Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Unite 4 - Turn websites into apps on your Mac.

By Jason Snell

iMac Pro: The first shoe drops

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The iMac Pro is here. Well, for some values of “here”—Apple’s taking orders and has shown it off in some press briefings and seeded it to some key people for testimonials. I ordered one this morning and Apple claims it will be here around the end of the year. Some configurations will roll out next year. But even if it isn’t widely available, it’s fair to say that the starting gun has been fired.

It’s a big milestone. This is almost four years to the week that Apple last released a professional desktop Mac, with the release of the redesigned, cylindrical Mac Pro. Since then there’s been… nothing, other than the grousing of high-end Mac users concerned about the lack of updates.

If Apple hadn’t announced it was bringing back the Mac Pro earlier this year, this would be a bigger deal; all the weight of expectations of Apple’s high-end user base would be crashing down on the iMac Pro. Instead, the iMac Pro is just the first shoe to drop in a revitalization of Apple’s pro Mac desktop line.

That’s good, because the iMac Pro doesn’t have a lot of features that many people will still wish for in a Mac Pro, mostly regarding upgradability. It was good to hear from the source that even though the iMac Pro doesn’t have a door for RAM upgrades, anyone who is authorized to service the iMac Pro can also install new RAM—so if you decide in four years that you need more RAM, you’ll be able to get someone to upgrade your Mac for you.

But that’s about it. If you want to expand graphic power down the road, your only hope is for an external GPU attached via Thunderbolt 3—which is a thing that you can do now, so that’s cool. Likewise, internal storage appears largely non-upgradeable. On a Mac Pro, these would be severe pain points, and since we know nothing about the new Mac Pro, we don’t know if they will be. But on an iMac they’re a lot less severe—especially when there’s a Mac Pro shimmering on the horizon, its exact specs lost in the haze of heat from its ventilation fans.

I’m still using the original 5K iMac, which I bought in 2014. It’s been a fantastic companion the past three years. But Apple has not been resting on the 5K iMac’s laurels—it’s been upgraded twice, in 2015 and earlier this year. The display’s been improved, SSD throughput has been increased, and of course Thunderbolt 3/USB-C has been added to the port mix. If I chose to get the successor to my three-year-old 5K iMac, the price tag would be around $3000.

It would be a nice boost, to be sure. The iMac Pro goes farther, though, and thanks to my mid-career transition into a writer who also produces podcasts, I actually find that I have a professional need for incredibly fast processors with a whole lot of cores and fast storage to save large media files quickly. Spend a morning removing the background noise from multiple three-hour-long audio tracks and you’ll find yourself wanting more processor cores and faster SSD throughput in a heartbeat. Encode some high-def video for YouTube and you’ll be begging.

But let me be clear: Most people shouldn’t buy an iMac Pro. It is the very definition of overkill unless you have a specific need for high-end, high-performance hardware. Even if you fancy yourself a power user, it’s unlikely you’d be better off with an iMac Pro than a regular 5K iMac unless you have a very specific task that requires as much processor power as possible (spread across multiple processor cores) or as much graphics horsepower as possible.

Basically, you know if you need an iMac Pro. If you don’t know, you probably don’t.1

As so often happens with products like this, it will take a while—at least a year, and probably longer—for us to determine if this is a transitional product or just a strange outlier. (The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is in this same category.) For example, the iMac Pro comes with an integrated, Apple-designed T2 processor.

The rumors called it an A10, and for all we know it’s the same or similar to the processor that drives the iPhone 7. Regardless, though, it’s an Apple-designed ARM processor that’s integrated even deeper into the iMac Pro than the T1 was into the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. As Rene Ritchie reports at iMore, it’s acting as the system management controller, SSD controller, audio controller, the FaceTime camera controller, and of course, it’s handling all the security and encryption.

This is a great example of Apple taking its expertise, acquired over years of developing iPhone hardware, and applying it to portions of the Mac experience that previously were handled by separate components or subsystems. I’d imagine that over the next few months we’ll discover a few surprises about just how the iMac Pro is not like other Macs because of the presence of the T2 processor.

The real question is, what next? Will T2-style processors crop up in every other Mac in the line, or will some version of it roll out to every other Mac? I’d assume that’s Apple’s intention right now—but we’ll have to see how it’s able to manage that roll-out, and if any unexpected complications crop up.

The other issue, of course, is about the overall pace of Mac updates. If I could bottle the complaints of the Mac market for the last few years and distill one single complaint about Mac hardware, it would be that Mac models don’t get updated often enough to take advantage of the newest processors and graphics cards.

With the updates to the MacBook Pro earlier this year, Apple has taken strides in showing that it’s going to be more diligent about updates. But a single update here or there isn’t going to do it—Apple will need to continue rolling out updates on a regular basis across all its product lines. That includes a new iMac Pro model in a year or so, and an update to the Mac Pro a year or so after it ships, continued MacBook Pro updates, and, yes, a resolution to the fate of the Mac mini.

But those are all questions for another day. This is a day that’s been four years in the making—and there’s the promise of another day just like it next year when the Mac Pro arrives.

  1. I ordered the base model. 💸 

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors