After six years of using the original Mac Pro as my main workhorse, I finally took the plunge this past Christmas and upgraded to Apple’s latest 27” iMac. It’s the first Mac I’ve owned since the Quadra 650 back in the mid 90s that wasn’t a tower model. It was a scary decision for me, but one I’ve been delighted with so far.

iMac for designers

The first thing I had to come to grips with is the revelation that I don’t NEED all the expansion that the Mac Pro has to offer. In the distant past, the days when a 16GB stick of RAM took you a year or so to save-up for, the Mac tower models were the only way to go for pro designers. The desktop models simply weren’t made for people like us.

But times have changed. With NO exception, every Mac model available today can easily be used by the most demanding print and web designers—this includes the MacBook Air and the MacMini. If you think you NEED more, you’re most likely overestimating your needs. Today’s Macs are powerful enough for working with Gigabyte sized files with as little as 8GB of RAM.

Now I didn’t say that every Mac model is a perfect fit, far from it. And that’s where my decision got difficult.

Background

You see, in the six years I had my Mac Pro (the longest I have ever used a single Mac), the year I had a PowerMac G5, and the years prior to that when I had several G3 and G4 towers, I never upgraded anything beyond the RAM and one additional internal hard drive in the Mac Pro. For all the expansion capability I was paying for, I never used it. It wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it—prices came down quite a bit over the years. It’s because I simply didn’t need to.

Though my dual-core 2.66 GHz Mac Pro had 11GB of RAM and plenty of storage, there were two problems that I simply couldn’t overcome. The Xeon processors were showing their age, and I could no longer upgrade the OS.

Because I had been using a MacBook Air (2011 model), I already knew that I could accomplish what I needed on a lower-end Mac if I had to. In fact, the SSD drive more than made up for the lack of RAM and processing power compared to my Mac Pro.

So it basically came down to how many wires I wanted hanging off the back of my desk.

The 27” iMac

I settled on the 27” iMac for two primary reasons. The first was the screen and built-in iSight camera. Though I have a perfectly good 30” LCD hooked up to my Mac Pro, it put out a lot of heat the way it sat in my hutch-style desk (see image below), and it used old connectors which made it impossible to use going forward without buying adapters (more cables). I hate heat, and I hate cables. Between the Mac Pro and the 30” LCD, I had a real sauna in my office—which wasn’t helped by the fact that I live in the desert where the 120 degree heat in the summer is constantly coming through the window.

The iMac’s 27” screen is, for lack of a better way to describe it, delicious. I do miss the extra pixels and screen size of my 30” LCD, but it can’t match the iMac for color vibrancy and convenience. Not to mention, I happily lose two cables for the monitor, a microphone cable and a camera cable. Bonus!

My iMac

Plus, the iMac puts out virtually no heat to speak of. It’s amazing how Apple squeezed all that power and a large LCD screen into the space they did and not have any fan noise or heat. That’s right, I said no fan noise. With my Mac Pro, playing Diablo 3 would crank up the fans. Heck, just visiting sites that use Flash (primarily video sites) would sometimes make my office sound like a wind tunnel. With the iMac, there’s nothing but silence. This is important for me because with a hutch-style desk, the iMac sits back in a sort of cubby. With the 30” LCD I had, the heat would build-up in there and come out right in my face. It was quite noticeable and extremely uncomfortable.

The second reason was the cost vs. benefit ratio was too difficult to pass on. Not only was I getting a great LCD screen, but I was getting the latest hardware at a fraction of the price of a new Mac Pro.

I went with 16GB of RAM, which was easily added via the RAM ports on the back of the iMac. I also decided on the 1TB Fusion drive instead of the pure SSD which would have cost significantly more. Considering how long I kept my Mac Pro, I kind of wish I had just spent the money and went pure SSD.

The Fusion drive is so much speedier than a regular spinning hard drive that it’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t used a Mac equipped with SSD storage. Boot-up and shut down times are more than halved, and applications launch much faster. Opening and saving files is significantly faster as well.

That being said, the Fusion drive “feels” slower than the pure SSD in my nearly two-year-old MacBook Air. Still, it’s so much faster than the hard drive I had in my Mac Pro that the fractions of a second difference between the Fusion and pure SSD isn’t worth giving a second thought to, for the most part.

I had a large secondary hard drive I removed from my Mac Pro and put in an external case for using as a (manual) backup drive, which is connected via a USB cable. I don’t mind the fact that it’s external now, as it allows me to turn it off when it’s not in use (which is most of the time), or unplug it and store it elsewhere if I wish. I have an Apple Time Capsule for Time Machine backups as well.

I also purchased the external Apple SuperDrive, since Apple has removed them from the iMac all together. I have a lot of optical media, and many clients still want things on CD/DVD, so the cost was well worth it. The only drawback for me is that the USB cable that comes with the SuperDrive is extremely short, so you pretty much have to place it right underneath the iMac (you can see it in the lower right corner of the photo above, sitting on top of the external drive).

I still prefer an extended keyboard for the extra F-Keys and Num pad on the right, so I kept one wire there. But I went with the Magic Mouse and Magic Pad (both wireless), to replace my wired Kensington Turbo Mouse. It’s nice to be free of those cables!

Complaints

After two months of using the new iMac, I only have a few relatively minor complaints.

The first are the connection ports. They’re located on the back of the iMac. For USB, Thunderbolt and Ethernet ports, that’s fine. But for SD Card slot and audio-out ports, it’s a real pain. I don’t use SD cards very often, so it’s not that big a deal.

iMac ports

However, I get up early in the morning and work later at night, and like to listen to podcasts or music as I’m working while my wife and son are asleep. With my Mac Pro, I could just plug-in headphones to the front headphone jack. During the day, I could listen to music through the external speakers I have which were plugged-in to the Mac Pro’s audio-out port on the back of the tower.

With the iMac, there is only one audio-out port (headphone jack), and it’s located on the back with all the other ports. So unless I want to constantly turn the iMac around to plug and unplug speakers and headphones, I can only use one or the other.

I have a USB cable for my DSLR camera and a Lightning cable for my iPhone constantly plugged in and ready to use, which you can see at the bottom middle sitting on the base of the iMac. It’s not a big deal to leave them there, but it would have been nicer to have at least one USB port and the headphone jack on the front of the iMac for the sake of convenience. But there’s no way Apple is going to sacrifice the iMac’s stunning beauty for the sake of a minor inconvenience.

I also miss the adjustable stand of my Dell 30” LCD. It allowed for height, swivel, and tilt adjustments. The iMac, like the Thunderbolt Cinema Display, has a stand that allows only tilt adjustment.

iMac 27” Pros:

  • Large LCD screen with excellent quality and no cables to deal with
  • Lightweight enough to make it easy to turn around for port access
  • RAM upgrade is simple
  • Overall speed is superb
  • No fan or hard drive noise whatsoever
  • No heat issues
  • Plenty of external expansion options

iMac 27” Cons:

  • Fusion Drive is somewhat disappointing compared to pure SSD storage. Though it’s barely noticeable, it doesn’t “feel” as fast as a MacBook Air when waking from sleep, launching apps, etc.
  • Port positions are awkward
  • No adjustable base with swivel to make height adjustments or make it easy to rotate the iMac around for port access
  • Only one audio-out port (headphone jack), so its either speakers or headphone, but not both

As far as cost goes, there is no comparison to the Mac Pro. The iMac gives the average user so much more for much less money. While you do lose the internal expansion and a few ports, it’s not enough for print and web designers to justify the cost of the Mac Pro. Perhaps if you did high-end video editing as well as print/web design, you could make a legit argument for the Pro.

In part two, I’ll tell you about my experience using the new 27” iMac in a real-world design work environment. If you have any questions about what I’ve said so far, feel free to leave a comment below.