Apple iMac Pro (late 2017), First Take: An AIO for the Pro crowd

Apple unveiled the new iMac Pro at its World Wide Developer Conference last June, and the high-end AIO desktop subsequently shipped in small volumes — more or less on schedule — towards the end of December last year. But, aware of the unease among its professional customers following the mixed reception for the most recent MacBook Pro updates, and the admission that it is “completely rethinking the Mac Pro” range, Apple has kept this new workstation-level iMac closely under wraps and has only allowed limited access to the press.

But, in early February, just as the most powerful 18-core configuration began to reach customers, Apple provided more detailed briefings to ZDNet and other publications. The burning question is whether this latest incarnation of the veteran iMac can win over demanding professional users — or at least hold the fort until Apple’s plans for a revamped Mac Pro bear fruit.

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The iMac Pro is aimed at users in creative industries who demand serious computing power. Powered by 8-, 10-, 14- or 18-core Xeon W processors with Radeon Pro Vega graphics, prices range from £4,899 ($ 4,999) to £12,279 ($ 13,199).

Images: Apple

Fade to (space) grey

Superficially, the iMac Pro is virtually identical to the standard 27-inch models that have been available for several years, with the same physical dimensions and 5K Retina display, and only the new ‘space grey’ colour scheme to set it apart from its predecessors.

Internally, though, the iMac Pro is a completely different beast. Apple claims that removing the conventional hard drive used in previous models has saved a lot of space inside the unit, which is now devoted to an enhanced cooling system for the high-end CPU and GPU configurations that are available.

Rather than the three configurations Apple normally offers, the iMac Pro starts with one ‘standard’ configuration that costs £4,082.50 (ex. VAT; £4,899 inc. VAT, or $ 4,999). For this, you get an 8-core Xeon W processor running at 3.2GHz (up to 4.2GHz with TurboBoost), along with 32GB of ECC RAM, a 1TB solid-state drive, and a Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU with 8GB of HBM2 (High-Bandwidth Memory) video RAM.

That standard configuration can then be modified with 10-core, 14-core and 18-core versions of the Xeon W, with up to 128GB of memory, 4TB of SSD storage, and a Vega 64 GPU with 16GB of HBM2 video RAM. Ticking all the boxes on those upgrades brings the price of a top-of-the-range iMac Pro to a startling £10,232.50 (ex. VAT; £12,279 inc. VAT, or $ 13,199).

‘A good computer’

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We’ll report back with independent benchmark results in our forthcoming full review, but Apple claims that even the standard configuration of the iMac Pro is considerably more powerful than any of the existing quad-core iMac models, offering 3.4x performance for 3D graphics and visualization, 5x improvement for scientific modelling and simulations, as well as the ability to edit eight streams of 4K video at full resolution and in real time.

Watching the iMac Pro handling real-time 3D visualisations and lighting effects in architectural apps such as Twinmotion is certainly impressive, as is 360-degree video editing for VR content in Apple’s recently updated Final Cut Pro X. And, at long last, Apple has quite pointedly been offering journalists the chance to wear the HTC Vive headset during demo sessions with the iMac Pro, as a way of letting everyone know that it has indeed released ‘a good computer’ that can actually handle VR.

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Ports at the back of the iMac Pro are: 3.5mm headphone; SDXC card; 4x USB 3.0; 4x Thunderbolt 3/USB-C; 10 Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45). There’s no external access to the RAM slots for memory upgrades.

Image: Apple

One disadvantage of the new design is that the back-panel slot that allowed access to the memory modules for user upgrades on previous models has now gone, so you’ll need to budget for as much RAM as you can afford at the time of purchase.

On the plus side, Apple has announced that it is planning an update for the current macOS High Sierra that will support the use of external GPUs for the first time. That will provide an important upgrade path that the iMac has previously lacked, helping to ensure that this expensive piece of kit continues to earn its keep for years to come.

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