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Apple’s Mac Christmas Present

When Apple launched the iMac Pro at June’s WWDC, I have to admit I was surprised. I expected a regular old iMac with some higher-end configurations. There are versions of Intel’s Core chips with extra cores, and I thought Apple would choose them.

What I didn’t anticipate was a new model with, essentially, the guts of a Mac Pro in an iMac case. But that’s precisely what Apple is giving us with the iMac Pro, which was promised to ship this month. The internal cooling system was revised to handle the expanded needs of 18-core Intel Xeon, AMD Radeon Pro Vega graphics and up to 128GB of ECC RAM.

As I said, the guts of a Mac Pro, or at least one possible configuration of a Mac Pro.

The new space gray computer with a chassis you expect in an all-in-one workstation, including four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, four regular USB 3 ports, an SDXC card slot and even 10Gb Ethernet for super-fast networking.

Predictably, it’s going to be an expensive beast. You can max out a regular iMac to hit $5,299 U.S. with pretty much all options selected, plus AppleCare. The iMac Pro starts at $4,999, and you can expect it to easily soar to two or three times that amount if you click or tap pretty much all the options.

But even the entry-level is pretty well configured with an 8-core Xeon, 32GB ECC RAM, and a 1TB SSD. High-end Xeon chips are expensive. An Intel price list I saw lists the W-2195 18-core CPU, the one Apple is reportedly using, for a suggested price of $2,553. Add to that the cost of 4TB of SSD, the more powerful graphics card and 128GB ECC RAM, and you get a mighty expensive beast.

In the spirit of the MacBook Pro, the iMac Pro will include a T2 system-on-a-chip that supports low-level functions, such as the boot process, password encryption and other functions, including audio, the camera, the SSD. It’s the sort of advantage Apple’s in-house chip design capability provides, but there’s evidently no support for Touch ID or even a Touch Bar.

According to published reports, the 8-core and 10-core models will ship this year. Both 14-core and 18-core upgrades won’t arrive until 2018. The former has yet to be officially announced.

All told, you can expect a maxed out iMac Pro to approach the cost of a compact sedan.

Since the iMac Pro can support up to two external 5K displays, that might be quite enough for content creators. But Apple is still reportedly developing a modular Mac Pro and a new lineup of Thunderbolt displays, and here’s where I might make a prediction or two.

You see, the first group of power users that Apple seeded with preproduction iMac Pros are also running a fairly major upgrade to Final Cut Pro, version 10.4. One of the new features is support for an 8K timeline. But the iMac Pro’s internal display tops out at 5K. So what’s going on here?

Right now, Dell has a 32-inch 8K display priced at $3,699. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the iMac Pro drive one of these beasts, and the next Mac Pro might handle a pair. But is it possible the new display lineup from Apple will include an 8K version?

Blockbuster movies are already being shot in 8K, but the cameras cost upwards of $30,000. On the other hand, if a movie company is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a movie laden with special effects, paying more for a camera is no big deal.

Indeed, it’s very possible there will be an 8K TV in our homes someday, though it would be an extravagance. As 4K sets become cheaper and cheaper — even with HDR capabilities — 8K prototypes have already been displayed at the CES. But I question the value. Many people can’t even see the 4K advantage unless they have a model with a very large screen or sit fairly close. 8K in the home would be meaningless for most people, though that resolution will look just great on the big screen.

But just as Apple pioneered affordable 5K capability when it introduced a special version of the 27-inch iMac in 2014, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about an 8K version someday. It’s the future of movie production, and Apple continues to work hard to add more professional features to Final Cut Pro X, and somehow persuade video editors to embrace the app once again.

In any case, I didn’t expect Apple to make a huge deal about shipping a new Mac so late in the year. The late December shipping date of the 2013 Mac Pro seemed an afterthought. This time, however, Apple is ramping up the publicity machine with stories about power users seeded with the iMac Pro, preliminary unofficial benchmarks and other reports.

Getting user reactions ahead of reviews from the usual selection of tech journalists clearly demonstrates that Apple wants to tout the iMac Pro’s credibility as a professional workstation.

We can worry about the HomePod next year.