November 4, 2020

Apple 2020 27″ 5K Retina – an honest review ….

I guess if I was to sum up the 2020 27″ iMac I would say;

“Everything stays the same, but everything changes”.

Cryptic I know, but I shall explain.

The device is visually identical to every iMac since the 2015 model. I know this as I purchased the 2020 version to replace my ageing 2015 device. But from my perspective that is where the similarities end.

Internally, this thing is totally different – just about everything is different from the iMac that I previously owned – which is something that you might expect for devices that are five years apart in-terms of technology.

I accept that if you have a 2019 iMac then the differences are slight and if you are looking for an upgrade perhaps hanging on for the next generation of ARM based iMacs would be your best bet – however for my own personal situation it was the right time to put my hands (deep) in my pockets and shell out for something new an shiny.

The specification

What does it look like inside?

So for many people – this probably doesn’t mean much. You just want a computer right?

Well there are some important points here that you might want to pay attention to – especially if you are going to spend in excess of £2,000 on a device. Firstly – there’s no longer a hard drive per-se.

The space that would usually be used for one is for want of a better term “vacant“. Storage is taken care of via SSD chips which are soldered to the main board which is standard across the 2020 iMac product range.

Image copyright: iFixIT

As I discussed in my review of the MacBook Air the storage that you select at the point of purchased requires consideration as after you have clicked that “order” button you are stuck with it. The storage expansion options are detailed in the table below.

My personal advice is buy as much as you can afford – but certainly no less than 1 TB. This of course means that the entry level model would be off limits as the maximum is 256 GB.

This I find rather perplexing as given that this is a professional product with the entry level machine some quite respectable power in the other components; limiting it to 256 GB for a main disk is both confusing and frustrating. With the 1TB drive that I have installed I managed to consume 256GB very quickly through the installation of applications and data so if you opt for that model you are probably going to need an external drive pretty quick for data storage and use the main system disk for the O/S and apps.

If I were cynical I would say that Apple were keen to provide a more palatable cost entry level machine – but ultimately when people consider their options have little to no choice but to opt for the more expensive in the line up.

iMac 27" 2020 Storage Options


.

Entry Level

Mid-Range

High-End

Base Storage:

256 GB SSD

512 GB SSD

512 GB SSD

Upgrade To:

1 TB SSD
1 TB SSD
2 TB SSD
2 TB SSD
4 TB SSD

8 TB SSD

First Impressions

As I said at the start of this review I bought my first iMac in 2015 and I have to admit the whole process of unboxing and then the original first looks were exactly the same as they were with the 2020 version.

There’s lovely packaging as you would expect from Apple (although I still prefer the unboxing experience of an iPhone or a MacBook). Inside the box you will find the iMac (always handy), Magic Keyboard, Mouse, lightening and power cable for the iMac.

The box in which the iMac is a huge thing, almost resembling a computer based Toblerone. There’s the familiar “carry handle” at the top – but you don’t get to see that until you have removed it from the large shipping box that it is transported in.

In keeping with Apple’s tradition of lovely packaging – there is a “tear strip” along to top of the box that once pulled allows for it to be rather elegantly opened to reveal the new iMac. The polystyrene which safely encloses the iMac has neat little slots where you will find the Magic Keyboard, Mouse and power cable – although, at some point in the future will no doubt kill a seal or end up in some land fill for about a billion years! I am not renowned for my eco-friendly musing; but I honestly believe that polystyrene has no place in packaging these days and it’s inclusion is poor form by Apple.

Once you have safely removed the Polystyrene surround from the iMac (do this carefully – it’s not hard, but I recommend doing it on a flat, carpeted surface) you will have the iMac ready to remove the dust / scratch protection. You are then ready to remove the protective plastic screen from the iMac.

The mouse and keyboard are pre-paired with the Mac and pretty much fully charged out of the box – so you are ready to go pretty much straight away.

Setup of MacOS Catalina is simple as you might expect – there is definitely a growing synergy between MacOS and iOS setup so I won’t go into any detail here – but suffice to say that if you have experience of any Apple product with an ID then you will well placed for the setup.

However post setup was the point with this beast all the familiarity that I had with my 2015 iMac disappeared – My god it is bloody quick!

Performance

Most articles that review such machines will go into performance tests with lots of graphs. I won’t lie – that’s not something that I believe belongs in my reviews as, there’s a good chance it’s been done to death elsewhere. However if benchmarking is your thing in determining your purchasing I have “borrowed” some summary benchmarks for my model below from Geekbench.

27″ iMac 2020 3.3 GHz Performance score – direct from and copyright Geekbench

My approach is to review on the basis of how the machine feels day to day in general use – as performance tends to be relative depending on your usage profile. It’s all very well and good to run a machine through various “stress based” simulators to establish a benchmark – but if you are going to spend this amount of money on a Mac; In my view it is unlikely that you are going to use it just as a gaming machine or pure video editor as examples – which a lot of the benchmarking tools are geared towards.

I accept that in the case of video and creative design being the the sole purpose you are looking to purchase then the benchmarking is highly relevant.

This review is based on a generalist perspective and therefore aimed at people who will be using the machine for multiple purposes day to day.

For example; I am a very heavy daily user of my Mac’s. In fact; probably like most people since COVID arrived in our worlds the day to day use of home computers (or perhaps I should say computers at home) my time with a machine has risen hugely.

During the day, I use it for work; in the evening I use it for recreational purposes (no, not porn for the mucky minded out there).

Therefore there are a lot of “true use case” situations that I tend to base my own reviews on.

The table below is a representative example of my own personal day to day usage split into work day and evening leisure time applications and web sites.

08:00 - 17:00

Microsoft:

Teams

Word

Excel

Powerpoint

Firefox Browser:
Outlook Web App

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

Linkedin

BBC

OneDrive

Applications:

Affinity Designer

What's App

Spotify

17:00 - 00:00

Firefox Browser:

Netflix

Amazon Prime Video

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

Instagram

BBC

Wordpress

Applications:

Affinity Designer

Affinity Photo

Affinity Publisher

WhatsApp

During the day you will see that I run a lot of business applications and websites concurrently and during the evening I tend to use more graphically and network intensive streaming services along with social media.

I will go into further detail later on in regard to how find the performance of the Mac using these applications and websites as I am sure that you want to know how a machine that is the same value as two months of mortgage payment performs!

When I reviewed the MacBook Air I said that no wants an average performing machine – particularly given the premium value of Apple products.

Processor options galore!

Well, I say “galore” that was a touch sensationalist. What I regard as the “entry” model comes with a single processor option where both the mid-range and high-end models have two processor options of increasing power. I have summarised these in the table below:

iMac 27" 2020 Processor Options


.

Entry Level

Mid-Range

High-End

Base Processor:

3.1 GHz 6 Core 10th Gen Intel i5 with turbo boost to 4.5 GHz.

3.3 GHz 6 Core 10th Gen Intel i5 with Turbo boots up to 4.8 GHz.

3.8 GHz 8 Core 10th Gen Intel i7 with Turbo boost up to 5 GHz.

Upgrade To:

3.6 GHz 10 Core 10th Gen Intel i9 with Turbo Boost up to 5 GHz.

3.6 GHz 10 Core 10th Gen i9 with Turbo boost up to 5 GHz.

I will elaborate a little more later on my personal experience of processor performance – but I have to say that the six core CPU puppies are pretty potent, even at the 10th Gen i5 level as you will have seen from the Geekbench results referenced above.

Memory

First things first – don’t upgrade the memory when purchasing via Apple! Get the base memory and then use a 3rd party to upgrade the RAM – it will save you hundreds of pounds!

It really cannot be stressed how important this is if you want to save some cash. What Apple charge for RAM is obscene! The money that you save on the RAM can be put towards a larger SSD or better processor within the device. The RAM that you purchase separately if you buy from a reputable place will be fully supported. There is nothing special about Apple supplied RAM – it’s not proprietary and ironically, the sticks that I purchased were from the same manufacturer as the Apple supplied components!

I suggest that if you decide to invest like me; select a base RAM of 8GB DDR4 at 2667 MHz (x 2 4GB SODIMMS) and then replace them with x 2 32GB SODIMMS at a cost of £256. To do the same thing on at the Apple store will cost you an additional £1,000 (yes, honestly; it’s disgusting reallysee below)

Apple point of purchase price for 64GB RAM

Rather than fork out a grand for the additional RAM I took a trip to UK based “Mr Memory” who supplied me with 64GB of compatible RAM for £250. The installation was easy and the RAM works perfectly. Delivery was within 48 hours and – perhaps the biggest deal clincher was a complimentary bag of Haribo which, whilst is very naughty for a diabetic (like me) was well received and a nice touch.

Joking aside, I can really recommend Mr Memory; my experience of them was very good and after I gave them a good review (which was deserved) the CEO emailed me personally thanking me. Now that really is service from a small company that gives great value for money.

Also, I noticed that whilst writing this and checking my facts – the cost to upgrade the RAM via Mr Memory has gone down by about £20 (which I am OK with as memory prices fluctuate constantly) which means that if you do the same thing that I did then you are doing very well!

A screenshot of my Mr Memory Invoice (the red bits are redacted to secure my personal information).

Just to be complete – here is a screenshot of my iMac’s overview summary after the installation of the RAM.

So what have I found?

Firstly boot and logon times are much quicker. Time from the first cold power on to being on a useable desktop is slightly less than 50 seconds – whereas previously I could make a cup of tea.

This is no doubt a culmination of a number of things – however from my own personal point of view I strongly believe that the main player here is the SSD. My experience of the 2015 iMac was that SATA disk operations were pretty poor to start with and deteriorated over time which was not much better if you had invested in a Fusion drive.

Being ready to work quickly from power on is pretty key from my own perspective as I don’t want to pay a premium price for a computer and then have to wait – and then especially watch it go down hill over a period of months!

From my experience the more that you install on a Mac performance deteriorates depending on what the product does, however the first true measure of a new Mac’s performance is how it holds up after installing AV Software.

Yep, I know that there are some people out there that probably feel that AV is not needed on Mac’s – but trust me if you run any computer without some kind of AV is insane.

My AV weapon of choice is Sophos. It’s free and pretty good – but like many AV tools once installed can have a fairly heavy performance overhead, especially on start up.

After the installation of the Sophos I did not see any noticeable detriment to the computers performance either during boot or on start up.

With my older 2015 Mac with Sophos installed there would be between 5 and 10 seconds added to the boot time and having a usable booted desktop could take anything up to about five minutes after load.

I also like to dabble in some basic video and image editing. I have to say (without any real science behind it) – video rendering operations are distinctly quicker by some significant order of magnitude. In my own experience this Mac rendered a basic twenty minute 720p H.264 ACC encoded video in about a minute (which results in about 1.3GB file). This (certainly to me) was very impressive.

Another good measure of performance can be measured via Encryption. Just out of curiosity I decided to run my new Mac through its paces with a bit of free software called Encrypto by MacPaw.

Encrypto uses 256 bit AES which is a efficient algorithm – however if you ramp up the file size to in excess of 1 GB you can get a good comparison between devices.

For example;

I took a 1 GB video file and encrypted it on my late 2015 Mac – the process took about 32 minutes. On my new iMac the same file was completed in about 2 minutes which is quite staggering when put into a day to day use context.

What I mean is, this machine might not run the latest game at 60 frames flawlessly – but, if you are looking for a machine that absolutely delivers in productivity operations the could be your device of dreams!

Productivity Performance

Being a very heavy user of Microsoft Office during the working day using the local version of the traditional office apps and have noticed that their own start up times are massively improved with Word (for example) booting up in less than four seconds.

Another good indicator of overall performance is Microsoft Teams. I previously found that Teams really made my old Mac work very hard during video calls.

Even on 1-2-1 (or peer to peer) video calls the CPU fans would Max out and a large proportion of the 32GB RAM and processor would be consumed.

On this new iMac there is no noticeable increase in fan activity and with 64GB of RAM installed I can have Teams, Word, and a load of other applications that are quite hungry open at the same time with no impact to productivity or overall performance.

Camera and Sound Improvements

Speaking of Teams and video calling – the inclusion of 1080P HD camera is a welcome addition to the product, although seeing me in full HD is probably something that my colleagues don’t appreciate as much as I do!

Given the current climate with COVID and a lot of people working from home via online meetings having a reasonable quality video cam is really helpful however it is perplexing that whilst this Mac also includes a T2 chip some form of biometric such as FaceID was not included with the device!

I can understand that the thinking might be that the iMac is not portable – therefore any overarching need for such a function may be redundant; but in all honestly it would be very useful.

On a personal level – I suspect it’s omission is more to do with MacOS than the hardware specifically and as they are on different release schedules the code logic to authenticate is missing from the O/S.

Aside from Teams meetings the inclusion of the higher definition camera makes for a better experience for FaceTime calls to iPhones which has been a boon for my other half to spot bits of my flat that I have not dusted that week.

The 2020 iMac also introduces an additional mic towards the bottom of the chassis which makes three in total (there’s one near the camera as well) which adds to the overall voice experience by reducing background noise in conjunction with the T2 chip.

My overall view

I can’t help but feel that whilst I love this new Mac – I am not as bowled over by it as I was the MacBook Air. Well I say that, performance wise I love it massively; however I didn’t get the same emotional connection as I do with my MacBook Air.

Perhaps it’s because that despite the large technical upgrade from my 2015 iMac – there wasn’t that much different about it visually.

I am not sure exactly what I expected when I opened the box given that I have practically the same computer just with different insides – but, I am guessing that is part of the problem.

Apple is a company that historically innovates both technologically and visually. Part of the overall product appeal is not just how well it works – but how it looks and feels to the end user and in the case of this Mac there was nothing visually significant beyond what I had already knew. This is very different to the emotional difference that I had experienced between my 2012 MacBook pro and my 2018 MacBook Air and the differences that I have experienced between all of the iPhones which I have owned.

To my mind – putting a load of high quality components in a case that has looked the same for over five years is almost inexcusable.

I was also very disappointed with the lack of ports on the device. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports frankly sucks balls and is just taking the piss on a machine that is over £2K in value. Now for me, this hasn’t been too much of a problem because I own a near little Thunderbolt 3 hub – which I bought for my MacBook Air; but that in itself was £50!

Further added to my frustrations is the inclusion of a T2 security chip and then not provide a biometric authentication method. I fully understand that the T2 performs a number of roles aside from security – such as image and sound processing as well as being the SSD controller – but the only way to unlock your iMac in 2020 without a password is via an iWatch. As I mentioned above I suspect that the reasons for this omission might be to do with the O/S not having the code logic and the lack of a True Depth camera to make use of the biometric features – but come on Apple – FaceID is cool!

All of that being said … after some pondering the machine is truly an exceptional performer day to day, which when you consider that it is a mid-range model is quite staggering. What I have been looking for is a true daily “workhorse” and this is very much it. Superb performer with Apple’s typical style.

However one key thing that can’t be escaped is that it’s not cheap. Even my purchase at mid-range was in the £2K plus mark and you could be forgiven for thinking for that kind of money you get something truly exceptional in the Windows space.

Rating

Summary

Performance

Excellent performer, I haven't given it a five star rating as there are other machines in the range that are more powerful - and - for the money that you pay for it you probably could get a more powerful Windows based machine.

Setup

Typical Apple, easy to setup - one power cable and the mouse and keyboard are already paired with the machine.

Ease of use

As you would expect from Apple this device combined with MacOs is easy to use. You can get down and dirty with Terminal or you can stick the the GUI which as you'd expect from the company that brought you the first main stream GUI is a real pedigree bit of kit

Cost

Like all Apple kit, it's pricey and you can get a much better specified machine in the Windows world for 2K +. However, if you are in the Apple eco system which now plays quite nicely with everything else - then that might justify the price.

Overall

Overall it's an incredible bit of kit. It suffers from a lack of originality in terms of design, there are some lost moments in taking advantage in some of the internal components (the T2 for example) and it is not a cheap machine. BUT - if you are an Apple fan and are looking to upgrade from a Mac older than the 2019 model - then I can recommend!

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