With ultra-high definition resolutions becoming increasingly commonplace, the desire for pixel-packed screens is bigger than ever. And the Apple iMac with Retina display surpasses the 4K trend that is eking its way into the home cinema space by offering a 5120 x 2880 pixel resolution. Wowzers.
That 5K display isn't about numbers for numbers' sake though. The iMac is a workhorse machine; that significant resolution is targeted directly at designers, editors, producers and, when upgraded with the ample innards, makes for a great photo/video editing machine.
The 27-inch screen is wrapped in a slim all-in-one unibody that is oozing style typical of Apple, with the trademark all-aluminium finish. It makes things look great, and is equally good looking - can the iMac with Retina 5K display do no wrong?
We've been living with the 5K iMac for a fortnight as our day-to-day desktop and it has dominated our desk and workflow. Quite literally. It looks brilliant on the desk, even if it could hardly be considered unassuming - it's the first thing any visitors have asked us about when popping into the office.
The design sells itself on being slender, with an edge thickness that measures around the 6mm mark. That's what gives the iMac a deceptively tiny frame, despite fattening out to around 55mm in the centre from the front to widest back point. Include the stand and that's a 203mm total, in order to keep that large screen held upright.
The stand is a single foot with smooth, rounded edges that connects to the screen with a vertical hinge for angling the plane to your preference. Tucked behind the screen element is an opening to feed the power cord through so it doesn't disrupt the pared-down design aesthetic.
Other ports, however, are sat to the rear right-hand side (when facing the screen), which is a right pain in the, well, the behind. It's as so to keep everything out of eyeshot and tidier, but that doesn't help when it comes to plugging in peripherals.
The usual suspects - 3.5mm headphone, SD card slot, four USB 3.0 slots, twin Thunderbolt 2.0, and Gigabit Ethernet - are present here, but are all a total fiddle to use without sliding the whole iMac around, as the hinge means the screen doesn't rotate horizontally. We'd be just as happy with a larger edge width if it meant some (but not all) ports were side-mounted.
Ergonomically the sheer scale of the 5K iMac immediately changed our seated position. As the base of the device begins around 77mm up from the desk surface on which it sits and there's a further 87mm before the screen even begins - that means it's 167mm from the desk before you get to see the first horizontal line of the screen - you'll want an office chair (or maybe a high chair) that can accommodate a comfortable seated position. Ours was too low, or perhaps the desk was too high.
We found ourselves sat back more, but that's got to be better for spine and posture than the usual hunched-over-the-laptop look. A couple of days in, and we felt extra comfortable staring at that all-encompassing display.
The included Mac keyboard is identical to the ones you'll find present in any MacBook product, meaning immediate familiarity with key sizes and spacing. No full-size number pad though, which some designers might find of use for number entry. There's also a Magic Mouse with gesture pad integrated that feels natural and responsive in use. Both peripherals are positively dwarfed by the scale of the iMac itself.
The iMac Retina is all about that screen. The idea of 5K may sound excessive, but it has an abundance of uses and, in essence, means you can fit more into the screen's real-estate.
Load a browser and website widths show in full, with plenty of leftover space for having other applications to the side. We opted for Tweetdeck to the right side and iTunes sat underneath which kept everything in view without needing to toggle between applications as much as we usually would.
Although that's not the reason to buy into a 5120 x 2880 resolution screen - it's all about professional application. We've been editing photos and the combination of Adobe Photoshop and Bridge works a treat. You can even load applications both side by side, making for a multi-screen-like experience from the single display.
Stitching together huge 36-megapixel raw files into a giant panorama (almost 12,500 pixels wide) made for an image that looked simply stunning at this resolution. It's ultra crisp, especially when viewed from a close-up position, there's loads of brightness available and the colour balance seems excellent to our eyes. Full sRGB colour space is achieved, but OS X Yosemite doesn't handle full 10-bit colour so the wider Adobe RGB gamut is outside of its capable range.
We've watched some GoPro Hero4 4K content via YouTube and it looks exceptional, as does upscaled 1080p video. Video editors will love the fact they can dive into native 4K content in Adobe Premiere with tools present around the frame all on the one screen.
However, not all applications will be able to render at the native 5K screen resolution. It's unlikely to stop them working, though, and we only spotted issues with text looking "stretched" and therefore pixelated. No biggie.
For the £1,999 outlay the base iMac Retina delivers a quad core 3.5Ghz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, a separate AMD Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB DDR5 RAM, and a 1TB Fusion Drive. Ours is slightly modified with a quad core 4Ghz Intel Core i7 processor (add £200) and AMD Radeon R9 M295X with 4GB of GDDR5 RAM (add another £200). No choice of Nvidia cards this time around which is a bit of a shame though.
In that configuration everything has been running like a dream. As an example, opening 10 raw files, each around 22MB and being adapted through Camera Raw for use in Photoshop (where they float at over 100MB a piece), took just 23-seconds on the iMac. On our MacBook Air the same task took 86 seconds. The iMac chomps through tasks and makes everything that much smoother.
We've loaded up Xcom: Enemy Unknown in Steam and it can run in the native 5120 x 2880 resolution. It looks almost ridiculously sharp, to the point that the in-game textures are out-resolved by the resolution on show. It's a right show-off of what's possible, despite the frame-rate not living up to gamers' high standards. However, 1440p is available with no problems - with the right spec the iMac could be considered a gaming machine.
Pushing things to their limits ceases the otherwise silent operation though: that GPU needs some cooling and when the fan kicks in you'll hear a little whirr of air. Nothing hugely disruptive, but present nonetheless.
There's also the distribution of RAM to take into account. OS X Yosemite loves to utilise what you have available by distributing open applications the majority of available RAM. With just Photoshop open that's 4.2GB RAM allotted already. Add Tweetdeck, Chrome, Firefox with half a dozen tabs, iTunes, Mail and that's the full 8GB RAM used, with 9GB virtual memory also assigned.
Yosemite does juggle things as necessary though. It will quash the amount of active memory assigned to Photoshop if you open a bunch of other more demanding applications, and we've never seen any slow-down or stop-out issues.
However, hardcore video editing and the like will benefit from additional RAM we're sure. If you want 32GB then you'll need to fork out an additional £480, or 16GB total is a more affordable £160 from the Apple Store. The biggest tip we can give you here is don't give the money directly to Apple. There is a port on the rear, easily popped open via a button behind the power socket, and it's possible to expand the memory yourself. There are four ports available, hence the four lots of 8GB DDR3 costing much more than the four lots of 4GB DDR3 units, but buy it yourself and the full 32GB arrangement will cost 50 per cent less from an online retailer. It's so easy to install, so there's no excuse not to - you don't need to be savvy with computer architecture.
The iMac with Retina 5K display is a great looking and powerful workhorse machine that, thanks to its super-high resolution, aligns itself with current professional practice and makes the desktop all-in-one relevant again. We're sad to see our review sample go back to Apple's warehouse - it's made going back to using the MacBook Pro and Air make us feel like giants.
We do have some small quibbles though: the ports to the rear are a pain to use, some apps won't make proper use of the available resolution, and buying RAM from Apple is excessively priced. But those points can't undo the bucket loads of brilliance the 5K iMac brings. Yes it'll cost around £2,650 in a maxed-out arrangement, but that serious investment delivers an equally serious return.
If you're in the market for a desktop machine with an outstanding screen then there are few contenders that can stand up against the iMac. This powerhouse delivers one mighty pixel-packed punch.
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