Retina IMac - short test drive

I’ve been stuck in the wilds of Scotland for the last week so haven’t had chance to play with a new iMac Retina, until today, when I stole 30 minutes between meetings to nip into Regent Street and barge some tourists out of the way in the Apple store to get hands on.

As a purchaser of one of the first 13” Retina MBP’s, I am a bit cynical about the compromises required to deliver Retina displays. I switched back from the 13” R MBP to an 11” Air this summer, driven by the excessive fan noise, weight and battery life of the former. I was pleased to hear from many reviews that fan noise wasn’t a big deal for the iMac.

Jason Snell reported:

Now about that fan. I am not among the most sound-sensitive people around, since I’m often working with music playing or headphones in. However, even I notice when I’m recording a podcast and my MacBook Air’s fans are loudly blowing because some runaway app is using way too much processor power. When I ran stress-testing processor and GPU-based tests on the iMac, the fan would definitely come on, and in a quiet room it was audible. It was also, to my mind, vastly quieter than the fan in my MacBook Air. The iMac’s not going to match the Mac Pro for quiet fan blowing, but neither is it going to beat out any Mac laptops in a contest to see who can make the most noise.

On my 13” R MBP I set the screen size to the highest resolution (No point in having all of those pixels if you don’t use the real estate) and this allowed me to have Mail App, Calendar and Evernote adjacent and viewable simultaneously. Great for productive work flows but soon the fan would be spinning at medium. Switch to watching a full screen video on BBC iPlayer and the fans would be so loud you’d have to set the volume to max to hear the audio.

So the first thing I did with the Retina iMac was set scaling to max to see how much real estate I could get. Good, but not as much as my present dual 27” cinema displays - Can’t give myself an excuse to purchase one based on that then.

I then opened 5 tabs in Safari, opened Keynote, Numbers, Garage band and iMovie where I set the pre-loaded beautiful people movie running in the preview screen. I then started to resize and move the Garage band window and it was bad.

Not a bit bad but very, very bad. I could move the cursor half way across the screen and one or maybe two seconds would elapse before the window resized. When I started to drag the window around the screen the stutter was palpable.

I restarted the machine and tried it again just in case something was amiss but got the same result. My test drive was halted very prematurely. With a lot of action on screen, the UI felt more like treacle than butter with a distinct disconnect between user action and response.

I realise the immense engineering capability that goes into a 5k display and take no pleasure through being able to glibly catch it out. In fact, it left me a little sad. No excuse at the moment for me to buy one of these machines.

It left me wondering if I just had a rogue machine (it was base spec) but it was the only one in the store so I couldn’t try an alternative. I also wonder if being on max resolution makes a big difference that might not be making it into the reviews generally.

I’ll try another machine when I see one but, for now, for me, it’s in the wait until it’s in the fabulous third generation bucket.