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Tech face-off: Apple's Mac Pro vs the 5K Retina iMac

Michael deAgonia | Dec. 22, 2014
There used to be a time when the gap between Apple products made choosing the right computer obvious and easy. The deliberate compartmentalization of prices and features clearly dictated which laptop or deskop machine was right, with minimal overlap between the categories.

And that's the kicker. While the Xeon-based CPUs on the Mac Pro are indeed powerful, the real benefits are from its dual-GPUs, whose normally idle cores can be utilized for processing by the operating system and supported apps. In concert with OpenCL and other supported APIs, applications can lean on the more powerful GPUs for general processing. This is exactly what the Mac Pro is built for.

But there's a really important caveat. Applications need to be written to take advantage of those capabilities; it doesn't happen automatically.

The Mac Pro and the iMac can both run Final Cut Pro and Photoshop, and you'd expect better performance from the pricier Mac Pro. But the iMac's hardware supports OpenCL — as all shipping Macs now do — and, the iMac even beats out some of the low-end Mac Pros in specific benchmarks. That easily puts its consumer-grade performance in the "good enough for professional work" class. That makes the iMac good enough for many entry- and mid-tier Mac Pro customers, especially if you consider the iMac's real strength: the stunning 5K Retina display.

That screen is the best display on the market built into an all-in-one unit. It features 14.7 million pixels — an insane resolution of 5120-by-2880 pixels — packed onto a 27-in. screen. Colors are vibrant, blacks are deep, and the amount of screen real estate available makes it very difficult to go back to regular monitors.

Simply put, this iMac has the best screen I've ever personally used — ever — and that reason alone should make it worthy for graphic designers, video editors, and literally anyone doing any kind of job that requires reading onscreen text for a significant amount of time.

Apple sells a third-party 4K display on its web site, the Sharp 32" PN-K321 4K Ultra HD LED Monitor for $3,595 (though, Amazon sells the same display for $3459). There are other, cheaper 4K monitors out there, but you must be careful that their specs fit your needs; some of these monitors ship with 30Hz refresh rates. That's going to be useless for most people because motion on the screen won't be smooth.

If you're in the market for a 5K display, Dell sells one. It requires two DisplayPort 1.2 connections, currently costs the same as the entry level iMac with 5K Display, and is so bleeding edge, there's no guarantee that performance will be the best, or even acceptable on the currently shipping Macs, including the Mac Pros. The technology is so new that there's a lot of potential for problems.

Setting that issue aside, the iMac 5K with a processor and memory upgrade would still be still cheaper than a Mac Pro and a 4k/5k monitor combo. By a lot.


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