Really? The computer that used to come in "Blueberry"?
June 26, 2014 7:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm fed up with Windows and want my next computer to be a Mac—but the product landscape has changed a lot since the last time I seriously considered it. Is an iMac really a competitive machine for someone doing heavy graphics and video work?

Back in my day, if you were a Graphic Design Professional®, you got a Power Mac G4 or G5 tower. iMacs were OK for the hoi polloi, but not for doing any heavy lifting. But now the Mac desktop line seems more bifurcated: it's iMac and Mac Mini on the lower end, or the absurdly expensive Mac Pro if you happen to work at Industrial Light & Magic.

Everyone I know who has a Mac has a Macbook Pro, and they rave about how powerful it is—but I need a desktop for my workspace setup. I love the screen of the iMac, but will I be paying for an underpowered machine?

Here's what I use regularly (aside from a web browser):
Adobe Photoshop
Adobe InDesign
TVPaint Animation (raster animation & video effects)
Blender 3D (for video editing & 3D animation stuff)
posted by overeducated_alligator to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, what graphics card does the iMac have?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:17 AM on June 26, 2014

Honestly, if you're doing Serious Graphics Work, the Mac Pro is actually quite a bit cheaper than an equivalent Windows PC, mostly because Apple gets such a good deal buying AMD Firepro GPUs in bulk.
posted by Oktober at 7:21 AM on June 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

I just looked. The least powerful Mac Pro has twice the graphics power of the most powerful iMac. I would buy the Mac Pro if possible, or else build my own rig and stick with Windows.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:21 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing to watch out for is that the latest ("Mid-2014") iMac has a low-end model that is getting relatively poor reviews for being underpowered. MacWorld did some benchmarking of the latest models if you want a quick comparison.
posted by bcwinters at 7:22 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should clarify -- when I say "heavy" graphics stuff, I'm talking about 600dpi Photoshop files with 50 layers and bitmap-based 1080p animation where the working file sizes range between 500MB to 1-2GB. For some people that isn't really "heavy," but heavier than web-res mockups or vector-based work. I'm not doing a ton of 3D rendering or feature-length video/VFX rendering, so I wouldn't get a $3,000 computer because it would be overkill.

For comparison, my last desktop was about $1200 and pretty good for what that got you in an off-the-shelf Windows PC in 2010. The top-top-top end stuff is completely ridiculous for my needs.

I'm curious where, exactly, the iMac falls in the middle of the power spectrum.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:32 AM on June 26, 2014

FWIW, I still do a lot of Photoshop and Illustrator work (CS5 and CS6) on my old, lowly 21" 3Ghz Core2Duo iMac without a problem. RAM is maxed, of course, and I use an external disc for scratch space. The majority of my heavy work is for print, so I'm regularly working with large, high-rez images. YMMV, of course.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:36 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's no question the Mac Pro over the iMac will save you time in renders and so forth. That doesn't make it a slam dunk - That may not be a priority for you. I think in the current hw/sw landscape if you can build your own, you're better of picking which parts are worth spending money on and building a PC to your own specs. You can spend $$ on a GPU and save money by "only" having a 4 core CPU, and eSata but not thunderbolt. If I were you I'd go to the Apple Store with a thumb drive and see if one of your typical projects is manageable on the iMac. I built my own PC for light photo processing and video editing, and frequently wish I'd just gone with an iMac on account of the quirks of Windows disk management.
posted by mzurer at 7:38 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

My roommate does heavy 3d animation and is super happy with his top of the line iMac. Today's top of the line iMac is way faster than a Mac Pro of just a few years ago. That said...

Everyone I know who has a Mac has a Macbook Pro, and they rave about how powerful it is—but I need a desktop for my workspace setup.

Why not a Macbook Pro with external monitor and keyboard? You get 2 screens and the option of taking your work to another location if you want. At my work, we have almost 0 desktop computers -- it's all Macbooks and external monitors.
posted by the jam at 8:11 AM on June 26, 2014 [15 favorites]

I'm actually writing this on a Macbook Pro with a 27" external monitor, which I got recently to replace an aging iMac. I've gotten to the point where I need some mobility, and I don't need that much power.

There's no question that higher-end iMacs are pretty high-end computers, and more powerful than even top-end Macbook Pros. Just in terms of performance give you more bang for the buck, too. The iMac today definitely occupies a different niche than the original iMacs did.

Other pros and cons to an iMac: You can get an iMac with a fusion drive relatively inexpensively, which gives you most of the speed benefits of a solid-state drive and all the capacity benefits of a hard drive. The screen is integral to the computer, which means if you've got a problem with the screen, you've got a problem with the computer. It's not easy to service—replacing the hard drive is probably not something you can do at home.
posted by adamrice at 8:50 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

The high-end iMac is a pretty fast computer. 3.5 GHz quad-core i7 with 3.9 GHz turboboost. Not cheap though at $2200.
posted by smackfu at 8:55 AM on June 26, 2014

Keep in mind, though, that the current iMacs do not come with a CD/DVD drive/burner, if that's something you find you need. Personally, I probably use the drive in my iMac about twice a year.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:57 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use a high-end iMac for photo retouching. Not dealing with the render times you are, but I can also process out 60 megapixel files in bulk fast enough for me. In the still world the iMacs are common, not sure if the Mac Pro is worth it for you but the iMacs aren't what I would call underpowered if you go for the higher end.
posted by bradbane at 9:16 AM on June 26, 2014

About a year ago, before the Mac Pro came out, I was told that an iMac with the quad-core i7 and SSD upgrades was the fastest off-the-shelf computer available.
posted by rhizome at 9:40 AM on June 26, 2014

A low end Mac Pro is about $400 more than the top-of-the-line iMac.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:23 AM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

> Honestly, if you're doing Serious Graphics Work, the Mac Pro is actually quite a bit cheaper than an equivalent Windows PC, mostly because Apple gets such a good deal buying AMD Firepro GPUs in bulk.

That may have been true 6 months ago, but PC parts drop in price. Macs Pro do not, at least not over 6 months. Just a cursory bit of searching on NewEgg indicates that they're approximately price parity right now, and the Windows machine does have the full 64GB of RAM.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:50 AM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking directly to your response here, o_a: $1200 is an awkward price point for a Mac. It won't buy you a new Mac Pro. And the MBP that it'll buy you will be a little bit underpowered compared to $1200 worth of Windows desktop.

If you can wait a few months (waiting for the Haswell bump) then a maxed-out Mini, with the monitor and et cetera that you already have, might be your price-performance sweet spot. If you can't wait, and you can spend a bit more money, then yeah, the 27-inch iMac would be a good choice for someone doing work with your degree of resource-requirements.

Or: a few-gens-old Mac Pro. That would work too.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2014

I do video editing on my MacBook Air and use a TB display externally. I also have a Pro that I use when I actually render out the files.

My dream setup would have been a retina MacBook and a TB display, but work wouldn't spring for the bigger laptop.

To answer your question though, I think an iMac would suit you fine. I'd max the processor and RAM and add an external storage array, but you'll be fine.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:57 AM on June 26, 2014

A mid- to upper-end iMac is a very capable machine for most people, including most graphic designers etc. You will not be paying for an underpowered machine. That said, you're not "most people", so the suggestion upthread to try one out is a really good one. If you're within range of an Apple store (or any university bookstore, I bet), you might be able to take a set of project files in on a USB stick and see how they work.

According to the MacRumors buying guide, the iMacs were last updated in September 2013 (other than the new low end model that you don't want) and new models should be here before the fall back-to-school season.

An alternative: maybe you should consider a Macbook Pro along with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, for a desktop setup that's also portable if you need it to be? [Also mentioned upthread!] If so, keep in mind that Apple is about to go all-Retina, and as far as I remember, the current laptop models don't have quite enough GPU oomph / Thunderbolt bandwidth to drive 4K external monitors. (We don't have retina iMacs yet, either, but they're coming.)

I think an iMac will be fine; if you can afford to wait through the fall, there's a decent chance you'll get updated iMac models and possibly a high-end iMac with a retina display. It's an interesting transitional time.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:08 PM on June 26, 2014

I do some of what you do on a MacBook Pro Retina 13" connected to a Thunderbolt display. I also do a lot of disk/compute intensive web development (that's my primary line) with this machine, and it's been a champ. The new iMacs are powerful, to be sure—and much more powerful than they used to be—but if this is your bread and butter computer get a new Mac Pro and a Thunderbolt display and call it a day. If the cost looks prohibitive, get a 27" iMac and max out the RAM and you're still well ahead of building a PC and fighting with Windows 8. You'll want some fast external drives (which are absurdly cheap these days) and an internal SSD for booting and running apps from.

For reference, my last Mac was a 24" iMac and it kept up with me just fine for the most part. It would have been even better with an SSD.

For what it's worth, you're making the right decision: building a PC to get a good graphics workstation in this day and age makes zero sense. Almost any Mac sold within the last 2.5 years, as long as you can put around 8GB of RAM in it—will serve your needs just fine. Bonus points if you can make a laptop work, because you can span multiple display with an adapter and have th ability to go mobile when you want or need to.
posted by littlerobothead at 12:25 PM on June 26, 2014

I do video and graphics work on a maxed-out iMac with Fusion drive and external monitor. I had the laptop and monitor setup before this one, and the G5 before that. For me, having a little extra power and two large monitors is worth more than mobility, but YMMV. My older laptop can still handle doing some admin work at the coffee shop and light video work if I really need it to.

I got a great deal on this machine through the refurbished store, but if I bought it at full price, it would be very close to the Mac Pro. I might have bought that instead, but I'd rather wait until the early adopters figure out if there are any kinks in the hardware. While I'm not sure how it will hold up as 4K video further saturates the field, I've been very happy with my iMac so far.
posted by ohisee at 12:44 PM on June 26, 2014

Also, reading up-thread, I would caution against the older-generation Mac Pros. When I was shopping around for a company a few years ago, they were getting poorer performance reviews then the comparable iMacs.
posted by ohisee at 12:50 PM on June 26, 2014

Also, whatever you do get, be sure to max it out on RAM - you will never regret it.
posted by Lynsey at 1:42 PM on June 26, 2014

Another thing to consider when pondering purchase of a really expensive Mac Pro is that those puppies keep a resale value for years longer than most other computers on the market. So you could recoup in years time.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:47 PM on June 26, 2014

I also recommend the MBP with a big external monitor. I do lots of heavy A/V work on an 8GB rMBP with a 27" thunderbolt monitor (and a thunderbolt drive array). MBPs can take up to 16GB of RAM, however, and that's probably worth it for the work you describe needing to do.

Yeah, a Pro will render faster and save you time incrementally over its lifetime, but if you can only have one primary work machine, these days a pro laptop is usually enough for most people in terms of raw computing power, especially if you can afford to let occasional big rendering jobs (etc.) run overnight or whatever. And consider all the time you'll make back having a portable machine that allows you to work anywhere. On balance, a Mac Pro is overkill these days for even most creative digital professionals. And you're right, this is new within the last few years. Apple made it easier by essentially stopping development on the Pro line for 3 years or so, letting us all get used to thinking of Macbooks and iMacs as professional content production machines.

Also, as much as I love (I mean, droooool) the design of the new Mac Pro, I still subscribe to an ancient piece of Apple wisdom that has never let me down in (eeeeek) almost 30 years of buying and using their machines (and the few times I've ignored it, it has let me down!): never buy the first generation of any product from Apple. It may be less true than it used to be, but the advances in the new Mac Pro are significant and the design is radically new, as much as I want one for my own shop, I'm waiting until version 2. For that kind of money, I want to know the kinks have been worked out.
posted by spitbull at 4:15 AM on June 27, 2014

Another thing to keep in mind with an iMac is that recent models come with the RAM soldered onto the motherboard, so you can't upgrade it once your computer inevitably starts to feel a little pokey in a year or two. I got a high-end iMac in 2010 and it's still plenty fast for what I need it for and has a fantastic screen, but I'm not happy with the thought that once the computer itself is too slow to be useful the upgrade path is basically to throw it in the trash and buy a new one.

With that in mind, I agree with the idea of a laptop with an external monitor, though this will inevitably drive up your price. (Recent MacBooks also come with soldered-on RAM too, so blah.)
posted by whir at 3:37 PM on July 13, 2014

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