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First Look Roundup: Apple iMac Pro

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After years of fending off questions from its increasingly unhappy workstation customers, Apple has finally released an updated professional Mac. The new iMac Pro is built on an iMac form factor, but packs considerably more horsepower under the hood than your typical iMac or even the older Mac Pro. Before we round up early reviewer impressions, let’s review the system’s baseline specifications.

The $ 4,999 iMac Pro system comes with what appears to be a custom Xeon W processor; Intel doesn’t show an eight-core Xeon W with a 3.2GHz base and a 4.2GHz boost. This chip could be a downclocked Xeon W-2145 (3.7GHz base, 4.5GHz boost). 32GB of DDR4-2666 memory ships standard, along with a 1TB SSD, a Radeon Vega 56, 10Gb ethernet, four Thunderbolt 3 ports (USB-C style), and a 27-inch 5K (5120×2880) display that’s compatible with the DCI-P3 color standard.

iMac Pro Ports

For comparison, the old Mac Pro ran $ 3,999 for a 3GHz Xeon CPU, 16GB of DDR3-1866, a 256GB SSD, and a pair of GCN 1.0 D700 GPUs. While I realize people will argue about the relative value of Mac versus PC workstations until the end of time, there’s no arguing the iMac Pro is a much better value than its predecessor. But how does the entire package mesh, and does it meet early reviewer expectations? Let’s take a look, with the caveat that these write-ups all appear to be first looks or previews rather than full-on reviews.

Macworld said the system has an entirely revamped cooling-plus-blower setup that Apple claims allows for 80 percent better cooling compared with traditional iMacs (with a high-end CPU and GPU packed into the same form factor, excellent airflow is essential). There’s a new T2 security chip onboard for handling FaceTime, LEDs, storage devices, file encryption, and a new security feature Apple didn’t demo at the event.

Veteran tech journalist Lance Ulanoff spent more time discussing Apple’s various demos and applications, describing himself as sitting in “stunned disbelief” at what the new iMac Pro could accomplish (albeit with a 10-core CPU). He also highlighted the work developers are doing to implement VR support on the iMac Pro — the new Vega 56 GPU will come in extremely handy for that sort of work, especially compared with the old, GCN 1.0 (Tahiti) GPUs that were packed into the Mac Pro.

Ars Technica said the 8-core and 10-core versions are available today, with 14-core and 18-core systems arriving in early 2018. All of these CPUs support AVX512 and all have two FMA units (some Intel CPUs have just one). Ars also noted the 18-core chip won’t always be unilaterally faster than the 10-core CPU, thanks to differences in application thread support and overall power and heat profile. The 18-core CPU has a base frequency of 2.3GHz, while the 10-core chip runs at 3.3GHz base. This means some workloads will be faster on the 10-core than on the 18-core. Logic Pro and Final Cut have been updated to coincide with the new launch. Ars has the most comprehensive software review, if you’re looking for a discussion on the applications Apple demoed.

The Verge is the least positive about the new system of the sites we’ve rounded up. It dings the iMac Pro for its near-total lack of expandability, and writes: “If you’re going to buy this machine, my opinion is that you should know precisely what you plan on using it for — with more clarity than other computer purchases require. That’s not just because the price is exorbitant compared to consumer-grade computers, either. It’s also because if you simply need a radically powerful machine, there’s another professional-grade Mac coming next year, the announced but as-yet unseen Mac Pro.”

iMac Pro

Image by Matthew Buzzi

One common theme to everyone’s coverage is that the demos Apple showed were both comprehensive and impressive. Every company picks workloads that will show its hardware in a positive light, but Apple threw the kitchen sink at these machines and they didn’t falter under the load.

Nobody is giving out a recommendation on buying or not-buying the iMac Pro without the opportunity to review it first. The general opinion, however, is that the iMac Pro looks like a great system on its own terms, but it’s also an extremely locked-down platform. Apple apparently expects RAM upgrades to be installed by a service provider. In short, it’s a genuinely powerful machine for today, but locks you into certain compromises in the future. For some buyers, it’s going to make a lot of sense, but as The Verge says, it’s not for everyone. Users who value modularity and upgrade abilities will be better served by the Mac Pro when it arrives.

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