Yup, Apple’s iMac Pro is a processing monster

Lance Ulanoff
Dec 14, 2017 · 9 min read
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The all-new Apple iMac Pro, available in Space Gray and Space Gray.

Easily apple’s most striking computer, Apple iMacs, are on creative’s desktops around the world; this despite the fact that they’ve never been Apple’s most powerful computing platform.

Until now.

Apple’s eagerly-anticipated, stunning, iMac Pro goes on sale today. Starting at $4999 for an 8 –Core Intel Xeon W processor, an AMD Radeon Vega 56 with 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB SSD and 32 GB of memory, the familiar looking, yet fully-reimagined iMac Pro is already, according to Apple, beating the top-of-the-line Mac Pro by at least a 2-to-1 margin in benchmarks (and sometimes by a factor of 12). It is, as John Ternus, Apple’s Vice President of Hardware Engineering, told me, “Unquestionably the fastest Mac we’ve ever built.”

It’s a bold claim and you’d be forgiven if, after examining the 27-inch all-in-one computer, you doubted him. Aside from a larger air vents on the back of the display, the iMac Pro has the exact same dimensions — down to the millimeter — and weight as the previous iMac.

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One can never have too many ports.

There are some small differences on the port side that casual observers might not notice, like an additional Thunderbolt 3 port (USB-C-style) and the upgraded Ethernet connectivity (10 Gigabit). The number of USB-3 ports and SD card slot are unchanged.

The stunning Retina screen is the exactly the same as the one they introduced earlier this year: 5K, 500 nits of brightness, a wide color gamut and support for one billion colors.

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A bright, beautiful, ultra-high-resolution screen.

What makes this system so powerful and a system that videographers, music producers, CAD, 3D, and VR developers, designers and VR companies will long for are the crazy components on the inside.

While the Intel Xeon W processor starts at 8 Cores, the iMac Pro will also come in 10, 14 and even 18 Core varietals. There’ll be an AMD Radeon Vega 64 option, the memory scales up to 128 GB and there’s an option for up to 4 TB of data storage, all on speedy flash drives.

Apple even reengineered the cooling system (dual blowers and 80% more cooling than the iMac) to maintain one of the things iMac owners loved best about their gorgeous yet comparatively average-performing systems: whisper-quiet operation. I saw the 500W system in action recently across a wide variety of processor-intense operations and can attest to its quiet operation, but more on that later.

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Just let it breathe.

Apple iMacs have a long history in the corporate workspace where data secrecy and protection is prized. The iMac Pro will offer Apple’s File Vault hard drive encryption system, but now pairs it with a bit of custom silicon called Apple T2.

Along with pulling in controllers for the 1080p camera, audio (speakers and 4 microphones) and the SSD, the system on a chip (SOC) has a hardware-based encryption engine. This is where the Secure Enclave will live and, yes, it can be injected with the unique user key for your File Vault.

The Awesome Power

While I applaud Apple’s efforts to dig into the component and even code-level guts of this stunning new system, it’s all a bit clinical without seeing it in action.

It’s not coincidental that the word “clinical” popped into my head as I looked at a near gag-reflex-inducing, highly realistic 3D scan of the inside of a human body on Osirix MD running on a Mac Pro. The medical imaging app is currently used by, according to Osirix MD maker Pixmeo, 400,000 medical professionals and is defined as a medical device by the U.S. FDA — and I can see why.

During a half day of iMac Pro demos at Apple’s Tribeca loft space, I sat in stunned disbelief as Osirix MD CEO Antoine Rosset, a doctor himself, manipulated a high-resolution, full color torso, which his application built based on 1,000 high resolution CT scans. Rosset pointed out the deep red aorta and a pair of stents that a surgeon had placed in them.

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Amazing. Disgusting.

Rosset rotated the scan and then showed how he could change the penetration and densities of tissues and organs to hide and reveal different parts of the anatomy. Soon we were looking at a fibrous scan of the lungs.

This real-time manipulation, he told me, is only possible with the iMac Pro, in his case, a 10-core unit, though Rosset said the image manipulation is relying primarily on the Radeon GPU.

“What we can do now with just a small piece of hardware is amazing,” said Rosset as he scrolled through a different multi-layer reconstruction of that repaired aorta and I reminded myself why I never became a doctor.

Now that MacOS High sierra natively supports VR, a number of developers are starting to port or develop applications directly for Apple’s platform. For those I saw during the demos, the iMac Pro is a godsend.

In room after room, I found the HTC Vive VR system paired with the space gray iMac Pro.

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With enough patience and skill, you, too, can design awesome cars like this in Gravity Sketch on an iMac Pro.

In one space, it powered Gravity Sketch, a design tool that encourages automotive and, eventually, shoe designers, to take ideas straight from their brains into the virtual world.

As I watched, Gravity Sketch co-founder Oluwaseyi Sosanya donned the HTC Vive head gear and used a pair of controllers to drag/paint gray panels on the wireframe of car while I tracked his progress on the large screen attached to the iMac Pro. This was, Sosanya said, the first time anyone had seen this Gravity Sketch build.

At another point, Sosanya drew lines, curves and shapes that looked like Chess pawns and then manipulated them in real time. Everything looked smooth and hiccup free. It was running, Sosanya noted, at a smooth 90 frames per second (fps).

“If you drop frames, you ruin the experience and presence,” he said as the screen filled with objects.

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The experience of creating designs in VR should be, Sosanya said, like drawing on paper, and the experience with Gravity Sketch appeared that smooth. He added that it can take a couple of days (or more) for designers to get the hang of drawing in 3D space, especially with the Vive controllers, which were designed for gaming and not design work.

Next Sosanya brought up a sneaker design sketch and then handed the controllers to a another journalist so he could draw on top of it and look around the design Sosanya thinks that designing in VR could transform how footwear design happens. Modeling, he said is usually the last step in shoe design, but with the iMac Pro hardware, where Gravity Sketch primarily relies on the GPU, it could be the first.

Rock out

Not all VR applications will rely solely on the formidable GPU. The VR music experience Electronauts, for example, uses both the CPU and GPU to put music creators inside a music-creation environment that’s equal parts video game, off world hip-hop station and pro-level score creation tool.

To create the 360-degree fully immersive world, Electronauts relies on the GPU, but for tracking motion and for the real-time quantitative analysis, A.K.A. the “Music Reality Engine” that literally makes any music you create sound good, they rely on the CPU.

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I’m the guy on the right. I swear.

The Electronaut team let me put on a headset and try my hands at creating music. In the environment, I wore a sort of space suit and was surrounded with music control hardware unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I made some pretty good music by hitting virtual orbs with the rhythm sticks, grabbed and threw “Music Grenades” and placed blocks into other hardware to activate more musical tools. To my left was a fellow journalist, also in a spacesuit. Somehow, we were making beautiful music together.

Not once did the system stutter or the VR experience lag.

Electronauts told us that what we’re seeing is just the beginning and “we think Apple has future proofed this for VR creators.”

In more than one instance, I saw how the iMac Pro’s raw horsepower can make real-time rendering of complex and highly realistic images a reality.

The architectural design tool Twinmotion created and manipulated an entire airport and surrounding grounds rendered in real-time.

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If only every airport looked like this.

An exquisitely rendered image of a futuristic airport is nothing to get excited about, but as I watched Twinmotion co-founder Raphael Pierrat literally paint realistic trees and a forest around the around the airport and then casually navigate through the just-planted foliage as the virtual branches and leaves rustled around him, my jaw literally dropped.

The application also stores and automates things like time-of day lighting and natural light, all of which Pierrat control with a handful of sliders in the application’s dock.

Pierrat told us that the core befit of the iMac Pro for his application is the GPU, which powered rendering and frame rates. The higher resolution was possible before, but at significantly lower frame rates.

Better-known companies like Adobe also plan to take advantage of iMac Pro processing power. The company is unveiling Adobe Dimension CC, a photo-realistic graphic design application that offers some impressive pre-visualization tools.

In the demonstration I saw, Adobe a rendered image of three spice containers. They then added a flat background image and used Adobe’s Sensei AI to analyze the image’s lighting, shadow and horizon information. With that, they were able to combine the 3D and flat image and add adjustable lighting and shadows that made it look as if the flat background and 3D spices were all part of a single, cohesive and relatively realistic-looking image.

Dimension CC’s real-time image editing capabilities benefit primarily from the iMac Pro’s CPU, with a 2.5X performance boost over previous iMacs, according to Adobe.

Developers unite

Apple also wanted to make it clear that the iMac Pro is also a developer’s tool and demonstrated how a 10 Core iMac Pro can simultaneously handle three iOS simulations (on screen was what looked like screens for an iPhone 8, an iPad and iPhone X all running the same application), a Linux Ubuntu VM serving Apache PHP code, a, yes, Windows 10 virtual machine running 20 Chrome browser sessions, and a virtualization of the previous Mac OS, without missing a beat or making loud wheezing sounds. Seriously, I didn’t hear a peep from the system.

The iMac Pro has performed some of the fastest compiles Apple has ever seen.

There were a handful of other demos, like real-time, motion-picture quality 3D renders from Cinema 4D (done in seconds instead of hours or days) and new iMac Pro builds of Final Cut 10 (up to 8K and 360 video editing) and Logic Pro 10 (83 insane tracks using just 10% of the available CPU power), that all underscored the same point: The new iMac Pro has power to burn.

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The profile is familiar, but the performance is something else.

Waiting in the wings, of course, is Apple’s redesigned Mac Pro and companion Pro display. No one knows what they’ll look like or how much power Apple will cram into the workstation computer, but it should be as much as you can find on an iMac Pro. For many designers and developers, though, the iMac Pro all-in-one may be all the power they need. Unless they want an upgradeable system: then they may want to wait for the Mac Pro.

As I noted above the 8 and 10 Cores are available now, but the 14 and 18 Core systems arrive in January.

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