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iMac Pro – Will it be ‘Pro’, or just a slightly warmed over iMac 5k?


In a recent meeting with a select group of Journalists Apple let slip their plans for an iMac to address some ‘Pro’ requirements before the end of this year, a machine we’ll call the iMac Pro for want of a better name.

Discussions on several major Apple news sites have focussed on the prospect of Xeon chips and ECC RAM, with little other thought as to what really makes a ‘Pro’ iMac. Let’s discuss the possibilities in greater depth. Before we start, let me be clear, I neither work for Apple, nor have any source within the company. What follows is my conjecture, and response to suggestions put forward in the industry when discussion the rumoured iMac Pro.

Processor.

Most pundits have proposed a Xeon processor, with suggestions of up to 12 cores. Likely in the current iMac design? Let’s look at reality.

The current top of the line iMac runs up to an i7 4.0 processor with a TDP of 91W, alongside a Radeon R9 M395X , TDP 125W

Under full load, the fan kicks in with noticeable noise and the CPU quickly throttles back to prevent the whole beast for combusting.

The i7 6700K used performs well compared to Xeon’s up to 6 cores, then rapidly falls behind.

If Apple is serious about an iMac capable of fulfilling the needs of many pros, then we’d need to be looking at Xeon’s running 8-10 cores minimum, or a CPU with equivalent performance. Therein lies the problem.

The E5-1680 v4, has a TDP of 140W, indicating a serious need for additional cooling and hypersonic speed fans to keep the iMac Pro from overheating or being constantly throttled to speeds low enough to make the i7 a better performer.

GPU considerations

The R9 M395X was a reasonable performer, though well short of anything required for serious video editing, games, or VR.

Any attempt to address a Pro market is going to require a seriously more powerful GPU. If Apple were to remain with AMD for the GPU, to get a reasonable powerful unit along the lines of a non-mobile RX480 we are looking at a TDP in the 150-160W range. Add that to a CPU of 140W and the current iMac design is seriously thermally challenged; potentially to the point of early failure.

Thankfully there are several options with The Nvidia GTX1060 offering higher performance at around the 120W mark. Despite the performance and TDP edge, even using the Nvidia part, we still have a thermal challenge.

Thermal answers?

Try to squeeze in an additional fan or more effective fan design? Hardly. No matter how you dice this one, with a Pro spec iMac in the current design, there is going to be serious throttling under load and/or thermal stress on components which can only have a negative impact on reliability.

Design a ‘fat’ iMac Pro. I know it goes against the Apple philosophy of ever smaller and slimmer, however reality bites. If Apple seriously intends to address the Pro market with an iMac, a step back (forward) to a ‘Fat iMac’ is a necessity. Allow room for larger, more efficient and quieter fans to enable the CPU and GPU to run at full power for extended periods.

Perhaps the best answer is to forget Xeon for the iMac Pro and focus on 7th Gen i7 7700K as the top processor option with it’s TDP of 91W. It’s still a screamer, possibly as fast as lower end 8 core Xeon in all bar the top end multi-core tasks, and more readily available. Pair that with the upcoming Z370 chipset with native USB3.1 Gen 2 and built in wifi, and you have an effective lower end pro machine. It may not negate the need for a ‘Fat iMac’ design, but then I have to confess to preferring the previous style to the current Skinny iMac.

Other considerations.

Modernise the front, reducing the large side and lower bezels and lower trim panel and you have a sexy redesign while still accommodating thermal considerations with the ‘fat’ iMac Pro

ECC memory

While great for error correction in complex computational requirements ECC is hardly required for mainstream video and other ‘pro’ tasks in they marketplace. It’s sole function here would be as a price inflator. Just give us at least 64GB of fast DDR4 DRAM.

keyboard

A FULL size wireless keyboard with numeric pad and Touch Bar would be a great step forward, though I have to admit to being one of those Luddites who misses the great Apple mechanical keyboards of old.

Storage

NVMe solid state storage with an industry standard interface and firmware unless opening the controller chips for sale to approves OEM’s, giving us an effective option to upgrade storage as changing needs dictate.

Summary

I hope Apple does bring out an iMac Pro with something close to the specifications outlined above. It would address the lower end of the Pro market and give a much-needed refresh to the top of the iMac range.

The ball is truly in your court Apple.

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