The new iMac is here and I’ve got so many first impressions to share. So if you’re just itching to decide if you should order now, now, now, and you want answers, you want the truth, well… it’s literally my job to give you all you can handle.
These are the decisions Apple made with this iMac, what I think about them, and how it all looks.
The 2020 27-inch iMac looks like… a 27-inch iMac. It has the exact same design as the previous model and all previous models going back to 2014 when Apple introduced the first 5K iMac, and a similar if wider design going back even further to the 2002 OG chin-on-stand that was the iMac G5.
To be clear, this was totally expected. With new Apple Silicon Macs on the way, pairing the new characteristics with new designs those characteristics make possible, makes something else as well — the kind of sense that does.
Just like it makes sense to let the now classic Mac silicon architecture get one last hurrah on the now classic Mac all-in-one design.
A solid slab of glass with a bead blasted aluminum chin, cleft by the Apple logo, perched on a ridiculously thin piece of angled metal.
Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait for what’s next, but Apple finishing up on what’s now is just… perfect.
The iMac already had a phenomenal display. Retina density and P3 gamut, which means everything looks crips, rich, and deep.
Now, with this 2020 refresh, it’s layering on two more pretty big improvements.
The first is TrueTone. That’s Apple’s dynamic color temperature matching technology. It debuted with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro back in 2016 and it works now the way it worked then — multi-channel sensors determines how much florescent vs. incandescent vs. sunlight is around you, and adjust the display so whites don’t look too warm and yellow or cool and blue, just well balanced, paper-like white.
This is the biggest display Apple has ever implemented TrueTone on and it seems to work well enough. Of course, if you’re in a studio setting with perfect light and you’re doing precise color editing on photos or video, by all means turn it off. Otherwise, leave it on and enjoy.
The second is a nano-textured glass. That’s Apple’s new glare reduction technology. It debuted last year on the Pro Display XDR. And, the way it works, is instead of adding a matte coating to the glass that scatters light to diffuse, which reduces glare but also contrast, Apple’s etching a nano structure into the glass itself. That lowers reflectivity while preserving more of the contrast.
Now, it does increase the price tag by U.S.$500, and requires you to be a bit more careful about how hard and often clean it. Basically use the cloth that comes with it or a microfiber and use water or your display cleaner… Don’t be shy, just don’t be a belt sander.
It’s not XDR, or extreme dynamic range, like the Pro Display, but that costs as much as a well-decked out iMac itself. But it is EDR, or extended dynamic range. What that means is, basically, it doesn’t have the sustained or peak brightness levels for HDR, high dynamic range, but the color, detail, just everything about it looks so much better than just the panel itself has any right to.
For photos, video, games, just anything with this color, at this size, with this pixel density, at this viewing distance. I just want to live inside this world.
And, if you’re curious, yeah, there’s still no target display mode. Long story short, Apple had to work around Intel’s lack of support for 5K displays by building a custom timing controller to prevent things like pixel tearing down the middle, and that’s still what they use in the iMac today, and that’s always why it still can’t pretend to be a regular display.
Intel 10th Gen
Remember when Tim Cook announced that the Mac was being transitioned to Apple Silicon back in June at WWDC? And remember how right after that he mentioned that Apple would still be releasing new Intel Macs.
Well, this new 27-inch iMac is one of those. May the one.
It’s been updated to 10th-generation ‘Comet Lake’ CPUs. Now, real talk: Comet Lake is still on Intel’s 14 nanometer process. Try as they might — or might not, turns out silicon drama is every bit as present as YouTube drama, so you decide you — they haven’t been able to bring these desktop chips down to their 10 nanometer process, which is closer the 7 nanometer TSMC process Apple’s currently using for the A-series in the iPhone and iPad, much less their 7nm process, which has just been delayed again, even as Apple and TSMC get ready to go their similar 5 nanometer process.
Yeah, they don’t use matching numbers for their process marketing, did I mention silicon drama?
So, to make up for the lack of process shrink, Intel is once again throwing cores at us to increase performance. In this case, 6-, 8-, and 10-cores, all hyper-threaded for the new iMac. Yup, 10-cores in a consumer iMac.
Can an iMac chassis that was designed for Intel actually meeting its dye shrink goals handle more cores on those same dyes?
Well, Intel will tell you that they only guarantee base frequencies and any turbo boost you get is going to ramp down hard as temperatures ramp up. So, if you have a lot of what burst-based workloads, like launching apps and opening web browsers, you’ll get better bursts of speed. Especially across multiple cores. But if you’re doing anything sustained, you might just want to go with slower, cooler cores.
Could Apple have gone with AMD here to get better performance in a smaller package at a lower cost? Potentially but not practically.
It’s super easy, barely an inconvenience to just say things like “shoulda used AMD!” on the internet. But Apple has a long-term partnership with Intel measured in volumes of purchases, deep integration of engineering resources and software and silicon features, and it’s the end of the line for x86 anyway.
IRL, in terms of resources and product, it makes zero sense to switch before… the switch.
So, Intel. And while there’s not much improvement core-for-core between 9th and 10th gen, the ability to have those extra cores can make a significant difference for any workload that exploits them, which includes music and video production, 3D rendering, software builds, scientific modeling, and more.
Apple claims up to 65% improvement between top of the last line and top of this one. That’s for Logic Pro plug ins. 25% for WebKit compiles. For me, for Final Cut Pro rendering, they’re claiming 40% on pro-res transcode.
I don’t have the older iMac to compare it to, but I’m sure we’ll see I ton of real-world benchmarks pop up over the next few weeks.
Here’s what I’m getting for pure video export between the i9, 9th-gen 16-inch MacBook Pro and this 10th Gen, 10-core iMac.
Critically for some people, Intel is Intel, and that means you get to Bootcamp or virtual machine your way into Windows for anything you still want or need to do on Windows.
I mean, there’s a reason the Mac is moving to Apple Silicon, but there’s also a reason Apple is getting the iMac fully decked out in the latest Intel silicon before they do.
For the people who still need it for the next few or many years to come.
AMD Radeon Pro 5000
For graphics on the newly updated iMac, Apple’s gone with the AMD Radeon Pro 5000 series. It’s built on AMD’s RDNA architecture and fabricated on TSMC’s 7 nanometer process, same as Apple’s A-series chips in iPhones and iPads.
It’s not Nvidia, no matter how much some people want them some CUDA cores, because Nvidia and Apple are currently at cross-purposes. Nvidia wants to commoditize computers so it doesn’t matter what box runs those CUDA cores. Only Nvidia matters.
Apple wants to abstract away the silicon, so it doesn’t matter which GPU is running beneath their Metal frameworks on the Mac. Only the Mac matters.
And it’s hard to see that changing any time in the near future, especially with the Mac moving to Apple GPUs along with the rest of its silicon.
Now, AMD has been focusing their attention and budget on CPUs for the last while but, recently, they’ve been shifting gears towards amping up their GPUs as well.
These are the beginning of that.
Apple claims up to 55% improvement. That’s for Cinema 4D. 50% for the Unity fly-though demo. Specific to my interests, up to 30% faster timeline rendering in Final Cut Pro X.
And again, here’s what I got for an export, which to me is the real metric that matters.
Synthetic benchmarks are fun to watch, sure. But how long it takes me to get a specific piece of work done, and how much faster a new machine makes that — literally time to output… that’s everything.
Apple’s T2-chip is new to the regular iMac but not the Mac in general. The iMac Pro has had it since 2017. Why did it take so long to come to the regular iMac? If I had to guess, T2 has an SSD controller built in and, until now, some iMacs still had HDDs. So… If you’re not familiar with T2, it’s basically a variant of the A10 Fusion from the iPhone 7. Apple calls it a security chip because it handles secure boot and real-time encryption on the Mac, as well as Touch ID on the MacBooks.
But it’s really a full-on co-processor that also handles everything from system controllers to accelerators. Everything from the image signal processor for the camera to the audio signal processor for the speakers, to always-on processing for voice-activated Siri, to H.265 encode and decode blocks, to the performance controller that figures out how and when to dispatch just all of that.
It’s probably just not marketed as a co-processor because Intel. But it’s what makes Apple to non-Apple comparisons so bananas.
It’s really hard for anyone outside Anandtech, and even inside, to truly measure what’s hitting CPU vs. T2, and why a Mac with the same set of specs as a PC can achieve very different performance levels, especially when you’re using software like Final Cut Pro X that’s aware and optimized for it.
We now live in a world where the 13-inch MacBook Pro maxes out at 32GB of RAM, the 16-inch maxes out at 64GB, and the 27-inch iMac as of right now, maxes out at 128GB. Yeah, up to 128GB in the iMac non-Pro.
It still starts at 8GB, which is too low for me. Even though macOS does a good job at memory compression and the custom storage controller is so fast it can effectively smoke-and-mirrors swap as memory, I’d still recommend 16GB for most people. But, since the memory in the 27-inch remans user-accessible and upgradeable, you can certainly start with 8GB from Apple and then source your own higher-capacity sticks if and when you need them.
Apple has also gone entirely SSD across the 27-inch iMac lineup, with up to 3.4GB/s sequential read and write speeds.
You can start with 256GB if you only really want an internal boot volume and plan to hang all your main storage externally off the back. But you can also go all the way up to 8TB now as well, which is absolutely terrific if you do want to store at least your primary, working media on your main internal drive.
I recommend 1 to 2 TB for most people, because it gives you space you may well need and it’s easy to find even fast external drives to back up to or clone.
For that external storage, or for any other peripherals you want, the iMac has kept all the same ports:
Four USB-A for your old school connects. Two USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 for your latest and greatest — and that includes the ability to add up to Pro Display XDR’s if the mood and budget strikes you.
A couple of those ports have been upgraded though.
The SDXC is now USH-II, so it’s faster. And I appreciate it still being there, unlike the MacBook Pro… even though I’ve since moved on to CFast Express… Type B on Canon, not Type A like Sony, because the card world is still terrible and we will never know a dongle-free life.
You can also now upgrade the gigabit ethernet to 10 gigabit Ethernet as well.
Bluetooth is 5.0 and Wi-Fi remains at 5 or 802.11ac. It looks like Apple just never intended to go to Wi-Fi 6 on Intel silicon. Which, given some of the issues WiFi6 has had, probably worked out timing wise anyway.
Keyboard and Mouse
You get the same Apple Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse with this new iMac as you’ve gotten with the last many. You can choose whether you want it with numeric keypad for an extra $30, or with a Magic Trackpad instead of Magic Mouse for an extra $50.
Which I do in a heartbeat because I, personally, subjectively, vastly prefer the trackpad.
The Magic Mouse is still in need of a complete redesign so charging it isn’t ridiculous and so you can run it while connected if you have any radio issues or just prefer it that way. Same as you’ve always been able to do with the trackpad or keyboard.
And, yeah, there’s no Touch ID on the Magic Keyboard. That probably has nothing to do with Apple not being able to secure remote Touch ID — you’ve been able to authenticate on Mac using Touch ID iPhones for years — and more to do with the cost of putting Touch ID tech into the keyboard.
I think, practically, Face ID on future iMacs make a ton more sense, since it will let Apple Silicon just handle all that, all in one SoC place.
I saved the best for last. Instead of a tiny, potato-of-a-webcam, the new 27-inch iMac comes with a full on 1080p webcam. The sensor is back illuminated instead of front illuminated, so the hardware itself is just much better. And, thanks to the T2-chip and it’s iPhone 7-level image signal processor, you get really good processing as well, with face detection, white balance, tonal mapping, and more.
It’s way better than even the $200 Logitech 4K Brio I’ve been using for the last many months.
Ok, so, speaking of those speakers, they’re also leaning on the T2 chip for better audio. Basically, variable EQ so sound… sounds better no matter if you’re turning the volume down or way up.
Sadly, there’s no new hardware like the 16-inch MacBook Pro, though I hope that’s a trend that continues as well, because they’re the current high bar in my opinion, but they’re richer and more detailed than before. And because the iMac is much wider than any MacBook, they already had terrific separation.
Now, Apple is claiming the mics are studio quality, like the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which means about USB mic level. There are two mics in the chin and one on the back, mainly for noise cancellation. And they work great. I used them for a couple meetings and a live stream podcast and everyone listening seemed genuinely shocked at how good they sounded.
Nowhere nearly the same as the XLR mics and higher-end interfaces I usually use, but way better than an iMac previously had a right to.
Here’s my full run of modern Macs, with some iOS devices thrown in for comparison, and this new iMac added to the stack.
So, yeah, progress!
Who’s this for?
So, with Apple Silicon Macs on the way, and presumably an Apple Silicon iMac one day, at least in a year or two, it’s perfectly fair to ask who should or even would still buy an Intel iMac today?
And I think there are four answers to that.
One, if you want or need the ability to run Intel Windows on Bootcamp for via virtual machine, you’re going to need an Intel Mac.
Two, if you use specific, high-end production software that barely supports Intel Mac as it is, and worry it will take a long time or simply never support Apple Silicon Macs, you’re going to need an Intel Mac.
Three, if you hate the idea of buying rev-a boards, and what I mean by that is first-generation products, and you want to wait and see how it performs for others, what issues and tradeoffs there may be, then you’re going to want to stick with an Intel Mac for now.
And Four, if you just need a new iMac now, now, now and really don’t care what kind of silicon is inside it as long as you have it and can use it now.
All of those are perfectly valid reasons for getting an Intel Mac even now, today, and exactly the reason Apple is releasing it now, this week.
So there’s a latest, greatest Intel iMac for everyone who does want and need it, so they can have it and use it and it will last them for as long as possible until they’re willing and able to take that next leap.