If you’re not sure if Apple’s 27-inch Retina-based iMac is right for you, this is the last 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display review that you’ll ever need to read.
How can I say this?
The key to getting the right Apple Mac for you is really understanding the pros and cons of the form factor, followed by knowing which elements — like memory, storage, and graphics — are truly important to your buying decision. I’ll highlight the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K experience, note the best features, and warn you about the buying gotchas to watch out for.
At the end, you’ll know if a 5K Retina iMac is right for you. So let’s get to it.
27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display Review: Experience
The 27-inch iMac display is huge. It’s tremendous, and it seems to take over your whole desk, dominating your view of anything but its glorious screen. It uses a mind-blowing 14.7 million pixels of light to create the images your see through a screen resolution of 5120-by-2880 pixels.
If you’re like me, at first you’re going to be giddy with excitement. The colors are so bright and vivid! The icons and subtle shading and translucency in Mac OS X seems to feel more alive. The text is super crisp, almost surreal in how vivid it is, especially when the whites are white and the blacks are so deep, it seems as if you’re staring into a black hole at the center of some far off galaxy.
Then you’re going to feel worried. Especially if you’re coming from a little MacBook. How do you even navigate such a big screen? Where do you place your browser window? In the middle? To the side? For a moment, you might even freak out with some buyer’s remorse.
Go into settings and speed up the Magic Mouse 2 tracking speed so you can move your pointer over this vast new landscape more quickly.
Then, sometime near the end of Day Two, your 27-inch iMac won’t seem too big. You will have adjusted to it, and your iMac screen will seem perfect, and everything else — like MacBooks — will seem cramped and, well, cute in comparison.
27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display Review: Speed
The great thing about the iMac with Retina 5K display is that it’s packed with powerful processors — you’re looking at a 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5, which you can configure up to 4.0GHz if your wallet is packed with cash. For the most part, only serious graphics professionals should worry about upgrading the processor, and even then it’s less important than memory and storage.
As for the rest of us, your 27-inch iMac will feel crisp and snappy, and it will handle pretty much everything you can throw at it. Thanks to the pros at B&H Photo Video, I used a basic model with a 1TB Fusion Drive for a month. It handled a 200GB Photos library with speed (and maybe even joy) as well as ran Adobe Illustrator like a finely-tuned sports car.
Basically, if you’re a “prosumer” you’re going have a great experience. (If you’re a gamer interested in playing graphically-intense games on a 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display, you’ll want to beef up your memory, graphics processor, and storage to the level your budget allows.)
27-inch iMac Retina Review: Memory
The 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display tends to ship with 8GB of memory. This is plenty for most everyone — at least right now — but it gets better: Apple makes it easy for consumers to pop open a door and upgrade their memory to 16GB or 32GB. So if you start doing more difficult work in a year or two, you can always upgrade your memory then. This is fantastic.
Heads-Up Note: Unfortunately, memory is not user-upgradeable on Apple’s 21.5-inch iMac with Retina 4K display. (If you’re unsure how your computing workload might shift over time, upgradeable memory is a good reason to choose the bigger 27-inch iMac over the smaller 21.5 iMac with Retina 4K.)
27-inch iMac Retina Review: Storage
Unfortunately, you can not upgrade storage in your 27-inch Retina iMac yourself — you have to make the right choice when you buy. This really sucks. The good news is, Apple’s storage levels start at a roomy 1TB and are configurable up to 3TB. To put this in perspective, a 1TB drive is nearly 8 times as large as the 128GB drives that come in Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (read my review here).
Better yet, with a 1TB or 2TB drive, you will have enough storage on your iMac to set up all of your family members with their own user accounts . . . and have enough room to fully backup their iPhones and iPads. Worried about storing all those cool slow-motion videos you’re taking with your new iPhone? With the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K as your new home-based Mac hub, you won’t have to worry.
Better yet, you’ll have a huge screen that will finally let you edit those family movies and photos — and actually start watching and sharing them.
Back to storage, though. There is more to your storage decision than space — the type of storage drive that you choose might be very important. The base model iMac comes with a 1TB 7200-rpm hard drive. This uses a traditional magnetic spinning disk, which by today’s standards, is pretty slow. This means that your iMac won’t start up as fast as say, your MacBook Pro with Retina, which has super fast SSD flash-based storage. During everyday browsing, emailing, and working on spreadsheets, you won’t notice a difference, and with a desktop-based iMac, you won’t be turning it off very often either.
So where does the type of drive start to matter? If you’re going to get into photo and movie editing, invest in the 1TB Fusion Drive option instead — or better yet, the 2TB Fusion Drive.
So what’s a Fusion Drive? It’s a hybrid drive that uses a small portion of super-fast flash storage in addition to a traditional hard drive. Your iMac will automatically move frequently accessed programs and files to the fast flash-based portion of your drive while moving older files to the slower traditional drive. In effect, you get most of the benefits of a fast flash-based drive . . . but also get the affordability of having lots of storage space that a traditional hard drive gives you.
If you’re a light user, the 7200-rpm drive is fine. If you’re a prosumer or are planning to use your iMac for many hours each day, a Fusion Drive is a smarter choice.
27-inch iMac Retina Review: Gotchas!
By now, you know that 8GB of memory is great for most people — and it’s also easily upgradable, so you don’t have to worry about that.
The biggest gotcha, especially over time as you use your iMac for many years, will be your storage choice. A Fusion Drive is the most cost-effective choice that balances speed with space.
Should you splurge and get completely flash-based storage? Only if you’re a graphics-oriented professional . . . or, like I said, have a wallet that is never shy of spare cash. All flash is better — but it’s only best if you can afford it.
What about the graphics processors? The base-level AMD Radeon R9 M380 with 2GB of video memory will be great for most everyone — but if you really enjoy editing photos and home video, the model with a 1TB Fusion drive comes standard with a better AMD Radeon R9 M390 graphics processor (which is also the best overall buy anyway, as well as the model that I spent a month hammering on for this review).
(The more graphics work you want to do, the more intense games you want to play . . . the AMD Radeon R9 M395 might be better in the higher-end configuration. )
The iMac comes with a newly redesigned Magic Keyboard, which is small and slim but full size. It feels great. I like it a lot. The default configuration also ships with Apple’s Magic Mouse 2. Some people think it’s too small, but I love it. For regular work, it’s accurate, responsive, and I constantly use the touch-sensitive back to swipe and scroll. If you don’t want a Magic Mouse 2, you can switch to a Magic Trackpad 2 for an additional $50, but generally you’ll save more money if you buy online from a reputable Apple retailer like B&H and just buy some other input device later.
‘Late 2014’ vs ‘Mid 2015’ vs ‘Late 2015’ iMac Models
The ‘Late 2014’ version of the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display and ‘Mid 2015‘ models can still be found online from some authorized retailers, and they still come with the same warranty and AppleCare options as the newer generations. There are a few differences from the slightly upgraded ‘Late 2015‘ models, though. Here goes:
- the Late 2014 27-inch Retina iMac ships with the older Apple Keyboard and original Magic Mouse (not a big deal)
- the Late 2015 27-inch Retina iMac uses a slightly newer processor from Intel (Skylake vs Haswell), giving it a small performance boost, if at all, depending on the configuration — for instance, the Late 2014 base model might have a 3.5GHz Haswell-based processor while the Mid 2015 has a 3.3GHz Haswell-based processor while the Late 2015 has a 3.2GHz Skylake-based processor, resulting in very very small performance differences for most everyone (recommendation: don’t worry about it)
- the Late 2015 iMac uses slightly faster memory (not a big deal)
- the graphics cards in the Late 2014 and Late 2015 models have different names — but very similar performance characteristics
- the SSDs available for the Late 2015 27-inch Retina iMac are faster (good for professionals)
- the Late 2015 27-inch Retina iMac has a wider color gamut with 25% more colors (great for professionals)
27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display Review: Recommendations
All-in-all, Apple’s 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display is a huge and glorious beast with a fantastic screen and slim overall design. The computing power is more than enough in nearly every configuration for the vast majority of Apple consumers, while prosumers and professionals will likely know how much upgrading they can afford.
The 1TB Fusion drive option is generally the best overall value — and it’s the model I recommend most — but if you know you’re not going to get into very much photo and video editing, the traditional 7200-rpm hard drive might be worth the slightly lower cost to you.
If you have a chance to pick up a new Late 2014 or Mid 2015 model, I would not hesitate to buy one if you can save a couple hundred dollars over a slightly newer Late 2015 model. The key reason to get a Late 2015 model is a more color-accurate display, which is great for professionals and prosumers — but know that the previous generation Retina iMacs are still fantastic and most people would not be able to tell a difference anyway.
Why Should You Invest in a 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display?
The answer is all about your life.
A 27-inch Retina iMac will give you a gorgeous workspace that’s easy on the eyes. You’ll be able to more spaciously view and edit your photos and video, as well as multitask with all sorts of applications. Better yet, the 1TB or 2TB storage means that you can create an iMac hub in your home that will let you have plenty of space to create individual user accounts for your family members — and let you completely back up iPhones and iPads . . . even if those iPhones and iPads are 64GB or more each in storage themselves. Think you can easily support a family of iPhones with one 128GB MacBook? Not really, not easily. With an iMac, you can.
Better yet, the big and sharp Retina display will not only make wandering around the web feel crisper, more pleasant, and more efficient, it will showcase your own photos in all their beauty.
Choose Your Retina iMac at B&H Photo Video
Why buy through B&H? You get exceptional service from an authorized Apple retailer, plus you usually get fast and free 2-day shipping, and B&H doesn’t collect sales tax outside of New York, which could result in additional cost-of-acquisition savings for you. What about shipping a big iMac? Don’t worry about it — the box is extraordinarily well-packed in a form-fitting wedge-shaped box.