IMac with 5K Retina display 3.3GHz
All the pixels, fewer pounds. Is the new entry-level Retina iMac a killer desktop?
From £1,599 Manufacturer Apple, apple.com/uk Processor 3.3GHz Intel Core i5 Graphics AMD Radeon R9 M290 2GB Memory 8GB Storage 1TB HDD
We absolutely loved the 5K iMac when it first appeared late last year. The base model rivalled the Mac Pro for computing power and gave us that amazing 14.7-millionpixel screen. At £1,999 it didn’t come cheap, but now Apple has cut the price of that original model down to £1,849 and added this new entrylevel option, which weighs in at just £1,599. The question is, what corners had to be cut to save that £250?
First, the processor is slower, with a frequency of 3.3GHz compared to the 3.5GHz in the higher model. But it’s still an Intel quad-core i5 chip, and it does seem that the only difference between the two is pure speed, and not a big one at that. Benchmarks suggested we’d see a difference of less than 10% in both single-core performance (which is what you need for many standard tasks around the operating system and simple apps) and multi-core (for pro-level tasks like video or 3D rendering).
Don’t mind the gap
In fact, the gap turned out to be even less than we expected in our real-world video encoding test – the entry-level machine didn’t even take 2% longer than the higher-end version to finish the task. Given that they come with the same amount of RAM, for a lot of uses you’d see no appreciable difference.
The AMD R9 M290X of the upper model has been switched for an AMD R9 M290, though here losing the X makes more of a difference. They both offer 2GB of video RAM, but our Batman: Arkham City 1080p benchmark dropped considerably, from 88 frames per second in the higher model down to 55fps.
That said, performance in Tomb Raider was much closer, dropping from 49fps in the higher model to 42fps when played at 2,560x1,440 on High settings. In all cases, it means that demanding games are very playable but you’ll get a little more future-proofing from the higher-end model’s 290X chip.
There’s one more difference between the two iMacs, though, and this is likely to be the biggest one for performance: storage. This entrylevel iMac comes with a 1TB hard drive as standard – an old-fashioned spinning (7,200rpm) drive. The advantage of this is immediately obvious: space. If you’re planning to use the 5K iMac for high-level photography or large-scale video work, you’re going to need a lot of storage space. That’s where hard drives excel, no question.
But when we look at buying a high-performance machine like this, we want the blistering speed of a solid-state drive. It’s not that the hard drive in the iMac feels especially slow in use, at least when the machine is still fairly new – apps load extremely quickly, and it doesn’t take long to boot at all. But that changes over time, as it fills up and becomes laden with apps and files.
If you’re planning to work with things like large image libraries, a solid-state drive will save a fair amount of waiting for files to be opened over time. That said, editing 4K footage in Final Cut Pro was perfectly responsive, with smooth timeline playback as it switched between clips, even with the footage playing back at highest quality.
In the higher-end iMac, Apple provides a Fusion Drive as standard, which is mostly the best of both worlds – SSD speed for apps and common files, with 1TB of storage overall. You can configure this iMac model with a Fusion Drive, but the upgrade costs £160. If you were going to spend that, we’d say you’d get the most value from spending an extra £90 and just buying the higher-end model, with its other faster components.
Big screen star
Despite these compromises, that 5K display remains the same, and is just as astonishing and almost unbearably desirable. Everything on it looks amazing, from any angle, with accurate colour reproduction. It’s a huge amount of space to work in, providing a vast amount of room and detail for creative apps, or the ability to have multiple documents open and readable.
It’s totally unforgiving to imagery, of course, since you can have many photos open at 100% with space for editing tools nearby, but that also means that it’s unrivaled for getting in close to inspect and improve them in your editing app of choice.
Ultimately, this iMac is a strange one to recommend. Taken on its own, it’s undoubtedly an excellent machine: lots of CPU power, enough graphics capability, and that glorious display. But we believe you really should be looking at an SSD or Fusion Drive for longevity, and that means that you might as well go for the next model up for overall best value. If you don’t mind having only a hard drive and want to save the money, then this is a great buy – otherwise, we’d encourage you to invest in the upgrade.
This entry-level Retina iMac is almost as good as its pricier sibling, but we do wish it came with an SSD.
Same glorious 5K display 3.3GHz system is no slouch No SSD as standard 3.5GHz model better value
For the entry-level price, Apple has had to ‘budget’ with its choice of graphics chip and processor.