C. David Tobie: The MacPro/iMac Dividing Line in Photo & Video
Dec 2013 03

It was not that long ago, despite their glamorous looks, that we could not recommend iMacs as offering sufficient screen quality for use as image editing systems. However, recent generations of iMacs show significant improvements in screen uniformity, viewing angle, dynamic range, and color accuracy, making them the defacto image editor on the Mac platform.

The long absence of any significant upgrade to the MacPro, on the other hand, has forced many Mac users to the iMac, if they needed to purchase a new Mac for imaging. The new (and yes, revolutionary) MacPro will change the balance; but not at the same tipping point as in years past.

Now that the iMac makes a good entry-level imaging station, and the new MacPro will offer a powerhouse for advanced imaging and video, the question will be: which one is right for a given user. The answer is not as straightforward as it might seem.

All Images Courtesy of Apple, Inc.

First, we need to point out that the integrated display in the iMacs are sRGB displays. Personally, I have no issue with using a display that covers all the reds, and all the blues of an AdobeRGB display, but falls short of representing the fluorescent greens. But many in the imaging industry have been convinced that only an AdobeRGB gamut is sufficient for their work. If you feel this way, than the iMac becomes a more complicated solution, as you will need to acquire a second, wider gamut, display in addition to the internal display. This is not a bad situation, as good AdobeRGB displays can now be found for several hundred dollars; and dual monitors can be a superior solution for many imaging tasks.

With the MacPro, external displays will be the norm. brand selection, connection type, gamut, and resolution, will be the questions to torment potential MacPro buyers. The push will be towards Thunderbolt 2 displays with 4K resolution, typically a pair of them on one system. This is the first of several additional costs that needs to be factored into MacPro ownership. If you plan to edit 4K video, this is the right option. If you are doing HD video, at most, plus still imaging, then lower resolution displays may well be sufficient, and driving them via DisplayPort, instead of Thunderbolt 2, will be the simplest answer.

All Images Courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Storage is the next issue, and again, the spin will be towards Thunderbolt 2 external raid arrays: critical for advanced video work, but excessive for all but the most complex still imaging. A couple of terabyte USB3 or Thunderbolt 1 external drives will meet the needs of most photographers.

Processing power also needs to be considered. The MacPro, while designed for advanced video editing, will certainly speed up intensive still imaging tasks. So if you spend your day waiting, even in short increments, for your computer to catch up with the edits you are making, then the MacPro will ease your burden, and increase your efficiency. But don’t make the mistake of thinking a current iMac might not improve your processing as well; it is faster at most tasks than the older MacPros and MacBook Pros that make up the majority of the current Mac imaging market.

If the information above has not already made it clear which Mac is the best choice for your uses and your budget, then the best way to decide might be to go to the Apple web store, and run a comparison between acceptable configurations for the iMac and MacPro. Apple does not currently offer 4K Thunderbolt displays, but affordable MacPro configurations would use third party monitors, so it will still be possible to get a good sense of relative costs, and what final packages will run. Even with generous memory and storage options, a 27” iMac will run in the range of $2500 dollars. Add a third party external monitor, and an external harddrive, and that would be more like $3500.

For the MacPro, prices and accessories are not yet available at the Apple Store, but once they are, it will be easy to see the difference in cost to configure a MacPro solution. Starting at $4,000 with no display, dual display configurations with external storage will begin at closer to $6,000. Adding 4K displays and RAID arrays would increase that number significantly.

However you choose to spend your money, and however much money you choose to spend, you can depend on Datacolor display calibration solutions to assure accurate color on the system you select. Consider purchasing a new Spyder4ELITE along with your new computer, to get latest-generation calibration capabilities to go with your latest-generation displays.

C. DAVID TOBIE has been involved in color management and digital imaging from their early development. David has worked to see affordable solutions put in place for graphic design, prepress, photography and digital imaging, and then taught users how best to utilize them. He has consulted internationally for a wide range of color-related companies, and is best known by photographers for his writing and technical editing of texts and periodicals for the photo industry such as Mastering Digital Printing, and Professional Photographer magazine, and his seminars on color and imaging at photographic workshop around the globe. David is currently Global Product Technology Manager at Datacolor, where he develops new products and features for their Spyder line of calibration tools. His work has received a long line of digital imaging product awards including the coveted TIPA award, and a nomination for the Spyder line of calibration tools. Much of David’s recent writing can be found at his photography blog: cdtobie.wordpress.com, and his samples of his photography can be seen at: cdtobie.com.