2020 iMac review a great value with a catch [Video]

Earlier this week I got my hands on what is will possibly be the last noteworthy iMac refresh before Apple transitions from Intel to its own silicon. If that ends up being the case, we can say that Apple’s all-in-one, with its Intel CPU and current design, went out with a bang. Watch my 2020 iMac review, and I cover my hands-on experience with the $1,799 base model.

2020 5K iMac (Base) specifications

  • Standard glass
  • 3.1GHz 6-core 10th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz
  • 8GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB of GDDR6 memory
  • 256GB SSD storage
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 1080p webcam
  • UHS-II SD Card reader
  • Magic Mouse 2
  • Magic Keyboard
  • Price: $1,799.00

Video: 2020 iMac review

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2020 iMac review: What hasn’t changed?

Despite rumors of an imminent iMac refresh back during WWDC, the 2020 iMac sports the same design that Apple has been using for years. In other words, if you strongly dislike the way the iMac looks, with its sizable bezels and chin, then it may be worth waiting for the upcoming redesign.

Another thing that hasn’t really changed is the port selection. All of the ports remain the same except for the availability of 10-gigabit Ethernet, and a UHS-II SD Card reader. Like the Mac mini, the 2020 iMac presents 10GbE connectivity as a $100 build-to-order option instead of a standard feature like it is on the iMac Pro and Mac Pro. UHS-II SD Card support, on the other hand, is standard.

You’ll find the following I/O options on the rear of the 2020 iMac:

  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • UHS-II SD Card reader
  • 4 x USB-A ports
  • 2 x Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • 3.5mm headphone input

It’s unfortunate that the iMac continues to forgo the extra two Thunderbolt 3 ports found on machines like the Mac mini, iMac Pro, and MacBook Pro. Having two extra ports and an extra Thunderbolt 3 bus for them to share would have made a big difference for professional workflows. For example, if you were to connect two high-speed PCIe SSDs to this iMac, your speed may be bottlenecked because each drive would have to share the bandwidth of a single TB3 bus.

As it stands, you’ll have to opt for the iMac Pro if you’re looking for an Apple all-in-one with four Thunderbolt 3 ports shared across two Thunderbolt 3 buses.

2020 iMac review: memory

The base model $1,799 iMac comes with 8GB of RAM across two 4GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory modules. That’s not a lot of memory, but there’s a total of four SO-DIMM slots in the iMac that allows you to configure additional memory above the base 8GB.

Although the 2019 iMac could technically support up to 128GB of RAM, such capability was never advertised in Apple support or marketing materials. This time around, Apple specifically markets the ability to upgrade to 128GB during build-to-order configuration.

But here’s a suggestion: Don’t pay Apple for a 27-inch iMac memory upgrade. As I noted in my 2020 iMac RAM memory upgrade tutorial, it’s possible to purchase 128GB of RAM from a third party and easily save lots of money compared to what Apple charges. Of course, you can always add as much RAM as you need, so you can upgrade the base 8GB to 16GB, 32GB or, 64GB as well.

Outside of the Mac Pro, one huge advantage that the 27-inch iMac enjoys over every other Mac computer is user-accessible SO-DIMM slots. Like its predecessors, the 27-inch iMac retains the handy RAM door for conveniently accessing the DDR4 memory modules inside.

Apple charges an insane $2,600 to configure the 2020 iMac with 128GB of RAM. Users can upgrade memory after purchasing the iMac instead of spending a ludicrous amount of money adding RAM during the build-to-order process.

2020 iMac review: Apple T2 security chip

The 2020 27-inch iMac is the first iMac computer outside of the Pro version to feature the Apple T2 Security Chip. Although known for its Secure Enclave coprocessor, which makes security-centric features like secure boot, and encrypted storage in macOS possible, the custom Mac silicon’s consolidated controllers provide loads of additional functionality as well.

For example, the T2 chip integrates the system management controller, SSD controller, audio controller, image signal processor, and more into a single chip.

The T2 thus can do diverse functions such as managing the iMac’s SSD-only storage media, while also working with the new 1080p FaceTime HD camera to enable enhanced tone mapping, exposure, and face detection for managing auto exposure and auto white balance.

In this age of isolation and working from home, having a decent webcam for Skype and Zoom calls is important, and the camera quality improvements in the new iMac are very noticeable. Not only is the picture much sharper than previous 720p iMac cameras, but thanks to the face-detection and tone-mapping features, the overall composition of the picture is much improved over its predecessors.

Watch our Top 5iMac (2020) features video for a hands-on demo of the new camera and microphone

The T2 is also responsible for enabling “Hey Siri” support, and works with the iMac’s speakers to enable variable EQ functionality and enhanced bass response.

In addition, Apple has incorporated the studio-quality microphone improvements from its laptop lineup with a new three-mic array with high signal-to-noise ratio and directional beamforming. This change results in improved microphone pickup and quality for telephony, video calls, and scratch audio — all big benefits in this age of self-quarantining.

2020 iMac review: storage

With the 27-inch 2020 iMac, Apple has finally addressed one of my longstanding complaints with the machine — they’ve eliminated mechanical hard drives across all configurations. In previous iterations of the iMac, entry-level models were weighed down by slow hybrid “Fusion” drives that were basically stopgap solutions until the time when flash storage became cheaper.

The principal of the idea was good — keep often-used files on the flash storage area for faster access, while the majority of data was stored on the mechanical portion of the drive. In practice, though, especially while under load, Fusion drives could act as major performance bottlenecks.

For the 2020 iMac refresh, the entry-level $1,799 iMac gets 256GB of flash storage. While that’s far from a lot of storage, it’s generally enough to store the operating system and all of the applications that you plan to use. It may even be enough space to deploy a Windows Boot Camp installation if you desire to do so.

Because the iMac now uses flash storage instead of a hybrid mechanical drive in the base model iMac, you’ll notice much faster sustained speeds when running speed tests. You’ll also notice better real-world performance when transferring large files or working with large data.

The base iMac’s flash storage — more than fast enough for most consumer-oriented tasks

Speeds for the 256GB SSD in the base model iMac measure roughly 1,000MB/s read and 1,400MB/s write. That’s far from blistering speed, but it will generally result in the faster overall performance than any mechanical or hybrid drive. Like other Macs, which employ the use of RAID striping for SSD storage, higher flash storage amounts in more expensive iMac configurations will result in even faster speeds.

If you need more internal storage, you’ll need to step up to Apple’s mid-tier $1,999 configuration, which includes double the storage at 512GB, along with the ability to upgrade to 2TB. If you need more than 2TB, a step up to the $2,299.00 configuration presents you with the option of configuring 4TB or even up to 8TB of internal flash storage — both firsts for the 27-inch 5K iMac.

If you prefer to stick with the base 256GB of storage, take solace in the fact that you can always utilize external drives to store all of the files you’re working on. You can then leave the internal SSD to house all of your system-related data.

There are tons of external storage options available in this day and age. You can go with a simple USB 3.x-based external SSD like the Samsung T7 for relatively little money, or you can go all out and opt for a high-end Thunderbolt 3-enabled SSD like the OWC Envoy Pro EX, which will handily beats the internal 256GB of storage of the base model iMac. I’ll be back with a full rundown of some of the best 2020 iMac accessories for those interested in getting the most out of their new Macs.

2020 iMac review: CPU

Equipped with a 3.1GHz 6-core 10-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, the base model iMac Pro isn’t breaking any speed records, but it’s a competent CPU that turbo boosts up to 4.5 GHz, and features Hyperthreading.

Here are the Geekbench results prior to upgrading the 8GB of RAM in the base model iMac.

Predictably, benchmark scores best the scores from last year’s entry-level iMac model, although performance will be somewhat bottlenecked by the limited amount of RAM in the base configuration. You’ll want to upgrade the iMac’s RAM yourself to unlock the full potential of the CPU. Here are the results of the Geekbench benchmark after upgrading to 128GB of third-party RAM. Notice the difference in multi-core performance.

For basic computer usage — web browsing, word processing, and emails — it can be rightfully said that even the base model 5K iMac is a bit of an overkill. This machine performs admirably, even in its stock configuration, handling more advanced tasks like photo and video editing, desktop illustration, motion graphics, etc.

And unlike the MacBook Pro, where things like battery life and heat play a larger role in CPU performance, you don’t have to worry as much about such restrictions on the 27-inch iMac. When pushed hard, the iMac’s fans will make themselves audibly known, but sustained base clock performance allows the all-in-one to power through most of the tasks within its punching weight with relative ease.

Users can, of course, upgrade the CPU during the build-to-order process, but you’ll need to step up to at least the $1,999 mid-tier configuration for the ability to do so. The mid-tier config, which also grants you an additional 256GB of flash storage, will yield you a slightly faster 3.6GHz 6-core i5 CPU with Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz. This config also gives you the ability to go all out and upgrade to the 3.6GHz 10-core i9 CPU with Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz for $500 extra.

The high-end $2,299 config, which steps you up to 512GB of storage, and a faster Radeon Pro 5500 XT with 8GB of GDDR6 memory, includes a 3.8GHz 8-Core i7 CPU with Turbo Boost up to 5.0 GHz. Users can then upgrade the to the aforementioned 10-core CPU for $400 more.

Whether or not you should consider upgrading to those faster CPUs boils down to how you plan on using your iMac, how long you plan on keeping it around, etc. If you’re working regularly in applications like Final Cut Pro X, and others that benefit from multi-core CPUs, then it might make sense to consider the upgrade. That all being said, I find that the 6-core base model CPU does quite well with what I’ve been throwing at it. Be sure to watch the companion video review embedded above for more details.

2020 iMac review: graphics

As I explained in our post about the Radeon Pro 5000 series graphics in the new iMacs, users involved in creative applications that utilize the GPU should notice a performance increase over the 2019 models. Even the base model Radeon Pro 5300 features a substantial increase in multi-core performance, useful for popular applications like Final Cut Pro X.

Here’s a look at the various GPU configurations. Keep in mind that the entry-level and mid-tier 27-inch iMac models are locked in to the Radeon Pro 5300, and cannot be upgraded to higher-specced GPUs. If you’re looking to upgrade to higher graphics, you’ll need to start at the $2,299.00 configuration, which includes the Radeon Pro 5500 XT, and goes up from there.

Compute Units Stream Processors Peak Clock TFLOPS Memory Memory Bandwidth Mem Speed Cost
Radeon Pro 5300 (BASE) 20 1280 1650MHz Up to 4.2 Up to 4GB 224GB/s 14Gbps Included
Radeon Pro 5500 XT 24 1536 1757MHz Up to 5.3 Up to 8GB 224GB/s 14Gbps
Radeon Pro 5700 36 2304 1350MHz Up to 6.2 Up to 8GB 384GB/s 12Gbps
Radeon Pro 5700 XT 40 2560 1499MHz Up to 7.6 Up to 16GB 384GB/s 12Gbps

Compared to last year’s iMac with 14-nanometer Polaris-based GPUs, the new graphics offerings are built upon AMD’s 7-nanometer process with RDNA microarchitecture. These AMD Navi-based GPUs feature onboard hardware-accelerated HEVC (H.265) and VP9 encoding/decoding for 4K and 8K, and will thus have a real-world impact on video workflows.

But working with 10-bit HEVC (H.265) files is quickly becoming the reality for many users as well, with new cameras being sold today with on board H.265 encoding for 4K and 8K video. The bottom line is that these latest iMacs, even the base model with the Radeon Pro 5300, are better equipped to handle video than their predecessors.

Here’s an explanation of the goals of H.265 (HEVC):

The main goal of the HEVC standardization effort is to enable significantly improved compression performance relative to existing standards — in the range of 50% bit-rate reduction for equal perceptual video quality. This paper provides an overview of the technical features and characteristics of the HEVC standard.

Overview of the High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) Standard

H.265 enhancements made possible by the Radeon 5000 series and Apple T2 Security Chip make it easier to work with H.265 video on the 2020 iMac. This presents real world benefits to video editors in several different ways. First and foremost, the files are smaller, and thus take up less space on your drive. If space is limited, encoding video using H.265 allows you to save space while retaining similar quality.

Secondly, because files are smaller, they’ll upload faster to online services like YouTube. A typical H.264 (AVC) video will be roughly double the size of an equivalent H.265-encoded video. Thus, it’s potentially the difference between uploading a 10GB file for a video versus a 5GB file for a video.

Last year’s base iMac vs. this year’s base iMac

Not only will video see an improvement, gaming performance has improved as well. Our Unigine Heaven benchmarks and Metal benchmarks paint the picture. The full Apple Arcade library, in particular, should have no problem running on this new iMac.

And unlike the 2019 iMac, base model 2020 iMac users can directly connect a Pro Display XDR at full 6K resolution for an awesome dual monitor experience. Users of higher-end iMac models with a Radeon Pro 5700 or Radeon Pro 5700 XT graphics can connect two Pro Display XDRs at once for a ridiculous three-monitor setup. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that there’s probably very few iMac users that will take advantage of this, as most users with multiple $5,000 Pro Display XDRs will likely have them connected to a Mac Pro instead.

2020 iMac review: display

The size and resolution of the 5K iMac hasn’t changed in 2020, but there are two noteworthy additions that will improve the experience of using the 27-inch iMac.

The first addition is an improvement that comes to all 27-inch iMacs, and that’s TrueTone. A technology that’s already available on the MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad, True Tone automatically adjusts the white point of the display based on ambient light in your environment. Essentially, True Tone adjusts the white balance dynamically to make images on screen look more natural — not too warm, or not too cold.

True Tone makes its iMac debut

True Tone is the type of feature that you don’t recognize you need until you’ve been using it and then it’s taken away. It’s an underappreciated technology that I find makes reading text a more enjoyable experience.

The second big addition to the 2020 iMac is a feature that those opting for the base model machine might been keen to forgo. A new nano-texture option, a $500 add-on during the build-to-order process, brings technology that originated on the Pro Display XDR to consumer iMac machines.

Nano-texture is a matte screen option aimed at reducing glare from ambient light. If you work in an environment that has little control over lighting, then adding a matte display option might be worth the $500 investment.

Unlike traditional matte displays, which apply a matte coating that noticeably reduces sharpness and contrast, Apple says the nano-texture glass option is etched into the glass at the nanometer level. This results is a display that’s not quite as tack sharp as its glossy counterpart, but is significantly better than a typical matte coating.

If you place your iMac in a position to prevent ambient light from hitting the screen, then it’s probably more desirable to save your money and keep the glossy display. Seeing both the nano-etched and glossy Pro Display XDR models side by side, I prefer the look of text on the glossy display over the nano-etched display in light-controlled environments.

Pro Display XDR vs iMac reflectivity

With all of that noted, as a full-time Pro Display XDR user, the deficiencies of the iMac display become a lot more apparent. It’s not just the added resolution that its 6K display brings to the table, but it’s the laminating process of the display that stands out as well.

It’s akin to comparing the regular iPad with its non-laminated digitizer versus the iPad Air or iPad Pro. Content on the Pro Display XDR just seems to float on the surface of the display, while content on the iMac seems like’s it’s resting just below the surface of the glass. Color reproduction and backlight quality on the Pro Display XDR is obviously better as well.

Comparing the glossy Pro Display XDR and iMac side by side, and it’s clear that the iMac is much more reflective, and more difficult to see when ambient light is hitting the display. With that in mind, perhaps the nano-texture option is a smart choice. I plan on comparing them as soon as I have both machines side by side in the next week or so.

9to5Mac’s Take

Writing this review and creating the corresponding video allowed me time to reflect on the iMac design, and I came away with a renewed appreciation. I’ve complained about the large bezels and huge chin over the past few iMac iterations, but once it’s gone I think we will look back on this design with fondness.

But if this is indeed the last version of this iMac, both from a design perspective and from a CPU perspective, then I think it’s safe to say that Apple sent it off with a bang.

With the impending switch to Apple silicone, there are some definite things that users who are interested in this Mac will need to consider. For instance, this is likely the last iMac to feature Boot Camp support for dual booting Windows. If that’s something that’s important for your day-to-day workflow, then you’ll have to take this change into consideration.

And what about the ability to upgrade your own RAM? Although it’s yet to be seen, it’s hard to imagine Apple allowing using the ability to upgrade RAM on a machine with an Apple-designed CPU.

Also to be considered is initial app compatibility. Sure, applications like Final Cut Pro X will be supported on day one, but will all of the applications that you use be there initially? Not to mention the potential stability and bug issues stemming from a brand new machine with a brand-new architecture.

With all of that being said, if a brand-new iMac design drops with markedly faster performance within the next year, you might seriously regret having purchased the 2020 version. It’s akin to buying a new car in the last year of its design, and watching a new version roll out of the plant with all new bells and whistles just a few months later.

My take is that if you’re in serious need of a new computer and the iMac suits your needs, then go ahead and upgrade. It’s a downright fantastic machine that has been improved in many ways with the 2020 swan song revision. As I’ve showcased in this review, even the base model at $1,800 is a great value and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

However, if you can afford to wait, it’s best to wait it out due to the upcoming major overhaul to the iMac design and internal architecture. What do you think? Sound off down below in the comments with your thoughts and opinions.

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