Review: 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display

iMac 5K

My years of a Mac user can be broken into three main eras:

  • The Early Days: A string of PowerBooks and MacBook Pros with work and personal data on them.
  • The Great Divide: An iMac at home and a laptop at work.1
  • Giving Up: Using a work laptop for everything again with a Mac mini as a home server.

I’ve been lucky that every job I’ve had after leaving the Apple Store in 2008 has provided me with a Mac notebook to use as I see fit.

This was the case in 2014 when Myke and I started Relay FM. I had a work-issued MacBook Air that I used for work and personal stuff, but I soon felt weird about using this computer to work on my new company, so I picked up a MacBook Pro with Retina display.

This is the computer I was using for everything until October of last year. We’ve had a Mac mini with a bunch of attached storage on the network for years, but all of my work was taking place on this notebook.

For the first year or so of independent life, I was working from home most of the time, but recorded shows at my brother’s office. My MacBook Pro would go with me, and dock with an external display, keyboard and mouse at each location.

This setup was less than ideal, and when we moved last summer, I was lucky enough to have studio space at home for the first time.

Suddenly, my portable machine found itself docked for weeks at a time. As it was a 15-inch model, when I did have to take it somewhere, I quickly became annoyed at the size and weight.

So I bought my first iMac in years.

Buying Refurbished

I picked up a refurbished Late 2015 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display with the following specs:

  • 3.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor
  • 16 GB RAM
  • 1 TB SSD
  • AMD Radeon R9 M395 graphics card with 2 GB video RAM
  • Retina 5K 5120-by-2880 P3 (wide color) display

If I had ordered this configuration from Apple, it would have cost $3,099. Refurbished, it set me back $2,719.

This isn’t my first refurbished Mac. While the options aren’t always great (I really wanted an i7), it’s a nice way to save a chunk of change. After AppleCare and tax, I still spent less than just the machine would have cost otherwise.

The discounts vary over time, but the fact that Apple warranties these machines as new sets me at ease. This iMac — like the other refurbished computers I’ve purchased — was indistinguishable from a new one when it arrived. You aren’t going to be stuck scraping off someone else’s stickers if you go this route.

iMac 5k

(Yes, that is an iMac base made of a Time Capsule and first-generation Apple TV.)

Upgrades & Performance

I spend a lot of time in professional applications like Logic Pro X2 and Final Cut Pro X, so I knew I would want to max out the RAM when I got the iMac.

For some reason I cannot comprehend or accept, the 21.5-inch iMac does not come with upgradeable RAM. Mercifully, the 27-inch model still does, so I picked up another 16 GB of RAM from MacSales.

Installation was straightforward; you don’t need to be an ex-Genius to follow Apple’s directions.

Despite getting a model with an i5, this machine has taken everything I’ve thrown at in stride. Of course, much of this has to do with the SSD. Unlike a Fusion Drive, it’s always fast, and while the 1TB option was crazy expensive, I haven’t regretted the choice.

In short, everything is buttery smooth on this iMac all the time.

That All in One Life

At this writing, my iMac is the most up-to-date model. As such, it has a bunch of I/O that future models may not:

  • 3.5 mm headphone jack
  • SDXC card slot
  • Four USB 3 ports
  • Two Thunderbolt 2 ports
  • Gigabit Ethernet

In addition to Ethernet, I usually have at least one Thunderbolt port in use, as well as all most of the USB ports.

I wouldn’t mind more USB ports, actually. I have USB 3 hub mounted under my desk for a few additional peripherals that I never unplug, like my Time Machine drive. Keeping one USB port empty on the iMac makes swapping things around a lot faster.

iMac 5K Ports

After spending years hooking a notebook up to an external display, I had gotten use to a certain amount of cable clutter. MagSafe, Thunderbolt and USB cables were flopping all over the place. The beauty of the iMac’s iconic design is that all of that mess can be hidden from view.

Even as a professional users with several discrete audio devices on my desk, I’m able to keep everything nice and tidy.

One thing that has surprised me is how quiet the machine is. Only sustained renders in something like Final Cut ever really make the fans kick up but unless I’m working in perfect silence, I can’t hear them.

Likewise, the built-in, downward-firing speakers are surprisingly good. Sure, they lack the punch that external speakers can bring, but for my use as a heavy headphone user, they are perfectly fine.

Oh, and this 5K Retina display? Holy moly, it is good.

There are downsides to the all in one life, of course. If this iMac ever needs repair, I can’t really do much about it myself. If the guts ever die, I won’t be able to use it as an external display, and I can’t upgrade things any more than I already have.

If only Apple made a tower for pro Mac users with easy component access and lots of flexibility…

Unseen Benefits

I bought this iMac for a bigger reason then wanting a change from my 15-inch MacBook Pro.

With the studio, my desk is no longer in the house. I’m not hogging the spare bedroom anymore, and the separation has been good. It’s clear to everyone when I am “at work.” When it’s time to “come home,” I can sleep the iMac, turn off the lights and lock the door behind me.

The MacBook Pro I have now can be used for work, but I’ve become so spoiled by the 27-inch display, I really just use it for writing unless I’m traveling. For all intents and purposes, work happens at my desk, on the iMac.

That clarity has been good for my kids, my marriage and myself. I’m working far fewer nights than I used to, and when I need to hunker down and get something out the door, I can do so in my own space, without getting in the way.

The Future

I expect my generation of iMac will be replaced very soon with Kaby Lake-packing, Thunderbolt 3-toting machines, but honestly, I’m fine with it.

I don’t have to use any dongles with this machine, and it has so much horsepower, I really think I can get 3-4 years of useful work done with it. When the time does come to replace it, I bet I do so with another iMac. I’m a fan.

  1. This interview falls into this era. 
  2. I’ve edited several shows over the last few weeks in Adobe Audition and am probably switching, but that’s a story for a different time.