~ written by Ctein, TOP Technical Editor
(who is posting on-and-off while Mike's nomadic)
I tend to buy computers towards the high end of the scale and keep them for a long time. I don't know if it is, in fact, more economical than buying towards the low end and getting a new machine every two years, but I find it a lot less annoying.
Both the laptop and the desktop machines here have been approaching the replacement point. My laptop is particularly long in the tooth. My 15" MacBook Pro is a 2007 model. I've upgraded it several times along the way, but one can only push so far. It runs a lot faster than when I bought it, but I'm doing more complicated things with much bigger files than I was eight years ago.
I have, without question, been salivating over the retina MacBook Pro. True 24-bit color, close to sRGB right out-of-the-box, that's a real nice thing to have a laptop. Plus, it's an incredibly powerful machine. It'll handily outperform our 27" 2009 iMac, which is still a satisfactory work machine. Pump that MacBook Pro up to 16 Gb of RAM, add an Adobe RGB external monitor, and I'd be a pretty happy camper.
The thing that's kept me from moving to a new laptop is that my e-mail program and a couple of other business-critical programs I use won't run under anything later than OS X 10.6. A new machine means a new OS, which means a new e-mail program, etc. Insert any number my previous rants about planned obsolescence here. You can Google for them. Adapting to new software, especially a program I'm using many times a day, is not my idea of fun. Still, the laptop was high on the replacement list.
Until this spring. The graphics card went out in the 27" iMac. Down it went to the Apple Store. Turned out the graphic card is a separate component, so it wasn't going to be an expensive repair. Whew! Only problem is they had to be able to find a graphics card. It took Apple over a week to come up with one because, you know, like, six years is old, dude. Insert aforementioned rants.
The iMac was out of the house for almost 2 weeks. Thank heavens, it happened during a rare window when I really didn't need it for anything. I can't count on that kind of luck, and I can't afford to be down for two weeks. That kicked replacing the iMac to the top of the list.
(The critical difference between my MacBook Pro and my iMac is that my MacBook Pro is 100% user-serviceable at my level of technical skill. I can easily get parts for it on the used market, and there's nothing in here I can't replace if I have to. The iMac is nowhere so accessible.)
The day the advance for the novel landed in my bank account, I was online ordering a new 27" retina iMac.
Dave Polaschek, of Adobe, was the one who convinced me that a retina iMac would matter to me. I'd been thinking, “I'm not doing 4K video and stuff like that, so why should I care about a 5K display? It's not like I can see the pixels in the standard display at normal working distance?”
Photoshop has a quirk. OK, it's designed in there on purpose, but it looks like a quirk. When you're running at screen magnifications of 50% or less, it cheats on the rendering, doing calculations in 8-bit color to speed things up and subsampling the image. This massively speeds up performance, so you can see near instantaneous real-time updates of what your file looks like even on a (relatively) slow system. if you've had the experience of working at the lower magnifications, jumping up to 67% or 100% to look at some detail and noticing that there's a visible lag while the screen updates, that's exactly what I'm talking about.
This has a downside. Screen renderings become inaccurate in annoying and sometimes really obstructive ways. View a stitched-together panorama at lower magnifications, and you'll see seam lines between the segments. That's an artifact of the subsampling, and it's only a minor annoyance. A major one is the banding and contouring that appears if you're working with adjustment layers that do any degree of substantial correction. I have that a lot, especially in my restoration work. the contouring isn't real, it's an artifact of each of those layers getting calculated at eight bits per channel. It can make it very difficult, sometimes impossible to accurately see (and work on) a full photograph.
The 27" retina display doubles the size of the image I can see the entirety of at 67% magnification and higher. Now my 12 and 16 megapixel photographs fit on the screen. It makes working on my photographs and restoration jobs a lot more comfortable and a lot faster. Plus, it's just plain nice to be able to see all that detail in the photograph without having to print it out
Dave was right. It was what I needed.
There are other ways I like my new iMac better. The newer thin-edge design is about 10 pounds lighter than the old machine. Not a big deal, except when you're trying to rearrange your office and lugging around a very awkward hunk of metal and glass. Apple eliminated the air gap between the glass and the screen that was on the older iMac and they substantially improved the anti-reflection coatings. I am no longer bugged by reflections from the glossy screen.
The color quality and brightness are better. Actually, I have way more brightness that I need. The color gamut of the retina display is a very close match to sRGB. My machine, out-of-the-box, was almost dead neutral and an exact match for sRGB. I did run a custom profile for the display, but other than opening up the shadows and linearizing them very slightly, I couldn't see any visible difference. If it weren't that I prefer a monitor calibrated to D50 then the iMac's native D65, I'd have been happy with the out-of-the-box display.
There was one unexpected bit of joy. Migrating from the old iMac to the new one was pain-free. I really wasn't expecting that. After all, I was jumping four generations of OS. A lot more stuff should break than did. Following Apple's instructions I hooked up my Time Machine backup from the old iMac, told it to migrate everything over, and let it run overnight. The next day the new iMac looked just like the old one… except better. I launched every single app — only four of them had broken, and only one of those was unexpected. That was solved by minor version upgrades, plus I needed a few new drivers for my printers.
I expected it to take days to get the machine configured. It took less than one.
You can get a basic 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display for $1,900. It's not the machine I would recommend if you're serious about Photoshop.
It'll have a 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM, a 1TB 7200 rpm drive and an AMD Radeon M290 GPU (2GB) graphics card. 8 GB of RAM is going to have you caching to disk pretty quickly in Photoshop, and then a rotating hard drive is going to be a real performance bottleneck.
The first thing you want to do, maybe the only thing, is max out that RAM at 32 GB. Don't buy the RAM from Apple; you'll save yourself $300 buying it from Other World Computing. It is the one part of an iMac that is user-upgradable.
I went for the whole-hog maximum machine: 4.0GHz QC i7 Turboboost 4.4GHz CPU, 1TB flash drive, and the AMD Radeon R9 M295X 4GB graphics card. Just because. The graphics card is the least important upgrade; there are some Photoshop operations where you may see an improvement because of it; it won't be much. It's more important if you're doing AV work or running multiple monitors. The better processor does produce a noticeable pick-me-up in a few circumstances. Both of these together add about $500 to the cost of the machine. Upgrading memory's far more important and cost-effective.
Then we come to that blasted drive. Apple has this thing called a Fusion Drive, which is a very, very smart hybrid drive. In a lot of circumstances it will substantially speed up performance. Photoshop is not that kind of circumstance. Especially not if your cache file and your photographs are on the same drive. What you want, what you need is 100% flash.
That'll cost you. Well, it cost me–– a $1,000 upgrade. All told, my maxxed-out configuration cost about twice as much as the baseline machine I linked to at B&H Photo. Oof.
Lastly I added an OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock so I could continue to use my existing peripherals.
Oh my, does this machine fly. What difference does a flash drive make? For illustrative purposes, I copied a multigigabyte file folder from a subdirectory to the desktop. That meant I was “simultaneously” reading and writing from the same drive. Think of it as a stand-in for the worst possible Photoshop scenario, where the program is trying to simultaneously cache states, save a file, and load chunks of code.
On the old iMac, this read/write operation ran at about 40 MB per second. If I copied the folder to an external FireWire 800 drive, I could get it up to about 70 MB per second, because the drive head was no longer thrashing back-and-forth doing reads and writes on one drive.
On the new flash-equipped retina iMac? 400 MB per second. I don't know if would be even faster going to an external drive, because I don't own an external flash drive. Ask me if I care. 400 MB per second is good enough for me.
All in all, it's quite shiny. Even two months later. Still smells like a new computer.
Comments? Questions? The floor is yours.
Oh yeah, with one qualifier: if you're inclined to comment with a rant about PCs vs. Macs or Windows vs. Mac OS vs. UNIX, just don't go there. Save yourself the time and effort of composing such a dismissive missive, because I am simultaneously pre-bored and annoyed by such. They will be malleted.
Ctein, TOP Technical Editor
(who is posting on-and-off while Mike's nomadic)
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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