Upgrading from a 2015 to 2019 iMac For Video Editing

2015 vs 2019 iMac

Upgrading from a 2015 iMac to 2019 for Video Editing

This article is not an “Apple Hate” post.  It’s simply my experience upgrading from the Late 2015 27″ iMac to the early 2019 model. My work consists mostly of video editing, writing blogs, and general use work like emails.

I am not one to upgrade every single time something new comes out.  The 2015 iMac was a major upgrade for video editing purposes over my old PC.  Final Cut Pro X changed the game for me.  It was so much faster than my old PC running Sony Vegas Pro. My decision was simple.  When the 2015 iMac starts to struggle, I will upgrade.

I wanted a second iMac for a dedicated video editing machine and image editor.  This is intended to be a workstation of sorts.  I planned to retire my 2015 iMac as a backup option or just for general use and storage.

What about the 2017 iMac?

I didn’t feel there was a big enough jump from the 2015 model to 2017 one to warrant the upgrade.  A lot of YouTubers will tell you otherwise, but the spec bump wasn’t enough. Upgrading every single time something comes out is a financial disaster as well, especially with Apple products.

A Custom or off-the-shelf iMac?

Purchasing the top end 2019 27″ ninth generation i5 seemed like the best “value for money” option.  The specs for the machine are as follows.

The 2018 iMac I purchased:

  • 3.7GHz 6-core ninth-generation Intel Core i5 processor
  • Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz
  • 8GB of 2666MHz DDR4 memory, configurable up to 64GB
  • 2TB Fusion Drive1
  • Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB of GDDR5 memory
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • 5120-by-2880 P3 Retina 5K display

These machines sell for almost $3600 in Australia, but for some great reason, they are much cheaper at Office Works.  Seeing the immediate savings, I figured it was a good time to upgrade.

2015 vs 2019 iMac 5k Screen
The 2015 iMac on the left and the 2019 iMac on the right.

Final Cut Pro X Performance Reasons for Upgrading

I have a really great way of working with my 2015 iMac.  I shoot with Panasonic cameras in 4k and always import my footage to a Samsung T5 running from the USB3 ports. If you’re not working like this, you should.  The performance boost over working from the internal Fusion drive or external storage drive is unparalleled. If you haven’t tried a Samsung T-5 SSD, check it out on B&H.

Video editing is my main gig. I shoot video and edit it.  My projects are getting more and more complicated as my experience increases.  I started to notice with a lot of the 4k files that the 2015 iMac would struggle with a few things in the timeline.

The main issues are:

  • Unable to use the video preview at full resolution
  • Color grading increased issues with playback.
  • Fast motion footage would not playback without background rendering on
  • Some transitions were unable to playback without being pre-rendered.
  • The iMac struggled with 10-bit 4k footage.

I also noticed the export time was increasing as the projects got more complicated.  This was also very expected as the machine was getting older.

What I was hoping for with My 2019 iMac

  • Preview video at full resolution at 50% size
  • Real-time playback of fast motion and transitions
  • Faster rendering times
  • A “better” experience in the timeline and fewer jitters and hangups.

Rendering Times 2015 vs. 2019 i5 iMac

This is where it will be a deal maker or deal-breaker depending on your situation.  I mostly make web content that is uploaded to YouTube and other online video services.  I never have to export files in the H.265 codec.  There are two reasons I never use this codec.

  • The file size is too big to upload on the Australian internet upload limitations.
  • YouTube compresses it back down, so there’s no point for me doing this.

Exporting to Apple Devices (.M4V)

I usually export to “Apple Devices” at 3860 x 2160.  The codec for this is .M4V, which is a good small, yet high-resolution video file that I can easily upload on my internet speed.  It also drops the file size about 10x over H.264.  I’ve uploaded hundreds of videos with this video codec and have had zero complaints about the quality.

The first test I ran was a 4:43 project with color correction, complex titles, music, and effects added.  This ended up being the video located below.  Without the complex titles and color correction, the export would be faster, but I wanted to use a real-world example for my benchmarks.

The Export Times were as follows with Background Render finished:

  • 2015 iMac – 3:26
  • 2019 iMac – 3:20

Wait! What? I tested this twice, and I got the same results within about 1 second.  As soon as I hit save, I let the computer render untouched until I saw the “Rendering Complete” notification pop up.

I have to say. I was pretty disappointed that a much, much newer CPU and GPU made so very little difference with this codec.

The Export Times were as follows without Background Render enabled:

  • 2015 iMac – 6:55
  • 2019 iMac – 4:54

Here we go! I saved just over 2 minutes on a 4:43 project. This was some good news and some bad news.

Do you use background Rendering?

If you prefer to use background rendering, the export times are almost identical.  If you never use it, the new iMac is a decent upgrade.  When you do hundreds of projects a year, you’ll save a lot of time.

Was background rendering faster on the 2019 iMac?

Overall, yes.  This doesn’t mean it’s light years ahead, either.  The expense of the computer versus the times saved in this regard was not worth it.  After this, I then opened a more complicated project, and background rendering was still very sluggish.

When Exporting Video to the H.264 codec.

This comparison was on a much more complicated project. The project was 17:25 and included LUTs, complex titles, music, and many effects.  This is where the upgrade would make total sense! Background Rendering was currently off.

  • 2015 iMac – 36:37
  • 2019 iMac – 19:16

Now we are talking! This is where the 2019 iMac takes more advantage of system resources and new technology and exports the file faster. If you are exporting in H.264, the upgrade will make a lot of sense.

What about the Editing Experience inside of FCPX?

The editing experience was better on the new 2019 iMac, but it still had some severe limitations. I was easily able to preview the project in full resolution mode, and it worked “well” with the stock transitions.  Over the years, I’ve purchased a number of third-party plugins from Motion FX. Some of these more elaborate transitions were unable to preview in real-time without background rendering on or without having to drop to “better performance” mode.

Another benefit of the new 2019 i5 iMac was it was also able to preview x4, x8, and x20 footage without glitching! This felt amazing to see and was a great experience.

Once I started adding my titles, transitions, color corrections, and regular attributes, it struggled. It definitely handled the project in a smoother way, even in “better performance” mode. It was really smooth, but I was left wondering, “Is this it?”.

What about the Screen Upgrade?

Having both screens next to each other allowed me to see if the 500nits screen was anything special.  The only difference I could see was the fonts looked brighter.  This was so minimal as well.  The internet has a great way of hyping up incremental upgrades.

I never, ever use my iMac with the screen brightness all of the way up.  It’s just too much for your eyes to handle unless you are in a well-lit room.

Overall, I was very disappointed with the screen “upgrade.”

2015 vs 2019 iMac Video Editing
I can barely see any difference in the screens. (2015 left / 2019 right)

How about the ThunderBolt 3 ports?

This was another feature I was keen on testing out. I know that a lot of people swear by Thunderbolt 3.  My Samsung T-5 drives are supported by either USB3.0 and ThunderBolt 3.  I thought for sure this would account for some of the performance upgrades when working from the external SSD.  Again, I was disappointed as transferring files were “about the same” from my eye-ball tests.

Who is the 2019 iMac for?

The 2019 i5 ninth Generation iMac is for someone who doesn’t want to use background rendering and exports to H.265.  If you export to “Apple Devices” or “Web Devices,” the upgrade isn’t worth it.  I would suggest upgrading if your projects and effects are complex.  Playback on the new iMac was better for more complicated projects, but I still had to view the video in “better performance.”

If better performance mode doesn’t bother you, then it is an upgrade.  If you only export videos to YouTube, then the upgrade probably isn’t worth it.  I was hoping for a 20-30% export speed increase for my needs, but it only came down to seconds slower with my older 2015 iMac. From time to time, I either manually execute the background render command or just leave it on.

Is the 2019 iMac worth it?

Most of my YouTube videos fall between the 6-12 minute mark, and being I am not exporting to H.264, I saw no reason to keep the 2019 iMac and returned it the following morning. I knew as soon as I made the comparisons for my particular workflow, I felt like I just made a terrible investment, and the upgrade wasn’t worth it to me.

As I mentioned, if you are exporting to H.264, this new machine will save you a lot of time.  The editing experience won’t be as good as the iMac Pro, but the combination of the ninth generation i5 and Radeon 580x handle the encoding better.

Want the Best Experience?

Your best bet for serious editing and video production would be the iMac pro.  If you want something more cost-effective and almost as good, then customize the 2019 iMac.  I suggest upgrading the i5 to the Intel Core i9.  This will help speed up background rendering and overall improve the editing experience.  Ditch the Fusion drive and add it in their SSD. What about the graphics card?  The 580X is very good considering what you are getting but if you want the top end iMac, then get the Radeon Pro Vega 48.  I wrote a detailed article on this, which you can check out here.

Don’t Make My Mistake!

I made the mistake of getting buying with my wallet instead of with my brain. I saw an option to save a few hundred dollars and thought that was a smarter choice than waiting a while and getting the one I wanted.  Moving forward, I will either customize an iMac with the upgrades I just mentioned, or I will wait and see what happens in 2020 with the Mac Pro.  Check out the 2020 iMac on B&H.

If you are editing videos casually, then either machine will do the job. If you want the top end 2019 iMac, then this is preconfigured on B&H.