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…

Mac Format - - FUTURE MACS -

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!

Stor­age dilemma

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.

Sky­lake gen­er­a­tion

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?

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