06 Jun 2017

Apple's new 18-core iMac Pro is the most powerful Mac ever built Featured

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Pushing the iMac form factor as far as it can go with 18 cores Pushing the iMac form factor as far as it can go with 18 cores Apple

Index

While the consumer press zeroed in their attention on the HomePod, the big news from Apple as far as our area of the industry goes was the surprise unveiling of a new $4999 iMac Pro. All this and more from WWDC 2017 in our comprehensive roundup by K Stewart.

Tim Cook promised the best WWDC ever and over the course of 2 hours and twenty minutes Apple more than delivered in scale if nothing else with a bravura showcase of Apple's 2017 line-up.

iMac Pro Preview

While an all-new Mac Pro is scheduled for 2018, Apple surprised everyone with a tricked out iMac Pro designed to push the iMac form factor to the absolute maximum.

Due on sale this December, the iMac Pro has the same exterior design as the standard 27-inch Mac but with an alluring Space Grey finish plus matching keyboard and mouse. It's raison d'etre is to integrate workstation class performance into a chassis that's often seemed more suited to laptop components than desktop. An all-new thermal architecture, with a dual centrifugal fan, gives 80% more cooling performance while maintaining a low noise profile.

iMac pro thermal cooling

With great power comes great cooling...

For a CPU, options will include 8, 10 and 18-core Xeon Processors. For graphics, there's a cutting-edge AMD Radeon Pro Vega with up to 16GB of VRAM and 400Gbps of bandwidth to deliver 11 teraflops of single precision compute power, but which can also do half-precision compute for 22Tflops. RAM goes up to 128GB of ECC RAM and up to 4TB SSDs.

For IO, there's 4X Thunderbolt 3, which can support two 5K displays and two high-performance RAID arrays, plus 10Gb Ethernet. there's also four USB 3.0 ports and an SD Card reader.

According to Apple, an equivalent PC would cost over $7K, while the iMac Pro starts at $4999. No doubt there'll be furious debate over price comparisons, but the headline news is incontrovertible - Apple is back in the serious workstation business with a bang. 

And just to confirm, this definitely isn't the Mac Pro replacement — that is still on track for 2018 and will have a modular design for easier upgrading.

Read our analysis of the new iMac Pro and what it means for the future direction of Apple here: Apple remembers its professional heritage.

iMacs & MacBooks for Pros

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If you can't wait for the iMac Pro, Apple has available today a wholesale refresh of most of the Mac line-up. 

The updated iMacs feature Intel Kaby Lake processors with up 4.2GHz (4.5Ghz Turbo Boost) and support for twice as much as memory before. All the 27-inch models feature the SSD/HDD Fusion Drive, plus the top-end 21.5" model. SSD storage options are up to 50% faster, while I/O has been upgraded with Thunderbolt 3. (All the more important with High Sierra/Metal 2 offering support for external GPUs.)

The iMac screens have also been enhanced - 43% brighter at 500 nits and 10bit support offering up to 1 billion colours.

However, it's the GPU upgrades that are the most startling for a range that's often been ill-served in this area. The 21.5-inch entry-level iMacs get Iris Plus 650 with 64MB eDRAM for up to 80% faster graphics. The 4K iMacs get up to a 3x boost thanks to discrete Radeon Pro 555 and 560 GPUs with up to 4GB VRAM. 

The flagship 27-inch 5K iMac get a Radeon Pro 570, 575 and 580 options with up to 8GB VRAM. That's up to 5.5 TFlops of graphics compute which was perfectly illustrated by a Star Wars VR demo by ILM with Epic Games showing off their Unreal Engine for VR. The scenario wasn't a game per se, but using the Mac to develop a VR experience complete with wave after wave of TiE fighters and a light sabre swinging Darth Vader. An ILM spokesperson made the point that the company uses VR to scout locations and develop CGI environments for the movies, so there's the potential of a true Hollywood tool chain for movies carrying over assets to home VR.

The arrival of a world class VR dev machine in a year in which AR/VR is potentially a key feature for iPhone 8 with vertical twin cameras could, of course, be entirely coincidental... 

On the MacBook front, the ultra portable 12-inch MacBook is upgraded to Kaby Lake processors up to 1.3GHZ Core i7 (Turbo Boost 3.6 GHz), 50% faster SSD and support for twice the memory. The keyboard has also been updated, making for the most significant of the MacBook updates.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a 3.5 GHz Kaby Lake Core i7 (Turbo Boost 4.0 GHz) high-end option and the 15-inch tops out with a 3.1 GHz Kaby Lake Core i7 (Turbo Boost 4.1 GHz). Since the Pro line-up was only refreshed less than a year ago, the enhancements (including GPU updates) are less significant than the MacBook and 16GB remains the max RAM until the next Intel upgrade.

The MacBook Air is still somehow still hanging on in there, despite being now being Apple's bulkiest laptop, but only receives a processor speed update.

High Sierra goes H.265

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Apple has a tradition of MacOS updates that swing between new feature oriented and more performance/tune-up releases. As the name indicates, this year's macOS update will be more of a tune-up but for professionals, in particular, this is one to watch out for. Apple has already rolled out its all-new APFS file system to iOS, now it's coming to Mac. The challenges are bigger with a more open architecture, but the benefits are also more far reaching. A key demo showed the copying of a large video file, with Sierra being reasonably quick while High Sierra seemed instantaneous. An all-new file system is going to make professionals wary about when and how they upgrade, but when the bugs are worked out the workflow benefits could be huge.

Professionals will also welcome the adoption of H.265 with 40% better compression than H.264 - opening the door for better support for 4K content. All new Macs will get hardware acceleration of H.265, while older Macs will make do with software-based support.

GPU performance has been a stand-out of the last 10 years and Metal 2 offers a 10x improvement in performance compared to Metal. This will not only make the most of the GPUs Macs ship with, a $600 developer kit including an AMD Radeon RX580, external GPU chassis and USB-C port is to be made available to support using Metal and Thunderbolt to integrate external GPUs. 

This particularly matters for VR content creation. There will be Metal for VR. Final Cut Pro X will support VR. Steam VR for Mac is available now in beta form.

Moreover, it's not just graphics that benefit from Metal, machine learning such as used by Photos runs off Metal.

Safari has won respect for its energy efficiency, certainly compared against Chrome, and the latest version will extend that and also deliver higher performance than its rivals to be the 'world's fastest desktop browser' and that's including Windows. There will also be blocking of auto-play videos and technology to block ads following you across multiple websites - I'm sure Google will appreciate that.

Photos will see further improvements in its AI identification of people, objects etc. and printing of books will be opened up to third-party providers. 

High Sierra will run on exactly the same hardware as Sierra, so no Macs are getting cut from support this year.



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