Apple will be introducing new iMacs in 2017 with spec bumps that will make them even more attractive to pro users. (Click here to read the latest version of this article.)
Talking to journalists in what appears to be a bid to convince pro users that Apple hasn’t forgotten about them, Apple VPs Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi and John Ternus revealed that the company is completely rethinking the Mac Pro with a new design planned for some time in 2018.
It was also revealed that because the Mac Pro in its current form hasn’t been meeting the needs of many pro users, some pros have turned to the iMac instead, and as a result Apple intends to provide those users with an update to the iMac designed to suit them later this year. (Read about Apple’s plans for a new Mac Pro here).
According to journalists from Engadget who were present at the briefing, Federighi revealed that Apple sees the iMac as appealing to a percentage of pro users who find that it is capable enough for them.
Those users are probably choosing iMac over Mac Pro because the pace of updates is faster and thanks to increased capability.
“So many of our customers were moving to iMac that we saw a path to address many, many more of those that were finding themselves limited by Mac Pro through a next generation iMac,” he said.
Apple has put “a lot of our energy behind” this new iMac, according to Federighi.
News of Apple’s renewed focus on the Mac, with the upcoming new iMac and Mac Pro redesign, will be a relief to those who were thinking that the company had turned its back on the Mac in favour of the iPhone and iPad, which account for much more of its business.
Those users had reason to be concerned. The Mac Pro hasn’t been updated since 2013 (although Apple is now offering a spec bump and a price cut following the news of it’s renewed interest in the Mac).
Similarly Apple’s last iMac update came back in October 2015, when it introduced a Retina-class screen resolution to the smaller Macs for the first time and equipped the larger models with new Skylake processor chips. Before that, you had to go back more than two years – if you don’t include the cheaper iMac which Apple launched in June 2014 – to the last proper new iMac update, in September 2013, when Apple added Haswell processors, new graphics, next-gen Wi-Fi and faster PCIe flash storage options.
When will new iMacs be launched in the UK?
We know that Apple is planning to release new iMacs later in 2017 but we can only guess when at the moment.
Apple’s yearly cycle is built around three major press events: autumn – usually September (new iPhones and iPads); spring – usually March (new iPhones and iPads, sometimes MacBooks and watches); and summer – usually June (WWDC – operating system updates, and occasional hardware). But that doesn’t mean the company stays quiet the rest of the year. Mac updates can be folded into the big three events, but they’re often launched at their own smaller launch events. The iMac update in 2015 got its own announcement, a few weeks after the iPhone 6s reveal.
It certainly doesn’t look like they will arrive at a Spring event as it’s looking increasingly like Apple won’t be holding a Spring event this year.
The next plausible event at which the iMac could arrive is WWDC, taking place in early June. You can read about what we expect Apple to show attendees of WWDC here.
WWDC would be a good opportunity for Apple to talk to its pro users – or at least those pro users who fit in the developer category (Apple itself has said broad a definition Pro is when it comes to Mac users). Another reason to expect to see an iMac launch at that event is that in previous years Apple has launched new Macs there. In fact it was at WWDC that Apple revealed the design for the Mac Pro back in 2013.
Another likely timeframe for the iMac update is September or October 2017. A September launch would coincide with the launch of new iPhones, while in past years Apple has held an October event to launch new Macs and iPads. In fact the last iMac update was in October 2015.
What specs can we expect from the new iMac?
We know that Apple intends to introduce a new iMac designed for the pro users who have moved away from the Mac Pro. So we can expect a pretty high spec machine.
We’ll add leaked details about the tech specs of the new iMacs to this section as we hear them. Here’s what we know so far.
Will the new iMac have a touch screen?
There have been calls for Apple to introduce touch screen capabilities to the iMac, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that it will.
Phil Schiller was asked about whether Apple would consider adding a touch screen to the Mac during the journalist briefing at which the plans for a new Mac Pro were revealed. His response: “No”. His collegue Craig Federighi suggested that the iPad Pro offers a far better drawing experience.
What processor will the new iMac use?
Apple skipped Intel’s much-delayed Broadwell processors and went straight from Haswell to Skylake for the 2015 update. Skylake uses the same 14nm manufacturing process as Broadwell, but brings even greater CPU and GPU performance, along with reduced power consumption. But what chips will appear in the next set of iMacs?
Clearly that will depend on their launch date and the hardware that’s available at the time. After 2015’s Skylake, the next round of Intel processors, which started going into mass production in late 2016 and is still being rolled out, is Kaby Lake; this will be followed by Cannonlake (Cannonlake was due to be next, but it’s been delayed until the second half of 2017). Then Ice Lake in 2018 and Tiger Lake in 2019, for those who enjoy this sort of thing.
Kaby Lake uses a 14nm process, same as Broadwell and Skylake, but Cannonlake switches over to a more accurate 10nm process.
Intel started shipping its Kaby Lake processors in July 2016, and the chips offer support for Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 and DisplayPort 1.2. It’s therefore now possible that Apple will squeeze Kaby Lake chips into the next iMac update, but by no means guaranteed, given Apple’s past behaviour.
In early January, Intel used CES 2017 in Las Vegas to introduce its Kaby Lake processors officially, after announcing low power versions of Kaby Lake processors in August of 2016. The chips shown off in January are powerful enough to be used in Apple’s Macs.
The specific model of Kaby Lake processor we’re expecting to appear in the next iMac is the i7-7700. And as luck would have it, Tom’s Hardware has got hold of what they understand to be a pre-release sample of that chip. Naturally they promptly overclocked it and put it through rigorous speed tests.
Those speed tests found that the i7-7700 (or rather the i7-7700K – the K in the name denoting that the clock multiplier has been unlocked to allow for overclocking) was capable of 4.2GHz under normal circumstances, and 4.8GHz when overclocked. Serious speed which, as BGR observes, would give the new iMac bragging rights over the rival Surface Studio, launched before the relevant Kaby Lake chips became available.
Micosoft could always launch an updated Surface Studio with Kaby Lake, of course, although that might annoy the early buyers.
Back in October 2016, the US retailer Best Buy leaked a listing for a new iMac, and it had a Kaby Lake chipset – a “7th Gen Intel Core i7 processor”.
As Technobuffalo points out, this isn’t necessarily genuine: an employee could have created this as a placeholder until official information is available. But slip-ups of this kind more often happen because a retailer has been given advance warning of an imminent launch and somebody sets it live too early by mistake.
We’d say – based on this and other clues – that a Kaby Lake iMac is looking like a decent bet for launch in the near future.
In November 2016, further evidence emerged that sheds light on the prospects of a Kaby Lake iMac. Intel briefly made documents available on its website, intended for PC manufacturer partners rather than consumers, that detail specs of new Kaby Lake processors – and Anandtech spotted and grabbed them.
The documents detail 11 new processors, including seven i5 chips and three i7s; 10 of them are designated for desktop use and one is for worktop. There’s still no sign of the Kaby Lake laptop processors we expect to use as part of a MacBook Pro update in early 2017.
We expect Apple to choose Intel-based CPUs, but there’s a chance AMD could also make an appearance in certain iMac models. The AMD Zen processor, launched in 2016, boasts 8 cores and 16 threads – a massive amount of raw processing power. Given the suggested price tag of the Zen CPU, we expect it either to be in the top-spec iMacs or be an upgrade option.
The inclusion of other AMD processors is also not far-fetched, as we still see it being an option for cheaper iMac models.
At the end of February 2017, in the response to news of a recording-breaking benchmark performance by the new AMD RYZEN 7 1800X processor, Architosh discussed the possibility of Apple switching from Intel to AMD as its Mac chip supplier. The site was particularly interested in AMD’s superior power efficiency, something which fits in with Apple’s recent philosophy.
“Today’s current iMac 5K model,” the site points out, “uses an Intel 14nm Skylake 4-core i7-6700K processor with a TDP of 91W. Based on the iMac’s actual frequency, the TDP is possibly low 80s W range. But AMD’s RYZEN 7 1700 is at 65W already and has 8 cores.”
Architosh even ponders if AMD’s recent development work has been geared towards catching Apple’s eye: “Is it possible that when AMD decided to work from a clean state four years ago that they began the RYZEN line with the possibility of wooing Apple at some point in the future?”
As we said above, switching to AMD processors for the next iMac would be a surprise, but it no longer seems impossible.
What Graphics chips will Apple use in the new iMac?
It’s believed that Apple’s next generation of iMacs (or its higher-specced models, at least) will feature graphics chips from AMD’s Polaris set, which were announced at the start of 2016.
WCCF Tech reports that AMD won the contract last October but was only able to get confirmation from additional sources in April 2016.
The contract is for two chipsets: Polaris 10 (previously known as Ellesmere) and Polaris 11 (previously known as Baffin), and WCCF Tech says these processors will appear in “new desktops and notebooks from Apple, which the company plans to bring to market later this year”.
With the MacBook and MacBook Air having recently seen updates, and the Mac mini highly unlikely to incorporate a discrete graphics unit, the remaining candidates are the MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro. MacRumors reasons that the power range of these chips makes Polaris 11 a strong fit for the MacBook Pro, while Polaris 10 suits the iMac.
The Polaris chips offer improved graphics performance compared with previous generations (as much as twice the speed per watt) and potential reductions in both power consumption and waste heat. They are built using a 16nm or 14nm FinFET production process, compared to 28nm on AMD’s earlier chips, which means that the chip maker can fit more transistors in a given space (which makes the chips ideal for ultraportable laptops and ultraslim desktops – the latter fitting recent iMac designs) and, because the transistors are closer together, less power is needed to move a signal across them.
Apple’s current iMac line-up features AMD Radeon graphics chipsets as standard in the 27-inch models. The 21-inch models come with integrated Intel Iris Pro 6200 graphics.
Talking about graphics architecture can be a little dry, but the Polaris rumour discussed above has a sexier element to it: VR.
AMD has consistently talked up its Polaris graphics chips as a way of bringing VR within the reach of a wider market of PC users. At present Macs are basically unusable for VR, as we discuss in our articles Can you use Oculus Rift with Mac? and How to use a Mac for VR, and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey specifically cited underpowered Mac GPUs as the reason why the company was focusing on Windows:
“People have said, ‘Why don’t you support Macs? So many people have Macs.’ It’s true. A lot of people have Apple hardware, especially in the laptop space. But the GPUs in those, they’re not even close to what we’re pushing for our recommended spec.”
But adding Polaris GPUs to the iMac could change Luckey’s mind. AMD’s Roy Taylor thinks the company’s new GPUs are about to massively expand the available market for VR. “AMD has just completed the shrink to 14nm [with Polaris],” he said. “This means we can produce GPUs that will run the minimum spec of VR at a lower cost, in larger volume, consuming less power and running faster. That means in the second half of this year and going forward, more people will be able to run those headsets.”
Visit WCCF Tech for more info.
VR remains a niche topic in tech – the number of people actually willing to shell out for the whole shebang remains small, even if casual gamers who try the Vive or the Oculus Rift tend to love it – but it gets a lot of press at the moment. And it can’t be nice for a company that prides itself on the quality of its products to hear them disparaged as “not even close” to being up to a task.
As Jim Lynch on CIO colourfully phrases it, “As far as VR goes, it’s not something that I have paid much attention to, but it certainly couldn’t hurt for Apple’s computers to be able to do it adequately… If VR lights a fire under Apple’s rear end and gets the company to put out a pro version of the iMac, then it will be a good thing for all users.”
Will the new iMac ship with Flash storage as standard?
We’ll repeat our hope, expressed this time last year while waiting for the 2015 update, that Apple makes flash storage standard across the entire range of iMacs. At present the 27-inch iMacs get a Fusion Drive by default (Fusion Drives are a high-performance hybrid blend of flash and conventional storage) and the 21.5-inch models can add them as a build-to-order option for an extra £80. We think it should be offered as standard in all Apple’s desktops.
The current 21.5-inch iMac range is crippled somewhat by its hard drives, which are a lot slower than the flash drives used in all of Apple’s laptops – to the extent that Mac laptops with similar processors will perform noticeably better than the equivalent iMac because of their faster SSD drives.
Read next: Best external SSD flash drives for Mac
Poll: What do you want from the next iMac?
Those are the rumours about the next iMac refresh. What do you think? And what are you looking for from the next generation of iMacs? Have your say in our poll: