First Impressions of the New iMac Pro

Apple held a small briefing yesterday in New York City to officially unveil the new iMac Pros, which went on sale today.

It is decidedly more expensive than its non-pro iMac siblings — the iMac Pro starts at $4999, but most configurations will cost significantly more. But make no mistake — if you buy one of these, you’re getting true professional performance for your money. You’re not just getting (admittedly gorgeous) space gray anodized aluminum.

The entire lineup of iMac Pros is based on Intel’s new Xeon W CPUs, and they are exclusively SSD-based. There are no configurations with spinning hard drives or Fusion drives — according to Apple, the system architecture is designed only to work with SSDs for internal storage. These components are all high-end: the RAM is 2666 MHz DDR 4 ECC; the SSD storage has write speeds of 3.3 GB/sec and read speeds of 2.8 GB/sec. They have more Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports than the regular iMacs (including support for attaching up to two 5K external displays), 10-gigabit Ethernet (regular iMacs have plain old gigabit Ethernet), and the iMac Pro even has better-sounding speakers.

Here’s how quickly the price can escalate though: the base model $4999 iMac Pro has an 8-core CPU, 32 GB of RAM, a 1 TB SSD, a Radeon Pro Vega 56 graphics card, and the exclusive space gray Magic Mouse. If you upgrade to 64 GB of RAM, 2 TB SSD, the Vega 64 graphics card, and the space gray Magic Trackpad (instead of, not in addition to, the Magic Mouse), the price goes to $7,249. A 10-core iMac Pro with maxed out RAM (128 GB) and SSD storage (4 TB) and the Vega 64 graphics card is $11,599.

Apple is not fucking around with these machines, and neither are the people who will be buying them.

Apple invited a nice array of third-party developers to demo their software on the iMac Pro. My notes:

  • Adobe Dimension CC: Dimension is a relatively new app from Adobe. It lets designers create photo-realistic 3D renderings from 2D designs — for example, consumer packaging labels. Dimension’s rendering performance scales linearly with the number of CPU cores, which means it renders 2-5 times faster on iMac Pro compared to a regular iMac or MacBook Pro.

  • Gravity Sketch: VR-based 3D sketching. Very cool. I got to try it out, and in a nut, it’s almost more like sculpting than drawing. The iMac Pro is the only Mac capable of supporting Gravity Sketch.

  • Twinmotion: A real-time 3D visualization app. Architects can use Twinmotion to create 3D models from CAD drawings, and turn them into something akin to a 3D video game where you can, effectively, walk around and see what it would look like to be there. It includes features like setting the time of day, and even simulating various weather conditions and seasons of the year, all of which affect the lighting. And it’s all rendered in real time.

  • Electronauts: A VR music production app from a company called Survios, heretofore known for creating VR games. Electronauts was only officially announced today. It’s primarily a DJ app — creating, recording, and performing live electronic music, but it’s mixed with a game-like atmosphere akin to something like Guitar Hero. The interface is entirely VR-based — there is no non-VR UI, and the iMac Pro (a) runs Electronauts wonderfully — perfectly smooth at a high frame rate, and (b) is the only Mac capable of running it at all.

  • Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X: Logic now allows massively multi-tracked projects to play in real-time. On any other Mac, sufficently complex projects would require either pre-rendering or real-time playback with compressed fidelity. Today’s new release of Final Cut Pro X adds editing features for VR experiences. Again, only on iMac Pro.

The bottom line is that for some tasks, the iMac Pros now handle full-fidelity playback in real-time that on any other Mac — MacBook Pro or Mac Pro — would require rendering or lower-fidelity playback. For other tasks, notably VR, the iMac Pro supports software that simply cannot run on any other Mac today.1

Apple has been effectively out of the professional desktop hardware game for a few years. The “trash can” Mac Pro design of 2013 languished, unchanged technically, in Apple’s product line for reasons unexplained until last April, when Apple took the unprecedented step of holding a small media summit to announce (a) that they were working on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, and (b) had a pro-targeted iMac in the works that would ship by the end of 2017.

The new iMac Pros that started shipping today deliver on half of that promise. These are serious, undeniably professional machines. The Mac has gone from being a non-player in the burgeoning world of VR to a credible contender in one fell swoop. Two questions remain in my mind:

First, when is the “completely rethought” Mac Pro going to ship, and what is it going to offer above and beyond the iMac Pro besides separating the computer hardware from the display? Apple had nothing to say regarding the new Mac Pro other than that it is still forthcoming. If I needed the performance of modern professional desktop hardware, I would order an iMac Pro today. I wouldn’t wait.

Second, and to me far more importantly: how committed is Apple to keeping the iMac Pro up to date? It’s an impressive piece of engineering — do not let the appearance fool you into thinking that the iMac Pro is just an iMac with a dark finish and speed-bumped processors. Internally, it’s a completely different architecture. But the 2013 Mac Pro was an impressive piece of engineering and design that Apple put a lot of effort into, too.

My hope is that the iMac Pro has been designed with the future in mind. VR is moving fast. Even on today’s leading hardware, the best VR experience is still insufficient — resolution is low (individual pixels are visible, clearly) and latency is still a huge problem. The end game for VR is an experience equivalent to our real-world vision. Every year’s worth of CPU and GPU improvements will be needed to get from here to there, so the iMac Pro will need to be updated on a roughly annual basis to remain relevant.

Some excellent reports from other writers who attended yesterday’s briefing:

  1. All of the VR demos at Apple’s briefing yesterday used the HTC Vive VR headset and controllers. None of them used the Oculus Rift. ↩︎