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Is Apple’s New 5K Retina iMac The Ultimate 4K Editing Machine? Here’s Why I Might Consider It Over The New MacPro

Today Apple announced a number of new products including updates to their iPad lineup, a new Mac Mini, and a brand new iMac – which may be one of the best 4K editing systems you can get your hands on. The MacPro is undeniably still going to be a faster computer, but for the majority of editors having a 5K display built right into their system may be more beneficial than having the extra speed that the MacPro offers. 

I run a couple of different systems for my editorial work and general business use, with the majority of the workload being done on my 12-core MacPro tower. This system was bought in 2012 and to this day is still running beautifully, considering the amount of use that it gets and the type of work that I throw at it. The only real complaint that I have with it at this point is that it doesn’t have a Thunderbolt port or USB 3, which is a pain when I need to utilize those connections. Even though the system is working very well at the moment though, I know that eventually I am going to need to upgrade as I am getting more and more 4K/5K projects and the demands of any individual production that I am currently working on are far greater than they were a couple years back when I bought this computer.

Up until this point, I had my heart set on the new MacPro. There was no question that it was going to be the best option for my needs, and my intention was to pick one up this winter… I have been waiting on a refresh and gave myself until December/January to see if they update it, otherwise I was planning on buying the current model. Today however, when the new iMac was released I started to consider it as a viable option for my work and a potential alternative to the MacPro.

For those of you that want to get up to speed on the new iMac, here is a clip from today’s event:

For more on the new iMac, be sure to visit apple.com

How Offline/Online Editing Has Changed

Before I go into why I think the iMac is going to be the go-to choice for many editors, I want to quickly preface things by looking at how the offline/online editorial system has changed over the years.

Up until very recently, an offline/online process meant something very different than it does today. In the early film days, and offline edit was achieved by cutting together a lower quality film print (a copy of the original of course), and then the online edit involved re-cutting that material from the original print, to maintain optimal quality. Once things went digital, that process naturally evolved so that the offline edit was done with a proxy version of the original file (and usually being cut on a slower machine), and the online edit was done on a faster machine with the original source footage… This generally mirrored what was done in the film days, but just replacing film stocks with digital assets.

Over the past few years though, things have slowly and silently changed with regards to the offline/online process. In fact, they have changed so much that even skilled and experienced producers often get the terminology incorrect and aren’t fully aware of what happens in each stage.

Today, a relatively inexpensive laptop is capable of cutting native 4K footage (it just might require that the editing software is set to 1/2 or 1/4 quality), whereas just a few years ago that idea would have been ludicrous. As such, many editors now are regularly cutting RED, Alexa, and F55 footage on consumer level systems and are effectively bypassing what used to be the offline/online conforming process – Consequently blurring the lines between offline and online editor. If an editor wants to conform their timeline to full res, all they need to do is select ‘full quality’ in their NLE of choice (as opposed to 1/2 or 1/4), and render out that file. The only real issue is that they are likely unable to play back in full resolution 4K, and need to down-res (or render out) in order to see their work in full quality.

All that said, clearly the notion of ‘offline/online editing’ is very different from what it once was. In fact, I would say that the terms ‘editorial’ and ‘finishing’ are much more representative of what’s actually happening than ‘offline’ and ‘online’. The new iMac in many ways will serve the current approach to editing and finishing very well, by giving the editor a 4K ready system that can take their work all the way up to color correction and delivery.

Why The iMac Could Be The Ultimate 4K Workhorse

I’ve already gone over the fact that so many ‘offline editors’ are already cutting in 4K, and doing so by simply down-rezzing their footage within their NLE to be able to edit it. Imagine though, if those same editors had the ability to edit that footage in full resolution and even preview it back in 4K or 5K for their clients, and the affect that it might have on their work and the services that they could offer. That same offline editor that previously was limited to working at a lower resolution, can now offer their clients (usually producers/directors), a more thorough editorial process by keeping more of the pipeline internalized and not relying on another party to conform the footage and deal with as much of the workflow. For smaller productions, the same machine could be used to edit, color correct, and create deliverables, and on larger projects it could simply be used to create and prep the edit for the colorist/finishing team so that the pipeline is far more streamlined and efficient.

If nothing else, the iMac is an exceptionally powerful machine. For day to day usage, it is going to be more than fast enough to cut the majority of 4K/5K material natively and display that content beautifully and accurately. For me personally, it seems like the ultimate 4K machine in that it does so much right out of the box without the need for accessorizing or additional configuration.

All that said, I do still think the MacPro has an important place too. For me personally, I might use a MacPro more heavily for color grading/rendering as it will work faster and more efficiently, while the iMac might be my first choice for so called ‘offline editing’. That’s not to say that each system can’t be used for both editorial and finishing work, but just that one might be geared more towards editorial and the other towards finishing. Either way, both machines are capable of editing the vast majority of 4K material being shot today, and choosing between these two machines likely comes down to whether or not you need a 5K display, and how much (if any) rendering/color/fx work you’re doing.

If you missed my last post-related article, be sure to click here to read about how both FCP X and Premiere are now being used on major Hollywood feature films!

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

23 Comments

  • Tristan
    June 7, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    My 2015 maxed out iMac can cut 4k GH4 footage OK, unless I try to add unsharp mask or noise reductions, and sometimes warp stabilize. System grinds to a halt. Previews won’t generate or take 30 seconds to render each frame, etc. Sometimes system just freezes completely if I try to render the timeline with those effects on.

    I was wondering if you had this experience. Seems like pretty basic everyday stuff that makes this system impossible to edit efficiently with.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      June 9, 2016 at 7:05 am

      Hey Tristan – I haven’t run into this issue myself, but I wonder if you are editing the GH4 files natively? If you convert to ProRes (which maybe you have already) that will certainly help your performance…

      Reply
    • Rob
      April 7, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      Sounds like you’re having a separate issue somewhere. I work in a studio that uses Mac and Final Cut exclusively, and our run-and-gun cameras are the GH4. We have beefier editing stations, but I have an iMac in my office that isn’t even maxed out and handles native GH4 4K footage like a dream.

      Reply
      • Noam Kroll
        April 13, 2017 at 11:01 pm

        Good to know Rob! Thanks for sharing this.

        Reply
  • thiago
    April 13, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    at the late 215 model, why be enough the 2gb video card or will it be a problem editing 4k movies?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 17, 2016 at 4:42 pm

      I haven’t tested that out myself, but I would guess it should work well – depending on the editing software you are using.

      Reply
  • Jeremy
    June 30, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Hey Noam, great blog. Love following people who have a passion about filmmaking. Quick question, do you have any concerns about the possible gpu limitations with the retina iMac, even with the M295x graphic card upgrade? My concern is that 4gb of vram won’t be enough to power the display and color grade in Resolve. I’m working with 2.5k footage right now, but plan on working with 4k fairly soon.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 2, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks Jeremy! To answer your question –

      If you are doing heavy duty color grading (on 4K or 6K raw files), the iMac definitely will start to choke up. Even my Mac Pro slows down at times on the really big projects… That said if you are mainly grading prores 4K files I think you’d be okay. Don’t take my word for it only though, as I haven’t graded extensively on the iMac!

      Reply
  • Pramod
    March 29, 2015 at 4:19 am

    Hi Noam i am very much interested to buy Imac 5K but if i want to upgrade any graphic card, Processor or SSD can it possible in future because i am thinking to give a higher end editing in video from Imac in local for my professional use. In Future i want to edit of 4K Video. Here in india only basic model is available.

    Here Basic Model: i5 with AMD 290x, fushon Drive. My thought was i7 with SSD 256 or 1TB Fusion drive amd 290x(in furture we can upgrade)

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 1, 2015 at 2:51 am

      Hi Pramod. Certain elements on the camera are upgradeable, but no matter what I think it will work beautifully for your needs currently.

      Reply
  • Rick Lavon
    February 7, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    My feeling after talking to an Apple rep is that since the processor of the iMac is a non-user upgradable part, that you buy the most you can pre-configured, and add the RAM later. That means the faster GX card and the faster processor.

    Reply
  • Swapnil
    January 23, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks Noam for great post. I am from india. I want to edit 4k material on imac but in India i can only get i5 and 2gb graphic processor. Only thing I can upgrade is Ram. So do u think buying base model imac 5k is good to go or i should wait for i7 to come. Please guide me as I want buy as soon as possible.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 7, 2015 at 8:56 pm

      I haven’t used that exact setup, however I know that the i5 is very fast as it is and if you are using software like FCP X or Premiere that allows you to view the image at a lower quality (1/4 resolution for example), you should be totally fine. As far as playing back full quality 4K material at 100% resolution, it’s hard to say since I haven’t tried it myself!

      Reply
  • Jeremy Gay
    November 10, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    Great post Noam, I’ve been really interested in the 5K iMac as well
    currently, I am getting work done on a 2008 Mac Pro 8 core tower, so
    I think you much better off than me. I have 32 GB of RAM, but what really
    keeps me current is adding a 4-port USB 3.0
    slot in my PCIe adding a SATA III bay in my
    PCIe x16 for a fast SSD and a 3 GB ATI 7950. Geekbench and Cinebench scores slightly better than new topped out 15″ Retina MBP. I shoot on a BMCC 2.5K, so I want a thunderbolt computer to use
    Ultrascopes other than that, I’m all good with a less expensive Mac. If you don’t need TB or TB2, legacy towers 2009- can be a really cost effective solution capitalizing on the right upgrades in PCIe bays.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2014 at 6:48 pm

      Hi Jeremy,

      Thanks a lot for the feedback. And great point regarding the legacy towers… I know some post facilities that process major motion pictures and broadcast content using older hardware and software, so you certainly don’t always need the latest gear.

      Reply
  • Craig Lees
    October 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Interesting article Noam.

    I feel there’s a massive jump between 4K and 5K in terms of editing bandwidth. Even the 1/4 1/8 trick in premiere doesn’t work too well with Epic 5K material – sound drops out after a short certain time (running quad code new mac pros via usb3). Which I had a Thunderbolt drive to improve this.
    I know a lot of people that shoot 4k on the epic for this reason.
    Will be interesting to see what the imac 5k retina makes of Epic MX material.

    Cheers,

    Craig Lees
    UK

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      October 27, 2014 at 8:42 pm

      Hi Craig, thanks for the comment. I edit 5K material regularly and don’t find there to be a huge difference as far as my system is concerned. That said, I have had issues like you described in Premiere even with 2K footage, and often times it has to do with the type of hard drive I am using. If you are not currently using a thunderbolt drive, that will definitely help speed things up in and of itself.

      Reply
      • Nick Fernandez
        May 1, 2015 at 7:44 am

        When you say “I edit 5k maerial regularly … (on) my system” … Are you talking about a 5k iMac as your system?

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          May 4, 2015 at 9:26 pm

          I actually run a new Mac Pro as my system… But at the time of this article I believe I was still on an older generation Mac Pro.

          Reply
  • Brett
    October 17, 2014 at 11:22 am

    I agree, the new iMac is exciting for the world of 4K capture and editing. I have anxiously been waiting this release for awhile now.

    I was wondering if you could help me out with a question I have on customization. The new 27″ iMac starts at $2500, but I have a little over $3000 to spend. The question now is which upgrade(s) to go with??

    -i5 to i7 processor
    -8gb of RAM to 16 GB of RAM
    -M290X (2gb) to M295X (4gb) graphics card

    I shoot 4k with the GH4 and want the computer to be optimized for 4k editing in Final Cut Pro X. If you had to put these upgrade options in order of their benefit to 4k editing, what would it be?

    Thanks for the help!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      October 27, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      Hey Brett! I would personally go with the faster processor, as for my day to day needs I notice more of a difference with processing speed as opposed to additional RAM. That said, I haven’t used those two graphics cards myself yet… My gut feeling is that you will be fine with the 2GB version, but if you can only pick one thing to upgrade on the computer, it would be a toss up between the process and graphics card. The Ram would be great too, but that would come last (in my opinion). Hope this helps.

      Reply
    • wyatt
      January 23, 2016 at 3:03 am

      i think spending this much on a pc and not being able to have 32 gb with a 5930 is dumb i say make your own pc/hackitash for the same price and better performance.

      Reply

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