iMac with Retina 5K Display review (late-2014)

A stunning 14 million pixel display is backed up by top performance

IT Pro Innovation
Price
£1,999
  • 5K display; Workstation performance; Thunderbolt 2; Upgradeable RAM
  • Price jumps up quickly when configuring

Apple's 27in iMac are popular in creative environments where it's common place to see designers, photographers and video-editors beavering away on them.

With the introduction of the 5K iMac, Apple is looking to increase its user base of professional customers. 

The trademark 5mm profile houses high-end components including a quad-core processor, Fusion Drive and the innovative Retina 5K Display. Perhaps the only barrier to adoption could be the 2000 starting price.

5K Display

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Plenty of thought has gone into developing the headline grabbing 5K display.

Apple uses IPS technology and the 5K iMac is capable of displaying a total of 14.7 million pixels. Despite providing 4x the pixels of its 27in predecessor, the display uses 30 per cent less power because the LEDs used for the backlight are more efficient.

The panel offers a maximum resolution of 5120 x 2880, which allows you to see individual details in photos and videos.

It's possible to run a 4K video (3840 x 2160) at full-size, and have plenty of space remaining to edit it within applications such as Adobe's Premiere Pro or Apple's own Final Cut Pro.

Image quality is superb, with remarkable clarity and detail, rich colours and strong contrast. The iMac also has a high maximum brightness of 446cd/m2. We were able to leave it at 50 per cent for the majority of our tests.

Despite the high pixel count there were no scaling issues with the 5K display, a problem plaguing Windows PCs with resolutions higher than 1920 x 1080. This is because the scaling technology built into the OS X allows you to adjust the size of text and graphics to suit your personal preferences.

Developers such as Adobe have also had years of experience with the Retina displays in other Apple products, ensuring key applications such as Photoshop can scale effectively at these high resolutions. In contrast, Adobe has only recently announced support for High DPI displays in the Windows version of Photoshop.

There are no Windows PCs or workstations able to match the resolution or quality of the 5K iMac on the market as of writing. Dell has announced a standalone 5K display, but this is due for release at the end of this year.

Performance

The 5K iMac may not be able to match the sheer horsepower of the Mac Pro's Xeon processor and twin AMD FirePro graphics cards, but it still provides strong performance. 

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The Haswell i5 has a Turboboost option capable of increasing the clock speed to 3.9GHz, and along with the R9 graphics card this provides a strong overall score of 96 in our benchmark tests. The iMac nudges ahead of the 95 scored by Dell's Precision M3800 mobile workstation, which costs around 1700 but has a far more modest 15in display with 3200 x 1880 resolution.

Performance is also consistent across a range of different applications, peaking at 106 for video-rendering and confirming the iMac's suitability for video work. There's a slight dip to 91 in our Photoshop tests, which is probably due to the use of the Fusion drive rather than dedicated solid-state storage, but it's still fast enough to meet the needs of all but the most demanding users.

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Connectivity

Apple ships the iMac with 2 x Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, providing transfer speeds of up to 20Gbps for use with accessories such as high-speed drives for video-editing. If you want to maximise performance then it might be worth swapping the Fusion drive for 256GB of solid-state internal storage which doesn't increase the iMac's basic price and then adding external USB or Thunderbolt drives as required. 

Other features include 4 x USB 3 ports, SD card slot, and Gigabit Ethernet for wired networks, along with 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4 for wireless connectivity.

5K Display 2K Price

All these high-end components come at a price. The 5K model starts at 1999 with a quad-core 3.5GHz Haswell i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and Apple's hybrid Fusion drive (1TB HDD and 128GB SSD). The 5K display also packs some serious graphics horsepower, which is provided by an AMD Radeon R9 M290X graphics card.

Anyone using the iMac for 4K video-editing will need at least 16GB of memory, which adds 160 to the price. It's possible to max out to 32GB of RAM for 480. However, the configuration of RAM is not critical at the time of purchase as the 27in iMacs are amongst the few Apple products where memory is user upgradeable.

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There are options to tinker with the storage too. Fusion drive can be upped to 3TB for 120, but if you want an SSD-only model, you can swap out the standard 1TB Fusion drive for a 256GB SSD for no extra cost. You can also increase the SSD to 512GB for an extra 240, or 1TB for 640. 

Again, it's possible to replace the Fusion drive if you're prepared to risk dismantling the unit, but this isn't an official user-upgrade option and will void your warranty.

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The options for processor and graphics upgrades are also relatively limited. There's a single processor upgrade option providing a quad-core i7 running at 4GHz for 200, while graphics upgrade offer only a Radeon R9 M295X for the same amount again. 

It's obvious Apple is trying to avoid cannibalising sales of the powerful Mac Pro by limiting upgrade options on the Mac. Even so, the sheer value for money offered by the iMac's 5K display will be a strong temptation for many professional users who might otherwise have opted for the Mac Pro.

Overall

With a 2000 starting price, the iMac With Retina 5K Display is a substantial investment but represents good value for money. 

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The 5K display puts it in a league of its own, and lays down a challenge to rival PC manufacturers. It also manages to provide workstation levels of performance helping to ensure the iMac will remain a popular choice for creative professionals.

Verdict

It’s expensive, but the iMac’s strong performance and unparalleled 5K display make it ideal for design, photography and video-editing work.

Operating System: OS X Yosemite (10.10)

Processor: 3.5GHz Intel Core i5-4690 (3.9GHz Turboboost)

GPU: AMD Radeon R9 M290X (2GB VRAM)

Display: 27in IPS display, 5120x2880 resolution

Memory: 8GB DDR3

Storage: 1TB hybrid Fusion drive

Optical: N/A

Connectivity: dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0

Ports: 4 x USB 3, 2x Thunderbolt 2, SD card reader, 1 x headphone

Weight: 9.5kg

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