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Review Haswell 27-inch iMac

Tuesday, 01 October 2013

I was very keen to try a new iMac to see what kind of difference a Haswell CPU might make. Three years ago we bought a 27-inch iMac for the photographer in the family. She creates super high resolution images often several metres wide, the record being seven metres wide and two high, all from high definition shots (sometimes hundreds) shot on a Canon 5D MkII. With this in mind, we added extra RAM ourselves from the 4GB it came with (12GB) and specified a 2TB internal hard drive, plus the Core i7 option (at the time) running at 2.93GHz.
It’s still running superbly and we have no wish to replace it – but it serves as a good comparison to Apple’s latest, which just appeared with Intel’s new Haswell class of CPU installed. This is the fourth generation of Intel processor, plus it has faster graphics, can be fitted with Fusion Drive and flash storage options, and contains the faster new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard (which I could not test, but of course it steps back to what you probably have instead.)
To look at, the new model (above, picture courtesy Apple Inc) is thinner from the side but otherwise it’s almost identical. To achieve this, there’s no longer an optical drive in the right hand side, but if that’s something you feel you can’t live without, Apple’s sleek external option looks pretty good alongside any Mac for $119.
Cost — The two stock 27-inch iMacs cost NZ$2799 or $3099. The cheaper of the two, the 3.2GHz I borrowed, has the following specs: 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive and video served via an NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M with 1GB video memory. I don’t believe the VRAM is user upgradeable, but the same card comes with 2GB VRAM in the more expensive stock option.
The $3099 option has a faster CPU and a 2GB video card: 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz; 8GB (two 4GB) memory; 1TB hard drive and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M with 2GB video memory.
RAM at 8GB is the minimum these days (which is good) but you can order it with 16GB or 32GB for an extra $320 or $960. To reach 32GB, you add an 8GB SIMM to each of the four slots. Note that the 8GB stock model has two 4GBs in two slots, leaving two empty for a very easy upgrade in the future.   
The standard drive is a 1TB ATA at 7200rpm. There’s no 2TB option on these, but to go to a 3TB standard HD costs another $240, or to change the 1TB HD to a 1TB Fusion add $320 and so on.
For the 2010 27-inch iMac with the Core i7 CPU (one processor, four cores), 4GB RAM, with a Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad combination added for another $122 via Apple’s online Build To Order, total retail with the new GST for this setup back in 2010 was $4402.02 including GST. 
To specify the latest 2013 Haswell version of the 27-inch to something similar, I went to Apple’s iMac buying site.
Either because of the strong New Zealand dollar or for other economic, production streamlining or modern parts-cost reasons, it’s possible to get a better specced 27-inch iMac these days for less money. For example, if you select the 3.2GHz 27-inch iMac on Apple’s site and ramp the RAM up to 16GB (12GB isn’t an option), change the HD to a faster 3TB Fusion drive (which combines SSD with traditional HD storage) and even adding in the same Magic Mouse and Trackpad combo, the current cost is just $3778 including GST (and shipping is free on Apple’s buy site). That’s a saving of NZ$624.02 for more RAM, a bigger faster hard drive and the addition of a trackpad in a newer iMac with a faster CPU.. 

Performance — So how does the latest 27-inch iMac compare, fitted with the new Haswell processor? It’s interesting that I got to test the lesser of the two stock 27-inch Haswell iMac configurations with a standard, and not Fusion or even faster SSD, option. Nevertheless, it outperforms the three-year-old 27 inch.
Our 2010 iMac still performs exceedingly well, although to me it seems a bit slow to start up, and with around 850GB of files currently on the internal storage taken up by a lot of those truly massive image files (the artist does some work in Final Cut, too). 
Start up time, from off-to-usable,  is 1 minute 19 seconds. My MacBook Pro has an SSD as internal drive and that booted up blisteringly fast when I first got it (in 30.3 seconds). No longer, I’m afraid: with lots of files and apps and whatnot, that’s dropped to 1 minute 6 seconds. (I think I’m going to nuke it, to decludge, and reinstall just the apps I need from the backup, as I want those speeds back.)
The new iMac boots up from off to usable in 1 minute 12 seconds. These times are not particularly dissimilar – not bad considering this just has a standard hard drive. 
As for drive speed on copy operations, duplicating a 1.1GB file duplicates on the MacBook Pro’s SSD in 5.89 seconds. That’s quick – the same file duplicated in 12.32 seconds on the 2013 iMac, and on a 7200rpm LaCie 1TB external hard drive plugged into the laptop, 23.9 seconds.
Remember this trial iMac has a standard 7200rpm 1TB HD, not a Fusion drive, so obviously progress has been made with the bus and controller.
This shows some progress in Geekbench-measured overall (multicore) scores since 2007, in my own measurements of various Macs over the last few years:
1/ Mid 2007 15-inch MacBook Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz 4GB RAM 3122
2/ 2008 20-inch iMac Core 2 Duo 2GHz 3GB RAM 2877
3/ Late 2009 27-inch iMac i5 2-Core 2.67GHz 4GB RAM 7615
4/ Early 2010 15-inch MacBook Pro i7 2-Core 4GB RAM 6353
5/ Late 2009 27-inch iMac i7 4-Core 2.8GHz 4GB RAM 8607
6/ Early 2010 MacBook Pro 15-inch Core i7 2.66GHz 2-Core 8GB RAM 6457
7/ Mid 2010 27-inch iMac i7 4-Core 2.93GHz 12GB RAM 10,850
8/ Mid 2012 MacBook Pro Retina/SSD 15-inch, i7 4-Core 2.6GHz, 16GB RAM 12,748
9/ — Mid 2013 27-inch iMac Haswell i5 4-Core 3.2GHz 8GB RAM 11,221
Above, the mid 2013 iMac is in gold, the new Mac Pro in a Geekbench pre-release score is at far right in paler blue.
You’ll see the MacBook Pro is still faster than the new Haswell iMac, but the new iMac only has an i5, not an i7 version of the CPU. The i7 supports Hyperthreading and the i5 does not, whereas the i3 does not even have Turboboost. The Haswell does have an i7 version, but it’s only an option for the more expensive, faster iMac 27-inch.
* According to Techpower, the Core i5-4670K Haswell has 33% less cache than the Core i7-4770K and no Hyper-Threading. The Core i7-4770K’s Hyper-Threading feature helps by creating four additional virtual cores for a total of eight threads, which increases performance during multitasking procedures.
Now, for PC and/or Mac comparisons to these scores, download and run Geekbench yourself (it has versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux – and for Android and iOS) and compare. The 32-bit version is free, the 64-bit version has a cost. 
On the Geekbench results browser site you can see all kinds of benchmarks people have posted, for all kinds of platforms and configurations. This won't cost you anything. 
Just out of interest, the new Mac Pro (it’s not on sale yet) clocked up 23,901 in uploaded benchmarks. But that’s from a pre-release machine, and final specs are not certain. That appears in the graph above at extreme left, in paler blue.

Other new features — These new Macs have better built-in cameras that support full native resolution on the built-in display and up to a 30-inch display (2560 by 1600 pixels) on an external display. Wireless is 802.11ac which is IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible and it has Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology.
The four USB ports are now USB 3, but it has the original Thunderbolt standard, not Thunderbolt 2. 
All the specs and included software are available to read online.

Conclusion — The new Haswell-equipped iMac is definitely faster, looks fantastic and for applications like Logic and Final Cut, that large screen is pretty hard to beat. It's gorgeous! New options make it faster than ever for cheaper than ever.

macnz’s buying advice — In my experience, more RAM delivers more tangible results than faster CPUs, so if you have only a little extra money, prioritise RAM over a few GHz of CPU speed. The Fusion drive is a wonderfully cost-effective way to get faster than traditional hard drive storage, and you’ll notice the difference across many operations including start-up, launching apps and opening big files.

What’s great — Looks fantastic, and the large screen offers a very rewarding experience
What’s not — Some will still miss the optical drive, but I stopped using CDs and DVDs long before my Mac dropped the capability. Why no i7 option on the lesser-specced 27-inch? It's only available on the options list for the 3.4GHz model with the 2GB video card: 3.5GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz, add $320.
Needs — Anyone who wants the best Mac desktop experience available. Great home computer, but easily powerful enough for almost any professional, full-on tasks. 

What — 27-inch 3.2GHz Intel Core i5 September 2013 iMac, $2799
(3.4GHz i5 iMac $3099 – this model also has 2GB VRAM).
System — (as tested) 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce GT 755M with 1GB video memory(VRAM).
Build-to-order options include faster Fusion and SSD storage, more RAM and various accessories. 
Contact — Apple NZ or your favourite Apple reseller.