At WWDC 2017 last week, Apple devoted a non-trivial segment of the keynote to new Mac hardware, showing off improved iMacs and performance-enhanced MacBook Pros and mentioning a speed bump to the MacBook Air in passing. After running through all the changes to the existing lineup, Apple gave a sneak preview of the iMac Pro, a workstation-class version of the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display that’s scheduled to ship at the end of the year.
Apple made no mention of the Mac mini or Mac Pro, though the company has already said that the Mac Pro is in the middle of a major redesign that it won’t complete until 2018 at the earliest (see “Maca Culpa: Apple Admits Mac Pro Missteps and Promises More Transparency,” 4 April 2017).
iMac -- The workhorse of Apple’s desktop line has long been the iMac, which Apple continues to offer in three basic models: a 21.5-inch non-Retina version, a 21.5-inch iMac with 4K Retina display, and the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display.
On the CPU front, each model receives a speed bump thanks to Apple using Intel’s 7th generation “Kaby Lake” processors and increasing clock speeds. You can see the specifics on Apple’s Tech Specs page, but the summary is that Apple is focusing more effort on the 21.5-inch Retina iMac, offering just a single configuration of the non-Retina model. Benchmarks will show how much faster the combination of new CPUs and higher clock speeds will be, but I suspect purchases will mostly be based on price.
Although the iMac Retina displays are already gorgeous, Apple claims to have improved them even more in both the 21.5-inch and 27-inch sizes, increasing brightness 43 percent to 500 nits and supporting display of up to 1 billion colors.
The non-Retina iMac model drives its screen with the integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640, but all the Retina models now take advantage of Radeon Pro GPUs, the 555 and 560 for the 21.5-inch models and the 570, 575, and 580 models for the 27-inch models. The notable win here is for the 21.5-inch Retina models, which were previously limited to integrated Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200.
Apple has made the Fusion Drive standard in more configurations, and the company claims that the SSDs available in 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB capacities are up to 50 percent faster. You can also add a 2 TB SSD to the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac for a whopping $1400.
When it comes to RAM, all base models still ship with 8 GB. The non-Retina iMac and low-end 21.5-inch Retina model remain limited to 16 GB, but the high-end 21.5-inch Retina model can now take 16 GB or 32 GB, a welcome improvement. Similarly, the low-end 27-inch model still maxes out at 32 GB, but the two higher-end models can take 16 GB, 32 GB, or 64 GB. RAM in the 21.5-inch iMac models cannot be upgraded by the user, but you can install memory in the 27-inch model yourself.
Unsurprisingly, Apple replaced the previous models’ Thunderbolt 2 ports with a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports that support DisplayPort for external screens, Thunderbolt at up to 40 Gbps, USB 3.1 Gen 2 at up to 10 Gbps, and various other protocols via adapters (see “Explaining Thunderbolt 3, USB-C, and Everything In Between,” 3 November 2016).
All these changes are welcome for anyone in the market for a new iMac. I doubt they’re significant enough to warrant trading in an existing Retina iMac unless Thunderbolt 3 is a necessity. The most interesting changes are actually in the 21.5-inch models, which move past the RAM and graphics limitations of the previous configuration while introducing a cheaper configuration.
The 21.5-inch non-Retina iMac remains priced at $1099, with the two Retina configurations starting at $1299 and $1499. The 27-inch model comes in three configurations: $1799, $1999, and $2299. They’re all available now.
Perhaps I’m just boggled by the number of changes Apple announced in the WWDC keynote, but I couldn’t see how to give more context for the changes in relation to previous configurations because the matrix of what models get which build-to-order options was just too complicated. If you want to price out different possibilities, I recommend opening several browser windows so you can compare the configurations side by side. In fact, it’s possible that even Apple has become confused, given some of the pricing oddities that we’ve found (see “2017 iMac Configuration Quirks: Don’t Get Burned!,” 12 June 2017).
MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air -- As with the iMac, Apple updated the processors in the MacBook and MacBook Pro with new Kaby Lake processors running at higher clock speeds. That should improve performance, although likely not by that much. The MacBook Pro models also get improved graphics processing, with the 13-inch MacBook Pro models using Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 and 650, and the 15-inch models switching to Radeon Pro 555 and 560 discrete GPUs on top of Intel HD Graphics 630 and 640.
You can now buy a MacBook with 16 GB of RAM, up from the previous limit of 8 GB, and Apple claims that the MacBook’s onboard SSD is up to 50 percent faster. That might make the MacBook a more attractive option, given that lackluster performance was one of its main disadvantages.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the MacBook Air lives, but it sees the least change, replacing its stock 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with a 1.8 GHz model. It remains upgradeable to an Intel Core i7 running at 2.2 GHz.
Although these changes are all positive, they do nothing to simplify the difficulty of choosing between the three models. Each falls into the three-dimensional graph of price, performance, and size in a different spot. You’ll have to decide what’s most important to you — cost, speed, or portability — and figure out which of Apple’s notebooks best fits your needs.
As with the new iMac models, these updated notebooks are all available now.
iMac Pro -- During the private media meeting in which Apple executives confessed to the company’s sins with regard to the Mac Pro, mention was made of pro-related announcements about the iMac coming this year.
Apple has now revealed more of what that means, pulling back the curtains on the iMac Pro. Due in December 2017, the iMac Pro retains the same form factor of the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display but swaps the brushed aluminum look for a space-gray finish that extends to the Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad, Magic Mouse 2, and an optional Magic Trackpad 2.
(Curious about the name of that keyboard? Us too. It turns out that Apple quietly released a new wireless Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad for $129 during WWDC too. Keypad users rejoice!)
The goal of the iMac Pro is to provide workstation-class performance within the iMac design. The hardest part of that is dealing with heat, because the iMac Pro will feature Intel Xeon processors in 8-core, 10-core, and 18-core configurations.
Also playing into the necessary thermal architecture redesign is Apple’s use of a new Radeon Pro Vega GPU, which reportedly features a next-generation compute core and up to 16 GB of on-package high-bandwidth memory (HBM2). Apple says that the iMac Pro with Vega GPU delivers up to 11 teraflops of single-precision compute power for real-time 3D rendering and high frame rate VR. For half-precision computation that’s reportedly ideal for machine learning, the iMac Pro can deliver up to 22 teraflops of performance. (We don’t have a sense of what that means, either, but Apple did a good job of making it sound impressive. For comparison, the Radeon Pro 580 in the 27-inch iMac has a peak performance of 5.5 teraflops.)
The iMac Pro will ship with 32 GB of RAM by default, but for a machine in this class, the fact that it’s configurable to 64 GB or 128 GB is more important. A 1 TB SSD is also standard, with 2 TB and 4 TB SSDs as options.
Unsurprisingly, the iMac Pro sports four Thunderbolt 3 ports, which enables it to drive up to two 5K displays and two high-performance RAID arrays at the same time. Other connectivity options mimic what’s on the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display now, with the exception of Ethernet. Instead of gigabit Ethernet, the iMac Pro will include 10 Gb Ethernet, which could be a big deal when transferring massive amounts of data between machines.
How much will all this cost? A lot, with the base iMac Pro configuration starting at $4999. Apple claimed that a comparable workstation would cost about $7000, without a 5K display. Even still, given the high price of large SSDs and RAM, we anticipate that a loaded iMac Pro will easily meet or exceed that $7000 mark.
But that won’t stop the audience for the iMac Pro. If you need the maximum performance from a Mac, the iMac Pro will provide it. Or at least it will until a new Mac Pro makes its debut, and many of those who live and die by the teraflop won’t want to wait.