Why the New 5K Retina iMac is a Game Changer

On the second day Steve jobs was back at Apple I had a chance to sit down with him and ask him about how he planned to rescue Apple. At the time, Apple was $1 billion in the red and we now know they were only a month or two away from even greater financial disaster. The company had been mismanaged and multiple CEOs had tried to make Macs more like traditional PCs to stay competitive but this was a strategy that almost buried Apple.

So when Jobs came back to Apple, he faced a company thats morale was low and prospects were even lower. When I asked him about what he was going to do, the first thing he told me was he wanted to go back and take care of the needs of their core customers. He defined these customers as the graphics, advertising and engineering professionals that used Apple’s products for all types of photo editing, imaging and video projects. He felt the past CEOs had abandoned them while they tried to make Apple more relevant to a broader audience.

He was aware the Mac had led the desktop publishing revolution and it was deemed the best personal computer for what was a narrow audience of graphics and engineering professionals but a lucrative one if done right. So, as he told me then, the first order of business was to create more powerful Macs and go back to these professional audiences and give them the tools that would make their business projects easier and more profitable for them.

With the new 5K Retina Mac, Apple is fulfilling Jobs’ vision that started back in 1997 and delivering to these pro users what appears to be the best personal computer ever designed for creative professional audiences. While we have had 4K displays on the market for some time now, most of these are just displays. While they have come down in price, they are still just stand-alone 4K displays. What Apple is bringing to market is a 5K Retina Display that is a full Mac starting at $2499, a price even the small-medium sized business (SMB) graphics professionals can afford. More importantly, by moving the display to 5K, it is upping the ante for its competitors and will probably become the de facto standard for graphic based desktop PCs. It will be a game changer.

However, I see this price point as being interesting for a number of reasons. Any graphics or engineering professional would probably buy an upgraded model that has a faster processor and faster graphics co-processor that would push the price closer to $3,000+. But at $2499, this price is SMB and consumer friendly for some families looking at an all-in-one desktop PCs to become multipurpose home computers the whole family shares. In this case, it could even double as a TV that could run OTA 4K TV shows already available on Netflix and will be coming from OTA versions of HBO, CBS and other major networks in the future.

Although laptops dominate the market for personal computers, desktop demand has also been steady as all-in-ones have garnered real interest in many homes because of their utilitarian nature and shared capabilities. Many are set up on kitchen counters or desks in the den or family room where various members of a family can use them to check email, search the Web, do light productivity tasks and even watch videos fromYoutube and streamed over the web. But the option of a 5K all-in-one that could also handle streaming 4K programs is quite interesting and could make it a hit with upscale consumers as a PC and 4K streaming TV capable device rolled up into one.

One of the more interesting questions I was asked by a couple of media folks at the Apple event was whether I thought this 5K Retina Mac could be the precursor of an Apple branded TV. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether Apple’s new TV strategies would include an actual TV or just a souped up Apple TV with new UI and new ways to interact with TV content. My son Ben and I go round and round about this subject and personally I don’t think an Apple branded TV makes sense given the cutthroat competition in the TV market (neither does he).

However, Apple did something very interesting with the design of the 5K Retina Mac. They created a special processor of their own known as the timing controller or T-CON designed just to manage and manipulate each pixel with levels of precision we have not seen so far in TV or PC displays. I have no clue if this could be put into a dedicated Apple TV but, at the technical level, this processor could give them a decided edge in TV designs should they want to go in that direction.

I see the iMac with 5K Retina Display as an important product for Apple and their professional audiences and perhaps a hit with upscale consumers who want a high res monitor that could be used for multiple purposes included watching 4K based streamed TV content. But I suspect the technology designed into this could be used in other products over time and this makes this new iMac a product to watch closely over time.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

1,514 thoughts on “Why the New 5K Retina iMac is a Game Changer”

  1. Game changer. I’d have to think about that more. Maybe seminal, if the rest of the industry (both computers and video) goes 4k. But we aren’t at that point yet, in terms of significance to the end user. I suppose gamer changer in that it puts Apple at the head of the pack for now for hi-res AIO.

    As for the pro shop, I guess I could see the supe’d up iMac as a lower cost supplement to Mac Pros. the heaviest lifting is still going to be on a Mac Pro, not the iMac. But I don’t work at that level myself, I just know people who do. I’m sure the topic will come up in conversation soon.

    I can see how image editing and CAD/CAM, and others who might be affected by minute details, can benefit. As a CAD user, I’ve been exploring 4k monitors since even at 1080hd line weight distinctions can still be difficult.



    1. According to early Geekbench reports, the 4 GHz, 4-core Retina iMac appears to be 25% faster than the 6-core Mac Pro in single-threaded tasks and only about 15% slower in multi-threaded tasks.

      1. I hear it using the latest i5 and i7 processors. Supposedly Intel is behind on upgrades to the Xeons. Those are impressive marks in their own right. But it is still a low end pro video shop machine. Photoshop, After Effects, and FCX are all multi-thread apps.

        For smaller tasks, showing final work, or sitting on the account execs desk makes sense for it. It is cheaper than a entry level MP and a 4k monitor combo. But not where the bulk of the work is done.


    1. Well, flexibility for one. I have a Mac Mini connected to my TV. I can easily swap out either as necessary or desired.


      1. Fair enough. But I’ve run iMacs as TVs for seven years. Never needed to swap. I will wait a bit to see how these new ones work out. The new tech sounds challenging and more.

        1. Of course, YMMV. I’ve swapped out my TV twice and my Mini three times. The problem I have with past iMacs (and most LCD monitors and TVs) is the viewing angle is a problem, especially the vertical axis. On most LCD monitors/TVs, positioning it to look good for the couch or chair is lousy when sitting on the floor or standing. Horizontal axis is less of a problem, but still can be an issue.


    2. Who uses a 27″ TV these days?

      4K or 5K is fairly pointless for TV purposes unless you have a really BIG TV and sit very close.

      You have to be really stretching to come up with TV as big use case for the iMac.

        1. I am not missing the point. I did similar to this years ago when I was a student and used my computer monitor as my TV to save space/money.

          But it isn’t a serious use case, and really it isn’t improved by going 5k, because who wants to watch TV at their desk chair sitting 20″ from the screen.

          5K is in no way a game changer. Just expected evolution at this point.

          1. Actually you don’t get it at all. Serious use case? What are you? Some sort of unpaid pundit?

    3. You should be asking, why buy just a 4K monitor when you get a computer WITH a 5K!!!! display?, instead. That would make your point a bit more valid.

      No one buys just a 27″ TV of any kind. BUT if you want to buy a 4K computer display, then you would have a strong case.

      FYI, I think this is insanely sick and a brilliant move from Apple. Jump over the 4K and get right into the leading position of 5K instead. Nice.

      1. 4k, 5k, it’s just marketing. It’s a resolution. just like “1080p” and “720p”. There are quality “4k” monitors out right now. “5k” is bigger than 4k, so it’s a higher resolution. bigger res = better in most cases. Apple is just the first (sorta- there’s a 27″ Dell 5k monitor that was announced mid-Sept).

        We still havent seen confirmation of who makes the display or what refresh rate it supports. I have read confimration via anandtech ( http://anandtech.com/show/8623/hands-on-apples-imac-with-retina-display) that it uses a single pane, which is why Apple developed it’s own controller (TCON). Nothing exists that can drive a single pane 5k display, so apple created it’s own. thats awesome. the dell 5k display may very well be multi-pane, meaning it requires 2 displayport cables. this is less than ideal, but will change once displayport 1.3 is finalized and integrated into new units.

        5k is just the next step after 4k. I fail to see how this is a “game changer” in any way at all in any circumstance. It’s not like the iMac’s display can be used as a monitor for another system as in past iMacs…

        1. The idea is that with 5k screen, you can edit/view 4k video actual size and still have a little room for toolbars and video timelines. You can’t do that with a 4k screen.

          The 5k 27″ has 4x the pixels normal 27″ iMac. Just like the retina MacBook Pros, retina iPhones and retina iPads, to their previous models.

          You see the trend? It wasn’t to market “5k” but to make a retina version of an existing product. If you don’t understand the difference you don’t understand Apple.

          1. There is an iphone, 4 iPads, and 2 MacBooks in my household. I do understand Apple. I know what Retina means. It’s a marketing term for high pixel density displays with appropriately-scaled UI elements. It’s better than not having retina. This “5k” display on this iMac is not a “game changer” at all, but the next logical step in displays. It was a complete shock that it was included in the new iMac…it caught everyone off guard because no one expected Apple to create their own controller to bypass the DisplayPort 1.2 limitations. Is it a good display? All reviews point to a resounding “yes”. Is it expensive? Not particularly considering the iMac that comes with it. But is it a “game-changer”? Not in the slightest!

            Anyone following tech knows that resolutions and display technology improve annually. 5k took me a bit by surprise considering how limited even the best 4k displays currently are, but it’s not like this wasn’t coming out… 4k and 5k are just marketing fluff for a resolution. before the “HD” moniker all computer monitors WERE “HD”. These terms are no different. I dont need a marketer to tell me how good or beneficial a product will be, just the facts and specs.

          2. Do you actually realise what sort of processing power is needed to edit 4K video? Also the file sizes of 4K video, the cost buying a dedicated 4K camera and enough media to store the files? 4K is only really viable in the cinema at present and wont be widespread in homes for a good few years yet! I still edit videos for my production company in standard HD which is more than adequate for the internet and HDTV’s. I just wish Apple would stop selling us i7’s as an optional upgrade and give us decent specs instead of technology too advanced to be really useful.

  2. Wikipedia says if you use a 27″ screen for watching TV you should be about 6 feet away, and you’ll get about the same experience as watching a 50″ screen from 11 feet away.

    Hmmm, seems like the new iMac with Retina would make a really great TV experience, especially with the Apple TV interface, plus Siri and Apple Watch.

    1. 6 feet from 27″. Sure if it is 1280×720, but you wouldn’t even see the benefit of 2560×1440 (current 27″ imac) at that distance, let alone 5K.

      This is rather pointless as a TV.

      1. Is that just your opinion? I can certainly see the diff between SD and HD from 11 feet on a 50″ TV. Why might I not see a diff between HD and 5k at 6 feet?

        1. It isn’t just my opinion. It is the same formula used to determine iPhone is “retina” at 10.5 inches. It is also the point where ability to discern any improvement is miniscule.

          It doesn’t matter if you put the 200 dpi screen at 6 feet because that distance you really can’t discern more than 720p. Running the formula:

          50 dpi at 6 feet. (27″ 1280×720)
          100 dpi at 3 feet. (27″ 2560×1440)
          200 dpi at 1.5 feet. (27″ 5120×2880)

          BTW, For your 50″ TV, At 11 feet you should be able to discern the benefit of around 26 dpi.

          SD (480p) at that distance/screen size. would be 20 dpi, Full HD 44 dpi. So you SHOULD be able to tell the difference. But 720p is about 30 dpi and I would bet you can’t tell the difference between 720 and 1080 at that distance. To really see the benefit of full HD you should be around 6.5 feet. Which is about in the middle of THX recommended viewing distance:

          “50 inch class TV = 5-7.5 feet away”

          As it stands today, most people already sit too far from their TVs to get the full benefit of 1080p, let alone 4K, making 4K TV a pointless buzzword unless they are moving to drastically bigger and/or closer TV’s.

          1. This is the primary reason I care very little about television display resolutions. You really need to sit almost uncomfortably close to get the benefit of resolutions that are already common.

            This is why I think there is almost no chance of Apple introducing an actual television, and if they do I almost certainly won’t be interested in owning it.

          2. I believe you are mistaken. Actually I think the iPhone Retina test you’re referring to is for the ability too see an individual pixel, not whether you can tell if the overall picture looks sharper.

      2. “This is rather pointless as a TV”

        If its only used as a TV. A lot of people like me could use it as both.

  3. 4K content requires H265 decoder for Netflix to work.
    H265 is not supported in Haswell or Broadwell.

    and only decoder in Skylake.
    Apple may hope to use GPU to decoding but that no a possibility
    right now.

    come on 4K also says 10 bit color. No one has that support either
    neither does iMac.

    1. The new Apple A8X CPU-GPU has 3 BILLION transistors. This is 1 BILLION more transistors than the A8 has. I BET that the A8X has an H265 decoder built into silicon. And it can support 5K displays.

  4. You know what would be an equal game changer? A 21.5″ Retina 4K (3840 x 2160) iMac, you know, for those of us that would love a Retina iMac but can’t afford or don’t want a 27″ model.

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  6. I don’t hear any support for an updated HiDPI OSX GUI so that you can the interface stay large, but keep the high resolution. That would be a primary reason to have a HiDPI display, but the software needs to support it.

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