ASK DN: iMac 5k + Second Display vs. Retina Macbook + External Display

8 years ago from , Lead Designer

So, I'll be taking a new job in the coming weeks and they will be getting me a new computer setup. They said most people there have the new iMac 5k with a second display, but I've always been fond of the portability of a Macbook Pro with an external display.

One unknown is whether the second/external display will be apple's current thunderbolt display or a newer non-apple display with a resolution closer to 5k. Let's just assume it's the best case scenario, whatever that may be.

What's your preferred setup?


  • Gavin AnthonyGavin Anthony, 8 years ago

    Personally, I prefer using a Macbook Retina with an external display. I have a 4k external display from Dell that I really like. The screen quality is extremely good (but difficult color calibration). Since I do like to work outside of home and on the go, this setup works really well.

    If you picture yourself doing most of your work at your desk, go for the 5k iMac. The 27" display is seriously amazing and can't be beat. Also having a non-apple display can be useful when testing color and non retina designs.

    I hope that helped and hmu if you have any questions!

    8 points
    • Anthony Gibson, 8 years ago

      Completely agree with this. I use a 13 inch retina to hook up to an external display at my house primarily because I love the portability of my macbook, however I work with an iMac at work. At times, I wish I had a 5K iMac (congrats!) But it really depends on if you need the portability.

      Whats the office space like? I would opt for the macbook if it's more open, giving you more places to work from. Theres plenty of times where I wish I wasn't chained to my desk at work, even though the computer is better.

      Hope this helps!

      2 points
    • Sergey LiSergey Li, 8 years ago

      I went for the same setup! Would love to know how you do color calibration. I simply just plugin and started using it without doing any calibration.

      0 points
  • Jon MyersJon Myers, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    I use the iMac5K with a Thunderbolt.

    Personally, I would not go back to a Macbook + Display.

    Working itself, on the iMac5K, you have a lot of brilliant, crisp, screen real estate to craft your pixels.

    On the secondary display, you have plenty of real estate, for example, to have Invision open on half that screen, wireframes or requirements documentation open.

    And mostly, they are there for you in a glance.

    I simply get more done in this case.

    On the portability issue.

    I do have an older MBP, but it mostly collects dust. Occasionally, I will go work from a coffee shop, but I prefer my home office.

    I actually not like being portable for meetings.

    I find most meetings I attend where everyone is sitting around on their laptops to be unproductive and drag.

    Thus, you may consider the lack of portability an asset.

    It forces decisions and focus, in my opinion.

    Finally, on this point.

    I designed the desk in my home office around this work station and how I work with customers. They often just come to me.

    As you see, the main part of the L - in this desk design is a standing desk, though I do have one chair (unfortunately, Herman Miller is not available in Vietnam) I have had modified to support the standing work station.

    Half the day I sit, the other half I stand.

    Anyhow, when customers come over to my office for a design review, we are standing..... and, as a result, meetings tend to go faster. :)

    As far as the ugly construction outside my window.

    We've planted sakura trees out there, which will help conceal that view while in construction. lol

    Best of luck with the decision.

    Image alt

    7 points
    • E BensleyE Bensley, 8 years ago

      That setup is absolutely gorgeous! You sir have all my envy for the day.

      1 point
      • Jon MyersJon Myers, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

        Thanks bud.

        I really lucked into this house here in Saigon.

        You should see it now. This is an older pic. I'm super happy and never leave this office.

        The house is kind of "open air" in the back if that makes sense. We put up a sliding glass wall to close off the office and have air con in here - wah lah - surrounded by white boards. :)

        Architect of the house worked with me on the desk design and had it built.

        We put channels inside the desk and ran electric and ethernet into the desk, so I don't have a mess of cable junk dangling.

        And as you can see - we have storage where the L meets. The traditional height desk is for my collaborators that come over.

        This walnut desk cost me $750 bucks to make here. :) - Quite a bargain I think.

        5 points
        • E BensleyE Bensley, 8 years ago

          Embedding the cables into the desk is something I'm looking into at the moment. I've recently moved into a new house that finally gives me a dedicated home office so hopefully soon I can have something like this, but sadly to have a desk as nice as that made in Australia would cost well into the thousands. Anyway, the inspiration is there now though so I really do hope you enjoy yours!

          1 point
          • Jon MyersJon Myers, 8 years ago

            I hear ya on cost in Oz.

            My two closest associates/ friends here are Aussies. I get an earful. lol

            1 point
    • Curtis Allen, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

      Seriously, a jaw dropping set up.

      One quick question, I love the symmetry in using an apple external display, but does the difference in resolution bother you? Just curious.

      Also, thanks for the awesome response!

      0 points
      • Jon MyersJon Myers, 8 years ago


        In terms of the difference in resolution, no it doesn't really bother me all that much.

        I work in Sketch - and keep that up on the iMac5K most of the day.

        If I have to compose long emails or read long form text then I will also bring that up on the 5K. The difference in the crispness of text still blows my mind.

        The Thunderbolt is my reference screen. The iMac 5K is my work screen.

        What does REALLY bother me is the difference in the bezels on both displays. lol - but that's another long winded rant.

        0 points
  • Art VandelayArt Vandelay, 8 years ago

    An iMac means you can't take your work into meetings or potentially home on the weekend (could be a pro or con).

    A laptop means work can go everywhere you go (could be a pro or con).

    For me, I like the accessibility of a laptop but for work purposes, would prefer an iMac as I'm not shackled to my work when the day ends.

    Just me tho.

    4 points
    • Aubrey JohnsonAubrey Johnson, 8 years ago

      Yeah, been on the 27" RiMac since the fall and it is the best thing for me, I spend most of my work time at my desk and when I want it to be done it is done.

      The catch is I have a 15" rMBP and a LG 4k monitor at work and the colors are terrible on the LG screen. Very inaccurate, weird glitches, etc.

      I still have an older 13" rMBP for travel / emergency fixes to something but like leaving work & comfortable work environment in a specific place.

      0 points
  • Taurean BryantTaurean Bryant, 8 years ago

    I've got a 5K iMac with a non-apple secondary display at work, and a cinema display with a retina mbp at home. I personally find the laptop+display route a bit messier and awkward.

    You can either have the laptop sit below the display and use the integrated keyboard with a mouse, put the macbook on a stand which makes it protrude out awkwardly or only use the display with the macbook tucked away which slightly defeats the purpose.

    If you're going to be working at a desk 99% of the time, I'd say go with the iMac 5K.

    1 point
  • Updula LeeUpdula Lee, 8 years ago

    Macbook + a 21:9 Ultrawide monitor.

    0 points
  • Pete MillerPete Miller, 8 years ago

    Unfortunately this will be an easier decision late this year or early next year when the MacBook Pro gets Thunderbolt 3 and is able to drive 5k screens. As of right now neither the MacBook nor the iMac can drive a 5k external screen, meaning you can't have a retina external screen for either.

    So it comes down to whether you want portability or a 27 inch retina.

    Personally, I love the portability and screen of the MacBook Pro 15. You just need to get a nice flexible stand that can pretty much put the MacBook as vertical as possible and at the right height for whatever external screen you use, which these days would likely be a non retina 27". The Eizo range has good colour for Mac.

    Good luck!

    0 points
  • E BensleyE Bensley, 8 years ago

    Seems fairly even in the comments but I'll throw my two cents in as well. I'm using a Retina MacBook Pro 13" with an external 27" 2560x1440 display. The pair work fantastically for me since I like to take my work with me but the setup involving cables and connectors on my desk isn't ideal. If you want a powerful desktop and don't mind having to copy everything between work and home then an iMac would work great, with the added bonus that the screen is one of the most impressive things I've seen since I first saw an LCD display. If you want to take your life with you on the go, get a 13" Macbook Pro, they're perfectly capable of Photoshop/Sketch/Light AutoCAD work whilst remaining light and easy to carry around. I keep mine in a padded carry sleeve but this isn't really needed.

    0 points
  • Mahdi FarraMahdi Farra, 8 years ago

    I use a Macbook Retina 15" with an external display, Dell 27" and it works great for me, I use the Dell monitor as my main screen and the Macbook's to play music/videos, also to test designs.

    But, If I had the choice & the money of course, I'd get 2 apple cinema displays and use them with the laptop.

    I'd always prefer a laptop because I hate using different computers for home/office, I like to use one and carry it with me wherever I go.

    0 points
  • Cristian MoiseiCristian Moisei, 8 years ago

    Answering this depends on your personal style (where do you do most of your work, do you travel a lot, etc.)

    I'm using the 5K imac (fully upgraded) and to be honest, I'm not sure it could drive 2 5k displays. If you get a non retina second display, you will notice the difference - it's pretty stark when put side by side.

    For me the single display of the 5k imac is enough space and I use it as my main machine. On the go I use my ipad (though the only design work I can do on it is sketching layouts in adobe comp).

    0 points
  • Philip LesterPhilip Lester, 8 years ago

    I prefer Retina Macbook w/Thunderbolt display. This way I can easily test both on hidpi and normal dpi displays, plus the portability of a notebook is crucial for me.

    0 points