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By Jason Snell

Today is iMac day: Apple announces new models with faster processors and graphics

There was a time when the iMac was Apple’s flagship product. But in an era where there are iPhones and iPads and Apple Watches, it’s easy for a Mac—and a non-laptop, at that—to get lost in the crowd. And yet for all of that, the iMac is a huge product, generating billions of dollars for Apple and filling important ecological niches.

After nearly two years of waiting, iMac fans can rejoice at the arrival of an update. Today is iMac day. Apple on Tuesday announced a new generation of 4K and 5K iMacs with big internal upgrades. The old iMacs had seventh-generation Intel processors, but these models have eighth-generation processors—and in a couple of cases, the very latest ninth-generation processors. Apple has upgraded processor cores across the board, so that most models have six cores and there’s even an option for eight. And both sizes of iMac now have optional access to the more powerful Radeon Pro Vega graphics processor.

(Check out my podcast interview with iMac Product Manager Colleen Novielli on this week’s Upgrade podcast.)

The $1099 base model non-Retina iMac remains unchanged, the desktop equivalent of the $999 MacBook Air—an old model anchored to a low price. But beyond that, things get more interesting.

The $1299 21.5-inch 4K iMac is a 3.6GHz quad-core Core i3, and the $1499 model brings six-core power to the smaller iMac with a 3.0Ghz Core i5. The 4K iMac’s top-of-the-line processor configuration is a 3.2GHz six-core Core i7. While standard graphics configurations on these models are the Radeon Pro 555X and 560X, the high-end model can be configured with a Radeon Pro Vega 20.

On the 27-inch 5K iMac, six-core processors have replaced four-core models as the default. (You couldn’t even upgrade to a six-core processor on an iMac before!) Base processors for these are a 3.0 GHz six-core eighth-generation i5 ($1799 model), 3.16GHz six-core eighth-generation i5 ($1999 model), and 3.7Ghz six-core ninth-generation i5 ($2299 model). The 5K iMac can also be configured with a 3.6Ghz eight-core ninth-generation Core i9 processor.

According to Apple, those latter two processors are the two available ninth-generation Intel chips that are currently available and fit the iMac’s design. They’re hot off the presses, so to speak, and Apple has pressed them into service.

Graphics on the 27-inch models are, by default, Radeon Pro 500 series (570X, 575X, and 580X respectively), but again, Apple’s offering a configurable option with the Radeon Pro Vega—it’s the Pro Vega 48 for the 5K model.

What this means is that these new iMacs have closed a bit of the gap between the highest-end iMac and the lowest-end iMac Pro. You’ll need to pay extra in configurable options, but the highest-end eight-core iMac should creep close to iMac Pro territory in terms of processor and graphics performance.

Of course, all that performance comes in a familar shell—it’s the same iMac cooling system as before, which means if you stress out the iMac you will hear the fans. My friend Stephen Hackett ended up switching from a high-end 5K iMac to an iMac Pro in order to get a computer that was silent under heavy load, thanks to the iMac Pro’s superior (and quiet) cooling system. It’s another data point to keep in mind if you’re considering whether to buy an iMac or an iMac Pro.

Adding processor cores to many standard configurations (at the same prices as the old models) should be a big step forward for iMac performance, as is the addition of a few configurations from Intel’s latest processor generation. Throw in the optional Vega graphics and it’s clear that Apple has raised the headroom of the iMac—even the little 4K iMac, because sometimes you want speed but don’t need size!—quite a lot.

Apple says the iMac is popular with families, businesses, and other users who don’t necessarily need the most power possible, but appreciate that the iMac can handle the required job and do it with its trademark sleek aluminum all-in-one style. But of course, it’s also popular with pro users who don’t need all the workstation power of the much pricier iMac Pro. Those users will be the most excited about the processor and graphics improvements in these models.

It might not steal the spotlight from an iPhone or even next week’s services-themed media event, but the iMac still matters. And as of today, it’s refreshed with more power than ever before.

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