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.

The Alienware 18 supports 32GB of RAM, has the same NVIDIA graphics processor as I chose for my iMac. It also comes with an i7 4930M processor, which Alienware says you can "overclock up to 4.3Ghz." That's true, to a point. But according to Intel, the processor is actually clocked at 3 Ghz, making it a somewhat slower beast than the 3.5 Ghz clock speed i7 that comes on the iMac.

Worse, the screen is only 1920x1080, failing to provide the extra real estate I craved so much.

But here's the gut-punch on the Alienware. Even without the higher-res 27-inch display and PCIe flash storage, this beast costs a whopping, mind-numbing $5,149, way more than the already pricey $3,989 my iMac cost.

ZDNet's own Robin Harris, our storage expert, put me onto the HP Z1, which is an all-in-one with open PCIe slots. The idea was that perhaps the Z1 would allow me to add one of the very few PCIe flash cards I could find on the market.

Unfortunately, while the Z1 is pretty interesting (it's got the ability to open and tweak inside, something the iMac most certainly doesn't), the HP configuration tool is rather obtuse. As far as I can tell, the Z1 can't take more than 8GB of RAM, and the PCIe open slots are too small for the full-size PCIe flash cards I've found (more on them below).

So even though the Z1 had some promise, I had to rule it out before really getting to know it.

What about building your own PC, Dave?

The last plausible option -- and the one I've gone with for most of my professional career, is building my own PC. Ever since I moved into my new house, I've avoided building new tower PCs, because they take a lot of space which I don't really have, spew out both noise and heat, and eat power.

Even so, I considered going back to the tower approach. First, I could save a few bucks. I have a pile of cases in the garage and some good, solid, high-performance power supplies (although I'm not sure they're compatible with current mobos).

Even so, let's assume they'll work, and price out a build-your-own without buying a case or a supply. Let's start with the internal parts from Newegg:

The speed of the processor I found is a tad shy of the 3.5Ghz of the iMac and the video card has only 75 percent of the video RAM that comes in the iMac, but that's a sacrifice I'd be willing to make.

So far, the DIY variant is $1,409. I also have a bunch of Windows licenses, so I didn't need to add that into the cost.

Next, though, let's add the PCIe flash. I had a tough time finding PCIe flash rated at anything more than SSD flash. The reason for this is a lot of so-called PCIe flash is actually just an SSD plastered onto a PCIe card.

Even so, I found a 480GB real PCIe flash card from OCZ on Amazon. That bad boy cost $1,108.31 and I'd need two of them. This is also why I picked the mobo I did, because it had enough PCIe slots.

We're now up to $3,625 and we still don't have the 27-inch monitor I need. For that, let's go to Monoprice, who has a very nice 27-inch monitor for $390.

Add that monitor to the mix, and we're at $4,015.

Wrapping it up with a bow

So, as you can see, even with the build-my-own solution, even using scrap parts I have lying about, and even with a whole set of components that weren't tested to work with each other, the system would have cost more than the iMac -- and it still wouldn't have met my requirement of running Mac software alongside the Windows software.

Windows PCs are often the very best deals out there and I love my Sager laptop. My wife loves her Samsung Ultrabook, and I certainly have a long history building honkin' tower PCs.

But 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, both in terms of performance and capabilities, and in terms of price.

Also, it should be noted that Windows, running virtualized in Parallels, benchmarks at 13 percent faster on this iMac than it did, running native, on my 18-month-old super-fast Sager (which I've since moved to my entertainment center).

Remember: when you choose a machine for your work, it's likely to be different than mine. For home fun, any old nice tablet will do, but when you've got a real job to do, match the machine to the workload. That's what I'm doing here.

In my next article on this system, I'll show you how I got all the monitors working together, now that it seems pretty stable.

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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