Apple iMac with Retina 5K Display: There's life in the (high-end) desktop yet

Professionals in graphics-dominated fields like video production, web and print publishing and product design will always require large, high-resolution desktop displays. Apple's new 27-inch iMac has them squarely in its sights.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

In recent years we've heard plenty about the rise of mobile computing using smartphones, phablets, tablets and hybrid tablet/laptops, with accompanying noises about how the desktop PC is 'dead'. The workhorse desktop may have had its day, but it seems that there's life left in aspirational/high-end systems, as exemplified by Apple's just-announced 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display. More than an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, an Apple Watch or an iPad Air 2, this is the new Apple product I'm itching to get my hands on.

Image: Apple

Costing from £1,999 (inc. VAT; £1,665.83 ex. VAT), the new 5K iMac won't be for everyone, of course. However, it's sure to be on the wish-lists of many a creative professional and well-heeled consumer. So what's all the fuss about? Let's have a look.

Image: Apple

The current standard for high-end displays is '4K' — so called because its 3,840-by-2,160 resolution delivers four times the number of pixels as 1,920-by-1,080 HD (8,294,400 versus 2,073,600). The new 27-inch iMac has a resolution of 5,120 by 2,880 pixels — "the world's highest-resolution display", according to Apple's senior VP of worldwide marketing Philip Schiller at the launch event — for a total of 14,745,600 pixels.

This is actually 7.1 times the number of HD pixels and 1.78 times the 4K pixel count (although, strictly speaking, 4K refers to the slightly higher 19:10 4,096-by-2,160 video standard, while the 16:9 3,840-by-2,160 resolution is more accurately called UltraHD). Still, it's an impressive resolution, whose 218ppi pixel density stands out among the current crop of sub-200ppi all-in-one desktops and large-screen monitors. It's also twice the resolution, or four times the pixel count, of the existing 109ppi 27-inch iMac.

Dell's UltraSharp 27 Ultra HD 5K Monitor will be available later in Q4 at $2,499. Image: Dell

The only other '5K' display we're aware of is Dell's forthcoming UltraSharp 27 Ultra HD 5K, which is expected to cost around $2,500 (~£1,500) — without a computer inside.

5K technology tweaks

Such an advance in resolution requires a number of technology tweaks, which Philip Schiller outlined in Apple's 16 October presentation. These include: a single custom-design timing controller chip, or TCON, that orchestrates the activity of each of the 14.7 million pixels; an oxide-based IPS TFT panel that charges quicker and holds charge longer, delivering better brightness, uniformity and lower power consumption; power-efficient LED backlighting; organic 'passivation' that separates pixels from the control signals to eliminate crosstalk in such a high-resolution panel; UV photo alignment for better positioning of liquid crystal molecules, giving enhanced contrast when the monitor is viewed head-on; and a compensation film to ensure better off-axis image quality.

Computer attached

The iMac attached to this impressive-sounding display is based around a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 (3.5/3.9GHz) processor — or, for £200 more, a Core i7 (4.0/4.4GHz). There's 8GB of RAM as standard, but you can specify 16GB for £160 extra, or 32GB for £480 more. The base price includes a 1TB Fusion Drive or 256GB of PCI-e flash storage; £120 more gets you a 3TB Fusion Drive, while extra PCI-e flash costs £240 for 512GB or £640 for 1TB. The default GPU is an AMD Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 video RAM; another £200 upgrades this to a Radeon R9 M295X with 4GB of video memory.

For connectivity there's Gigabit Ethernet, dual-band 802.11ac wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0, with ports and slots at the back as follows: 3.5mm headphone jack; SDXC card slot; four USB 3.0 ports; two Thunderbolt 2 ports and an RJ-45 Ethernet port. If the 5K iMac's 14.7-million-pixel screen real estate isn't enough for you, it simultaneously supports an external monitor running at up to 3,840-by-2,160 pixels.

Although it's only a few days since Apple announced the 5K iMac, the screwdriver-happy folks at iFixit have already published a teardown analysis. Apart from the LG-manufactured 5K display panel and the custom Parade Technologies DP665 LCD timing controller, iFixit found a similar set of components and internal layout to last year's 27-inch iMac. The system got an overall repairability score of 5/10.

As mentioned earlier, this is premium hardware that pushes the display resolution envelope and carries a price tag to match. However, for some people — notably video professionals who want to view 4K video at native resolution and still have on-screen space for editing controls — the massive pixel count makes sense. When we get a review sample, we'll let you know whether we think it's worth the money.

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