2017 iMac preview: the specs the iMac needs

We’re waiting for Apple to update the iMac, untouched since 2015. Hopefully when Apple announces the new iMac for 2017 it will address some of the problems with the current iMac.

Related: 2015 27in iMac 5K review and 21.5-inch 3.1GHz iMac with Retina 4K

Retina displays across the iMac range

There are two different sizes of iMac, one with a 21.5in screen the other with a 27in screen. The biggest selling point at the time they launched was the 5K display on the 27in version, and the 4K display that arrived with the top-of-the-range 21in model. It is here we are hoping to see the biggest change - with the new iMac sporting a 4K display on all the 21in models, bringing the so-called Retina display to the whole line up.

The current 5K and 4K displays are still excellent even when compared to the competition, so we don’t expect to see a lot of change there, but one thing many would like to see in the new model is the addition of DisplayPort 1.3 and Thunderbolt 3/USB Type-C (essentially these are one and the same). This would allow users use the iMac’s 5K screen with a different computer. The fact that people want to do this demonstrates just how good the screen is considered to be, and also the fact that as 5K (or 4K) monitors go, it’s actually quite a bargain. We shall have to see if this is indeed a possibility with the new iMac.

One thing that people have crying out for for generations of iMac is the provision of more ergonomically friendly adjustments. Right now you can only barely adjust the screen, tilting it forwards or backwards very slightly. You can’t raise or lower it (unless you have a nice hefty book for it to sit on). If Apple made such adjustments possible we can see an iMac being used like a architects drawing board, which would require another change to the design… the addition of a touch screen.

Will the new iMac have a touch screen?

A touch screen is something some people would like to see happen to the display. These people will probably be disappointed if Apple is sticking with the philosophy of Steve Jobs that using a touch screen iMac would make your arm ache, but there is definitely a desire for touch screen abilities on some Macs. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to an iMac, but the ability to use a touch screen would be useful when commuting because using the trackpad on a laptop is difficult when you only have limited space. We can see some designers appreciating the ability to move elements around the screen by touch. We shall see just how important professional creatives are to Apple when the new iMac launches.

Speaking of touch, there is some expectation that some of the features of the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro could come to the iMac, although obviously not through the means of a built in keyboard. Perhaps the Magic Touch Pad (which was introduced with the iMac back in 2015) could incorporate some of the Touch Bar features.

The processor in the new iMac

We expect that the new iMacs will ship with Kaby Lake processors (unless the iMacs don’t launch until much later in 2017, in which case you might see Cannonlake processors). Chances are it will be powered by Kaby Lake regardless, because Apple tends to not make a big deal out of having the latest processors if the current line up is anything to go by.

While the current 27in models offer Skylake quad-core i5 chips, the 21in iMac models are still using the old Intel Broadwell chips - which were old even when Apple shipped the 21in iMac. As we said above, this was because Apple the on system graphics chip Apple uses in the 21in iMac wasn’t available for Skylake at the time the machines launched. It does mean that anyone thinking of buying a new 21in iMac would be wise to wait until Apple launches the new range for 2017 as these are likely to jump two processors. Even worse, the current entry-level model ships with a 1.6GHz Core i5-5250U processor, which is a processor normally destined for a laptop, so don’t expect much from it.

As for how good the new Kaby Lake processors will be, it is thought that the top of the range iMac is likely to come with a build-to-order option of the Ti7-7700 processor, and speed tests over on Tom’s Hardware suggests that that chip is capable of 4.2GHz under normal circumstances, and 4.8GHz when overclocked (don’t expect Apple to make overclocking possible). The current build-to-order chip option runs at 4GHz.

Graphics in the new iMac

As we said, the reason why the previous generation of 21in iMacs was limited to that Broadwell chip was because the 21.5in models offer a graphics chip integrated on the processor itself, while the larger model offers a dedicated GPU. The 21-in models come with integrated Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics, while the graphics processors in the current 27in iMac are all from AMD - the Radeon R9 M380, R9 M390 and R9 M395X depending on which model you buy. As for the next generation, it looks likely that they will feature graphics chips from AMD's Polaris set, announced at the start of 2016. The Polaris chips offer improved graphics performance compared with previous generations. We doubt that the new iMac will be a better proposition to gamers than the current line up.

Related: 21.5in vs 27in iMac and iMac 5K vs Microsoft Surface Studio comparison review

RAM in the new iMac

All variants of the iMac 5K feature 8GB of RAM currently, comprised of two 4GB sticks, with the option of boosting that up to 16- or 32GB. We’d like to see 16GB as standard on the high end, we don’t expect to see RAM capabilities extending to 64GB.

Ports in the new iMac

One good thing about the Kaby Lake chips is they offer support for Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C. Right now the 27in iMac will give you two Thunderbolt 2 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, SDXC card slot, a headphone jack and an Ethernet port.
Thunderbolt 3 would allow users to plug the iMac into another computer and use that 5K display, it would also bring USB Type-C (which is incorporated in Thunderbolt 3) and obviously it would speed up any accessories plugged in.

Storage in the new iMac

Storage is one area where we really hope to see change in the entire iMac line up. We think that flash storage should be standard across the range, or at least a Fusion Drive (high-performance hybrid blend of flash and conventional storage) should be included. It is possible to pay £90 at point-of-purchase to add a Fusion Drive to the 21in models and we think that this should be standard as the Fusion Drive makes such a significant difference to the performance.

This would be a significant improvement because 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. Mac laptops with similar processors will perform noticeably better than the equivalent iMac because of their faster SSD drives.

Added to this, the 21in iMac ships with an exceptionally slow 5400RPM hard drive as standard - that’s the kind of hard drive you find in a laptops (except these days you’ll be hard pushed to find a laptop with a HDD rather than an SSD/flash drive). The hard drive in the iMac undoes any of the benefits of the faster processor and graphics card. To be frank, we don’t think Apple should be shipping any iMacs with hard drives in this day and age, and while we accept that some people want the maximum storage available, and a 1TB hard drive is significantly cheaper than a 1TB SSD, Apple does offer the Fusion Drive build-to-order option that combines a flash drive with a 1TB hard drive, and in our tests this upgrade makes such a marked improvement to the entry-level iMac that we have always advised that people upgrade. It’s a no brainer.

We really can’t fathom why Apple won’t just include the Fusion Drive as standard across the range, we were disappointed when the company reduced the size of the SSD element of the Fusion Drive in the 2015 line up and didn’t just offer it as standard. It was the kind of change that you could appreciate the company making if they were going to add it for ‘free’ not if they were expecting customers to pay for it. We certainly hope Apple sees sense with the 2017 iMac.

Price of the new iMac

Back in October Apple shocked us all by raising prices across all its products. Perhaps the increases shouldn’t have surprised us in the wake of Brexit, but the increases left prices at pretty exorbitant levels, going up as much as £400.  

Prices currently start at £1,049 for the entry-level model, rising to £1,249 and £1,449 for the model with the 4K display. Given that the 4K iMac was £1,199 when it launched, you can see this is not a tiny increase.

The 5K iMacs start at £1,749, rising to £1,949, with the top of the range costing a steep £2,249.
It could still be said that the 27-inch iMac line-up is great value for money, if you were to purchase a 5K display of this quality it would cost a lot more than the price of the 5K iMac, and it wouldn’t come with a fast, capable, fully functioning computer.

We hope to see the entry-level iMac fall back below the £1,000 level, but we certainly don’t hold out much hope for the rest of the line up returning to pre-Brexit pricing levels.

OUR VERDICT

The message of this article isn’t just to hold off buying an iMac for now because we expect a new range to launch soon, it’s also to say where we think Apple should be improving the new models. If Apple fails to make the changes we have outlined above we will be very disappointed.

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