Maxed-out iMac: just how far can we push this thing?

Maxed-out iMac: just how far can we push this thing?

Summary: ZDNet's very own mad scientist, David Gewirtz, attempts to push an iMac to the limits. Four screens, maxed out RAM, maxed out everything, in fact, and Windows 8.1. Are four screens even possible? Stay tuned.

TOPICS: Apple, DIY, Windows 8

To quote the great Winston Churchill, "To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents."

I believe that time has come for me. 



It's mad scientist time again.

Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, it's off to tweak I go, hooking things together, pushing the limits, and otherwise doing inadvisable things for the betterment of geek-kind.

I'm building a Frankentosh. A HydraMac. A FrankenMac. A Cerberus. An iJanus.

Fine, now that I've mixed as many metaphors as I can before 10am, and managed to get the literary and mythological references out of my system (my psyche), let's get down to business about my system (the gear).

Here's the short, relatively mundane back story. As I mentioned last week, it's become time to upgrade my main work machine. A quick note: this is a work machine and is core to how I make my living. If I just wanted to use a computer for fun, a Chromebook would do.

Anyway, when I bought my last main machine, my priority was porting a gigantic content management system and simulating an eight server network on my development machine. That job is now done.

Now, the bulk of my work is media. Images, video, PowerPoints, writing, and so on. For coding and network work, the Windows 7 machine worked fine. But for this new class of work, I need Windows, but I'd also like to have access to the full Macintosh application ecosystem.

I also need screen real estate. A lot of screen real estate. I currently run one a pair of 24-inch 1920x1080 monitors and it's not enough. It's not nearly enough.

I need a pretty high amount of memory. I average about 22GB of RAM usage most of the time, and it can go up.

And I want speed. SSD is fine, but it's still not really fast enough.

As many of you know, I've had great success running Windows on Mac hardware, specifically the Mac mini. Right now, the mini is probably my favorite small computer. But it doesn't support 32GB, its fastest processor isn't quite as fast as I'd like (and it's not yet Haswell), and it doesn't support the faster flash storage (rather than SSD).

The iMac does. In fact, of all the Macs, only the iMac and the new Mac Pro can support both flash storage and at least 32GB.

I looked at the new Retina MacBook Pros, but bafflingly, they max out at only 16GB of RAM. How Apple expects video producers to get real work done and only supply 16GB of RAM is a mystery.

I looked at the Mac Pro, but it's a lot more expensive, and didn't optimize for what I truly need. It has amazing graphics co-processors, but most of the speed I need is single-core performance.

In single-core performance, I can get more out of an iMac. Plus the 27-inch iMac itself comes with a gorgeous 2560-by-1440 screen.

So, I pulled the trigger on a maxed-out iMac, 32GB RAM, 1TB flash storage, the fastest processor they make.

And then I'm going to try to take it up a level.

I already have two 1920x1080 24-inch monitors. What if I also got one more 27-inch monitor that matches the iMac's resolution of 2560x1440?

Yeah, baby, now that's what I'm talkin' about.

So here's the plan. Main screen is the iMac screen. Second screen will be the new 27-incher (not an Apple brand, but a much less expensive Monoprice variant). I'll connect that via Thunderbolt and USB (necessary for the added resolution).

Third monitor is one of the 24-inchers. That, too, will connect via a Thunderbolt port (which should also work as a mini-DisplayPort).

The fourth monitor is the question. This is pushing things. This bad boy will either connect through a DisplayLink USB adapter (but there's been some talk of DisplayLink problems with Mavericks) ... or, I'll hook an Apple TV up to it, and use the AirPlay as external monitor feature of the Apple TV to drive the monitor.

Oh, while we're on the topic of monitors, I ordered the VESA iMac. These days, with the thin edge design of the iMac, you can't just mount a VESA-compatible arm to the back of the thing. You have to order a special version that comes with VESA mounts -- but no stand. That's what I'm getting, because all four monitors will go on arms, so I can rearrange the monitors to suit whatever I'm working on.

And then, of course, it has to run Windows 8.1. I spend weeks at a time in PowerPoint 2013 and I have to be able to produce true PowerPoint 2013 output (even Mac PowerPoint won't cut it), because my slides need to be ingested into a webcasting program that's fussy.

So, I'll set up a Parallel's VM and run Windows 8.1 with Office 365 (so I also can run my Windows Outlook) on the machine, along with all the other Windows software I use and love.

One neat factor though, for those who do want to switch, is the Adobe Creative Cloud. I'll run the Adobe applications natively on the iMac because Adobe gratuitously provided me a subscription, and as a result, Creative Cloud users can easily switch between platforms without having to buy new copies of the Adobe products.

Two new monitor arms, one 27-inch monitor, a bunch of 4TB drives, another copy of Windows 8 Pro, a bunch of extended-reach power cords (for the arms), a drive dock (for another project), and a Belkin WeMo (also for another project) -- not to mention the iMac -- are all due to arrive today.

I'll tell you a lot more, including a lot more detail about why I'm doing this with a Mac and my short search for a comparable PC. But for now, I wait. It's on a UPS truck and will arrive here sometime between now and 8pm tonight.

Stay tuned. The game is afoot.

Topics: Apple, DIY, Windows 8


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Sounds fun!

    Can't hide the money though! iMac's aren't cheap.
    • No kidding

      I'll go into that in a future article. I would never do this if it weren't my machine tool for my job. All told, with the monitor, add-on software, arms, maxed out, we're probably nearing $5K. The iMac alone, after adding 1TB of flash and 32GB of RAM (I looked to external suppliers of RAM, but the price difference wasn't there this time), the Mac alone broke $4K with tax. Ouchhh!
      David Gewirtz
      • I once read a ZDNet

        I once read a ZDNet article (can't remember exactly when) that was titled, "The computer you really want always costs $5,000".

        The funny part is that I have found that to be pretty close to true for work station class machines. In fact I remember well buying an IBM PC XT set up for AutoCAD (ver.2) and it came in at $4,987. Today when I spec. and buy a new CAD machine (much more than just AutoCAD these days) they still ring the bell at near $5,000.

        The more things change...
        • I wish it was that cheap for me.

          The Computer I need with CAD software and CAM machine and needed sensors is just over $100k. The funniest part of it all is that the computer is running a Core2Quad and 4 gigs of ram. Sounds like you are getting a better deal.
        • Bit Torrent?

          Autocad 2014, alone, retails for over $5200 in Australia.
          So either you're getting your software for free, or someone pays you $200 to take their hardware, or the actual budget should be $10,000 - or higher.
      • It is

        worth every penny!
      • Two things...

        1) 5 grand for this is incredible! 6 years ago 5 grand would buy you an actual Frankenstein's computer that you'd have to build in your own lab, and spend weeks swapping out components until you found the right combination of speed and crash-control. And you could compile a video file OR play a game OR listen to music. This bad boy is all but plug-and-play.

        2) Good job spelling "told." 99 out of 100 times someone writes "tolled." You're not just a mad scientist, you're also a mad grammarian. Told is the past tense of Tell, as in a bank teller. All told means all accounted for. Nicely done.
      • You're lucky

        over here in Germany, that would be $5,500 after tax ($4621 before tax).
  • 4GB drives...

    "a bunch of 4GB drives"

    • Did I mention I wrote this before 10am?

      Okay, before (enough) coffee. Fixing it now. Thanks!
      David Gewirtz
      • And here I thought we took a bit of a timewarp.

        Remember when 400MB was huge? Yeah.
  • Why Parallels?

    And why not Bootcamp? Bootcamp = native performance.
    • Bootcamp vs Parallels

      I'm running Bootcamp on the other Mac minis. But I want to be able to jump between Mac applications and Windows applications on the fly. There are some excellent Mac graphics tools I'd like to use, right alongside the Windows software.
      David Gewirtz
      • If there was an equivalent Parallels version for Linux

        I'd buy it in a heartbeat -- I got Parallels Desktop about a year ago for a 17" MacBook a client bought. That was very slick and made "1908 error" VirtualBox look clunky as hell. While Parallels use to have a "Workstation" version for Linux a while back, it looks as though that's been discontinued.
        • It takes a reboot, but...

          Have you considered an external drive that boots Linux? Just plug in a FW800 drive and install a flavour that's optimised for the iMac hardware. Or if you buy a TB SSD like Dave you could just create a partition.
    • The better question: Why not Windows?

      I chuckle every time I see someone buy a Mac and then install Windows on it either through Bootcamp or come virtualization software. If you need to run Windows software then just run Windows.
      • flexibility

        That's the flexibility of the Mac system

        I chuckle every time I see a Wintel machine which only runs Windows OS
        • The question isn't can you but why would you.

          With that said PCs are just as flexible as Macs.
          • so

            So a wintel pc that runs a single OS is more flexible than a multi OS mac. Ok we get u :-D
          • It's a Wintel system merely by definition of running Windows...

            ...exclusively on it. Nothing inherent about it preventing it from running alternative operating systems. So yes, the PC is just as flexible as a Macintosh. Due in no small part to the fact a Macintosh is a PC.