Why I chose a maxed-out iMac over a powerful PC

Summary:Sometimes, when you know exactly the application you're solving for, the right machine might not be what seems obvious at first. In this case, both against PCs and against the new Mac Pro, the iMac turned out to be the best option.

Last month, I told you about my purchase of a tricked-out iMac that I bought to replace my previously pretty-darn-powerful PC. My goal (which is now working) was to have four screens on the thing, and make it as fast as I could, within my office budget.

Why I chose a maxed-out iMac over a powerful PC

In the previous article of this series, I showed you the business case for why I bought the iMac instead of a Mac Pro . I could save roughly $1,200 and the extra oomph the Mac Pro provided wasn't in areas I'd be making use of during my normal workflow.

Since then, I've gotten a metric-ton of questions about why I didn't go with a PC and a whole bunch of suggestions about what I should have done if I had decided to go PC instead of Mac.

My goal in this article is to help you understand the business case behind this purchase, and why I'd decided a PC wasn't the best option for me.

The key element: a hybrid system

The single key factor in this decision was I wanted to have a hybrid system. Let me be clear that I'm not much of a fan of OS X. I don't like how the Finder seems ripped from 1987 and is clunky, somewhat inflexible, and uncomfortable to use.

I didn't want to use OS X. I wanted to use the wonderful programs built for OS X.

There are applications (like Adobe's Creative Suite and even Office) that run on both Mac and PC. But there are also unique applications that run only on the Mac and only on the PC.

I wanted to have access to any of these applications I needed, regardless of which operating system they were built for. Even more, I wanted to be able to drag and drop between Windows applications and Mac applications. I wanted to do a graphics operation in a Mac application, select the object, and without any intermediate conversion, drag it into a PC application and work on it from there.

This is a direct reflection of the sort of work I do, and I reasoned that I might be able to save 10-30 percent from the time it takes to complete projects if I had this capability. That's huge.

That single capability: to drag-and-drop from a Windows app to a Mac app, and vice versa, all on one screen, without any intermediate fiddling, is why I wanted a Mac. I could run Fusion or Parallels and get that capability. In day-to-day use, Parallels does it somewhat more smoothly, so that's what I chose.

Before you read any further, keep this in mind: I didn't want just a PC because I wanted to also run Mac software.

But why didn't I just get a PC anyway?

For those of you who chose to ignore the last eight paragraphs, I also found that the iMac was a pretty impressive price-performance competitor over its Windows-only brethren.

First, let me say that I already had a very fast Windows system on my desktop. It's about 18 months old, but it's got fast SSDs, 32GB of RAM, and pretty serious performance.

The only issue is that it was really cranky about supporting even two displays, and I wanted four. I also wanted to move up from 1920x1080 on my main displays to 2560 x 1440 on the two main displays, and still have two wing-displays for additional screen real estate.

Again, remember this is a workflow issue. I'm trying to shorten project time. Bigger screens, and more of them, can help make that happen.

I looked around at various laptop and all-in-ones, and I didn't find many that served my performance needs.

Let's add the two other requirements and you'll see why this gets difficult.

First, I wanted 32GB of RAM. My average RAM usage is right around 22GB, so machines that top out at 16GB wouldn't be much use. Moving up to 32GB ruled out the vast majority of off-the-shelf systems.

Second, I wanted to use PCIe flash storage instead of SSD. PCIe flash doesn't travel over the SATA channel and, as a result, is generally twice as fast as the fastest SATA III SSD drives.

TechRadar did an evaluation of SATA III SSD drives and found that reads and writes (in the best circumstances) hovered around 350-400 MB/s. Compare that to the results Anandtech got for PCIe flash, at nearly 800 MB/s.

Again, speed is important to me. I'm regularly trying to get a six-day project done in three days, and a lot of the bottleneck is system performance.

So, I wanted a system with PCIe flash. The problem is, not a lot of PCs come with PCIe flash. But the iMac does. In fact , the iMac I bought had one terabyte of PCIe flash as its primary storage.

Configuring a laptop or all-in-one for PCIe flash

I decided to look around and see if I could find a PC that came with 1TB of PCIe flash and 32GB of RAM. Since my iMac also came with NVIDIA GTX 780M graphics with 4 GB of GDDR5 SDRAM and an i7-4771 with a 3.5 GHz clock speed, let's add that to the mix.

I was able to configure a 32GB, 1TB SSD Sager NP8255 for $2,974, but it only had a 15-inch screen and no PCIe flash. This Sager is the current model of the main work machine I'm replacing. At three grand, it's still pricey, but also falls short of meeting (a) supporting Mac software, (b) having a 27-inch display (although I could add one), and (c) double-speed PCIe flash storage.

So, next, I figured I'd swing on over to Alienware. If anyone has a high-performance laptop, Alienware does. And they do. Mostly.

Next up: More choices, including building my own PC...

Topics: Apple, Virtualization, Windows


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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