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Once You Try 5K, You Never Go Back

So I’ve been using the entry-level 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display for several weeks now, and I’ve made it my regular computing workstation. Well, at least until next month when Apple expects to see it returned. Till then, however, I can bask in the superior glow of nearly 15 million pixels dancing on the screen in response to my commands.

Now waxing enthusiastic about any computer is not my style. I’m jaded, having worked on various types of computing systems since the 1970s, even before the personal computer revolution. I also used some of those early Macs, quickly migrating to the first color monitors. I recall the era before flat panel displays arrived were I struggled mightily to have a picture that was not bowed, without bending at the edges or the bottom, and let me tell you that I sweated the adjustments, particularly as display sizes grew larger.

Good old days they weren’t.

Well, I believed that the displays I used were quite sharp enough for a desktop computer. While I do not yet own a MacBook Pro with Retina display, I nonetheless appreciate the Retina displays on the family iPhones and iPads. I could see the potential, but still I felt that putting one of those things on an iMac was just overkill. It had to be very expensive to pack millions of pixels onto a 27-inch display. Yes, I’m aware of 4K or Ultra HD TVs, and they are coming down in price and all, but a computer display has to be of a higher grade. We’re talking of a tool used to edit professional audio and video productions.

But to edit 4K video you need a display that has enough extra pixels for an app’s menus and palettes. Thus, a 5K display, and consider the graphics hardware you’d need to push those pixels. Yes, a Mac Pro can do it, but would Apple consider such a capability on a more affordable box, say an iMac?

Amid rumors of an iMac with Retina display, I remained skeptical. To me, that late 2009 iMac still chugging away had a perfectly sharp display. Everything was clear and readable, so why would I change, and how much extra would I have to pay for such a beast anyway?

Remember that Dell had announced a 5K 27-inch display for all of $2,499. What would it cost to pack the guts of a powerful computer into such a box anyway?

In October, Apple delivered not just a surprising response, but put again the lie to the claim that people who buy Macs were paying an “Apple tax” for luxury gear that costs more than the competition.

So for the very same $2,499, Apple delivered the full-blown computer with a magnificent, simply stunning, 5K display. Apple did all sorts of tricks behind the scenes to make it happen on a computer that, to all intents and purposes, looked exactly the same as the standard 27-inch iMac. Were there any compromises?

Well, the iMac 5K has been available for over two months now. Supplies have been tight, and it appears that consumers with exacting needs and professional content creators are lapping them up. But there haven’t been any rush firmware updates or reports of serious problems. The worst you can say is that the built-in AMD graphics hardware, powerful as it is, might sometimes struggle a bit to keep all those pixels moving smoothly. Sometimes it stutters for just a fraction of a second, though I’ve not observed much of that on the entry-level model Apple sent along.

I am considering whether to request a CTO model, with all the options, to see how it fares.

In addition to an amazingly sharp picture, the iMac 5K delivers rich colors that seem far more realistic than on a regular iMac. They clearly sweat the details, and I can already see how my old iMac will seem dull and fuzzy in comparison. This is the sort of computer that, once you have extended face time with it, will just suck you in and send you rushing to the credit cards and the checkbook balances to see if you can swing a purchase. Maybe I just need to run a GoFundMe campaign to raise the cash to buy one of these machines.

But this is not a case of being taken in by the fading reality distortion field left by the late Steve Jobs. With the iMac 5K, Apple has confounded the skeptics about pricing such high-end gear, and has delivered an excellent solution for anyone who needs a PC “truck” to create professional audio and video content. If your apps can do all of their stuff within the confines of a quad-core processor, you’ll find performance actually exceeds that of the Mac Pro. For apps that can sing with six or 12 cores, the Mac Pro is still better, but at what cost?

In configuring the cheapest (so to speak) iMac 5K, Apple made the hybrid Fusion Drive standard issue. So you get a 1TB mechanical hard drive and a 128GB SSD. Intelligent software monitors your usage patterns, and tries to pack the apps and files you use most often on the SSD. For most of you, performance is in striking distance to a full SSD (which costs $800 more from Apple if you want one). If you manage loads of large files, a Fusion Drive might not be the ticket, but it is for me.

Let me say it again: It’s going to be awfully hard to go back to my own iMac after the 5K returns to its home in Cupertino, CA. I will have to suffer through a fuzzier display and a much slower hard drive. All right, I could invest a few hundred dollars and pack an SSD into my old box, but I’d be forced to endure the lengthy and delicate process of disassembling the iMac, and putting Humpty Dumpty together again. But I’m not sure if it’s worth the cost or the complicated installation process.

Or maybe I’ll get a big tax refund next year, and consider whether to pay off some old bills, or reward myself with a new Mac. What would you do?