When will Apple release new iMacs in the UK? Will Apple update its iMac desktop line to add Intel Kaby Lake processor chips, and what other specs, design changes and new features should we expect in the next generation of iMacs? How much will the new iMacs for 2017 cost?
Apple last updated its iMac line on 13 October 2015, bringing Retina-class screen resolution to the smaller Macs for the first time and equipping 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. (For more information on that update, read our review of the 2013 iMacs.)
So much for Apple's iMac updates over the past few years. Right now we're looking ahead to the next iMac launch - what we hope will be an early-2017 iMac update. In this article we round up all the speculation about Apple's next iMac update: when new iMacs will be released in the UK, new iMac prices, tech specs and new features to expect, any leaked photos and videos that appear online, and all the other new iMac rumours that are fit to print.
Updated, 22 December 2016, with comments from Apple CEO Tim Cook about the future of the Mac desktop
New iMac 2017 release date, price & specs rumours: Launch date
When will new iMacs come out? Early in 2017, we hope, but we had been confidently expecting an iMac update in late 2016 and that came to nothing. (A contact told us, under condition of anonymity, that the Mac Pro would be updated before the end of November 2016, and we reasoned that it would make sense for Apple to announce at least a minor update to the iMac at the same time. But the year ended with no word on new Mac desktops.)
The Best Buy leak discussed in the processor section of this article, which emerged at the start of October 2016, strongly suggests that the retailer has had advance warning of an imminent launch and posted a listing slightly too early by mistake - although it's also possible that this was a speculative listing created on the basis that it would probably be needed at some point.
New iMac 2017 release date: Apple CEO hints at future of the iMac
In a rare Q&A session on Apple's internal employee network, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave an interesting response to a question about the future of the Mac, specifically mentioning the 5K iMac in his response. According to a transcript obtained by TechCrunch, an unknown Apple employee asked Cook: "We had a big MacBook Pro launch in October and a powerful upgrade to the MacBook back in Spring. Are Mac desktops strategic for us?"
Interestingly, it's what Cook didn't mention in his response that suggests what Apple is planning for the future. In response, Cook wrote the following:
"The desktop is very strategic for us. It's unique compared to the notebook because you can pack a lot more performance in a desktop — the largest screens, the most memory and storage, a greater variety of I/O, and fastest performance. So there are many different reasons why desktops are really important, and in some cases critical, to people.
"The current generation iMac is the best desktop we have ever made and its beautiful Retina 5K display is the best desktop display in the world. Some folks in the media have raised the question about whether we're committed to desktops. If there's any doubt about that with our teams, let me be very clear: we have great desktops in our roadmap. Nobody should worry about that."
If you look closely, Cook never used the word "Mac" in his response. At all. Considering it's the name of Apple's oldest product line, you would think it'd get a mention in a question about the company's desktop lineup. Granted, he does mention desktop computers several times, but never the name of the hardware, apart from one exception - the 5K iMac, which hasn't been updated in over a year. Essentially, Cook was asked whether Mac desktops were strategic, and he answered that desktops were important.
A report from Bloomberg might explain why Cook responded in this way, with keen Apple watcher Mark Gurman claiming that Apple has reorganised its software engineering department, meaning there's no longer a team dedicated to macOS - instead, engineers work on both iOS and macOS. He continues to claim that the Mac has been generally de-prioritised within the company, and that Mac engineers no longer get much attention from the company's industrial design team, which was until 2015 led by design chief Jony Ive, allegedly focussing more on iPhones and iPads.
This suggests, to us at least, that while Apple is imagining a future where desktops are still being produced, they might not feature the iconic Mac branding. Could Apple be working on a macOS/iOS hybrid to launch as the ultimate desktop experience? With the astonishing number of iOS apps compared to macOS apps, it may be a smart investment for the company, but only time will tell.
New iMac 2017 release date: What does previous launch history tell us?
The last iMac update was in October 2015.
Apple's yearly cycle is built around three major press events: autumn - usually September (new iPhones and iPads); spring - usually March (new iPhones and iPads, sometimes MacBooks and watches); and summer - usually June (WWDC - operating system updates, and occasional hardware). But that doesn't mean the company stays quiet the rest of the year. Mac updates can be folded into the big three events, but they're often launched at their own smaller launch events. The iMac update in 2015 got its own announcement, a few weeks after the iPhone 6s reveal.
But bear in mind that, unlike the yearly or event twice-yearly update events we're used to for iOS devices, desktop Mac refreshes have frequently come several years apart. WWDC 2017 (which will take place in June next year) is therefore a possibility, and we may have to wait even longer than that.
New iMac 2017 release date, price & specs rumours: Specs
We'll add leaked details about the tech specs of the new iMacs to this section as we hear them. Here's what we know so far.
Apple skipped Intel's much-delayed Broadwell processors and went straight from Haswell to Skylake for the 2015 update. Skylake uses the same 14nm manufacturing process as Broadwell, but brings even greater CPU and GPU performance, along with reduced power consumption. But what chips will appear in the next set of iMacs?
Clearly that will depend on their launch date and the hardware that's available at the time. After 2015's Skylake, the next round of Intel processors, which started going into mass production in late 2016 and is still being rolled out, is Kaby Lake; this will be followed by Cannonlake (Cannonlake was due to be next, but it's been delayed until the second half of 2017). Then Ice Lake in 2018 and Tiger Lake in 2019, for those who enjoy this sort of thing.
Kaby Lake uses a 14nm process, same as Broadwell and Skylake, but Cannonlake switches over to a more accurate 10nm process.
If Apple does manage an iMac update before the end of 2016 the machines could feature Kaby Lake processors, but remember that Apple skipped Broadwell and delays are common in the chip sector - so we're not banking on anything.
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. Some of the Kaby Lake chips aren't expected to ship until very late 2016 or more likely early 2017, so be prepared for a wait. Read more on MacRumors.
The specific model of Kaby Lake processor we're expecting to appear in the next iMac is the i7-7700. And as luck would have it, Tom's Hardware has got hold of what they understand to be a pre-release sample of that chip. 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 which, as BGR observes, would give the new iMac bragging rights over the rival Surface Studio, launched before the relevant Kaby Lake chips became available.
Micosoft could always launch an updated Surface Studio with Kaby Lake, of course, although that might hack off the early buyers.
Evidence for Kaby Lake
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.
In November 2016, further evidence emerged that sheds light on the prospects of a Kaby Lake iMac. Intel briefly made documents available on its website, intended for PC manufacturer partners rather than consumers, that detail specs of new Kaby Lake processors - and Anandtech spotted and grabbed them.
The documents detail 11 new processors, including seven i5 chips and three i7s; 10 of them are designated for desktop use and one is for worktop. There's still no sign of the Kaby Lake laptop processors we expect to use as part of a MacBook Pro update in early 2017.
We expect Apple to choose Intel-based CPUs, but there's a chance AMD could also make an appearance in certain iMac models. With the new AMD Zen processor, we hope to see the CPU make an appearance in a lot of high-end machines, given its tremendous processing power.
The new processor boasts 8 cores and 16 threads - a massive amount of raw processing power. Given the suggested price tag of the Zen CPU, we expect it either to be in the top-spec iMacs or be an upgrade option.
The inclusion of other AMD processors is also not far-fetched, as we still see it being an option for cheaper iMac models.
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".
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, as we discuss in our articles Can you use Oculus Rift with Mac? and How to use a Mac for VR, 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."
Visit WCCF Tech for more info.
VR remains a niche topic in tech - 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."
New iMac 2017 specs: Flash storage
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. 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.
Read next: Best external SSD flash drives for Mac
New iMac 2017 rumours: Could the iMac replace the Mac Pro?
In our roundup of rumours about the next Mac Pro, we discuss the possibility that Apple is planning to wrap up that line - and one way such a move could work is by ramping up the top spec of the iMac line so that it meets the needs of professional users, rendering the Pro irrelevant.
TechRadar has speculated about the specs of a theoretical 'iMac Pro' - "that glitzy, 27-inch 5K display paired with a 10-core Intel Xeon E7 (or two) and the latest and greatest AMD FirePro W9100" - and in this day and age the number of Mac buyers who really need the top spec appears to be dwindling.
All of this is certainly a possibility. But while the Mac Pro doesn't appear to be tearing up trees commercially, it was never a line that was about making money. The Mac Pro is a flagship product, a niche offering and a positioning exercise - a way of reassuring Mac buyers that Apple is still a company that makes products for pro users. In some senses it's like the Apple Watch Edition: a glamorous, unnecessarily expensive aspiration point that passes on some of its stardust to the more affordable diffusion lines below.
New iMac 2017 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:
Turn to the next page to read about 2015's iMac update: the facts as they were announced, and the (generally quite accurate!) pre-announcement speculation we reported on beforehand.