The Review of iMac Pro: Beauty of a beast

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On March 2, 2018, Posted by , In Digitalbes Weekly,Hardware News,Technology, With No Comments

iMAC Pro Review: Beauty of a Beast

For the last few weeks, they have been testing the worst iMac Pro you can buy — $4999 eight-core, 1 terabyte version of Apple's iMac Pro. And here's how it went.

It's the professional grade, Mac, nobody knew they wanted until Apple announced. All the specs of typical of a Mac Pro — Xeon processors, ECC Ram, gobs of memory, and ridiculously fast storage — rolled up into the all-in-one chassis of iMac. And it shouldn't really work.

We've been told for years that what pros want are flexibility and expandability, configurable towers and upgradeable components. But it totally works. Because there are many kinds of pros and, for some, power is best when expressed through the whisper-quiet, eye-popping form of an integrated DCI-P3 5K display.

For the last few weeks, We've been testing the lowest end, eight core, starting at $4999, one terabyte configuration of iMac Pro to see if it could hold up to my existing podcast and brand new YouTube workflow better than either my regular iMac or Kaby Lake MacBook Pro.

The answer is yes, of course. It's ludicrously powerful. But how exactly it did so, and the types of limits we ran into even on Apple's new pro platform weren't what we expected. So, here's the deal on Apple's new all-in-one for those who always wished it was hit by enough gamma rays to make it more hulkingly pro.

iMac Pro in Brief

For people who want:

  • A workstation-class all-in-one
  • Massive amounts of memory and ultra-fast storage
  • Higher-end graphics options
  • Whisper-quiet operations
  • Advanced, ARM-based encryption and boot protection.

Not for people who want:

  • A workstation-class tower.
  • User-accessible memory and storage
  • Nvidia graphics options
  • A ton of expansion slots and bays.
  • Touch ID/Face ID and Apple Pay

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For people who love everything about the iMac, including and especially it's magnificent wide-gamut 5K display and all-in-one design, but need high-end processors, graphics, memory, and storage.

iMac Pro Design & Display

iMac Pro looks like… an iMac. No surprise there. From the outside, it is millimeter-for-millimeter the exact same chassis as the existing 27-inch iMac. There are some differences in the mics, speakers, ports, vents, and mounting options but you'd be hard-pressed to tell it apart. Except for this: It's anodized in space gray. And it looks so badass, I'm guessing money-is-no-object customers might buy it just for the new finish.

iMac Pro Design & Display

The biggest and most welcome change are those mounting options: You no longer have to choose between a stand mount or VESA mount at time of purchase. If you buy both, you can switch between both at any time. Halleluja.

The Retina 5K display remains the same as the current generation iMac non-Pro, which is about as good as an ISP panel can be right now.

When I first saw Retina 5K on iMac, I thought it almost looked better than real life. Then, when I saw DCI-P3 wide-gamut Retina, I was fairly sure it looked better. Now that it's 43% brighter — 500 nits if you're keeping score — and implements 10-bit temporal dithering for a billion colors, I'm convinced. It doesn't just look true to life. It looks truer to life.

It looks as good as the iPad Pro displays — and is perfectly color-matched thanks to Apple's hardware calibration and software management — and that's saying a lot. It's about as close as you can get to full HDR without going OLED.

Speaking of which, some may be disappointed Apple didn't take the opportunity to redesign its classic all-in-one, delete the bezels, go edge-to-edge across the display, and thin it fully down to 2D.

But this wasn't about making a new outside. This was about cramming the existing outside full-to-busting with all new insides. It was about making the iMac… pro.

iMac Pro Processors

The heart of the iMac Pro is neither commercial-grade Intel Core processors nor full-on server-class Xeon processors. It's something new — something that Intel intends to sit in the middle. It's called Xeon W (as in "workstation").

imac-pro-back-internals

Commercial computers are typically like sports cars: fast and agile and super exciting if you don't need to haul a load. That's Intel's Core i7 series. Servers are more like trucks: reliable and scalable but not as zippy. That's Intel's Xeon Gold series. The new Xeon W is meant to be more like an SUV: maintain a good amount of pep but be ready to haul when you need to haul.

Apple is offering up 8-, 10-, 14-, or 18-core versions, and each of those is double threaded. Here's how their base and turbo frequencies break down:

  • 8-core: 3.2GHz base, 4.2GHz turbo.
  • 10-core: 3.0GHz base, 4.5GHz turbo.
  • 14-core: 2.5GHz base, 4.3GHz turbo.
  • 18-core: 2.3GHz base, 4.3Ghz turbo.

So, if a single core is important to you, the 10-core version has the absolute fastest turbo frequencies. If massive parallelism is where you're at, you can go all the way to 18.

All of them have 1MB of L2 cache, 1.375MB of shared L3 cache and support for AVX-512 vector instructions. That provides an extra boost to both performance and throughput for intense computing tasks.

Because Xeon W is based on Skylake architecture, processor-accelerated HEVC (H.265) encoding and decoding are limited to 8-bit, not 10-bit like on the Kaby Lake-based standard iMacs. Because iMac Pro has such a resource advantage, though, Apple can still deliver software-based HEVC 10-bit much, much faster than the standard iMac can through hardware.

The new version of Final Cut Pro X that launched alongside iMac Pro, for example, now handles 360 videos and up to 8K frames, and a lot of it in real time. Same with the Logic Pro X update and it's ability to handle far more tracks with far more demanding effects, including Alchemy, and play it all back in real-time.

Even on the eight-core version, the sheer power of iMac Pro let their apps and their customers work in real-time in a way that simply wasn't possible on any previous hardware. Sure, it cut down wait times for intensive tasks like compiling and rendering, but it also removed wait times so completely on so many tasks that it allowed for an all-new, all interactive experience.

On multicam edits with several compound clips, I twice, for a brief period of time, managed to push the iMac Pro to the point where Final Cut Pro X begged me to turn the angle view off so it could keep the frame rate up. (I turned off optimized media rendering to save on that 1 TB of solid state space). And only for a few minutes.

Other than that, it handled all the 4K video we could throw at it, as fast as we could throw it. To the extent that we didn't realize how real-time it felt until we went back to editing on my MacBook Pro and suddenly felt as though we were moving through toffee compared to the iMac Pro.

That's the kind of instant velocitization — the speed that resets what you consider to be speed — that we look for in an upgrade.

iMac Pro Graphics

iMac Pro uses the new AMD Radeon Pro Vega chipsets. At the upper end, they provide up to 64 compute units with 4096 stream processors.

Those stream processors can deliver up to 11 teraflops of single precision (FP32) or 22 teraflops at half-precision (FP16). All of that with high bandwidth memory (HBM2) that sports a 2048-bit wide bus and delivers 400MB/s of bandwidth. So. Much. Numbers.

iMac Pro Graphics

You can go with either the Radeon Pro Vega 56 with 8GB of on-package HBM2 or ratchet that up to a Radeon Pro Vega 64 with 16GB of HBM2.

They're not cards; they're soldered inside the iMac Pro and the iMac Pro is sealed. That means two things: You don't get the option for Nvidia (and CUDA), and you can't swap out the card for a newer, more advanced one next year or any year after that.

Apple and Nvidia seem to be at loggerheads over who gets to own our graphics destiny, with neither willing to cede control to the other. So, AMD.

The more specific knock against Vega Pro is that it's more of a jack-of-all-trades card and not something that's optimized for hardcore gaming, for example. Yet, talking with developers like those who work on Cinema 4D, it became clear that a combination of Metal 2 and AMD produced results better than they'd seen with similar or even better graphics hardware on other platforms.

We think that can be attributed to how much Apple gets out of the way and opens up access to as much computing power as possible, something that's enabled by the company's tight integration of hardware and software, and relationship with AMD.

As of macOS High Sierra, Apple has also provided beta support for external GPU (eGPU). There's no word yet on how many you can hang off an iMac Pro but we got to see two eGPU running today and, from what the developers were saying, they'd managed more in their own testing. Once eGPU comes out of beta, concern over future internal vendors and upgrades could well become a thing of the past. Fingers crossed.

We've had a chance to see and try out several VR apps on iMac Pro, using the HTC Vive headset and controls, and they all worked tremendously well. We've used the Vive previously on PCs, and while it remains to be seen how many and how well the game situation matures, everything from design applications like Gravity Sketch, to 360 video editing in Final Cut Pro, to fully immersive creative environments like Electronaught, all ran terrifically well.

Because of both the Xeon W and the Radeon Pro, neither CPU nor GPU proved to be a constraint and the developers managed to deliver seamless VR experiences right out of the gate.

It was also whisper quiet. We don't recall hearing the fans spin up even once, even under heavy load. Maybe they're just quiet enough that our conversations with Apple and developers were enough to mask them, and maybe we'd hear them in dead-silence if we pushed hard enough. But there's really no way to overstate how much power Apple had packed into iMac Pro while preventing the traditional fan noise that goes with it.

iMac Pro T2

MacBook Pro had a custom T1 chipset that handled Touch ID, Apple Pay, and offered a secure enclave to lock down not only those two features but things like FaceTime camera access and indicators. But, where T1 felt like an Apple Watch-style system-in-package (SIP), T2 feels more like an iPhone-style system-on-a-chip (SoC).

imac-pro-back-vent

First and foremost, T2 unifies many of the disparate and discrete controllers Apple had previously been using on the Mac, including the system management controller (SMC), and audio and SSD controllers.

T2 also handles security and encryption. That includes cryptographically verifying the integrity of the entire startup process, from bootloader to firmware to kernel to extensions. You can disable it if you really want or need to, but otherwise it will make sure no one and nothing has tampered with your Mac, and it'll do it so fast you won't even notice it's there at all.

Thanks to a dedicated AES crypto engine, T2 also provides hardware encryption for the SSD storage. There's a unique key for each and every iMac Pro, and if you use FileVault, your own personal key to completely lock down your data as well. In real time. As you're reading and writing it. Which is ludicrously cool tech.

T2 even includes an image signal processor (ISP) for the new 1080p FaceTime camera, so you get auto exposure and white balance, face detection, and enhanced tonal mapping.

These are all features iOS has been benefiting from for years and it's great to see them, and more custom silicon, come to the Mac.

And the best part is — you don't even notice it's there. Not once in my weeks of working on the iMac Pro have I noticed anything even resembling slowdown, including anything attributable to encrypt/decrypt. That's the best compliment I can give it. If you want to work on a Mac that's as secure as technology allows, without anything in the way of a performance hit, you want T2.

 

Biometric bummer

Two of the best features enabled by T1 on the MacBook Pro is Touch ID and, by extension, Apple Pay. When iMac Pro was announced, there was some hope we'd see a Touch ID-equipped Magic Keyboard go with it. But we didn't. Then, when iPhone X and Face ID quickly eclipsed it, there was the briefest of hopes we'd see that instead. But we didn't either.

Caught in transition, too late for Touch ID and too early for Face ID, the debut iMac Pro instead focuses all its custom Apple silicon on security. And if any biometric conveniences are to come, they'll have to come in a future generation.

iMac Pro Memory & Storage

With great power comes... great memory. iMac Pro starts off with 32GB of 2666MHz DDR4 ECC memory but you can bump that up to 64GB or 128GB — twice as much as the standard iMac. Because the memory slots are positioned higher up on the back of the iMac Pro, you can't swap them out yourself if you want later. But, you can take them to any Apple Store or authorized service center and have them swapped out and upgraded for you.

iMac Pro Design & Display

Unlike the standard iMac, there's no fusion drive option on iMac Pro.

With iMac Pro, you get 1TB of up to 2.8GB/s sequential read performance and up to 3.3GB/s sequential write performance to start with. Which is jaw-droppingly impressive. So much so, our resident iT writer, Anthony Casella, didn't believe the claim and spent a good half-hour in Terminal doing read/write tests only to walk away, shaking his head, picking his jaw up off the floor.

You can configure it up to 2TB or 4TB if you want more. You should think carefully about that, though. Unlike memory, you can't get the solid stage chips changed later, so you're stuck with what you buy — but only on the outside.

Thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and 10Gb Ethernet, you can hang additional solid state drives, RAID arrays, NAS, and SAN systems right off the back and transfer fast enough that you might not need all that much storage up front.

iMac Pro Input & Output

iMac Pro, unlike MacBook Pro, hasn't gone all-in on Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C. Instead, it's kept all the legacy ports of iMac and added the newer ports on top of them. Well, technically, beside them.

iMAC Pro Input

You've got four USB-A (USB 3) ports for all your external microphones, cameras, peripherals, and more. But then you've got four USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 ports as well for everything from double 5K displays or quadruple 4K displays to multiple high-speed storage devices or eGPU. Those four ports are also split between two separate controllers, so each and every port gets full-on 40Gb/s throughput.

And, yeah, if you still need FireWire, Thunderbolt 2 / mini DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI, or VGA, you can use any of your old USB-A adapters or any of the new USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 dongles.

There's a 3.5mm headset jack for wired headphones or audio gear, and an Ethernet port as well. That Ethernet port, though, is now 10Gb (NBASE-T on RJ45), so it'll automatically run at the highest speed the network allows — 1Gb, 2.5Gb, 5Gb, or 10Gb, based on the cable type and length, and switch type.

It can make network attached storage seem... almost local.

There's also a new, improved, 1080p FaceTime HD camera with a new, improved, microphone system that includes two on the front, one up top, and one on the back. Thanks to the image signal processor (ISP) in the T2 chip, you get a front-facing camera that captures almost as well — if not quite as easily moved around — as the one on an iPhone.

iMac Pro Accessories

iMac Pro doesn't just come in space gray, it comes with space gray. That includes the new, extended version of Magic Keyboard with numeric pad and the Magic Mouse. If you, like me, you're not a huge fan of the Magic Mouse or mouses in general, you can choose to replace it with the awesome Magic Trackpad — or get both.

iMAC Pro Accessories

You can't buy the space gray versions of the Magic accessories separately, at least not yet, which is a downer for people who own the space black MacBook Pro and would love them on their desks. It also remains to be seen how or if Apple will handle replacement space gray accessories for those who somehow lose or damage the ones they get at purchase.

All that aside, space gray Magic accessories are otherwise identical to their silver predecessors. They work wirelessly to keep down clutter, but instantly pair and recharge with the included Lightning to USB-A cable.

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