Pro the ultimate desktop for creatives?
Whether the iMac Pro, in the interim, is the ultimate desktop for creatives depends on each creative’s needs. It’s certainly going to be powerful and capable, it has good headroom for nearly all creatives save the most demanding 3D, VFX and VR workers – thanks to that 128GB RAM ceiling if nothing else – and, let’s embrace our inner 12-year-old, it would look pretty badass in a studio.
However if your work requires apps or specialist hardware that aren’t available for macOS, needs or would benefit from a touchscreen, takes you away from the desk a lot, or demands more flexibility than an all-in-one design allows, it’s not going to be for you.
The Surface Studio, custom-built towers from specialists or rigs from big brands, and even cloud computing render farms might be more what you need. And of course the iMac Pro might simply be overkill for the kind of work you do.
Still, we’re happy that Apple is, at worst, merely giving the appearance that it still values us in the creative industries, and recognises that we have specific needs that consumer-grade hardware can’t address. Some have jumped ship already, and the siren song of the iMac Pro may not be exciting enough to lure them back, but at least Apple’s singing it.