Apple has confirmed that it will be introducing new iMacs in 2017 with spec bumps that will make them even more attractive to pro users.
In this article we discuss all the clues, hints and hard evidence related to the new iMacs coming out this year, perhaps as soon as WWDC in June, although the promised pro-focused model is unlikely to appear before the end of the year.
When will new iMacs launch?
We know that Apple is planning to release new iMacs later in 2017. Apple has revealed that it intends to provide creative pro users with an update to the iMac designed to suit them later this year.
There is a possibility that some of the iMac range could see an update at WWDC in June, you can read about what we expect Apple to show attendees of WWDC here.
WWDC would be a good opportunity for Apple to talk to its pro users - or at least those pro users who fit in the developer category (Apple itself has said broad a definition Pro is when it comes to Mac users). Another reason to expect to see an iMac launch at that event is that in previous years Apple has launched new Macs there. In fact it was at WWDC that Apple revealed the design for the Mac Pro back in 2013.
We'd like to see Apple update the 21in iMac at least since that model is running Broadwell rather than Skylake processors, making it look rather dated. This is not helped by the fact that the iMac was last updated in 2015.
However, the updates could be pushed back a little while longer. A report from DigiTimes, based on industry sources, claims new iMac models will go on sale in the third quarter of this year: which could mean July.
This summer launch would include updates of the current 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMacs, but not the longed for pro version.
DigiTimes has some information about this more pro-focused, server-grade iMac too. This machine, equipped with "Intel's Xeon E3-1285 v6 processor, 16-64GB ECC RAM, up to 2TB NVMe SSD and a latest discrete graphics card", will take longer to arrive: the site predicts it is "unlikely to become available in the market until the end of 2017".
Another possible timeframe for the iMac update is September or October 2017. A September launch would coincide with the launch of new iPhones, while in past years Apple has held an October event to launch new Macs and iPads. In fact the last iMac update was in October 2015.
What Apple's has revealed about the new iMac
Talking to journalists in what appears to be a bid to convince pro users that Apple hasn't forgotten about them, Apple VPs Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi and John Ternus revealed that the company is completely rethinking the Mac Pro with a new design planned for some time in 2018.
It was also revealed that because the Mac Pro in its current form hasn't been meeting the needs of many pro users, some pros have turned to the iMac instead, and as a result Apple intends to provide those users with an update to the iMac designed to suit them later this year.
"So many of our customers were moving to iMac that we saw a path to address many, many more of those that were finding themselves limited by Mac Pro through a next generation iMac," Federighi said.
Apple has put "a lot of our energy behind" this new iMac, according to Federighi.
News of Apple's renewed focus on the Mac, with the upcoming new iMac and Mac Pro redesign, will be a relief to those who were thinking that the company had turned its back on the Mac in favour of the iPhone and iPad, which account for much more of its business.
Those users had reason to be concerned. The Mac Pro hasn't been updated since 2013 (although Apple is now offering a spec bump and a price cut following the news of its renewed interest in the Mac).
Similarly Apple's last iMac update came back in October 2015, when it introduced a Retina-class screen resolution to the smaller Macs for the first time and equipped the larger models with new Skylake processor chips.
Before that, you had to go back more than two years - if you don't include the cheaper iMac which Apple launched in June 2014 - to the last proper new iMac update, in September 2013, when Apple added Haswell processors, new graphics, next-gen Wi-Fi and faster PCIe flash storage options.
Podcast: New Mac Pro and iMac launch news
The UK Tech Weekly Podcast team discuss Apple's announcements and apologies in episode 60, embedded below, starting at 18:54.
The UK Tech Weekly Podcast comes out every Friday. Follow the podcast on Twitter for updates on new episodes and to suggest future discussion topics.
What specs can we expect from the new iMac?
We know that Apple intends to introduce a new iMac designed for the pro users who have moved away from the Mac Pro. So we can expect a pretty high spec machine, at least at the high end.
According to a report on Pike's Universum, the new pro iMacs could offer Xeon processors, up to 62GB RAM, faster SSDs, and AMD graphics. Read on leaked details about the tech specs of the new iMacs, including processors, RAM, storage and graphics; we'll add more as we hear about them.
What processor will the new iMac use?
Apple skipped Intel's much-delayed Broadwell processors and went straight from Haswell to Skylake, at least for the 27in 2015 iMac update (the 21in models use the older Broadwell processor). Skylake brought greater CPU and GPU performance, along with reduced power consumption. But what chips will appear in the next set of iMacs?
So far the only indication of what processor will appear in the new iMac is a report on Pike's Universum that suggests a 'usually pretty accurate' source says the new iMac will offer an Intel Xeon E3-1285 v6 processor. (Although DigiTimes expects this too, at least in the server-grade iMac to be released near the end of 2017.)
Intel's Xeon processors are designed to manage graphics-intensive workloads. The Kaby Lake E3-1200 v6 Xeon specifications were leaked back in January 2017 (details here). This pro-grade Intel Xeon processor hasn't shipped yet.
This would mark the first time that Apple has used a Xeon processor in the iMac - the Mac Pro is the only Mac that currently uses Xeon processors. The iMac usually ships with Intel Core i5 or i7 processors. By using Xeon processors the iMacs would gain for ECC memory support.
While the high end pro iMac may use these Xeon processors, it seems likely that the rest of the line will continue to use i5 and i7 processors. There is some expectation that these will include the Intel i7-7700 (also Kaby Lake). Tom's Hardware got hold of a pre-release sample of that chip, and naturally they promptly overclocked it and put it through rigorous speed tests.
Those speed tests found that the i7-7700 (or rather the i7-7700K - the K in the name denoting that the clock multiplier has been unlocked to allow for overclocking) was capable of 4.2GHz under normal circumstances, and 4.8GHz when overclocked. Serious speed, BGR observes. But unfortunately, for Apple, the Surface Studio launched with Kaby Lake chips in May 2017, so Apple won't have any bragging rights there.
Back in October 2016, the US retailer Best Buy leaked a listing for a new iMac, and it had a Kaby Lake chipset - a "7th Gen Intel Core i7 processor".
As Technobuffalo points out, this isn't necessarily genuine: an employee could have created this as a placeholder until official information is available. But slip-ups of this kind more often happen because a retailer has been given advance warning of an imminent launch and somebody sets it live too early by mistake.
We'd say - based on this and other clues - that a Kaby Lake iMac is looking like a decent bet for launch in the near future.
Some background on processors...
Kaby Lake is the successor to Skylake. It uses the same 14nm process as Broadwell and Skylake. This will be followed by Cannonlake, which will use a 10nm process. Intel's Ice Lake will arrive in 2018 and Tiger Lake in 2019.
Intel started shipping its Kaby Lake processors in July 2016, and the chips offer support for Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 and DisplayPort 1.2. It's therefore now possible that Apple will squeeze Kaby Lake chips into the next iMac update, but by no means guaranteed, given Apple's past behaviour.
We expect Apple to choose Intel-based CPUs, but there's a chance AMD could also make an appearance in certain iMac models.
At the end of February 2017, in the response to news of a recording-breaking benchmark performance by the new AMD Ryzen 7 1800X processor, Architosh discussed the possibility of Apple switching from Intel to AMD as its Mac chip supplier. The site was particularly interested in AMD's superior power efficiency, something which fits in with Apple's recent philosophy.
"Today's current iMac 5K model," the site points out, "uses an Intel 14nm Skylake 4-core i7-6700K processor with a TDP of 91W. Based on the iMac's actual frequency, the TDP is possibly low 80s W range. But AMD's Ryzen 7 1700 is at 65W already and has 8 cores."
Architosh even ponders if AMD's recent development work has been geared towards catching Apple's eye: "Is it possible that when AMD decided to work from a clean state four years ago that they began the Ryzen line with the possibility of wooing Apple at some point in the future?"
As we said above, switching to AMD processors for the next iMac would be a surprise, but it no longer seems impossible.
How much RAM will the new iMac offer?
According to Pike's Universum, the new pro iMac will offer 16GB RAM as standard but this will be upgradable to 32 or 64GB ECC memory, which is inline with the current Mac Pro. ECC Ram is better than the typical RAM found in iMacs as it can detect and repair errors that cause data corruption and system crashes, according to Macrumours.
Will the new iMac ship with flash storage as standard?
According to the Pike's Unniversum source who claims that the new pro iMac will offer a Xeon processor, also suggests we could also see Faster NVMe SSDs offering up to 2TB storage.
While this is likely only for the top of the line iMac, we'll repeat our hope, expressed this time last year while waiting for the 2015 update, that Apple makes flash storage standard across the entire range of iMacs - saving consumers from having to buy costly external SSD hard drives.
At present the 27-inch iMacs get a Fusion Drive by default (Fusion Drives are a high-performance hybrid blend of flash and conventional storage) and the 21.5-inch models can add them as a build-to-order option for an extra £80. We think it should be offered as standard in all Apple's desktops.
The current 21.5-inch iMac range is crippled somewhat by its hard drives, which are a lot slower than the flash drives used in all of Apple's laptops - to the extent that Mac laptops with similar processors will perform noticeably better than the equivalent iMac because of their faster SSD drives.
Will the new iMac have a touch screen?
There have been calls for Apple to introduce touch screen capabilities to the iMac, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that it will.
Phil Schiller was asked about whether Apple would consider adding a touch screen to the iMac during the journalist briefing at which the plans for a new Mac Pro were revealed. His response: "No". His colleague Craig Federighi suggested that the iPad Pro offers a far better drawing experience.
What ports and peripherals will the new iMac offer?
You can expect the new iMacs to offer Thunderbolt 3 ports (which also double up as USB Type-c).
There are also rumours that the new iMacs will ship with a keyboard that incorporates the Touch Bar found on the new MacBook Pro (reviewed here).
Patents hint that Apple might release an updated Magic Keyboard along with the new Macs, and that it might feature the Touch Bar included in the 2016 MacBook Pro.
AppleWorld Today reported on a series of patents for a "keyboard with adaptive input row," specifically citing a touch-sensitive display. Sounds familiar to us. It may not be a full touch screen iMac, but it'll be welcome news to anyone looking enviously at the new MacBook Pro.
What graphics chips will Apple use in the new iMac?
It's believed that Apple's next generation of iMacs (or its higher-specced models, at least) will feature graphics chips from AMD's Polaris set, which were announced at the start of 2016.
WCCF Tech reports that AMD won the contract last October but was only able to get confirmation from additional sources in April 2016.
The contract is for two chipsets: Polaris 10 (previously known as Ellesmere) and Polaris 11 (previously known as Baffin), and WCCF Tech says these processors will appear in "new desktops and notebooks from Apple, which the company plans to bring to market later this year".
The Pike's Universum source also believes the new iMac will offer AMD graphics to support VR and pro apps.
With the MacBook and MacBook Air having recently seen updates, and the Mac mini highly unlikely to incorporate a discrete graphics unit, the remaining candidates are the MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro. MacRumors reasons that the power range of these chips makes Polaris 11 a strong fit for the MacBook Pro, while Polaris 10 suits the iMac.
The Polaris chips offer improved graphics performance compared with previous generations (as much as twice the speed per watt) and potential reductions in both power consumption and waste heat.
They are built using a 16nm or 14nm FinFET production process, compared to 28nm on AMD's earlier chips, which means that the chip maker can fit more transistors in a given space (which makes the chips ideal for ultraportable laptops and ultraslim desktops - the latter fitting recent iMac designs) and, because the transistors are closer together, less power is needed to move a signal across them.
Apple's current iMac line-up features AMD Radeon graphics chipsets as standard in the 27-inch models. The 21-inch models come with integrated Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics.
Talking about graphics architecture can be a little dry, but the Polaris rumour discussed above has a sexier element to it: VR.
AMD has consistently talked up its Polaris graphics chips as a way of bringing VR within the reach of a wider market of PC users. At present Macs are basically unusable for VR, other than with some awkward workarounds, and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey specifically cited underpowered Mac GPUs as the reason why the company was focusing on Windows:
"People have said, 'Why don't you support Macs? So many people have Macs.' It's true. A lot of people have Apple hardware, especially in the laptop space. But the GPUs in those, they're not even close to what we're pushing for our recommended spec."
But adding Polaris GPUs to the iMac could change Luckey's mind. AMD's Roy Taylor thinks the company's new GPUs are about to massively expand the available market for VR.
"AMD has just completed the shrink to 14nm [with Polaris]," he said. "This means we can produce GPUs that will run the minimum spec of VR at a lower cost, in larger volume, consuming less power and running faster. That means in the second half of this year and going forward, more people will be able to run those headsets."
VR remains a niche area for consumers - the number of people actually willing to shell out for the whole shebang remains small, even if casual gamers who try the Vive or the Oculus Rift tend to love it - but it gets a lot of press at the moment. And it can't be nice for a company that prides itself on the quality of its products to hear them disparaged as "not even close" to being up to a task.
As Jim Lynch on CIO colourfully phrases it: "As far as VR goes, it's not something that I have paid much attention to, but it certainly couldn't hurt for Apple's computers to be able to do it adequately... If VR lights a fire under Apple's rear end and gets the company to put out a pro version of the iMac, then it will be a good thing for all users."
Poll: What do you want from the next iMac?
Those are the rumours about the next iMac refresh. What do you think? And what are you looking for from the next generation of iMacs? Have your say in our poll: