For $2,499 and up, this is Apple’s newest desktop: it’s designed for photographers and videographers and anyone who wants to look at their computer a little differently. As Apple has placed its mainstream focus on laptops and tablets, its desktops have become the province of professionals, and they have become quickly and remarkably more powerful machines. The iMac with Retina display, a monster of a consumer desktop, falls right in line.
Personally, I don’t really have use for one. I bought an iMac four months ago, and it works just fine. I write and use the internet for a living. But all it took was ten minutes — now I’m trying desperately to find a reason to upgrade.
APPLE DIDN'T CHANGE THE IMAC'S DESIGN, AND IT DIDN'T REALLY NEED TO
But let’s get back to that slab of glass. The 27-inch screen on the iMac with Retina display is, in a word,awesome. I just don’t mean that it’s very good — I mean it is genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s the kind of screen you look at and your jaw drops. You look at it and you don’t want to look away. It’s the kind of screen that makes my tweets look somehow more impressive by virtue of sheer, spectacular clarity.
The display measures 5,120 pixels wide by 2,880 pixels tall. That’s 14.7 million pixels, 218 per inch. It’s seven times as many pixels as your 1080p TV (which is probably also much larger), nearly three times as many as the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. Neither of those comparisons is actually useful, of course; nor is telling you that the iMac with Retina display has 150 times as many pixels as the Moto 360. The point is simply this: the iMac with Retina display has a lot of pixels, and there’s a lot you can do with all those pixels.
By default, the iMac displays at a resolution of 2560 x 1440. Apple uses a calculation it calls "points" to determine how things look on the display; points represent physical distance, so at the default resolution you’re seeing everything at exactly the same size you’d see it on a lower-res iMac. The difference is that where the non-Retina iMac displays only one pixel per point, the Retina display shows a square of four; that’s four times as much detail, four times as many opportunities to create sharper edges and cleaner lines. (Apple’s been doing this on iOS devices for years, to make everything look the same no matter which iPhone you own.) That’s why text looks incredible on the Retina iMac, why I love reading on this computer in a way I never have on the iMac I bought just a few months ago, why Bioshock Infinite, at the same settings and resolution as my iMac, looks much cleaner and crisper. More pixels makes everything look the same, only better.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH ALL THOSE PIXELS?
Trouble is, there’s not a lot of that content yet. There are a lot of iMac users who aren’t editing a lot of video; they’re using the iMac as the family computer, for Netflix and YouTube and gaming, for running their nail salon or real estate business. Netflix doesn’t stream its 4K content to PCs, so you’re stuck with fuzzy, soft movies. Even YouTube’s 4K videos are obviously compressed and mushy. It’s not that it’s worse than on any other computer, of course, only that the contrast with the rest of the experience is much more stark. If you’re sitting at TV distance, a living room away, anything on the screen looks great, but if you’re at a desk with the iMac you’ll notice when the content can’t keep up.
IT TAKES HIGH-END POWER TO KEEP 14.7 MILLION PIXELS RUNNING – EXPENSIVE POWER
Actually, I should mention one thing: you can’t use this remarkable display as a secondary computer monitor. It requires so much horsepower to keep 14.7 million pixels active that you can’t use the iMac’s display as a secondary display for any other device. Dell’s own 5K display may be more expensive and not even come with a computer inside, but if all you want is a monitor, that’s the one to get.
But even with all this horsepower, I get the occasional sense I’m right at the threshold of what the iMac with Retina display can handle. For all it can do, for all the seamless editing in Premiere and 60 frames-per-second gaming, I still see videos stutter when I scroll fast in a Safari window. I still occasionally get the dreaded beach ball as something loads. Some of this is certainly software, but it feels very much as if I’m making complete use of what the iMac with Retina display can do.
IF YOU'RE BUYING THE BASE MODEL RETINA IMAC, CONSIDER WHAT YOU'LL USE IT FOR
The iMac is explicitly designed for people who work with video; that’s who Tim Cook talked about at the launch event, it’s who’s featured on Apple’s website and in its marketing. Luckily, The Verge’s video team mostly uses iMacs for their editing and everyday work, so I dropped a Retina iMac onto the desk of Director John Lagomarsino to see how he felt about the upgrade.
But solid 1080p performance in Premiere is pretty much a given these days. So I imported a few 5K RED Epic files to see how the machine fared. In the native RED codec, playback on the timeline at full or one-half quality was fairly choppy, even when the media resided on the internal SSD. When the footage was converted to ProRes 422, Premiere was able to play back at full 5K, fullscreen, without any noticeable stutters or delays (and boy, does 5K footage look incredible on this screen).
After Effects was similarly zippy. Warp Stabilizer, 3D tracking, and motion blur all processed and rendered very quickly on this iMac. I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the graphics card versus the CPU, but something about this combination made After Effects really move. I should also say that during all this processing, the iMac remained, for all intents and purposes, silent. Even under a full CPU load, I couldn’t hear the fans spin up over the minimal ambient background noise in the room. Likewise, the back of the machine didn’t seem to become all that hot to the touch during renders.
That said, I’d be curious to try the base model of this iMac for video work. While our unit was certainly very fast, I wasn’t quite as blown away by its performance as I was by the new Mac Pro. With a weaker configuration than our very expensive review model, I’m not sure the 5K display would be enough of a draw to get me to sacrifice any power.
For virtually every purpose, this machine is excellent: it’s powerful and attractive and well-suited to almost any task. Most importantly, it’s a genuine pleasure to use. The screen is so big, so deep, so vivid, that I find myself eschewing phone or tablet more than ever in favor of sitting down in front of this remarkable 27-inch display.
RETINA IS THE FUTURE OF THE IMAC, MAKE NO MISTAKE
One piece of advice, though: if you don’t want to buy an iMac with Retina display, don’t use one. Don’t even look at one. Because as soon as you do you’ll wonder how you’re ever supposed to look at anything that came before.