iMac 5K vs. MacBook Pro + LG UltraFine 5K display: Which should you get?

LG UltraFine 5K
LG UltraFine 5K (Image credit: iMore)

For some people a desktop Mac is just that — a powerful computer design to sit and stay on your desk, like the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display. For others, it's a laptop they can take with them, then dock to an external display to use at home or at work, like the MacBook Pro combined with the all-new LG UltraFine 5K display.

I've gone back and forth on which I prefer. Over the years, I've had iMacs and I've had the LED and, later, Thunderbolt Display attached to MacBooks Air and Pro. Now I'm deciding again — iMac with 5K and P3 display, or MacBook Pro with the LG 5K and P3 display.

So, let's take a look!

Design

iMac

iMac (Image credit: iMore)

The 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display is classic Apple. Though it hasn't been redesigned in years, and hasn't had a radical redesign in almost a decade, it's still a looker. It's casing is classic Apple — bead blasted aluminum and black glass. It's razor thin at the edges, though it does bulge at the back, and its "chin" bears a bold, black Apple logo.

The LG UltraFine 5K display is ... classic LG. It's matte black plastic, and boxy at that. There's no "chin" but there is an LG logo bottom front. It's not ugly but more utilitarian. For anyone not used to or into Apple design, it'll be fine. For anyone who does put a premium the way things look ... it's not much to look at.

For most people, the display is the computer. It's what we spend most of our time looking at. That means the design of the display can absolutely be a deal-breaker for some.

It's unfortunate in the extreme Apple punted that design to LG for this display. As it is, the 27-inch iMac with Retina display kicks the LG UtraFine 5K's design ass up and down the desktop.

Display

Apple launched the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display in the fall of 2014 and updated it to DCI-P3 wide gamut color in the fall of 2015. At the time, it was eye-popping. A display that big, crisp, and deep was more than immersive. It looked more real than real. Though a year has now passed, it still looks great to this day. The density is high enough that you don't see any pixels, and the color depth means reds are bright, greens are vibrant, purples and oranges are crisps, and blacks are as inky as LED allows. It remains the best big display I've seen.

Apple announced the LG UltraFine 5K display in the fall of 2016. Depending on which reports you read, the panel itself is either the same or incredibly similar to the one found on the iMac with Retina 5K display. That means, pixel for pixel, barring any other differences, the two displays should look virtually identical. Same high density, same wide gamut, so you don't see any pixels but you do see brilliant colors.

Still, there are some differences that can't be barred. Namely, to my eyes, the LG UltraFine 5K display isn't as glossy as the iMac display. It has a different finish that makes it look more matte, especially at some angles. Although there are people who would consider that an advantage, I think it comes at the expense of some of the contrast. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Ports

Apple didn't update the iMac with Retina 5K display in 2016 and that means it still has ports like it's 2015. That includes ethernet, 2x Thunderbolt 2, 4x USB-A, an SD card slot, and a 3.5mm jack. For some, especially those with a lot of existing accessories, peripherals, and devices, that's not a drawback but a benefit.

Because so much of the LG UltraFine 5K's bandwidth is taken up by the 5K signal and power, there's precious little left for anything else. There's the single Thunderbolt 3 connector that goes to the MacBook Pro, then there's 3x USB-C... and that's it. For some, that might be forward thinking. For other, it's a pain in the I/O.

For existing setups, iMac offers the best variety and compatibility. Almost everything you currently have can be plugged in with no fuss, no muss, and no dongles.

If you're going all-in on USB-C, the LG UltraFine 5K may be just the future-proofing you need. The only bummer is, because the extra ports are only USB-C, and not Thunderbolt 3 as well, you'll need to plug anything serious into your MacBook rather than the display, which makes it much less useful as a dock.

Pricing

$1799 gets you the base-level iMac with Retina 5K display. $2299 gets you the top-of-the-line model, though you can add a faster processor, more RAM, and increased storage... at a price.

$1499 gets you the base level MacBook Pro — the "escape" rather than Touch Bar + Touch ID version. $1799 gets you the base-level 13-inch with Touch Bar and Touch ID, and $2799 gets you the top-of-the-line 15-inch model, though you can likewise bump the processor, graphics, and storage. Add the $1,299 for the LG UltraFine 5K display (currently on sale for $974 until March 31, 2017) and you're well above that. Of course, for that price you end up with two displays — the LG and the built-in MacBook Pro display — but it's at a price.

For comparably equipped machines, you're looking at around $3349 for the iMac and $3399 + $1299 (currently $974) for the MacBook Pro + LG UltraFine 5K.

Who should get the iMac?

If you love Apple design, want an all-in-one with a single display to stare at, and consider "legacy" ports to be a virtue rather than a drawback, the iMac with Retina 5K display is for you.

See iMac at Apple (opens in new tab)

Who should get the MacBook Pro + LG UltraFine display?

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro (Image credit: iMore)

If you want the portability of a MacBook Pro, an extra display instead of a single display, and are all-in on USB-C, then the LG UltraFine 5K display is currently your best bet.

Any questions?

If you know you want the MacBook Pro and LG UltraFine 5K display but you're not sure which MacBook Pro you should get, check out the MacBook Pro buyers guide. If you have any other questions, drop them in the comments below!

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

20 Comments
  • Do you think it would be wise to wait for the new iMacs this year? Or invest in the current lineup? Posted via the Note 5 or iPhone 7 Plus
  • Based on the slight improvement of Kaby Lake over Skylake, unless Apple announces a radical redesign (or something is leaked) relatively soon I'd say the current model is fine. I myself am giving it a few more weeks to see if an iMac announcement will be made in one form or another. If not, I'm going with the current entry level 27" with a 512GB SSD and maybe bump the ram with a few Crucial sticks.
  • Wait, I would guess you will be getting USB C ports with the new one plus....
  • So I'll have to buy dongles....Yes!!
  • I got the IMac 5k and I love it Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm a freelance book designer. My early 2009 24" iMac was long in the tooth and beginning to show a few signs of instability. So I got a new 27" 5K iMac. I need the best display, as the books i work on often have photos in them, with the most screen real estate, that I can afford. So that was an easy choice. I was pleased with the 24", but the 27" 5K is beyond great and I'm still able to run my second monitor, an older 23" Apple Cinema Display. Perfect set-up for me that pleases me no end. The machine screams compared to what I was used to and it was the right time, apparently, to get it with more memory. I have 24 GB of RAM and, even without a solid state drive (more than I had money for), is faster than anything I ever experienced. My back-up/away-from-the-studio machine is an early 2009 17" MacBook Pro. Now it's a funny thing, I still clearly remember that when I started out over 25 years ago, I was thrilled to move up to a 13" monitor with my first Macintosh (after a 12" monitor on an Apple IIgs). But having had a coupla times where machines went while I was working on a book (here's a plug, boys and girls, for meticulous back-ups), requiring me to finish up on my laptop (once a 14" PowerBook and the last time the 17" MacBook Pro I mentioned above), anything less than a 17" laptop makes life difficult for someone who works in two-page spreads.. So I regard the new MacBook Pros with the bar that replaces the function keys as a gimmick that has no use to me, tho' I'm sure they delight others. And this leaves me in a quandary. I won't ever switch from Macintosh for my main work machines. But when my early-2009 MacBook Pro shakes this mortal coil I guess I simply won't be replacing it. Seems to me that Apple really kicked us designer types to the curb by doing away witht he 17" MacBook Pro and then gave us the finger with this nonsensical bar that replaces the function keys. Anyhow, 2¢ from the perspective of a working graphic designer.
  • I don't think there's enough of you to warrant keeping a 17" MacBook Pro. I've read somewhere that it was dropped due to lack of sales. Apple typically doesn't just drop products that aren't selling. Have you tried a 15" MacBook Pro? Technically you get much much more screen space than any 17" can provide to you. Screen size isn't everything. Technically if you have a 15" and a 17" running at the same resolution you're not gaining any screen space by getting the 17" screen. Yes, it looks larger but you're not able to get anything more on the screen over the 15". That being said the 15" MacBook Pro has a much higher resolution than the latest 17" MacBook Pro so you're actually getting a bigger screen in a smaller, more portable package. Something to think about. Who knows, there may come a time when the touch bar is useful to you. The function keys didn't just go away either...they're still there if you want them to be. The point of the touch bar is that 99% of users never touch the function key as its supposed to be used except to change the brightness of the keyboard and/or display...which actually isn't using the "function" keys anyways. Those keys were mapped to be other useful things which again, did not go away with the touch bar. The fact that you can make it change to whatever is appropriate seems much more useful to me rather than static keys that are set in stone but I guess thats just user preference.
  • I understand what you're saying. It was a business decision. I can't really fault them on that, except for the fact that they've always tried to say they're the computer for artists and designers. We were one of their core constituencies and they kicked us to the curb. Maybe that ahould have been woth something to them in goodwill or tradition. As for the function keys, I should have been clear: I never use them. So it's not like they're a loss. My point was only that the touch bar is more a bit of glitz than something tha adds to productivity, like processor speed, more RAM, or more screen real estate.
  • I'm a designer, and I use the new MacBook Pro 15" with touch bar and I love it. I don't see how adding the touch bar kicked anyone to the curb, I think you are just reading too many articles about people complaining and you picked up on that. The new touch bar while it isn't a game changer, is nice, and I use it a lot more then I ever did use the 'old' Function Keys. I also believe it'll only get better and more useful in the future. It certainly doesn't take anything away that makes the machine less useable.
  • Oy. A coupla things ... First, you missed the part where I said that the elimination of the 17" MacBook Pro--seventeen-inch screen!--was what kicked someone like me (I guess I have to admit there either aren't that many print book designers working on a Mac laptop or who care about two-page spreads being viewed as a whole) to the curb. Second, okay, Uncle! I suppose graphic designers generally don't have the same need for screen real estate that a book designer would.
  • It's so sad Apple didn't just release this display in it's own enclosure. They could have eliminated all the angst around LG's design deficiencies and could reap all the profit. They are buying the iMac displays anyway, so how hard would it be to allocate some for an enclosure without the computer inside? Like Rene has said on podcasts and on this site, the more someone goes 3rd party for their computing needs, the more likely they are to continue looking at 3rd parties for other things, right up through the computer itself at some point of they can tolerate Windows.
  • Totally agree. If Apple would've released a replacement for the older Thunderbolt display as a 5K iMac without the computer, and it contained Thunderbolt 3/USB-C and "legacy" ports such as USB-A, SD card slot, etc, I think the whole MacBook Pro presentation would've been better received.
  • "Still, there are some differences that can't be barred. Namely, to my eyes, the LG UltraFine 5K display isn't as glossy as the iMac display. It has a different finish that makes it look more matte, especially at some angles." Remember when it was a big deal that laptops come with a matte option for the display?
  • No mention of speed in this equation? Namely, a laptop with its miniaturized power-saving components vs. an iMac with its… well, a jumble of components, but few of them limited by power consumption. If I'm debating between two platforms, as someone in graphics, speed is tops. A quick glance at this battery of tests confirms my suspicions: http://barefeats.com/hilap2016.html
  • The choice is relatively easy. The iMac is a computer, vs just a display.. I think that should bet a better way to think. If you already have a Macbook Pro, u don't need an iMac. You just need a better display only.. However...if your all Apple, then having an LG on the desk with all Mac's surrounding it wouldn't that kinda feel "out of place" ?
  • No, my laptop is not my main production machine. I'm a print book designer. Not some kid playing games. My MacBook Pro is an emergency back-up computer, my work-away-from-my-studio machine. Like if I'm on a plane or visiting my family in California and need to work on a book. It's slower than my new 27" iMac, which has a much faster processor, and is just the best production machine. I wish I could always have a 17" laptop for back-up and "away" work is all. And the touchbar, to me, is just bullshit and not a genuine productivity improvement for someone who uses their Mac to earn a living.
  • For my current needs the current top of the line 5K iMac with the 2 TB Fusion drive and an iPad Air 2 128GB meets all of my needs. My previous computer was a 2012 Macbook Pro and I found that I could count on one hand since I bought an iPad how many times that laptop moved off of my desk. So for me the 5K iMac was the best choice and I don't regret it one bit. With only Thunderbolt ports and no thunderbolt peripherals, I wouldn't want the new Mabook Pro anyway. I am hopeful that they won't put all Thunderbolt ports in the new iMacs but likely that is what is going to happen. I am thinking that I will be hanging on to this computer for quiet a long time.
  • One of my concerns would be around heat dissipation (given my history of MBPs dying prematurely). MBPs of the past just weren't designed to run all-out for long periods of time. Doing so often made components fail, especially the GPU. I'd guess this is made even worse if used in clamshell mode. Then, there is the fan-noise issue to consider. Maybe with lower and lower power CPUs, that's less of an issue? But, I'm guessing they also reduced the thermal handling capacity compared to older models. An iMac, while not able to do as well as a Mac Pro, still has a lot more cooling capacity and is generally quiet, even when pushed hard. I do really want the mobile flexibility, but my history with these things gives me concerns. I had also been excited about the capability of eGPU, but it seems Apple is again, stupidly resisting giving users real power and expandability.
  • Is there a way to use the new 5K display on a 2012 Mac Pro (if I put a big GPU in My MacPro)?
  • HI I have a 2014 iMac 5k but thinking of getting a high-end MacBook Pro 15-Inch with LG 5K, I want to sale the 2014 iMac 5K, Do you think it's a good idea or should i just keep the 5k iMac