The next iMac?
We dust off our crystal ball and gaze into the future of Apple’s flagship computer – the iMac. Will it get Intel’s Skylake architecture? Will we see the return of the anglepoise design? Let’s find out…
Reports suggest Apple’s working on a 10nm, six-core A10 processor that makes current processors look like they’re powered by steam
The iMac has a special place in Apple fans’ - and we’re sure, Apple executives’ - hearts: the candy-coloured iMac G3 was the computer that brought Apple back from the brink of disaster. It looked like nothing on earth until everything on earth copied it, and its subsequent iterations would continue to redefine how a desktop computer should look. The current, incredibly slim iMac is probably the most beautiful, but we have a soft spot for the anglepoise iMac G4. If Jonathan Ive fancies revisiting that one with the next generation of the iMac, we’d be at the front of the queue to buy one!
The iMac has taken some giant steps recently. It ditched the SuperDrive in 2012, and it gained the extraordinarily pretty - and for imaging pros, extraordinarily useful – 5K display in 2014. However, there are two clear weaknesses with the current line, 5K iMac aside: the lack of Retina displays and the fudge that is the Fusion Drive.
Retina displays are coming – the El Capitan beta contained references to a 4K, 21.5-inch iMac and an image that shows it isn’t going back to the anglepoise just yet – but the Fusion Drive should be here for a while still: solid-state storage is still significantly more expensive per gigabyte than traditional hard disks. Apple is currently charging around £200 for every 256GB of flash storage – so giving an iMac 1TB of flash storage would cost an extra £800. That’s four times the price of the Fusion Drive, which uses its 128GB of flash storage to speed up OS X and your most commonly used apps. It’s not as fast as a pure SSD, but until flash memory prices come down significantly, it’ll remain the sensible option for anybody who needs lots of space as well as lots of speed. However, when prices fall – or when our ongoing embrace of streaming and cloud storage means that 1TB drives aren’t needed by most purchasers – the iMac will ditch the hard disk as happily as it did the SuperDrive.
The iMac’s processors tend to be picked from the top rung of Intel’s consumer range, but the current models are desperately overdue replacement: Their Core i5/i7 processors use Intel’s ageing fourth-generation ‘Haswell’ architecture, which Apple has had to stick with due to serious delays in the introduction of fifthgeneration Broadwell processors. A minor update may bring Broadwell to the iMac – code in El Capitan suggests that the 4K iMac will have Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics, which are part of that architecture – but it’s the sixth-generation chips we really want to see: the S-series Skylake processors are significantly faster and significantly more energy efficient than their fourth- and fifth-generation predecessors, have significantly improved integrated graphics in the form of Intel HD Graphics 530, and can support wireless charging – although as we explain in iSpy on page 114, the iMac’s role in any Apple wireless system is likely to be as the charger, rather than as the device being charged. The powerful Skylake processors also support faster DDR4 RAM and USB-C, the new highspeed USB connector we’ve already seen in this year’s 12-inch MacBook. In the very long term it’s possible that Apple will switch to its own processors as it once moved from PowerPC to Intel – reports suggest it’s currently working on a 10nm, six‑core A10 processor that makes current mobile processors look like they’re powered by steam, and of course in many respects the iMac is a mobile computer that just doesn’t go anywhere – but a key feature of the iMac is performance. Analysts say that Apple’s silicon will catch up to Intel’s Atom and Core i3 within the next year or so, but that’s still a long way behind a Haswell Core i5 processor, let alone a Skylake i7 one. The Broadwell delays have doubtlessly reinforced Apple’s desire to control its own processor technology, but there’s still plenty of work to do before iMacs no longer need to have Intel inside.
In September, LG apparently accidentally outed a new iMac with a sharper screen: not a 4K iMac, or a 5K one, but an 8K one. That’s a screen with a whopping 7,680 x 4,320 resolution, delivering 33 megapixels, and according to LG, “Apple has announced that they will release the ‘iMac 8K’ with a super-high-resolution display
later this year”. Apple has announced no such thing, of course, but as LG makes the display for the current 5K iMac perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this one. It’s certainly possible: the latest embedded DisplayPort standard supports 8K displays, although we’re not sure we could tell the difference between a 5K 27-inch screen and an 8K one.
On the turn
We mentioned the anglepoise iMac earlier, and we weren’t just being nostalgic: Apple has filed a number of patents that suggest it has at least considered an iMac-style computer that sits vertically for keyboard and mouse use but that folds down for touch input and control. It’s something that could certainly work, but the existence of the iPad Pro and its subsequent iterations is likely to address the relatively small number of customers who need a big Apple device with a touchscreen and Apple Pencil. When it comes to inputs for iMacs we’re more likely to see revised Apple Keyboards, Magic Trackpads and Magic Mice, along with the much‑rumoured arrival of Siri in OS X, but if the iMac itself keeps on slimming down then there’s no reason why the display shouldn’t be movable horizontally as well as vertically.
In terms of the iMac’s appearance we don’t think it’s going to change much: Jony Ive’s ongoing mission to make devices almost invisible beyond their screens means the big screen/thin case approach is likely to continue, albeit with shrinking bezels and quite probably the same Space Grey, Silver and Gold options we’ve already seen in the MacBook. The iMac started off as Apple’s colourful Mac; maybe it’s time for it to take that role again.
Could a super-widescreen iMac and future OS X support triple Split View and enable you to turn the display in almost any direction?