six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This week's sponsor

Six Colors Shirt! Our official (six-color) t-shirt is back on sale for a limited time.

By Dan Moren

Meet the new iMac, definitely not the same as the old iMac

iMac 5K (2017)

After six years I decided it was time to upgrade the ol’ iMac. My previous workhorse was a mid-2011 21.5-inch model, albeit with some special modifications: a 256GB SSD (as well as a 1TB hard drive), a built-to-order 2.8 GHz Core i7 processor, and 24GB of RAM. All of those improvements meant that it was still a plenty capable machine in 2017, but it had started to become a bit sluggish when doing heavy-lifting tasks, and there was the matter of an annoying persistent line of dead pixels on the display.

So, with the announcement last month of the latest iMac revisions, my upgrade plans fell into place. I have no doubt I could have eked out another year or two from the old iMac, but the new models were enough of a revision to merit upgrading (Retina displays, Thunderbolt 3, much better discrete graphics, and so on) and happened to fall right into a perfect timing window for me.

I opted for a built-to-order 27-inch 5K Retina iMac, with a 4.2GHz Core i7, 512GB solid-state drive, and Magic Trackpad 2. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s the top of the line-model with the best processor currently available in a desktop Mac. (At least until the iMac Pro shows up later this year.) I chose to stick with the standard 8GB of RAM…but only so I could save some money by getting 16GB of additional RAM from OWC, bringing me to the same quantity I had in my previous machine—albeit with much better quality memory.1

Now that I’ve spent several days with the new iMac, I’ve begun collecting my thoughts. Most importantly that I’m super glad I made this leap, since it’s already starting to pay dividends. But there are definitely a few things that have stood out to me in the past several days.

Retina display

This is, hard as it might be to believe, my first Retina Mac. I’m a MacBook Air user and have been since 2011, so the new MacBook and the Retina MacBook Pro have never really been on my radar. I also have a Mac mini, but it’s hooked up to my HDTV, so it’s hardly a true Retina experience.

Between the high-resolution and the improved colors, the 27-inch’s 5K screen is absolutely gorgeous. This is, of course, old news for everybody who’s been using a Retina Mac for the last five years, but it is difficult to overstate just how sharp and crisp text looks on this screen. I’m sure not getting any younger, and I’d started to feel on my old iMac that my eyes were perhaps going a bit—so far, the 5K iMac has made the reading experience vastly more pleasant—and as someone who deals with text a lot, it’s a welcome improvement. (It’s still a bit of an adjustment, especially when I open up what I’m used to being a huge image, like an iPhone screenshot, that actually looks…just kind of reasonably sized on this display.)

As far as the size goes, I was a little worried that jumping from the 21.5-inch to the 27-inch might simply feel too large. Less than a week in and I haven’t felt that once. Part of it is because that curved backing on more recent iMacs actually does make it feel surprisingly small. I’ve also long had a 27-inch Cinema Display that I’ve hooked my MacBook Air up to, so this isn’t my first time on a larger screen. Mostly it just feels “not cramped” to me, and I have a pretty hard time imagining going back.

Performance

Writing certainly isn’t the most performance-intensive task, but these days my job also involves producing a lot of podcasts, and shuttling around big audio files definitely requires a bit more horsepower. So far I’ve only edited one podcast on the new iMac, but the result was still striking: I had this week’s episode of Clockwise published less than 40 minutes after it wrapped up.2 Tasks that often took a lot of time: transcoding, syncing audio files, even just copying files into GarageBand, took noticeably less time. I may have audibly gasped when I saved a large AIFF in Fission, an action that I often avoided on my old iMac because it involved sitting around and watching a progress bar. The dialog with the progress bar didn’t even appear.

At the end of the day, performance improvements for me aren’t so much about making what I’m actively doing faster as making me spend less time waiting for the computer to finish what it’s doing. This new iMac has already made me more productive by speeding up tasks where I used to end up walking away from my desk to go get a drink while it did its thing.

Sundries

There are a few other small things here and there that I’m liking or getting used to on this new machine. As I mentioned ahead of getting the new iMac, one of the features I was most looking forward to was having AirDrop. I take a lot of screenshots and often send them to my Macs for uploading or sending along with pieces I wrote. On my old iMac, which didn’t have the right hardware for AirDrop, I ended up using the excellent Printopia to “print” those images into Acorn for editing, but the workflow had begun to feel a bit more cumbersome since I’d gotten spoiled by using AirDrop on my MacBook Air.3

Perhaps the most difficult thing to get used to so far has been the Magic Keyboard. I liked the old Apple Wireless Keyboard; it had a nice key feel, could be surprisingly quiet, and was easy to navigate without looking. All of those things have changed on the Magic Keyboard. The keys have less travel, which has changed the feel of typing.4 It’s also louder and clickier than the old keyboard, which makes it a little harder to type discreetly when one is, say, recording a podcast. Finally, the rearranged key layouts—full-size keys on the F-keys and left/right cursors—has taken some acclimation for my touch-typing. I used to orient my right hand by finding those half-height cursors and I used to be able to more routinely hit the top two rows on the keyboard because I could locate the smaller F-keys. No doubt I will adjust eventually, but for now, I feel just a bit slower. I do appreciate that both it and the Magic Trackpad 2 are rechargeable via a Lightning cable, though their initial charges are still holding out.

As for the Magic Trackpad 2, I appreciate the increase in real estate and it’s a very attractive device, but I’m still getting used to the faux-clicking. I’ve turned off Force Click for the moment, because I still haven’t heard any really great reasons for leaving it on, and because I found the second-level of clicking kind of distracting. I may eventually switch to Silent Clicking, since the haptics still provide the illusion of a click sound. Also, I use tap-to-click a lot, so I’m used to the whole not-clicking thing.

Conclusion

Granted, I’ve used this computer for less than a week, and much of that time was a long weekend, so I really haven’t had a chance to put it through its paces yet. I’m looking forward to seeing how it handles longer podcasts and somewhat more challenging tasks like an upcoming session for Total Party Kill. Heck, maybe I’ll finally try out some Mac games that I’ve been putting off. All in all, though, I expect this iMac to take me through the next six years—or more—no problem.5


  1. The 27-inch, unlike the 21.5-inch, actually still lets you easily upgrade the RAM without voiding your warranty, which is one of the reasons I chose it. Otherwise it meant paying Apple through the nose to max out my RAM at the time of purchase.  ↩

  2. To be fair, it was an episode that didn’t require a lot of editing.  ↩

  3. More than a few folks scoffed when I mentioned this feature, pointing out that AirDrop has never worked for them reliably. I don’t know what sacrifice I made correctly, but I’ve had very solid luck with AirDrop between iOS devices and Macs for years. So far it works great on the iMac.  ↩

  4. I swear it’s also resulted in me hitting subsequent keys too quickly, thus generating more typos. But maybe that’s in my head.  ↩

  5. Well, that is, unless I get tempted by the Space Gray iMac Pro.  ↩

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]

[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]