iMac 5K 27-inch (2019) review

The new Core i9 iMac has a body from 2012 and a brain from 2020

Its design has aged, but the 5K iMac is an insanely powerful all-in-one.
Its design has aged, but the 5K iMac is an insanely powerful all-in-one.
Its design has aged, but the 5K iMac is an insanely powerful all-in-one.

Highs

  • Core i9 is super speedy
  • Better GPU options
  • Classic, gorgeous design
  • Excellent build quality

Lows

  • Weird configuration options
  • Huge bezels, non-adjustable stand

The iMac is among the most iconic designs of all time. Rather than switch up its winning formula, Apple hasn’t changed much about it over the years. Everything from screen size to design is frozen in 2015 — except for the components inside.

With the new eight-core Core i9 processor featured in our $3000 configuration, the latest iMac is more powerful than ever. And with a price range that dips below the iMac Pro, it might finally be the update creative professionals have been waiting for. But can the iMac’s design handle the insane horsepower of the chips Apple has stuffed inside?

Wait, what year is it?

You might look at the photos of this brand-new iMac and wonder what year it is. We don’t blame you if you can’t tell it apart from its predecessor. Aside from screen resolution, you probably couldn’t tell it apart from the 2012 model, either.

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Seven years might feel like a long time to stay committed to one design, but Apple isn’t itching to push out new designs of its desktops. The Mac Pro hasn’t been updated since 2016, and even the iMac Pro didn’t look all that different. Apple is far more focused on its iPhones than Macs.

Still, the 5K iMac looks great. If nothing else, it goes to show how ahead of its time the original design was. The frame and cabinet are entirely made of solid aluminum, as is the integrated stand and base. As we expect with Apple products, build quality is second to none. The Surface Studio 2, with its all-aluminum design and fancy hinge, is the only competitor that looks and feels better.

The iMac is also thin despite its age. Some all-in-one desktops such as the Surface Studio 2 or Lenovo A940, have much thinner monitors, but that’s because they’ve moved the computer guts into the base. The footprint of the iMac is small and elegant, and it’s a compact design overall.

While Apple pushes ahead with eradicating the iPhone of its bezels, the 2019 iMac seems happy with the extra fat.

It is, however, quite large for a 27-inch monitor. That’s thanks to the huge bezels and oversized chin. While Apple pushes ahead with eradicating the iPhone of its bezel, the 2019 iMac seems happy with the extra fat. One of the iMac’s side bezels is thicker than all the XPS 13’s bezels put together. It’s not a good look.

On the back of the computer, everything still looks how you’d expect it, including a latch for a RAM upgrade. Unlike the new iMac Pro, you can upgrade your system’s memory down the road, all the way up to 64GB (or 32GB for the base level configuration). It’s a great option to have considering how expensive Apple’s initial upcharge is.

Under the power and RAM latch is a Kensington lock. Meanwhile, the ports are located on the far left, and the power button is on the far right. You still get four USB-A 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, an SDXC card slot, a gigabit ethernet jack, and a headphone/microphone 3.5mm jack. The Thunderbolt 3 ports double as a display output.

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

It’s a well-rounded selection of ports, but clearly Apple wanted to change as few things as possible. It’s not that Apple is saving the larger amounts of USB-C ports for Pro experiences like the iMac Pro or MacBook Pro. Let’s not forget than even the Mac mini has four Thunderbolt 3 ports. Most people won’t mind, but for those who want to use multiple displays, you may find yourself running low on USB-C ports. It’s still well ahead of the competition but considering how hard Apple has pushed USB-C adoption, that’s a disappointment.

The iMac’s port location isn’t the best, either. While it makes for a clean desk, we miss having quick access to things like a SD card reader or headphone jack that most desktops or external monitors provide.

5K is still undefeatable

Despite its chunky frame, the 5K iMac has a fantastic display. It was a standard-bearer when it first hit years ago, and it’s no less impressive to sit in front of in 2019. With a 16:10 resolution of 5,120 x 2,880, it offers a display so sharp that pixels are never visible, even if you sit too close to the screen.

However, these days, the 5K iMac does have some competition. The 4,500 x 3,000 3:2 screen on the Surface Studio 2 is equally sharp and gives you a bit more vertical space to work with. On top of that, it’s touchscreen, which is nice feature for artists and designers.

The iMac and the Surface Studio 2 go toe-to-toe in other areas, as well. The Studio has slightly higher contrast and brightness (at a retina-burning 524 nits), while the iMac edges it out in color gamut with 100 percent of sRGB and 93 percent of AdobeRGB color spaces. No matter how you slice it, these are some of the best displays you can get. In that sense, the iMac is still a photographer’s best friend, ensuring that every pixel is color-accurate.

The stereo speakers located on the back are great. They aren’t going to take the place of a decent set of computer speakers, and they aren’t as good as the iMac Pro’s speakers. However, they fill a room nicely and even provide a subtle pop of bass in music playback. A lot of owners will get by without ever feeling compelled to buy better sound.

There is one strange omission from the spec list; Apple’s T2 coprocessor. It stores encrypted data on a separate processor to keep it protected. Without the T2, the iMac lacks support for always-on Siri. I’m sure that’s not a dealbreaker for many, but it would make some sense to have always-on “Hey Siri” voice support since we find that in pretty much every other Apple product in 2019.

The fastest iMac ever

If you can’t tell so far, we’re a little sad that Apple hasn’t given the iMac a thorough design update. When it comes to performance, however, this new version is undisputedly modern. Apple has updated both processors and graphics cards on all versions of the iMac except the $1,099 base model, which still uses a dual-core 7th-gen processor.

All other models now have the latest Intel processors, ranging from a four-core Core i3 up to the eight-core Core i9. This Core i9 processor is particularly interesting, as its core count matches the Intel Xeon W found in the cheapest iMac Pro. The Turbo Boost clock speed of 5GHz is particularly impressive.

Our configuration, which we purchased, had the Core i9 processor and 16GB of RAM. We were curious to find out how this insanely powerful processor, usually reserved for large gaming desktops, would perform in a much smaller all-in-one design.

The Geekbench results are promising. They’re a little behind the gaming desktops we’ve tested with this same chip, but that makes sense because the iMac is smaller and has a less capable thermal solution. Both the single-core and multi-core scores are impressive, especially considering how quiet the system remains during full load.

We also took the Core i9 iMac for a spin on some challenging tasks. First up was Handbrake, where we encoded a 4K video to H.265 (x265), which took it right around a minute and a half. It’s not as fast as the Origin Chronos or even the Alienware Area-51m gaming laptop, but almost thirty seconds faster than Core i9-7980XE found in our Alienware Area-51 from last year. That’s an 18-core, 165-watt processor. The Core i9 iMac demolishes it.

Lastly, we wanted to try out some video editing on the iMac since it’s a major demographic for the system. In Adobe Premiere, we rendered a two-minute ProRes 422 4K video in just eight minutes and 19 seconds. For our 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro with its Core i7-7820HQ processor, handling the exact same render, it took exactly 20 minutes. That just so happens to be same chip the Surface Studio 2 uses. The 2017 Core i5 iMac performed a little better in that same render at 13 minutes and 27 seconds, but that’s around 38 percent slower than the Core i9.

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The Core i9 iMac is less expensive and most likely more powerful than the eight-core iMac Pro. That’s a huge success, especially because the iMac uses the same single-fan cooling system it always has. It looks like the company learned something from its previous attempt at integrating a Core i9 processor in the 2018 MacBook Pro.

One thing Apple has ignored, however, is entry-level storage. All versions of the iMac still come standard with a 1TB Fusion Drive, a mechanical hard disk drive with a small SSD cache. That’s disappointing given the price tag of even the most basic iMac configurations. Once again, even the Mac Mini now includes a standard SSD.

That’s why we configured ours with a 512GB SSD for an extra $200. To no one’s surprise, it hit blistering speeds. It’s even faster than the excellent SSD featured the Mac Mini, this time with an average write speed of 1,880 MB/s and a read speed of 2,649 MB/s. Applications open in a blink and data transfers are faster than ever.

It can play games, sure

The 5K iMac has several graphics card options, all courtesy of AMD. The 2019 update bumps the standard Radeon Pro options to “X,” which should result in a bit more graphical horsepower. We chose the Radeon Pro 580X that came standard in the Core i9 configuration, and from what we can tell, it’s a small upgrade over the 580 that was previously offered.

There aren’t a lot of games to test on MacOS without installing Windows, but there a couple of popular options. The first we tried was Fortnite. Just for kicks, we tried playing at the native 5K resolution, which wasn’t doable. Once we moved it down to 4K resolution at Medium settings, we finally got to a playable average framerate of 36 FPS. At High graphics settings and 1080p, we saw an average of 75 FPS. That’s quite enjoyable.

Civilization VI was a bit less impressive. Even at 1080p, we had to pull settings down to Medium to get over 40 FPS. That’s on par with a GTX 1050 Ti. The GTX 1070 in the Surface Studio 2, by contrast, has much better gaming potential, averaging 82 FPS in Civilization VI at 1080p.

Also new is that option to upgrade to the more powerful Vega 48, though that’ll cost you an extra $450. That GPU option would no doubt make for a better gaming machine, but it’s an expensive add-on that won’t make sense for most people.

Peripherals are a missed opportunity

Another thing that hasn’t changed are the included peripherals. You’ll still get the Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2. The keyboard is fine, though some workstation professionals are going to miss the number pad. The keys are nice and clicky, and the layout will be familiar if you’ve used a MacBook.

The Magic Mouse 2, though, is much less forgivable. It’s supremely uncomfortable, and the lack of a right click feels downright silly. It only took us couple of days to give up and switch over to the Magic Trackpad, which is a far better solution. It’s worth the extra $50, trust us.

The missed opportunity here is more than just comfort. It’s about functionality, too. The iMac still lacks any kind of biometric authentication. A few years ago, that might not have been a problem. Today, it feels like a misstep. Despite having the technology for both FaceID and TouchID, Apple has not released a keyboard or a camera that offers quick, secure login for the iMac.

Our Take

Apple’s lack of iMac design updates feels lazy. The look is outdated, the peripherals are missed opportunities, and even some of the configurations offer unfortunate standard equipment, like the Fusion Drive. Mac fans deserve better.

Yet the performance gains made by our $3,000 Core i9 iMac are hard to ignore. You should plan on spending at least $2,000 for a solid iMac, but that’s not bad considering the power on tap here. The 5K screen remains a class-leading display, too, and will remains excellent for years to come.

Are there any alternatives?

The iMac Pro is the obvious choice, but only if you’re considering the Core i9 iMac. The workstation-class components of the iMac Pro have their place, but if you’re a video editor, photographer, designer, or music producer, the Core i9 iMac is a more reasonable option with plenty of power.

The Surface Studio 2 is the other serious competitor, though it doesn’t have the processing power to compete with the Core i9 iMac. What it loses in speed it gains in versatility thanks to its touchscreen and focus on stylus use in applications like Illustrator or Photoshop. Despite the similarities to the iMac, Microsoft is targeting a different type of creative professional with the Studio.

How long will it last?

The 5K iMac should last you a long time. The screen resolution, build quality, port selection, and processing power makes for a system that can command your work for at least four or five years.

Apple has better warranties and support than most PC manufacturers. It comes with a one-year limited warranty and up to 90 days of free technical support. That’s nothing too exciting, but the AppleCare+ will extend that for three years, as well as add up to two years of accidental damage coverage.

Should you buy it?

Yes. This is still a great desktop for creative professionals who need serious power to run their workstation.

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