Where does the iMac go from here?

We will see big changes with Apple’s most popular desktop computer—it’s a matter of when.

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With Tuesday’s announcement of the new 27-inch iMac, Apple seems to be clearing out some of the final major Intel Mac releases in its product pipeline.

The big question is, what’s next for the iMac? While this new revision makes the current iMac a bit faster and a bit nicer, it’s a fairly modest upgrade. With the move to Apple silicon on the horizon, it’s worth pondering where the iMac goes from here—and how soon we might see truly big changes when it comes to Apple’s most popular desktop computer.

Big iMac: Resetting the clock

The 27-inch iMac’s update this week has bought Apple some time. With this update, it feels like Apple could wait somewhere between 12 and 18 months before needing to update the larger of the two iMac models.

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The new 27-inch iMac buys Apple a considerable amount of time before the company unveils a model with its own CPU.

Yes, that means that Apple would be sitting with an Intel iMac at the top of the line until late 2021 or early 2022. But consider that most iMac buyers aren’t hardcore pro users who want to be on the cutting edge. Even if this 27-inch iMac is the last major update to an Intel Mac ever, it’s going to be a powerful computer that will serve its users for years to come.

And of course, some savvy computer users will even consider buying a new iMac a savvy move—it’s tried and true technology that will last for years during a time of great change. By the time they’ll need to replace this iMac, all the furor involving Apple’s transition to Apple silicon will have settled.

In any event, I have a hard time seeing Apple updating the 27-inch iMac with Apple silicon in the near future, now that it’s made this update.

Little iMac: On the clock

The 21.5-inch iMac, on the other hand, seems like a prime candidate to be converted to Apple silicon. It wasn’t actually updated this week, though Apple did change its base configuration to include SSD storage rather than a Fusion Drive. (Let’s pause for a moment of applause, because spinning hard drives are slow and bad.)

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Even though the 21.5-inch iMac was updated with SSDs, its specs are looking old.

But it’s worse. Last year, the 21.5-inch iMac got updated—sort of. But it only got 8th-generation Intel processors, while the 27-inch model got the 9th-generation processors. So it started a generation behind and is now another generation behind. It is an outdated computer in desperate need of a refresh.

According to a report from ace supply-chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple’s next iMac will be redesigned, run on Apple silicon, and will sport a 24-inch screen. If you consider that any iMac redesign would probably drastically reduce the bezels and aluminum chin found on the current iMac design, it’s not unreasonable to consider that the 24-inch Apple silicon iMac would be the successor to the current 21.5-inch model—and might not even be that much larger.

Though Apple is the world’s most valuable company, it’s still limited in how many new Mac models it can roll out at once. A new 24-inch iMac would give Apple silicon a beachhead on the desktop—and the 27-inch iMac could be revised in a similar fashion a bit later on. It makes a lot of sense.

iMac Pro: Time’s up?

That leaves the iMac Pro, a product near and dear to my heart—because I bought one and I love it. But the iMac Pro dates from the era before Apple recommitted itself to the Mac and the Mac Pro—and was, according to numerous accounts at the time, designed as the replacement for the Mac Pro. Apple has changed its Mac strategy since then, and the iMac Pro hasn’t received a single update. Things don’t look good.

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The iMac Pro is the model that seems like it may be hitting a dead end.

The truth is, the 27-inch iMac (or whatever size it might end up being once it is updated for Apple silicon) is already a powerful machine. Apple knows that there are a lot of professional users for whom the Mac Pro is overkill. Apple will always make sure that the top-of-the-line iMac is powerful enough to fulfill those users.

This leads to the classic This is Spın̈al Tap dilemma: do you make your amp louder and add an 11 setting, or just keep the top setting at 10 and make that louder? Or to put it in iMac terms, do you create an iMac Pro—or just make the high-end iMac capable of serving pro users?

In the end, this is going to come down to marketing. In a couple of years, I can see Apple offering an iMac with lots of processor cores, perhaps similar to what will be found in a future Mac Pro. If it finds value in calling that configuration an iMac Pro (and perhaps offering it in Space Gray instead of Silver), that’s great. If it’s “just” an iMac, that’s fine too. It doesn’t matter what’s on the label if the computer is capable of doing the work.

Still, I’m sad that it looks like the iMac Pro might be an evolutionary dead end. With its integration of the T2 chip and vastly upgraded thermal system, it was a trailblazing Mac. Here’s hoping that Apple takes what it learned in designing the iMac Pro and applies it to whatever iMac models are about to emerge from Apple’s product pipeline.

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