First Impressions of the new 2017 5K iMac

I am now the proud owner of a brand spanking new iMac!

What I got

This is the first time that I’ve bought an iMac (or any all-in-one desktop). Before I’ve always had desktop machines with separate monitors. Since such a big portion of the value of this computer is in the screen I ordered a fairly high-end machine so that hopefully I’ll be happy with it as long as possible.

Apple offers their usual three “good, better, best” configurations on their website. The higher end configurations have slightly better processors and the “best” machine has more storage; they also have three different graphics cards. Notably, starting with the higher base model is the only way to get better graphics on this machine; you can’t configure the GPU separately.

I started with the “best” configuration and bumped the processor up to an i7 (better multithreading and a faster clock speed). Unlike a lot of Macs, the memory in the 27” iMac is user replaceable rather than being soldered to the motherboard. With non-upgradable machines I tend to max out the RAM when I buy it, since there’s no way to add more later. In this case, I bumped it up to 16gb, but if I feel the need in the future I’ll be able to upgrade it all the way up to 64gb (and do so for a lot less than the $1200 Apple would charge me).

The other big upgrade I made was getting a 1tb SSD. I fell in love with SSDs when I bought my bought my current MacBook Pro back in 2012. After using it for a while anything with a spinning hard disk just seems soooo slooooow. The other storage option on this machine is a Fusion Drive (a spinning disk plus a small SSD for cacheing frequently used data). While the Fusion Drive mitigates some of the disadvantages of the spinning disk, I’m willing to spend the extra $$$ to have fast access to all the data on my machine. However, I decided it didn’t make sense to spend $1400 for a 2tb SSD. I keep the really big stuff like my iTunes and Plex libraries on a network attached Drobo. The drive in my computer is basically apps, my photo library, and dropbox, plus whatever larger files I’m working on at the time. Honestly, right now I could probably get by with a 512mb SSD (the one in my MacBook Pro has been doing fine) but since the SSD is not easily replaceable, I figure 1tb will help future-proof this machine.

First Impressions

Out of the box my first reactions was “wow, this is big”. I’ve run a 27” monitor at work, so the size really shouldn’t have been a surprise. However, unlike a monitor the “chin” beneath the screen adds considerably to the impression when you’re sitting in front of it. It also makes the machine fairly tall. I like my monitors elevated fairly high; I’ve been running the monitors on my desk at home on a 10” tall monitor shelf for a long time. In this case, however, putting the iMac on the shelf made it way too high. The shelf had to go. For now I’m using a few reams of paper and a book, putting the bottom of the iMac’s “foot” about 7” above the desk. This puts the screen in the proper ergonomic position (with my eye level just below the top of the screen).

The big 5k screen is just fantastic. I am completely blow away by how bright and sharp it is. I’ve had retina displays on my laptop and iOS devices for years now, but thanks to it’s size this is just in a whole different category. It’s also tremendously bright. I’ve got it on the middle brightness setting and it’s still brighter than the 24” monitor I have next to it, even with the brightness on the external monitor cranked all the way up.

Lots of people say that once you’re used to a retina display you won’t be able to stand a non-retina screen, but in the past I hadn’t found this to be true. My retina MacBook Pro spent most of it’s lifetime right next to a standard definition 24” external display. If you looked hard, it was obvious the laptop screen was better, but I didn’t think it really made the external monitor look bad. Putting that same 24” display next to the iMac made it look horrible by comparison. I had been planning to get a pair of 4k monitors to go with the iMac, but seeing just how bad the standard def display looked definitely made that more of a priority.

This is a very fast machine. Not that my MacBook Pro was pokey by any means, but the difference is quite noticeable. While the processor and memory are both substantially faster, I think the faster SSD is a big contributor to the perceived increase in speed. Going from the SATA connected SSD in my MacBook Pro to the PCIe connected drive in the iMac isn’t as big a difference as going from a spinning disk to an SSD, but it takes a lot of things that were short waits on my MacBook Pro and makes them effectively instantaneous. Stuff that took a long time is noticeably quicker: for instance, when I run DaisyDisk on my iMac’s SSD it runs in a fraction of the time that it takes on my MacBook Pro.

I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of real processor intensive stuff, but it’s no slouch in that department either. The iMac cranked through the photo recognition on my large Photos library quicker and with less disruption to my other work than on older machines.

So far, the only games I’ve played on the iMac are Civilization VI and Kerbal Space Program, neither of which are graphics hogs even with all the settings maxed out. The GPU in this machine is mid-range by PC standards, but in these games it’s just loafing along.

I also got the new Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad (the numeric keyboard option is new1). Normally I’m a click-clacky mechanical switch keyboard guy.2 The Magic Keyboard is similar to the keyboard in my MacBook Pro, with much less key travel (though still more than the recent MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards). I’m giving it a try, but I’m not sold yet. I may end up going back to my big, wired keyboard. One minor annoyance is that the Magic Keyboard doesn’t have the double-height “+” key that I’m used to, so the “-“, “*”, and “/“ keys are each one position off from where my fingers think they should be.

Another feature I really like that’s new to me is the ability to unlock the Mac with my Apple Watch. This actually came out last fall as part of macOS Sierra, but my MacBook Pro was too old to take advantage of it. It’s probably a bit faster than typing in my password, but not by a huge amount. I’d still really like a desktop keyboard with a TouchID sensor (that might be enough to get me to give up my mechanical switch keyboard for good).

Overall, I’m very happy with the new iMac. The speed and the big, gorgeous screen are a big upgrade from my 5-year old MacBook Pro. I’m also happy to have a dedicated desktop machine. As I said in an earlier article, for my current circumstances having a desktop at home and a laptop (or, increasingly, an iPad Pro) that I can take to work or on the road makes more sense than doing everything on a big beefy laptop. I’m looking forward to many years of enjoyment from this machine.

  1. It’s also a bit hidden when you’re ordering in the Apple online store. Rather than being one of their usual click boxes or drop down menus, it’s hidden behind a text link that says “Change”. 
  2. My daily driver is a Das Keyboard Professional