All Articles Review
Review: How the iMac 5K Retina Performs in Real World Test
Iain Anderson on Wed, December 17th 4 comments
The new iMac 5K Retina looks amazing, but how well does it perform in the real world? Iain Anderson tests it with Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, Resolve & Logic Pro.

The new iMac with 5K Retina Display is all-caps AMAZING. If you’ve been reading the reviews, benchmarks, and general drooling since its announcement, you’ll probably know that it’s fast—sometimes faster than any Mac Pro—and that the screen is great. But how does that translate into actual productivity for a digital creative? In this article, we’ll be taking a more focused look at the Retina iMac. You might even be able to justify buying your own.

So what is Retina anyway?

To Apple, “Retina” means that the pixels are so small you can’t see them from a normal viewing distance, and on this iMac, that means 218 DPI. All the current iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro models now have Retina screens, though the actual resolutions differ. Mostly that’s down to the fact that you’d hold a smaller screen (like an iPhone) closer to your face than you’d hold a MacBook Pro, so the iPhone has a higher density screen. Remember, though, that you won’t see any benefit if you sit a long way from any of these devices. The improvements are obvious if your eyesight is reasonable and you sit at a normal viewing distance.

Option-click on Scaled to see this list of resolutions.

Option-click on Scaled to see this list of resolutions.

On the Mac, the Retina screen is set, by default, to use four pixels (2x2) instead of one traditional pixel. However, you can change the effective resolution. Choosing a higher resolution means that your content will be smaller, but you have more space for the user interface. Behind the scenes, your Mac will render at double the effective resolution, then scale it down in real time. It’s quite a feat.

1:1

One important exception to this is that visual data (photos, videos) in Retina-aware applications will always use the native display pixels, no matter what resolution you use. That means that if you’re in a modern Adobe or Apple app, the resolution choice is merely determining the size of the UI, and won’t affect your images at all. Apps that aren’t Retina-ready are few and far between, but they’ll stand out instantly and look pretty bad. The only way to make them look good is to switch to the native resolution of the display, with its tiny, nearly-unusable interface, and then zoom the content as big as you want. If you’re stuck on InDesign CS6, that’s your only solution short of upgrading to CC.

Do speed tests matter?

This article isn’t really about raw speed so much as how your experience of using the apps will change. In general, the top-end GPU on the Retina iMac can keep up with the demands of the display and still come out a little faster than the top-end GPU on the older non-Retina iMac.

For more reading on raw benchmarks, you can’t go past the dedicated barefeats.com. They have benchmarked the iMac against the Mac Pro (it often beats the entry level model) and tested both new GPU options against the last generation.

Photoshop

If you’re doing print work, you’ve likely never seen your images look as good as they will on this display. You can actually see details in every image that you’ve never noticed before. You can zoom in, but you probably don’t need to. Roughly, you’ll need an 18MP camera or better to take photos wide enough to fill the screen. My Canon DSLR shoots at 5184×3456, and the iMac’s native resolution of 5120×2880 is very close to a 16:9 crop of that.

Like 3D, it’s really hard to show how nice everything can look without seeing it on the display itself.

Like 3D, it’s really hard to show how nice everything can look without seeing it on the display itself.

Remember, though, that a camera manufacturer’s “18 megapixels” really means 18 million SUBpixels, red OR green OR blue. On this screen, the 14.7 million pixels each have red AND green and BLUE. It’s not a fair fight.

To me, the extra pixels make every image look far more real. You’re no longer looking at a computer image, and it’s better than a nice print. Simply, it’s the best image you’ve ever seen, and it’s lifted beyond laptop Retina screens by virtue of its sheer size. If you spend a lot of time in Photoshop, you’ll love it.

A two-page spread at 100% in InDesign, looking just like the printed book.

A two-page spread at 100% in InDesign, looking just like the printed book.

InDesign and Illustrator

These two apps benefit in two major ways: text looks amazing, and hairlines are now actually hairlines. Again, size makes a huge difference here, because you can now view a full two-page spread at actual physical size. While previous displays felt like displays, this feels like a live, backlit proof. Illustrator in particular benefits from the fact that every line is crisp as can be. Selection hairlines are still noticeable, but much thinner than before.

Four different documents in Illustrator, all looking perfectly smooth.

Four different documents in Illustrator, all looking perfectly smooth.

Final Cut Pro X

While it can be a challenge to show even 1080p at 100% while keeping the rest of the interface visible, that’s just not a problem at all anymore. You can show your event library, scopes, a 1920×1080 viewer at 100%, the inspector, the timeline index and a hugely detailed timeline all without even leaving the default resolution. It’s magic.

Turn everything on and you can still see 1080p without scaling.

Turn everything on and you can still see 1080p without scaling.

If you’re working with higher-resolution media, you can show 4K video at 100% with a minimal UI around it, or of course 4K or 5K video at full screen.

Somewhat hilariously, this is SD 4:3 footage at 100%.

Somewhat hilariously, this is SD 4:3 footage at 100%.

Motion

Like Illustrator, you can see fine lines much more clearly, and like FCP X, you can see so much more of the interface while viewing the video at 100%. Whereas before you might have had to juggle the timeline and the keyframes to see everything at once, now it’s all visible at once.

Again, all the options, still seeing all the animation.

Again, all the options, still seeing all the animation.

If you need to fill the screen with a project for a client, that’s fine too, but it’s not going to get prettier past 100%.

Resolve

While a professional scenario might demand an external monitor driven by specialist hardware, if you’re using your internal screen then you’ll get the benefits you’d expect: 1080p with a full interface around it, or 4K at 100% with less.

Here’s some Blackmagic 4K sample footage shown at 100%, with room to spare.

Here’s some Blackmagic 4K sample footage shown at 100%, with room to spare.

It’s also helpful to be able to zoom in to actual pixels with a full interface around the viewer, and still see most of the image. The faster GPU over the non-Retina iMac doesn’t hurt either.

Reading and Writing

Text is fantastic on the Retina displays, and this is the first time we’ve been able to view a full page of text at 100% without turning it sideways. The subtleties of each typeface are more obvious, thin fonts are as elegant as they are in print, and it’s all very easy on the eye. While most people focus on the benefits to visual artists, almost everyone can benefit from the brilliant text.

Yes, the text in this iBook looks great, but the screenshot doesn’t — and many websites don’t yet either.

Yes, the text in this iBook looks great, but the screenshot doesn’t — and many websites don’t yet either.

Everything else

Thin elements in the user interface are now as subtle as their designers intended. Logic Pro X gives you more room to compose, and the pictures of the synths look great. Even drop shadows around windows fall off seamlessly, making everything look more real than it has before. Games—at least some of them—can really show off with an insane amount of detail. It’s really, truly, great.

Conclusion

While we’ve seen Retina screens before, we haven’t seen them this big. And while it might seem relatively unimportant, it makes all the difference. While a laptop’s retina screen makes reading delightful, now I can see the whole page at once. While an iPad’s screen can show a lower-res image with perfect clarity at 1:1, now I can see a DSLR image more clearly than I’ve ever seen it before.

So what’s the downside of having beautiful text and images, more space to work with, and one of the fastest Macs available? Only that if you see it, you’ll want one. Ten minutes, and you’ll never want to look at anything less.

Right now, I don’t care that it’s never going to be possible to use this iMac as an external screen, nor that this machine will probably be outdated in the next 12 months. I do care that it makes everything I create look better, and that it makes that process easier. But beware: don’t look at one unless you can afford it.

Comments (4)

You must be logged in to comment.

  • Nypyseo
    I'm using my MBP 2.5 GHz i7 on a thunderbolt display and find the display wonderful. Would my thunderbolt display be a good 2nd display for this new iMac or be disappointing side by side?
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Nypyseo
    Reply
  • Iain Anderson
    The external display won't look as good but could still be useful. I do still have an old 1920x1080 monitor hooked up vertically to mine, which I use for some utility apps.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Iain Anderson
    Reply
  • PhilipCC
    Mine was delivered yesterday and is still sitting in the box. Too busy to savour the moment and enjoy a test run, so I waited until I could spare a few hours. I'm like a kid on Christmas morning waiting to open it! I thought I should check for client emails, found this item in the MacPro Video newsletter and had to read it first. Will add my impressions to this post tomorrow… or as soon as I have downloaded the latest versions of Final Cut Pro, Motion and Aperture and had a good test run.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: PhilipCC
    Reply
  • Husojae
    Thanks Iain, This is JUST the info I was looking for. Nice Lock & Load update review also. : >
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Husojae
    Reply
Feedback
Course Advisor
Don't Know Where To Start?
Ask A Course Advisor
Ask Us!
Copy the link below and paste it into an email, forum, or Facebook to share this with your friends.
Make money when you share our links
Become a macProVideo.com Affiliate!
The current affiliate rate is: 50%
Classes Start Next Week!
Live 8-week Online Certification Classes for: