About the Next iMac

May 16th, 2017

To understand what Apple is doing with the iMac, you’ll want to recall where it all began. I’ve mentioned this before, but I was there when it started, as a member of Apple’s Customer Quality Feedback program, which allowed Mac users access to software and, on occasion, hardware.

Well, in the spring of 1998, Apple sent me a bulbous plastic box that bore the label iMac. It was the original Bondi blue model that debuted in August of that year. I might have actually been able to keep it, except that my Apple contact told me that I needed to run a firmware update first to bring it up to the final version. Now maybe he was leading me on, but when I ran the update, it bricked the computer, so I sent it back.

Not that it was anything that suited my needs. It was strictly a consumer box, with parts derived from the PowerBook. I had always used the most powerful Mac minitowers. That said, the iMac was, in a way, a throwback to the original Mac, except that you could, with a little difficulty, update its parts. Indeed, I recall updating an iMac’s RAM on a fairly regular basis. To many of them, it was the perfect home computer, and, at a starting price of $1,299, it was fairly affordable for a Mac.

Over the next few years, Apple changed the colors, and finally updated the design with a base that resembled a lampshade and a movable articulated arm. It was also more difficult to upgrade.

Beginning with the iMac G5, it became more powerful, closer to a mainstream Mac with a built-in display. Indeed the case was almost all display, a design that has been enhanced with subsequent versions.

With the introduction of the 27-inch iMac in late 2009, it became powerful enough to actually replace a Mac Pro for many users. It also managed to relegate the latter to a smaller user base with more specialized needs. That move, in itself, caused Apple’s conundrum about how best to serve professional users.

In early April of this year, Apple executives met with several specially selected tech journalists in efforts to reassure professional users that they still had the love. That came with the admission that the 2013 Mac Pro redesign was a misfire, though those words weren’t used. But it was promised that a new Mac Pro is under development, but it won’t arrive this year.

Also promised was a version of the iMac with pro options, which implies models with higher-end configurations. As it stands, the iMac is made up of basically notebook-grade components, largely to keep things from running too hot. But that doesn’t mean an iMac isn’t a powerful computer. When topped out with the fastest available CPU, it can beat the Mac Pro in canned benchmarks, except for apps that can exploit more than four cores.

Since the iMac statement was made, a few tech sites have engaged in speculation as to how the iMac might change, or at least what might be available when you click “Customize.” One report suggested a low-end Xeon processor, similar to the silicon used in the Mac Pro. There would certainly be more powerful graphics, no doubt with the ability to drive a pair of external 5K displays. But adding USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports would only duplicate what’s already available on the Late 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

Looking at the available CPUs, I suggested Apple might look to an 8-core version of the Intel i7, or perhaps the AMD Ryzen, also available with eight cores, which would the first time Apple used someone else’s chips after the 2006 switch to Intel. But since AMD builds processors that are x86 compatible, it wouldn’t be so big a deal to use processors from two companies.

Now it certainly hasn’t been verified, but a forum post at a tech site, AnandTech, claims to contain leaks about forthcoming Intel i9 CPUs, sporting up to 12 cores and 24 threads. They would be part of the forthcoming “Core i9 Skylake X” and “Kaby Lake X” families, and, according to the post, they are expected to ship beginning in June.

The post goes on to list model numbers and detailed specs. With the claim that the most powerful chips would have power requirements equivalent to comparable Xeons, I suspect there would be concerns over whether an iMac in its current form could handle such heavy-duty needs. I suppose it’s possible that Apple could redesign the iMac with a heftier power supply and more elaborate cooling to accommodate more powerful parts, all without seriously changing the basic form factor.

Even if the claim is true, that doesn’t mean any of the new chips will make their way into a new Mac. If anything, these processors might present possible lower-cost options for a Mac Pro.

But if Intel is poised to ship new processors in June, surely it would have been announced by now. The alleged “leak” is getting serious attention from sites that cover Intel, however. It’s also possible that the new silicon will be announced next month, but may not ship until a few months later, perhaps by fall. So it may be possible, yet, for Apple to consider using them. Obviously Apple already knows what Intel plans to deliver in time for the next iMac upgrade.

Without final confirmation, the best I’d say is that it makes for a fascinating story. It points to a possible new direction for Apple in refreshing the iMac, but there will probably be few specifics until the expected 2017 model is close to release.

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