Let’s face it: many of us are seriously looking at buying an iMac Pro. Apple has successfully created a $5,000 computer (the base model) that is appealing in pretty much every way. I’ve come as close as pulling my card out at Microcenter (where the iMac Pro can be had for $3,999 on occasion, local only). Yet, something keeps me from pulling the trigger.
It’s a beautiful machine, it received insanely high marks from PCmag.com, a 4 out of 5 stars and an “Editor’s Choice” distinction. Another publication, PCgamer.com, even concluded “While Apple may have charged a big premium for its computers years ago, it looks like this is no longer the case today.” The latter even did a price examination, concluding that a nearly identical in specs PC would run around $4500.
I kept going to the store and looking at its space gray exterior, examining its beautiful 500 nits of brightness, and 5K resolution. I thought “Wow, this could be mine for only the price of a used car or two months mortgage on a four bedroom in Phoenix, Arizona.” Alas, what ultimately brought me away from the iMac Pro was realizing that its features were not so unique, but is there more to the story?
Let’s compare these three options for those of us looking for a high-end, content creation machine. First we’ll compare these two iMacs head to head. For some people, switching to PC is off the table. For those of us ready to go down any and all paths, we’ll put the winning iMac against a comparable PC.
Don’t want to read all of this? Here’s the summary: Buy an iMac Pro. It’s Apple’s best deal in a while. That said, you only need an iMac Pro if you’re editing 8K or RAW 4K. You can be happy as a clam with an 8700K PC and a decent graphics card, and spend a lot less. Threadrippers and i9s builds can be cheaper, but they aren’t as worth it; once you spend $3,000 on a tower, you may as well just get a Mac with a $1300 screen. If you’re gamer, stick to PC obviously.
iMac Pro ($4,999) vs Top of The Line iMac ($3,699), Winner: iMac Pro
Let’s go through each characteristic of these devices and see how things stack up.
Both of these iMacs have the exact same screen. With the iMac Pro, you’re not getting a better screen as long as you get a 27″ model of the iMac 2017.
The iMac Pro has slightly faster RAM at 2666 mhz compared to the iMac at 2400 mhz. Beyond this, the iMac Pro has four slots, each with 8GB of RAM. The iMac, on the other hand, has two slots, each with a 16GB stick. Here’s the kicker: if you buy the RAM from Apple, it’s considerably more expensive. One could easily lop $250 off the price of the iMac 2017 by purchasing RAM for $355 and installing it yourself (easy on the iMac 2017).
The same option for upgrading does not exist for the iMac Pro. The cost bottoms at $4,999 so there’s no cost-cutting to be done there. On top of that, upgrading anything inside the iMac Pro is extremely difficult. It’s not meant to be upgraded – except before you checkout at the Apple Store, and those upgrades ain’t cheap! 9to5Mac.com describes opening up the iMac Pro case as, “Not for the faint of heart.” It is of note that the RAM on the iMac Pro is “Error correcting.” How this fits into the overall picture of system stability and reliability is unclear to me, but I include it here for completeness.
For the most part, the SSDs on these two Macs are configured similarly. Most users won’t see much of a difference in performance. That said, if you don’t need the fast SSD, you can really cut down the price of the iMac by getting a 1TB fusion drive instead, this start to really set the iMac apart in terms of price since the 1TB SSD adds $600. If you were to install the RAM yourself and downgrade to the fusion drive, the iMac 2017 price would be around $2,900.
Now this is where things start to get really interesting. The iMac boasts an i7 7700K with a GeekBench 3 score of 4160 for single core processes. Meantime, the iMac Pro has the monstrous Xeon W-2140b, clocking in at 4108 as its Geekbench score. You read correctly, for single core processes, an iMac is actually slightly faster than an iMac Pro. Now what does this really mean? For most users and most applications having a fast single core speed means that things can move quickly. If you’re the type to only run an app or two at once, maybe a dozen or so Chrome tabs, you’ll be fine on either machine. That said, most of us aren’t looking at monster machines to browse the web.
Multicore speed is where things really start to take a turn. The iMac 2017’s Geekbench Multicore speed is 17,197. The iMac Pro boasts 29,686. Now that is a big gap in terms of numbers, but what does it all mean? It means that with multicore friendly programs like Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and After Effects, the iMac Pro will be all the better at live playback, rendering and exporting– at least in theory. One user did a test with Final Cut Pro X and found that the iMac Pro was about three times as fast exporting 4K video as the iMac. That’s a huge difference, but things aren’t that simple.
Such differences appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Max Yuryev performed a test comparing a 2017 iMac stabilizing footage in Final Cut Pro X to the iMac Pro. He found that the iMac 2017 was about 50% faster. It seems that the iMac Pro may have some optimization quirks; it appears that it often does not use the entire power of the processor and the graphics card. Max discovered a variety of instances where this was the case and the iMac 2017 outperformed the iMac Pro, but the iMac Pro used considerably less system resources. This same trend appeared with Premiere Pro and Davinci Resolve for typical timelines, again as shown in Max’s research. However, with one highly processed case of four 4K videos (two of them reversed), each with 2 LUTs, and downscaled into one 4K output, the iMac Pro delivered in about half the time as the iMac.
Thus, the iMac Pro is seemingly designed to let you keep working while you render and export. For certain workflows, this could be ideal. That said, don’t expect a speed demon for any task.
Comparing the graphics cards, their OpenCL scores are 157,000 vs 117,000 according to Max Yuryev. That said, moving out of abstract scores, it seems that the iMac Pro can play 8K files smoothly, while the iMac 2017 struggles. This is likely due to a combination of specs, but the important thing to note here is that the graphics cards aren’t wildly different considering iMac Pro’s tendency to keep steady temperatures and performance, rather than red line and get things done as quickly as possible.
The holistic picture, however is clear. The iMac Pro can handle extremely heavy footage. The iMac cannot.
Ports and More
The iMac Pro boasts double the Thunderbolt 3 ports (4) and 10 gigabit ethernet out of the box. The iMac Pro is frequently cited by reviewers as having significantly louder speakers.
Now that we’ve gone through the raw specs, let’s talk a little bit about the practical side of things. While the iMac Pro may lose some drag races to the iMac 2017, this is because the iMac Pro is using considerably less resources to achieve these slightly slower renders, it is considerably quieter, and it can be used for performing other tasks while one renders. Thus, it allows for true multi-tasking.
For the sake of future-proofing, the iMac 2017 is already outdated. It boasts the i7-7700K and that processor has just been replaced by Intel with the release of the impressive and affordable 8700K. Outdated is a harsh word so let me be clear, if you are a casual user and you’re editing 1080p footage with the occasional 4K project, and you don’t use After Effects for anything much more complicated or long, the iMac 2017 is a great machine and you’ll be more than fine for years to come.
That said, what kills the iMac 2017 for me is not anything about this machine, but rather its fit into the overall Apple product cycle. It’s late in this machine’s product cycle. This model of iMac is already over 250 days old and the average product cycle is 371 days. Therefore, in roughly four months (on average), we can expect a new model of iMac. For some of you, this may not matter, but for me it’s an immediate dealbreaker. I don’t want it to be June and I’m left with “the old iMac.”
Another key factor is that the iMac Pro is capable of handling 8K footage and RAW C200 4K 60FPS footage; the iMac 2017 can’t do this. If you’re a true media professional and you need a lot of horsepower, this is a pricey machine, but it is a true workhorse, and it’s a horse that’s going to run with the best of them for a fair number of years. If you use Final Cut Pro X and you want a machine that’s going to last for the next couple of years, going with the iMac Pro over the iMac 2017 is a no-brainer. It’s a much better value at this point than the iMac 2017. If you use Premiere and a PC is an option, you should read on to the PC portion.
iMac Pro ($4,999) vs Windows 10 PC, Winner: iMac Pro (With Exceptions)
There’s all kinds of PCs available for cheaper than $4,999, but let’s keep things fair yet reasonable. The iMac Pro includes a 5K 60HZ screen. Many reviewers choose to value this aspect of the iMac Pro at $1300 because that’s the price of the PC identical equivalent, the LG Ultrafine 27″. That’s technically correct, but by my lights, most of us can live with a 4K screen that’s less than half of the price. For instance, the wonderful ASUS Designo 27″, coming in at a mere $548.99. It’s not 500 nits (only 300), but many people find the iMac screens to be a bit too bright. That said, if you absolutely love the iMac/iMac Pro screen, consider it a serious advantage. Not only is that comparable LG screen $1300, it’s not terribly well-reviewed, yet people love the iMac screen. The best 5K screen on the market is an iMac. Apple knows what they’re doing.
Right off the bat, this means our budget for our equally competing PC is about $4450, which is a ridiculous amount of money, but it’s not as ridiculous as it may seem considering a huge limitation that severely hampers our PC’s upside: Premiere Pro and After Effects cannot leverage multiple GPUs for enhanced performance (see article on 4K Video Shooters).
Therefore, the most important aspect to compare here is processors since the difference between the single most powerful graphics cards available, the GTX 1080Ti and the iMac Pro card, the Vega 64 isn’t massive, especially in conjunction with the specs.
While data isn’t as strong as it could be, we can look to two great YouTube videos for some answers. Max Yuryev pulls out many fascinating data points when he compares a $1300 PC with the new i7 8700K (overclocked ot 5GHZ) to the iMac Pro base model.
For many instance of 4K footage exporting, particularly in Premiere Pro, the i7 8700K outperforms the iMac Pro. For relatively lightweight 4K footage, therefore, it seems that the benefits of the iMac Pro are negligible if not negative. One can get away with a much cheaper machine. I have an i7 7700K (XPS 8920) and it handles 4K footage from a C300 Mk. II liquid smooth and exports fast enough for me.
BUT and there is a big but here, when fed 8K footage or RAW 60 FPS 4K footage (such as from the C200), the 8700K and GTX 1070 on the cheap PC side started to really slow down. Max cites choppy timeline performance and occasional dropped frames on the 8700K.
Therefore, the iMac Pro with its workstation grade parts is likely to be a better value and investment than a cheap PC if you need to use this type of footage. However, if you’re in C300 mk. II land or using consumer grade cameras with 4K, you’ll be fine for at least a few more years with a budget PC Indeed, you can see my favorite i7 8700K PCs here.
The winner here therefore really depends on one’s needs. It seems that the iMac Pro is future proof for at least five years as 8K footage trickles down to the prosumer pipeline. At the same time, if you can tolerate the 8700K now, it may be a good hold over until the Coffee Lake Processors are released. Keep in mind that even the 8700K, as great as it is, is still technically “Kaby Lake Refresh.”
Overall: Get the iMac Pro If You Can Afford It
The amazing Linus of LinusTechTips concludes that the iMac Pro actually costs $200 less than an identical build at MSRP prices of a PC (though this does include the $1300 Ultrafine display mentioned in the beginning of this section). Unfortunately, there’s a few user experience features that make this machine a bit slower than an identical PC; Apple really seems to have tried to keep those fans quiet. Linus noticed throttling to keep the temperatures down, rather than cranking those fans. Max, as cited above in the iMac Pro vs iMac section, also noticed this.
So if you’re in the market for a new computer for content creation, and it comes to iMac Pro vs PC, my recommendation is this: if you need to edit 4K RAW 60FPS footage, 8K footage, or process extremely heavy workloads, get the iMac Pro. It’s a good deal for people who need the firepower today. It’s a beautiful computer. It will last at least 3 years into the future as a solid performer, though at the bleeding edge of cameras, it’d bound to lose its edge since it’s simply not that ahead of the curve in terms of raw benchmarks (but how ahead can a processor really be?).
If you’re leaning iMac Pro, just get it. It’s a super nice PC, boasts a stunning screen, and a lot of people agree on one thing: it’s one of the best values Apple has ever released.
If you’re still on the fence, here’s more to consider. If you’re using something like an A7Sii or a GH5 and don’t need a PC that can tear through RAW footage at 4K 60FPS or 8K footage, you’ll be fine with a PC like an Aurora R7 (Intel 8700 processor).
There’s also the option of going with a Threadripper build, or an i9 build. However, as I said before, all things considered, the iMac Pro starts to be a pretty good value against higher end PCs, especially if you want the workstation grade components and Apple reliability. Nonetheless, there are some PC options that are great, more affordable options such as this i9-7900X model from CyberPowerPC, coming in at $3,179. That PC is about as fast as the iMac Pro, but it has a much smaller SSD (240GB) and doesn’t include a screen. All in all, those aren’t bad tradeoffs, but once you price in the display, then it’s just a 20% markup to a device that will resell a whole lot better and probably last twice as long.
Another machine worth a look is coming from Dell. Dell will soon be releasing an i9-7980XE Alienware model that is unambiguously monstrous. While it is effectively $700 or more so ($500 of that would be the aforementioned 4K display) than the base iMac Pro, the processor is about twice as fast and everything else is on par. I have found Dell machines to be comparable to Apple in reliability. I can’t vouch for their customer service, however; I’ve never had an issue. Here’s the specs below:
All in all, the iMac Pro is a good deal for pro users who want to go with Mac OSX and want a relatively future proof PC.
For those who are willing to spend a hair more, it may be better to go with an i9 build. In my view, a Threadripper build is a bit cheaper, but you’ll take a performance hit and it won’t be that much cheaper. For instance, in this September video, TechSource makes a $5722 Threadripper 1950X build. If we cut out the extraneous 1080Ti and second SSD, one is still lookin at around $4000, so $4,500 total. Sure, you save $500, but then you have a custom PC instead of an iMac Pro. I think the iMac will be more stable and retain its value way better.
What About a Custom PC Build With an i9-7980XE, Intel’s ~$2000 Processor?
After writing this article, I realized a build with this processor may wildly outperform the base iMac Pro and be a hair cheaper. Newegg does have a 22″ 500 nits LG display that’s only $400 or so. You can check out my i9 build at PcPartPicker.com; it has similar specs to the iMac Pro (GTX 1080, 32GB RAM, etc) and with the display would be $4,800 or so plus tax. The i9-7980XE benches around 60,000 on Geekbench multicore, almost double the base iMac Pro. If you are comfortable building PCs, this is probably going to be the most powerful build you can get for the money. Of course, you still lose out on some resale value and the nice clean look, but with that much processing power, you could literally mine crypto with your CPU (I reckon it’d be as profitable as a GTX 1060 so it’s not worth it but that’s still ridiculous).
I hope this article proved helpful to you. If you have any questions or opinions to share, please do. I am always happy to revise, add new information, and help people find the PC that works for them. Feel free to email me at supercameraguy at gmail dot com.