On January 13th, 2007, I purchased my first Mac – a 20″ iMac with 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. It was nowhere near top of the line, but was a worthy machine that I used for four and a half years and then sold on to a friend.
In August 2011 I replaced the iMac with a 15.4″ MacBook Pro with 2.2 GHz Core i7 and a “HiDef” screen. I got the HiDef screen because its 1680 x 1050 resolution exactly matched that of the iMac. I’ve never believed I could accept a lower resolution for a primary machine.
On January 13th, 2016, nine years to the day after my first iMac, I purchased a 27″ Retina 5K iMac with 3.3 GHz Core i5. I’d been eyeing up a 27″ iMac to replace the MacBook Pro for a while and when the Retina model first appeared, I moved from eyeing to lusting after. When the time finally came, it was merely a choice of the precise model.
Why did I go desktop, laptop, then desktop again? When I got the first iMac I didn’t believe I’d ever own a laptop. I was replacing a desktop PC. Laptop screens were too small, or the price too high, and I didn’t need to be mobile. When I replaced the first iMac, I was really on the fence. Eventually the allure of portability and almost as much power in the laptop swayed me. I could always add an extra, larger screen (which I eventually did a year ago) and even plug in lots of peripherals, as I did when I got my Thunderbolt dock.
But as long as a couple of years ago, I began to realise that I wasn’t really using the portability. As prepared for sale, the MacBook Pro had 91% battery condition and only a total of 61 cycles. Given I’d had it 53 months, that’s barely more than one cycle a month – a cycle that represents around 5 hours of use on battery power. Twice I nearly took it on a business trip, but could not get it into my backpack along with my work ThinkPad and easily keep the whole thing under the airline’s 7kg carry-on allowance without getting rid of other stuff I really wanted to have on me.
I’d used the laptop in other places but rarely out of the house. I took it to a friend’s place to help her with her own MacBook. I used it on the dining room table a couple of times when I needed other people to sit around the screen – although that is perhaps more a reflection of the pigsty that is my study. I tried a few times to use it on my lap in front of the TV but discovered that was incredibly uncomfortable. A lap has to be one of the least ergonomic places to use a laptop.
And so when the time came to replace the MacBook Pro, I knew almost exactly what I wanted. It had to be a 27″ Retina iMac. After hearing about the limited SSD component of the 1TB Fusion Drive, I elected to go for the 2TB model and that put me right onto the middle model of the range. So that’s exactly what I got. And it is the first time I have bought from a high street shop and not directly from Apple. (There was a distinct cachet in getting it 9 years to the day after my first one.) I’ll add some extra RAM later, too, as for the first time ever I have free RAM slots!
Having used an iMac before and also being familiar with my wife’s 24″ iMac, the change of form factor is not a big deal. Actually, it is. I far prefer this setup. While the screen is large, the footprint on my desk is a lot less than the laptop. Because I was using the laptop screen in addition to an external monitor, the footprint was substantial and at times difficult to deal with. Now I just have the stand, over which some cables are already draped, and apart from limited space beneath the screen, the whole rest of the desk is pretty much available. My audio mixer is back on my desk for the first time in a long time.
The most obvious difference between the MacBook Pro and the new iMac is that screen. It’s a beauty! The MacBook Pro’s screen was no slouch. It was the HiDef model and was a decent amount of real estate, but the Retina clarity and the sheer amount of space on the iMac is a joy to use. Below are three comparisons which show the MacBook Pro’s screen in green versus the iMac’s in blue, covering two different effective resolutions and the actual physical resolution.
I’ve chosen to use the next-to-largest effective resolution, represented in the middle example above. It gives me 54% more vertical and 71% more horizontal space. The available resolutions (using only the built in settings) are (from lowest to highest) 1600 x 900, 2048 x 1152, 2560 x 1440, 2880 x 1620, and 3200 x 1800. The lowest setting is less than the MacBook Pro and looks positively awful. In addition to being enormous, it looks dirty as lots of pixels make up each effective pixel.
I’ve fired up Xcode and it looks like I’ll have a far easier time editing interface designs now and spending less time dismissing panels in order to get more space in the middle. Photoshop doesn’t look so different, but Lightroom is fantastic. I can comfortably view 13 thumbnails to a row in grid view, although I will probably scale it up to 10. But the real eye opener is viewing each photo in the loupe or develop module. Wow! One of the first I decided to look at was a shot of a Cessna Caravan flying overhead against a clear blue sky – the photo is crisp and just pops! I used to think I could never quite get my photos sharp, but that’s simply not the case. Another surprise came when I clicked on the photo to zoom to full size and it barely changed size at all. My camera is 16 megapixels – the iMac is 14.7 megapixels! It’s crazy to think that when I go back to photos from my previous, 10 megapixel, camera, I will be able to get the entire thing, pixel for pixel, on screen with room to spare!
The processor jump is interesting. I’ve gone from quad core 2.2 GHz i7 to quad core 3.3 GHz i5. I don’t know what effective difference i7 and i5 make, but the generational difference, coupled with 50% more speed is very obvious in the few intensive tasks I have given it so far. File conversion processes finish so quickly compared to what I’m used to that I wonder whether they worked. I’m looking forward to the first time I use Handbrake on this system.
I can’t pass judgement on the Fusion Drive as yet. I have already noticed a few times when I could hear the hard drive ‘crunching’ away and response was a little delayed from what I’m used to with my all-SSD MacBook Pro. But I recognise that I’m throwing a lot of stuff at it in a short period of time during setup and expect it will settle down before long. Certainly most of the time I do not notice any lack of speed.
Ports are another big difference and there are, literally, plusses and minuses. The iMac lacks an audio in jack, which means I now absolutely need a digital audio interface. I was using the OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock as my audio input in recent times, but the dock will be for sale shortly as it doesn’t really make sense with the iMac. Whereas the MacBook Pro gained USB 3 and HDMI (without tying up Thunderbolt), the iMac already has four USB 3 ports, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports which are sufficient with the addition of a simple USB 3 dock, which I had already needed with the Thunderbolt dock. Not to mention, there won’t be a need to unplug everything often.
The iMac is also without a Firewire port but except for a single drive some years ago (which corrupted itself, I believe, due to it being Firewire) I’ve never had the need for it.
I’m really glad the SDXC slot is still there, though. It’s a bit fiddly to work with, but I’m sure I will get used to it. All of the cameras I’ve owned in the last 10 years have used the SD format.
The two Thunderbolt ports give some nice flexibility. I have a single Thunderbolt hard drive enclosure which will probably soon receive my 960 GB SSD that I liberated from the MacBook Pro before sale.
The iMac also lacks an optical drive, but then I had removed the optical drive from the MacBook Pro as soon as I got it, replacing it with extra hard disk (and later solid state) storage. I have an external Blu-Ray reader/DVD burner already and the iMac actually improves this because Apple’s DVD player software will actually run. On Macs that ship with optical drives the DVD player refuses to use any except the internal drive, even if it is not installed and the very same unit is connected externally.
Moving outside the main unit, I have the new Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2. If I had bought direct from Apple, I would probably have opted for the Magic Trackpad 2 in place of the mouse. I already have a Magic Trackpad, Magic Mouse and standard Apple Bluetooth keyboard. I use both mouse and trackpad at the same time – trackpad with my left hand for gestures and broad movements, mouse with my right hand for precise actions such as photo editing.
The Magic Mouse 2 offers only one difference from its predecessor – it has a built in rechargeable battery instead of taking one or two AA batteries. Despite the fuss online about the fact the Lightning charging port is on the bottom, I think it’s a definite improvement. I will simply plug it in overnight and unplug it in the morning.
The Magic Keyboard is quite different from the previous Bluetooth keyboard. They key layout is ever so slightly different. The left and right arrow keys are full height, which I am having trouble with in that I often reach up for the up arrow and end up hitting Shift, because the full height left and right are recalling my muscle memory from the full sized USB keyboard. The other key difference is that the top row with the function keys is full height. I find this makes the media control icons much easier to discern. The overall size of the keyboard is also slightly smaller and the textured finish slightly finer. The biggest difference, however, is the feel of the keys. While they have more throw than the 12″ MacBook, they are very short throw compared to the old USB or Bluetooth keyboards. But I have to say… I like it. Even if it means I have to cut my nails more often.
I’m still using my old Magic Trackpad but it now sits at a different angle to the keyboard which is a little disconcerting. I’ve set it apart from the keyboard where previously I used to have it flush on the left side. I’ll probably end up getting the Magic Trackpad 2, but at $250 I’m not rushing.
Overall I am very pleased with my purchase. There are a few things I will need to get used to*, but mostly it is a huge improvement for me and I am very glad I have gone back to a desktop machine. I know it’s not for everyone and maybe I’m in the minority these days, but the scale of this machine in so many ways is what I really want – screen size, effective screen size, CPU power, and to some extent capacity. If money were no object, I might add a 12″ MacBook as a “satellite” machine which I could use away from my desk, but I don’t think I will have a laptop as my primary system for the foreseeable future.
I feel like I’ve come home.
* Note to self: After using laptops at home and work for over four years, do not forget that unplugging the mains is a bad idea without shutting down the computer first.