iMac Pro, Updated MacBook Pro for Creatives

Ed note: this post by David Schloss is shared from our companion site, DP Mag, where I also write a weekly column. I also add, I own the latest MBP and just ordered the speed bump one. They’re the best Macbooks Apple has made.

The history of Apple is tied to that of the creative professional, after all, Apple is the company that ushered in the age of “desktop publishing” with the original Mac computers, and enabled digital photography and digital videography to blossom thanks to affordable, powerful high-end Macs.

Apple’s history with professionals, though, has not been without hiccups, including a rough few years where the company’s commitment to the creative has been questioned thanks to long delays between releases for updates to the professional desktop and laptop computers. The top-end Mac Pro, for example, has been in the channel for more than three years and has only seen one-speed update during that time. It’s devoid of some of the newer ports found on the rest of the Mac lineup, notably Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, which makes it less practical in high-end video settings than it should be.

Apple’s Phil Schiller took the un-Apple approach in April of promising pros that the company was in the middle of “completely rethinking” the Mac Pro, and promising a new top-end modular system sometime after 2017.

With this year’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), Apple’s annual gathering of programmers for the Mac and iOS platforms happening this week, the company has released an updated line of laptops and desktops—along with the promise of an even more powerful iMac Pro, which is designed to satisfy the computing needs of most of the company’s creative customers, while the new modular Mac Pro continues to gestate.

Apple also announced updates to the Mac OS to make it work with video and still images more efficiently and to bring new features to the platform. The update to macOS will bring Metal 2—Metal being an OS-level tool to take advantage of the fast Graphical Processor Units (GPS) in modern Macs— and H.265 support, as well as VR and external GPU functionality.

The combination of new hardware plus upcoming hardware, combined with OS updates, should make the pro customer very happy, if not today, then by the time the Mac Pro ships.

iMac Pro

The most exciting new product in the WWDC announcements is the forthcoming iMac Pro, a machine that looks to provide more power and connectivity than the existing Mac Pro, along with what Apple calls a “best in class” 5K display.

The iMac Pro should be available in December 2017, and it will plug a huge hole in the professional lineup. The base configuration will have a four-core Xeon processor, but build-to-order configurations will be available with up to 18 cores operating at up to 4.5 GHz (with Turbo Boost) and a 42 MB cache, and up to 128 GB of 2666 MHz DDR4 ECC RAM.

The iMac Pro will also come with the new Radeon Pro Vega graphics processor, which will provide an astounding amount of throughput. If you’re not into the geeky tech of graphics cards, this next part will sound obscure (or made up), but the bottom line is that the graphics card in the iMac Pro will move an incredible amount of graphics data—11 teraflops of single precision calculations and 22 teraflops in half-precision calculations. It will come with 8 GB or 16 GB High-Bandwidth Memory and will be able to process graphics data at 400 GB/sec. This data throughput is high enough that Apple’s specifically promoting it as a killer VR creation station.

The machine will come with up to a 4 TB SSD drive and 3 GB/s throughput, and four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, 10 Gb Ethernet (a first on a Mac), four USB 3.1 ports, an SD card slot and the ability to power a total of three 5K displays (including the built-in display). The 5K display in the iMac Pro will be 500 nits, which is 43% brighter than the current model, and will manage 10-bit color.

There are, frankly, few photographers for whom this wouldn’t be the killer system, and it will probably completely eliminate the need for a modular Mac Pro in most workflows, especially since the base configuration will start at $5,000, which is only $1,000 more than the base configuration for the 8-Core version of the aging Mac Pro, which it should handily trounce.

Apple iMac Pro

iMacs For The Rest Of Us

Of course, many photographers don’t need the power of the iMac Pro; the company mentioned something we’ve verified, that the top-end iMac has quickly become the standard production machine for most photographers.

Apple has updated the whole iMac line, with the “Kaby Lake” version of the Intel Core i5 and Intel Core i7 processors. The 21-inch 4K iMac comes in at a base price of $1,299.

All of the iMac models now come with the Radeon Pro 500 graphics cards, and the 27-inch 8K Retina version of the display has 8 GB of VRAM. The processor (available in up to 4.2 GHz in the 27-inch 5K and 3.6 GHz in the 21.5-inch 4K models) and the new GPU give the iMac enough horsepower that Apple is also promoting it as a VR creation solution.

The Retina display is up to 43% brighter than previous models as well, and the display can produce 1 billion colors, and the processing power allows for one 5K or two 4K displays to be connected in addition to the built-in display.

Thunderbolt 3/USB-C has been added to the iMac line, with two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB 3 ports, an SD card reader and Gigabit Ethernet. (10 Gigabit Ethernet would have been nice here for NAS solutions, but not essential, thanks to Thunderbolt 3.)

The base conjuration of the 27-inch 5K version is $1,799 and a tricked out 27-inch iMac with 64 GB of RAM and 2 TB SSD would run $5,299.

Laptop Line

Many pro photographers are turning to laptops as their primary machines. The new 2016 MacBook Pro was a total redesign over the previous model and had rather mixed reviews. In our full review, we pointed out that the initial model had some quirks (which subsequent firmware updates have mostly addressed) and was limited in functionality over previous generations of MacBook Pro models due to the lack of any port besides USB-C/Thunderbolt 3.

While we didn’t mind the use of dongles as much as some, the MacBook Pro has long been known for its ability to connect to just about any drive or peripheral it encounters, and the new version, lacking ports besides USB-C, makes it less versatile.

That said, we understand the need to move technology along, and to make portable computers slimmer, and including Thunderbolt 2 or even USB 3 ports would have made for a bigger computer. Our big regret is that there’s no SD card slot on the MacBook Pro, necessitating an additional card reader whenever we travel. With the new iMac models including SD card readers, it’s doubly disappointing to lose them on the MacBook Pro.

The other negative comment we had about the otherwise-excellent MacBook Pro is that it just missed out on having the new Kaby Lake processor. We suspected a speed bump would arrive within the year to bring the faster Intel processor to the MacBook Pro, and that has arrived with this version.

The MacBook Pro line now runs from $1,299 to $1,999 for the base configurations from 13-inch to 15-inch. A configuration of the MacBook Pro with the beefed-up processor and a 2 TB SSD comes in at $4,199.

All the models of the MacBook Pro come with 16 GB of RAM as a max, which feels anemic at times. It would have been great to have a version available with 64 GB of RAM, as it would have made the MacBook Pro a complete desktop substitute for just about any creative user.