Retina 5K iMac review

As we expected we are happy to report that Apple has indeed updated the iMac, adding a Retina display model to the line up.

In this first look preview we will tell you everything we have learned about the new iMac with Retina display, including what it is like in the flesh and just how beautiful that high-res Retina display is. 

The rumours that Apple was about to launch a new iMac with a Retina display have been ongoing, so the release at the special event on 16 October wasn’t a big surprise. As predicted it is only the 27in iMac that is gaining a 5K Retina display screen - the 21in iMac remains the same, and the 27in iMac without Retina display remains, so there is an option for those who want the power of a 27in iMac without the super high-res display (and extra expense).

The rest of the iMac range remains completely unchanged in terms of specs. The entry-level model introduced on 18 June 2014 remains the same, and the rest of the range, introduced back in September 2013, hasn’t changed, they still keep their same Haswell processors. We think that Apple is waiting for new chips to arrive from Intel before it updates those iMacs. Read more about the Retina iMac release date here.

Here's our live blog of the Apple event so you can read about what happened if you missed it.  

New Retina 5K iMac: the Retina display

Over in the demo room Apple proudly showed off the world’s highest resolution computer screen - the new Retina 5K iMac. It offers 5120 x 2880 pixels, that’s a total of 14.7 million pixels at 217 pixels per inch - which you’ll notice is slightly lower than the pixel density offered by the MacBook Pro with Retina display (2880 x 1800 resolution at 220 pixels per inch.)

According to iFixIt, this screen is made by LG, the supplier of the Retina display in the MacBook Pro, and for some iPad models.

This 5K iMac screen is, however, a four-fold increase in pixels compared to the non-Retina iMacs and seven-times more pixels than a 1080p display. That's pretty impressive in such a compact 27in package - even more so when you consider it's an actual all-in-one computer that we are comparing to 5K displays that are priced even higher.

The 5120 x 2880 resolution was expected as it is a resolution that is mentioned in the OS X Yosemite code. There were some concerns that if the iMac was to feature a higher-resolution screen the graphics requirements to power such a screen would be vast. As screen sizes get larger, the graphics card requirements also increase. In order for the Retina display resolution on the 27in model to hit 5120 x 2880 pixels it would require a lot of processor power. Apple has found a way around this and it’s even gone so far as to be able to claim that the 27in Retina iMac uses 30 percent less power, and is EnergyStar 6.1 compliant.

In order to make this 5K Retina display low on power consumption, while retaining the same dimensions of the iMac screen, Apple has performed what it describes as an “engineering feat". The technology behind the new iMac Retina display includes a specialized timing controller that Apple designed itself, which does the job of telling the pixels what to do, along with Apple’s organic passivation technology (also used in the iPad Retina display) which makes sure there is no leakage from one pixel to another as the pixels are fired them up with different currents.

The result, as far as we could see in the conditions in which we were viewing the new machine, is beautiful high-detailed pictures. Apple assures us all this is achieved in a power effective way. In a briefing following the keynote, we were told that Apple doesn't have to turn on more power to get uniformity from the display, which means the display itself actually consumers 30% less power than the iMac display that it replaces. That’s quite astonishing considering how many pixels there are to light up.

The important bit is how these extra pixels look. Of course the point of pixels packed this closely is that you can’t actually make out the individual pixels with a standard human retina - unless you have some kind of bionic eyes - but Apple showed us images taken with the 8K Hasselblad camera to demonstrate the level of detail you can see as you pan around the images. We were impressed. For example, if you look closely enough at image of mountains you may be able to find animals, examining pictures of animals meant it was possible to see individual strands of fur. Apple proudly showed off some of the 5K wallpapers that will come with Yosemite.

Another important requirement of the Retina display is accurate colours and vibrancy - images should look like what you’d expect them to look like. Apple says that to achieve this it has "aligned the pixels on a molecular level so each of the pixels on the display are aligned the same way", this basically means that if you stand right in front of the display you are going to have a uniform set of colours.

But that's not all, Apple has also added a special film that improves the off axis viewing. This isn't just for people peering at your screen over your shoulder, but also as a user - you may be sitting facing the middle of the display, but with such a large display the sides will be off axis. Apple's attempting to ensure that the individual user sees true colours from one side of the display to the other. When we get to spend more time with the display we will be able to assess whether Apple has been successful but based on the time we have spend with it we are impressed.

Obviously this new display is ideal for photography, but Apple also showed us some footage in Final Cut Pro taken with the Red Dragon 6K to show off the 5K video that editors will be playing with on this new display and again we were impressed, although we haven’t actually tried to edit any of this footage so we can't yet report back on how Final Cut Pro runs on this system. FCP runs a full 4k resolution window. 

It’s not just photo and video editing programs that will benefit from the high res display. Users should also appreciate the clarity of the text: the contrast between blacks and whites should make text stand out, says Apple.

While Apple is claiming that it’s the world’s highest resolution computer display, you can get similarly pixel dense monitors, such as the Dell UltraSharp 27 Ultra HD 5K Monitor. Those monitors  are pretty pricy though, and Apple was proud to tell us that the 27in iMac with Retina display will cost less (more on the price below). Apple also emphasises that this is an all in one desktop, not merely a 5K display.

You cannot run a second 5K display from the iMac if you were wondering.

New Retina iMac: Design

The design of the new Retina iMac isn’t any different to previous models, although Apple was very proud to explain that all the new screen technology fitted into the same 5mm thin screen as offered by other iMacs.  

New Retina iMac: Processor 

There is a 3.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor in the 27in Retina iMac with an option to upgrade to 4.0GHz. This is not a next generation Broadwell processor as some had hoped, but this may not matter as we explain below. 

We were pretty confident that the reason why Apple hadn't yet updated the iMac for 2014 was that it was waiting for Intel to release its new Broadwell chips - which have been delayed. It was expected that Apple would wish to take advantage of these latest generation processors. 

Broadwell is the successor to Haswell (the chip currently in the iMac, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air). It uses a 14 nanometer process. However, there are not expected to be any low-end desktop CPUs based on Broadwell, which may explain why Apple appears to be bypassing this chip after all and waiting for Skylark, the next generation due to land next year. 

Intel has introduced Core M chips for laptops and mobile devices, but as yet no Broadwell chips designed for desktops. Broadwell is unlikely to add any real benefit to the iMac, but it does leave Mac users feeling that they haven’t really seen a significant update in some time. 

New Retina iMac: Storage 

Apple has made the sensible decision of offering a 1TB Fusion Drive as standard in the 5K Retina iMac. We discovered what a good idea this was earlier this year when we looked at the entry-level iMac with a Fusion Drive, read our Apple iMac (21.5-inch, Mid 2014) with Fusion Drive review

Essentially by adding a Fusion Drive you get the best of both worlds, fast Flash storage and the high capacities of a traditional hard disk. There are also build to order options including a 3TB Fusion Drive, or 1TB of Flash storage. We’ll look more closely at the build to order options below. 

New Retina iMac: RAM

There is 8GB of RAM in the Retina iMac. It’s 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM, and there is an option to up it to 16GB or 32GB. 

New Retina iMac: Graphics 

The new Retina iMac sports a AMD R9 290x Radeon graphics card, although you could opt for a AMD R9 295x Radeon graphics when you purchase it. The current generation of iMac sports Nvidia graphics cards. 

Regarding the build to order options, Apple said users can upgrade to fastest ever graphics on an iMac.

New Retina iMac: Upgradability

According to iFixIt, who have already performed a teardown of the Retina iMac, the new model is practically identical on the inside to the rest of the range, with the exception of the new Retina display.

The good news is that while the RAM in the Mac mini is no longer user upgradable, according to iFixIt’s tear down, the RAM upgrade slot is still accessible at the back of the new iMac.

Also, just like last year, the CPU in the iMac is not soldered to the logic board, so it can be easily replaced (although it’s not a job for the faint-hearted). The hard drive is also user upgradable, but again will require some adhesive cutting. If you were to update your iMac this way you might void your warranty.

New Retina iMac: Ports 

The back of the display section has mostly the same inputs and outputs as the other iMacs, including a headphone jack, SDXC card slot, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack. The big difference is that this new iMac offers Thunderbolt 2, which offers twice the throughput (up to 20Gbps) for transferring data from external drives and other supported peripherals. 

The new iMac does not feature the new USB Type-C port (rumoured to appear in the super-thin MacBook Air). 

New Retina iMac: Price 

We expected that the cost involved in producing a 27-inch iMac with Retina display would result in higher prices, but the Retina iMac comes in at £1,999 at the base model. Which as Apple pointed out during its keynote is a lot less expensive than many 5K displays.

New Retina iMac: Build to order options 

The Retina iMac offers the following build to order options: 

4GHz Quad-core i7 + £200 

16GB RAM + £160

32GB Ram + £480

3TB Fusion Drive + £120 

256GB Flash Storage + £240

512GB Flash Storage + £240

1TB Flash Storage + £640 

AMD Radeon R9 M295X 4GB GDDR5 + £200

All these options would bring the price of your iMac to £3,519. 

OUR VERDICT

There is no desktop computer like the iMac. That was true before it gained an ultra-high resolution display, and it’s quite literally doubly true now. While the rest of the PC industry is still issuing low-grade and low-resolution displays with its PCs and laptops, Apple has spotted a key area for improvement and continues to raise screen quality to new heights. Meanwhile the few Windows PCs that have exceeded full-HD resolution displays are hamstrung by an operating system that cannot consistently cater for the tighter pixel pitch. More than just a great display, the iMac Retina 5K has a well-balanced computer driving it, with plenty of performance to power through games and any everyday task. Creative professionals on a budget, whether editing photos or videos, will also find plenty to like here, and at a sub-£2000 price point considerably more affordable than a PC workstation and separate 5K UHD monitor.

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