My main machine is a late 2014 27″ iMac with a 4GHz Core i7 CPU, 24GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD (plus a big external RAID for most of my files). While it runs fine, I would like something with Thunderbolt 3 support, with faster graphics for X-Plane, and with more computing power for ripping Blu-Ray discs. It’s also beyond AppleCare age, and if something fails, it will be expensive and time consuming to repair.
When the iMac Pro came out, I was intrigued, but the price point is scary high and there was the “new new” Mac Pro on the horizon—potentially a cheaper alternative, given the display wouldn’t have to be bundled (and upgradeability is a good thing). I was hoping for an update on that machine at WWDC this June. Instead, we got the update much earlier, though it’s not was I was hoping to hear: The new new Mac Pro won’t be released in 2018.
As a result, if I want to replace my iMac this year, I have only two choices: A new iMac non-pro, or a new iMac Pro. (In theory, I could look at a MacBook Pro with an eGPU for graphics, but I despise the Touch Bar, and that’s the only way to get the highest-spec MacBook Pro. But I really want a desktop Mac, not a laptop-as-desktop Mac.)
So just what would I be getting for my money with either machine? And how do those machines compare with the Frankenmac homebuilt I put together last year? And perhaps more intriguingly, how do they compare with the 2013 “new” Mac Pro that Apple still sells today?
To answer those questions, I turned to the Geekbench 4 benchmark app, which includes both CPU and graphics (they call it Compute) benchmark tools.
Note that I am not in any of the target markets for a typical Mac Pro buyer—I don’t crunch huge scientific data sets, I don’t render massive 4K movies, and I’m not compiling huge programs on a daily basis. But I have always been a fan of the Mac Pro for one reason (up until the most recent one, at least): Customization. Having a customizable Mac means it can last longer, as you can make changes to keep up with technology. I have owned both the Motorola and Intel era Mac Pros, and they were truly excellent machines.
One Mac to rule them all
The older Mac Pro (and its predecessors) were—as I recently wrote—wonderful machines, because you, the user, could do so much to them. You could add RAM, of course, but you can do that to most any current Mac.
You could also choose up to four hard drives to put inside the case—no messy cables, no need to worry about a child or pet disconnecting your drive while it’s rendering a movie, etc. If you outgrew them, you could easily replace them. In my Mac Pro, I had an internal Time Machine drive (in addition to the external Time Machine drive.)
I’ll admit it: I’m a desktop image (nee wallpaper) addict. I love to use a wide variety of images, and change them often throughout the day, just to keep my work environment fresh. On my two external displays, I use iPhoto images—general photos on one, kid pictures on the other. But for the main iMac screen, I prefer to use photos taken by others—typically stunning landscapes and cityscapes from all over the world.
With the arrival of my 5K iMac, however, my existing collection was no longer sufficient. Yes, they were all 2560×1440 images, which matches the “apparent” resolution of the Retina iMac. But in order to make that image fill the Retina iMac’s screen, it’s first scaled up to 5120×2880, then displayed by OS X at 2560×1440. As a result, my desktop images aren’t nearly as sharp looking as they were on my old 27″ iMac’s display.
As an example, here’s a segment of two versions (2560×1440 and 5120×2880) of the Sydney Skyline, as screen-captured when set as my Retina iMac’s desktop picture. As you move the divider bar right, you’re revealing more of the 2560px version; move it left, and the 5120px version takes over.
After scrolling back and forth a bit, you might be thinking these pictures are identical, and I’m just seeing things. While I may be seeing things, the pictures are not identical. (Compare some closely-spaced lights and the crispness of vertical lines in each image to spot the differences.)
Read on for a closer look at the image, which really shows what you’re losing by using a 2560x1440px desktop image on a Retina Mac…as well as a list of places I’ve found that have 5120x2880px images available.
While I’m still busy setting up my Retina iMac—given I always do this by hand, it’s time consuming—I did take a few minutes to see how the graphics performance compares to that of my mid-2011 iMac.
To test the Macs, I use a visual benchmark called Unigine Valley. This benchmark puts the graphics card through a real workout, and is fun to watch while running. Before the results, here’s a quick comparison of my two iMacs:
3.4GHz Core i7
4.0GHz Core i7
AMD HD 6970M
AMD R9 M295X
And here’s how they did…
I’m no math whiz, but it looks like the new Retina iMac is over twice as fast in the graphics realm as my older machine. I knew it’d be faster, of course, but I wasn’t expecting that kind of speed up. Wow.
After seeing the new iMac with Retina 5K display (I’m just going to call it a Retina iMac from here on out, or even riMac for short), I decided it was time to upgrade my aging but still oh-so-functional mid-2011 27″ iMac.
For those contemplating the same upgrade, you may be mulling decisions on processor, RAM, storage, and graphics cards; here’s the logic behind each of my choices in those areas, in case it helps you with your decision.
This was the simplest decision to make—I always buy the most powerful CPU I can afford. In the case where the choice is a Core i5 vs. Core i7, I will always go for the Core i7. That’s because only the Core i7 supports hyper threading, which, as Apple writes, is “a technology that allows two threads to run simultaneously on each core. So a quad-core iMac has eight virtual cores, all of which are recognized by OS X. This enables the processor to deliver faster performance by spreading tasks more evenly across a greater number of cores.”
In addition, by upgrading the CPU, I make the machine more usable many years down the road—whether for my own use, or when reselling to someone else.