Photographers get excited about lenses and cameras, but it's not every day that a computer can get the entire photo industry buzzing like the new iMac 5k has. Obviously, the main draw to the computer is the insanely high resolution screen, but it takes a lot more than a pretty screen to justify the high price tag of this photo-editing powerhouse.
[pullquote cite=”Jim Harmer” type=”left”]In short, the iMac 5k is the finest photo editing computer ever created, and has won a permanent place at my photo editing station. However, it's not all roses and unicorns. Most photographers will be underwhelmed by the ultra high-resolution screen at first, and the bugginess and port placements will put off some photographers.[/pullquote]
I've been using the iMac 5k for several weeks to get used to the computer before coming to a final recommendation since I new that hundreds of thousands of photographers will likely read this review as part of their buying decision.
I'm glad I waited and spent some time with the device, because it will let us take a much more in-depth look at the computer, starting with the screen and then looking at every other aspect of the device.
But before we begin, I should say that this review really isn't intended to be controversial, but I fear that I'll offend the fanboys with my honest, real-world review of the display, and at the same time I'll offend the Windows users who will hate to hear how much I love this computer.
The 5k Screen: All it's cracked up to be?
I can't write about the screen on this computer without sounding entirely contradictory. After all, it's the best photo editing screen I've ever seen, and at the same time I think most photographers will only find a marginal difference between this screen and the previous generation iMac.
If you are currently using a 1080p screen on your photo editing machine, you'll see a night and day difference and you'll never be able to go back. However, if you've already been using a higher resolution screen like that of the previous iMac's 2560×1440 display, you'll likely not be able to even tell the difference until you really spend some time on the screen and pay attention to the finest details on a photo.
Background for Non-Techies
Screens are made up of pixels, and the number of pixels on a screen is the resolution. An HDTV manufactured any time in the last few years is likely 1080p, meaning that the screen is comprised of 1920 columns of pixels along the long edge of the screen, and 1080 rows of pixels on the short edge. If you multiply those numbers together, you see that a typical HDTV has 2 million pixels.
This is also common for computers manufactured in the last few years. It's likely that your laptop is 1080p if it's between 1 and 3 years old.
Some computers, however, have higher resolution screens. For instance, the previous generation iMac 27″ has a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels, which figures out to 3.6 megapixels.
The iMac 5k crushes those numbers with a whopping resolution of 5120 x 2880 pixels, which is 14.7 megapixels.
Do the specs tell the real story?
On paper, the resolution of the iMac 5k is a game-changer (I despise that word as it's usually used to over-hype incremental changes). Truly, it is. Allowing a photographer to see 14.7 million pixels in his or her photos would seem to be a massive improvement over the 3 megapixel images we have seen in days past.
But the truth is that when I first used my 5k iMac, I was underwhelmed. At first, I had to squint and put my face right up next to the screen to even tell the difference between it and my 2013 iMac. I could see the difference, but it wasn't nearly as dramatic as I had expected.
In fact, I put the iMac 5k to the test and displayed 10 high resolution images to a group of about 10 people. Some of the guinea pigs are very experienced photographers with great technical knowledge, and others were casual photographers and even some non-photographers. I placed the 5k iMac side-by-side with the 2013 iMac and asked them to identify which screen was showing the 5k image, and which was displaying the lower resolution image.
The results were absolutely shocking. In most cases, my test subjects could tell no difference whatsoever between the screens. Watch my video review to see the confused faces of the test subjects–trying their hardest to see any difference at all.
First impressions aren't everything
I'll admit it. It was tough to tell the difference between the screens at first. I could clearly see that text was sharper, but when viewing photos, the difference was quite minor. Now, after my eyes have spent a few weeks with the 5k display, I can somewhat readily tell the difference between the screens and I really have fallen in love with the retina screen.
Although the difference can be described as slight, it is not a useless upgrade by any means. In fact, as I looked back at some photos that I edited in the past, I noticed some rather glaring errors in my post-processing that are hardly visible on the “older” iMac screen.
The image below is a prime example. I reduced the noise on the background using a hard brush. The brush stroke was not visible enough on the old screen for me to notice the obvious brush stroke error. However, on the iMac 5k, the noise on the brush stroke looks terrible and is obvious. The higher resolution display makes noise far more noticeable. I've zoomed in so you can see the error that is only really visible on the 5k iMac.
Now I hope you can understand my initially contradictory opinion of the 5k screen: It's the best photo editing screen I've ever seen, and at the same time most photographers won't initially be able to tell the difference between it and other medium resolution screens; however, if you're coming from a lower-resolution 1080p screen, you'll get your socks knocked off.
Many of you read Jeff Harmon's excellent article on the differences between Mac and PC for photo editing, where he describes how each component of a computer affects the speed of the computer for photo editing differently.
The iMac that my wife (who won the “wife of the year” award as far as I'm concerned) purchased for me for Christmas is completely specced out with the fastest processor, ram, video card, and SSD that can be put into the iMac 5k. It's not fast, it's insanely fast. I mention that right from the beginning of this section for two reasons: (1) I can't comment on the performance of the entry-level iMac 5k configurations available other than relating what I've heard from others, and (2) To point out that even with the max configuration, there are still speed and reliability issues for Apple and app developers to sort out.
The following benchmarks and tests were performed on the iMac 5k, completely specced out: 1 Terabyte SSD, 32 gigs of RAM, 4.0 ghz i7 processor, and a 4 gig video card.
[skill_bar heading=”Cinebench OpenGL Score” percent=”95%” bar_text=”102.24 fps”]
[skill_bar heading=”Reboot Time” percent=”20%” bar_text=”47 seconds – slow”]
[skill_bar heading=”Cinebench CPU Score” percent=”89%” bar_text=”715 cb”]
[skill_bar heading=”BlackMagic SSD Speed Test” percent=”100%” bar_text=”682 Write, 714 Read”]
[skill_bar heading=”Time to Start Photoshop, Lightroom, and Adobe Premiere at Once” percent=”100%” bar_text=”4 seconds!”]
As you can see from the benchmarks and tests above (in addition to others I performed but which aren't worth mentioning individually), the iMac 5k can be an extremely fast computer for photo editing. In fact, it's significantly faster that base configurations of the Mac Pro in most benchmarks.
Quite frankly, photo editing programs are not extremely demanding on a computer–certainly more than surfing the web, but far less than video editing or gaming. At the base configuration of the iMac 5k, you're likely to encounter some sluggishness, but upgrading to an i7 processor, an SSD, and 16 gigs of RAM will yield a machine that will virtually never be dragged down by the likes of Photoshop or Lightroom.
Running Adobe Software: Photoshop CC, Lightroom 5, and Premiere CC
Some of the most demanding tasks for Photoshop are the liquify filter and the smudge tool. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't work faster with the liquify tool than the computer could render. While the rarely-utilized smudge tool is still slow, it's noticeably faster than on other high-end Windows and Mac computers I've used.
Lightroom is fast enough that there should be zero delay in moving sliders on a decently powerful machine. However, tasks such as applying presets can present a split-second delay. On the iMac 5k however, I found that applying presets often takes several seconds–a major annoyance considering how important presets are to my workflow. I can guarantee that this is not due to the speed of the iMac 5k, however. Instead, I think this bug can safely be blamed on Adobe and I'd expect to see this fixed in an update soon.
Adobe Premiere feels like it was made for the iMac 5k. I have not encountered any of the bugs like I found in Lightroom, and previewing a full 4k clip while still having real estate for controls and a timeline is useful for high-end video editors. Everything feels slightly more responsive, from import to export. Even clips with several effects are less likely to cause slowness in 1080p video.
For many years, I've heard photographers who use Macs tout that the Adobe programs run better on the Mac. While I love my Mac and wouldn't go back to Windows, I have not found this to be true at all. The Adobe programs seem to work equally well on both platforms in my opinion. In fact, I might even say that I get about 5% more crashes of Adobe programs on the Mac. There are some compelling reasons to choose the Mac, but this one is pure fanboyism.
Design, and Usability
If you are coming from a Windows computer–even a high-end Windows computer–you'll quickly be won over by the stunning design of the iMac. The iMac previous generation was my first Mac, and I went kicking and screaming. I was determined not to like it and despised the Apple fanatics, but even a quick glance at the computer and it's tough not to appreciate the gorgeous design.
The sides of the computer are only 5mm thick to give the impression of thinness, but the middle of the back of the computer juts out significantly to fit the beefy internals of the machine. The all-metal construction and glossy screen is enough to win over even the pickiest of aestheticians.
For those of you who may already have a previous generation 27″ iMac as I did, you won't find anything new at all other than the fact that the Thunderbolt ports are now Thunderbolt 2 ports. Thunderbolt 2 uses the same cord and connection, and is backwards compatible. That, and obviously the screen change. Other than that, the body of the computer is absolutely identical in every way.
However, there are serious drawbacks to the design of the iMac. Most notable is the placement of the ports. Want to put in your SD card to download photos? The card reader is on the back of the computer–good luck reaching it. The same is true for the 4 USB 3.0 ports, the headphone jack, the two Thunderbolt 2 ports, the ethernet port, and the Kensington lock. It is a pain, but after a month or two of using the computer you get used to it somewhat and you'll be able to reach back without looking most of the time. I bought a cheap USB hub to hang down under the computer for quick plug/unplug of devices.
Another drawback is the skimpy number of ports on the machine. Since most iMac 5k users are photographers, videographers, and media creators, many users will want a few more ports. Most notably missing is HDMI. Those using the iMac in a video production environment will also wish the computer had a capture card. No luck. Also, there is no dedicated audio-in headphone jack. Some photographers still using cameras with CF cards will also wish it had a built-in CF reader.
But for me the missing ports are in the Thunderbolt department. Thunderbolt absolutely shreds every USB 3 device I've ever tested. Consequently, I've proliferated Thunderbolt devices, but only have two ports into which I can plug. I also run out of USB ports on occasion and had to purchase a hub.
For running Adobe programs and doing basic video editing, I recommend getting your iMac 5k configured with 16 gigabytes of RAM. Apple has always been a little skimpy on the RAM, and the stock configuration for the iMac 5k is not sufficient in my opinion and that of many other reviewers. 16 gigs of RAM is sufficient for the vast majority of users, but I beefed mine up to 32 gigs of RAM to handle the fact that I frequently have Premiere, Photoshop, Lightroom, Screenflow, and Adobe Audition open and running processes at the same time.
As for the processor, I have found the i3 to be significantly underpowered in other machines, but the i5 included in this machine is quite good for most users. Adobe programs are processor-intensive so the processor is a smart upgrade if you've noticed slowness in the Adobe programs on other machines you've used.
The video card is not used by most photo-editing programs, but becomes extremely important when editing video for obvious reasons. If you plan to use your iMac for casual video editing projects that periodically come up, you shouldn't have any trouble whatsoever with the 2 gigabyte video card. With 2 gigs in my previous-generation iMac I never saw any sluggishness when editing 1080p video files unless I added multiple effects. With 4 gigabytes now and a specced out machine, I could edit 4k in full resolution preview without issue until multiple effects are added, and the computer slices through 1080p like butter.
Upgrading the iMac 5k is quite difficult and requires significant technical knowledge for anything other than the RAM. The hard drive and processor can be upgraded, but only for the adventurous and skilled few who dare disassemble the machine and know how to find the exact right part. The RAM, however, is easily upgradeable.
If you purchase your iMac 5k from Apple and choose to upgrade to 32 gigabytes of RAM, you'll find the cost to be extremely high. I and installed it myself, which saved me $300. The job took exactly 60 seconds from start to finish and can be done by anyone–no technical skill required. I purchased two kits of RAM from Crucial.com on Amazon and popped in the chips myself. There is a small door on the back of the computer that can be opened where you'll find a convenient tray with the RAM. Remove the old sticks and pop in the new. Done!
The iMac is a media production machine, and that's how it is used by the vast majority of those who purchase it. So peripherals like the webcam and speaker quality are significant for many users.
The speakers on the iMac 5k are placed along the thin bottom edge of the screen. These downward-firing speakers produce a surprisingly full sound when compared with other computer speakers. When I'm editing the audio for the Improve Photography Podcast, I still wear headphones; however, for less mission-critical audio editing I find the built-in speakers to be sufficient. The sound is still not to the quality of a decent external computer speaker setup, but it's 90% as good.
The FaceTime webcam is not something I've particularly found success with. The video is noisy even with studio lights turned on in my office, and exposure can sometimes flicker rapidly. I purchased a Logitech C920 webcam and have been much happier.
The built-in microphone is average for quick Skype chats with Grandma, but is wholly inadequate for any professional audio use. I purchased the Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR mic for recording voice overs and webinars. For podcasting I use a more professional setup.
Make no mistake–the iMac 5k is pricey! My configuration cost $3,785.26 and I put in $300 of RAM, bringing the total cost to $4,085.26 for the top-of-the-line, completely specced out iMac 5k.
However, the iMac 5k starts at $2,499. The base model I would consider slightly underpowered for an ideal photo editing system, but just the addition of $145 of RAM to bring it up to 16gb would make it an extremely capable, professional setup.
There is no doubt that the iMac 5k will put a dent in your wallet, but compared to other 5k displays on the market, it's a bargain. Dell's 5k 27″ monitor costs $2,499 at the time of writing–and it's just a monitor with no computer inside!
You can price out your build of the computer on the Apple website here.