Back to the Mac – Part II

As a continuation of my last post, I will cover the remaining aspects of the new 5K iMac and conclude my thoughts on the initial experience. First up: … wait, why can’t I remember what the first item is?


Memory (RAM)

As the only upgradeable part of the 27” iMac (and not even a user-serviceable option on the 21.5” model), the memory is the one part I can go with the minimum for now and upgrade at a later date without voiding the warranty by opening the case. The included 8GB should be ok for now, but if I find myself running into memory limits with Final Cut Pro X or Logic Pro X projects in the future, it’s a problem that is easy (although not inexpensive) to fix. Also, DDR3 is the older standard at this point – but it’s apparently not enough of a concern for Apple to prevent using it (for low-power reasons) in their recently revamped MacBook Pro laptops.


Fusion Drive (Solid State Drive + Hard Drive Disk)

This is something I’ve commented on before, and is worth a revisit 3 years later now that I’m putting my money where my mouth was and still is. As I’ve been a staunch advocate of solid state drives for years now, buying a new computer with a hybrid solution (NOT pure solid state storage) is an interesting step for me. And again, while I haven’t spent much time with the system yet I would echo Anandtech’s review of using Apple’s Fusion Drive:

For the first time since late 2008, I went back to using a machine where a hard drive was a part of my primary storage – and I didn’t hate it. Apple’s Fusion Drive is probably the best hybrid SSD/HDD solution I’ve ever used, and it didn’t take rocket science to get here. All it took was combining a good SSD controller (Samsung’s PM830), with a large amount of NAND (128GB) and some very aggressive/intelligent software (Apple’s Core Storage LVM). Fusion Drive may not be fundamentally new, but it’s certainly the right way to do hybrid storage if you’re going to do it. – Anandtech.com

The version of the Fusion Drive is largely the same in the computer I purchased as what Anandtech reviewed three years ago – a 128GB SSD paired with a 2TB traditional spinning hard drive. What’s changed is the SSD is a lot faster now (NVMe PCIe vs. AHCI). But while the Fusion Drive has largely kept a good balance of speed and capacity at a reasonable price, the continuing improvement in pure SSD storage prices (sometimes as low as $0.25 per GB) means that balance is less optimal as time goes on.

Long term, I can upgrade this iMac with an external Thunderbolt 2 enclosure to house a high-capacity SATA III SSD (e.g. Samsung 850 Pro 2TB) as a replacement boot drive someday. (Thunderbolt 2 has an effective throughput of 20Gbps bi-directional, which is more than sufficient for a SATA III SSD. However, it is not the PCIe powerhouse of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 at 40Gbps that is already in the latest MacBook Pros and rumored for the next iMac refresh). A tradeoff for future-proofing ability, but at this point a budget-conscious one at that.

Overall, the storage situation for this iMac is a lot different what I originally pictured. With a little over 2TB of storage (2TB + 128GB), I have enough storage space to comfortably edit moderately large amounts of video, audio, and photos –albeit not at blazing fast speeds (thank goodness I lack a 4k video camcorder). But if I were to opt for pure SSD storage directly from Apple, that’s a price premium I am simply unable to justify despite my preference for SSDs. As a reference, how much do you think Apple charges to upgrade the new MacBook Pro models from the default of 256GB of NVMe PCIe Flash Storage (a fast SSD) to the 2TB SSD option?  Try an eye-watering $1,400, which is almost as much as I paid for the entire iMac itself.


Screen (the “5K” in 5K iMac)

I almost left this one out, but it’s really the central feature of the iMac line: a gorgeous 27” Retina display. Apple marketing does a good job of selling this feature, and to their credit it is difficult to find a suitable comparison in the all-in-one desktop market with similar specs and quality (the $3,000 Surface Studio being the sole competitor). This second revision of the 5K display uses what Apple calls a “Wider Color Palette” that for the photography/videography aficionados is a P3-based wider gamut than the typical sRGB. You have to have a capture device (such as the iPhone 7) in order to display images with a P3-based color gamut, but the difference is noticeable in terms of more accurate color reproduction (reds in particular stand out more).

As I tend to pay closer attention to the aspects of computers directly related to performance (CPU, GPU, Storage), it’s tempting to gloss over the 5K screen as just a really nice built-in display. But that’s really selling this retina display short, so let me elaborate. For starters, 5K displays have a resolution of 5,120×2,880 pixels, or about seven times the pixels of a standard 1,920×1,080 (1080p) display. That’s an incredible amount of additional information to show on the screen at one time. At a screen size of 27″ a 1:1 scaling from that of a 1080p display would result in ludicrously tiny fonts and user interface elements. Instead, Apple has long taken the approach (starting in 2010 with the iPhone 4) with their “retina” displays of using 4 pixels in place of 1 (on a 1080p display) to give everything on the screen an incredible level of sharpness and fine detail (especially obvious with text).

An aside:  As long as developers include appropriate retina-class high-resolution elements in their applications, it’s an easy way to implement support for retina on macOS. This was a bit of a problem early on when retina came to the Mac in 2012 with the MacBook Pro, but adoption was relatively quick (aided by the transition on iOS two years prior). Worst case was that some parts of the application would be “blurry” because of their lower resolution images and text. But otherwise the quad-pixel 200% scaling was – and still is – so much better than the HiDPI scaling mess of Windows (better in Windows 10, but still hit-or-miss). Unfortunately, Apple has started to mess with that formula with some recent Macs that aren’t quad-pixel multiples to give the user more “room” on the screen for more windows. It’s a trade-off that offers more screen real estate at the expense of crystal clear text and UI elements. (You could always manually do this in display settings for any retina Mac, but never before was it set as the default “best” setting). It isn’t terribly noticeable thanks to the scaling process macOS performs to render what’s on the screen, but I’m just glad my 5K iMac has a big enough native resolution that I can have my cake (effective “room” of 2560×1440 of a previous-generation 27″ iMac) and eat it, too (quad-pixel scaling for crisp text and images).


Miscellaneous

As I mentioned, the Thunderbolt 2 standard has been eclipsed by Thunderbolt 3/USC-C. But if the latest MacBook Pro revision is any indication, the next iMac might require dongles and adapters for anything else besides a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connector. The iMac I purchased also has a gigabit Ethernet port, SDXC card slot, regular USB 3.0 ports (compatible with just about every USB device to date) and 3.5mm headphone jack. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the interest of pushing toward the future of computing Apple will deprecate all but the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connector on the next iMac – making #donglelife a thing on the desktop.

In terms of physical dimensions, I still maintain that a svelte desktop is much more of a nicety than a functional or ergonomic advantage that would be the case with a laptop or mobile device (which you carry with you). Nevertheless, it remains impressive just how much Apple’s industrial design team has done to make a tapered aluminum shell housing a gorgeous screen – and, you know, an entire computer as an added bonus. The “lampshade” iMac G4 with its round base and crane-like arm holding the display mid-air will always have a special place in Apple’s history of impressive designs, but the current “chin” design of all iMacs after that seem to have settled on the Platonic ideal of the desktop PC.


Initial Impressions

So, with the specs and features outlined (in many more words than are probably necessary), I’ll revisit my experiences with this new iMac in the future once I get a chance to put it through its paces (Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X, I’m looking at you both). Of particular interest will be how the Fusion Drive performs over time as I start loading more content onto it (beyond the 128GB of PCIe Flash storage). Hard Drives perform increasingly slowly as more and more content gets added (and data fragments over time), so that’s a potential pitfall. And with the upcoming APFS (Apple File System *ding*) coming to the next version of macOS, I’ll be really interested to see how it will work with the Fusion Drive (if at all – the beta builds don’t support Fusion Drives at this point).

But even at this initial point, I can say that I’m glad I moved away from the Hackintosh – this is such a better experience overall.

(Although in a twist of fate, by troubleshooting another graphics card I found out that a BIOS setting was preventing discrete cards from working – and I verified that my old workhorse AMD Radeon 6870 with its native macOS support is still functional. Which means that the Hackintosh isn’t totally dead after all since the GPU was the tipping point for my decision to leave the Hackintoshing world for good. So, if I ever decide to resurrect the Hackintosh in Victor Frankenstein-fashion… No! Don’t give in to that siren song yet again!)

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