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

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, 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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  • David... I love this Article..

    As a life long PC owner, builder and developer... I own an imac and a MacBook air. Why? Top End Hardware at a great price. I have said to people many times... macs aren't expensive at all. When you compare them equally to other PCs... they seem to always come out as a value.

    Secondly, I never have to configure the hardware... Windows sets up nicely, all the drivers are there and it runs great on parallels.

    Third -- I love how you ripped on Finder. Finder is pathetic in every way. There is NO excuse for this horrible, abomination of a File utility. They have had plenty of time and OSX upgrades and this thing is still just plainly the weakest piece of junk ever built into an OS. I would rather use Windows 3.1's File Mangler(err.. manager) than Finder. Of Course, thankfully with Windows 8.1 installed on the machines, I rarely need to.
    • Maybe that's why I like OS X and Finder

      I actually really loved the old Windows 3.1 File Manager. I've been scouring the net trying to find the binaries of the Windows NT version. It may not have looked pretty, but boy was it fast!
    • To each their own.

      I'll take the Finder over Windows Explorer or Windows 8 Metro any day of the week.
      • I hate Finder

        I've lost count of the number of times I've drilled down a directory tree, hit paste and Finder sticks the darned file in the root of the driver!

        Likewise, switch modes from List to Column and it "forgets" which folder you are currently looking at and dumps you back at root.

        When it puts itself to sleep, the iMac forgets all the mapped network drives when it wakes up again, usually corrupting any open documents... Likewise, it forgets all printers when it wakes up. It doesn't display any error messages, but I'll print something, walk the 100M to the printer and nothing. Basically, if the iMac puts itself to sleep, I have to reboot it, once it has woken up. I switch it off, when I leave the office, but if I get called to a meeting and it takes longer than expected...

        It also won't join the domain properly, it just displays "network accounts unavailable" all the time.
        • I have none of those issues.

          I'd suggest user error.

          Seriously, you don't even know how to look at the printer dialog box?
          • The printer dialog box

            comes up and the Mac says that it has printed everything without error, only the printer never receives the job.
          • You're holding it wrong!

            it just works!
      • merge folders

        drag the same name folder into another one and then answer yes when it asks if you really want to merge the same folder together.
        That's the mark of a champion file manager.
        Windows File Explorer - it Just Works!
  • Wow

    An actual needs based analysis. While my compute needs are obviously different from yours, I always learn something from the thought process of a fellow systems-thinker. Thanks.
    • WOW, NOT a needs based analysis.....

      but an ignorant justification where he designs the GOAL based on the machine he has chosen.
      The real fail here is the lack of understanding of speed scaling technology.
      Take SSD speed for example. The iMac caps out at 1 PCIe SSD bandwidth.
      Use a proper open architecture and you can go with 2 or more PCIe SSD and RAID 0 them IF your goal was to have the highest storage bandwidth. But hey, we don't need that fast? we set our GOALS bang on the iMac right?
      Then there is the 4 screen requirement GOAL. Please mate! a mobile GPU running 4 screens. Talk to a gamer and get a clue!
      The iMac is laptop technology in a desktop screen.
      When you are SERIOUS about speed, you can move beyond that toy tech.
      It's not hard to kit out a PC that blows the iMac away at the same price.
      The only thing stopping you is your stubborn requirement in using OSX to run Windows.
      If you've even seen OSX run in a VM on a really fast PC, you wouldn't even make that argument.
      OS licensing issues? if that's the issue, you have your head stuck way too far up Apple's a...
      • Oh yeh, Alienware 18 chalk and cheese comparison with iMac

        "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."

        The Alienware 18 machine you refer to has TWO of the 780m GPUs and FOUR SSDs (3 of them in RAID 0 partition) which already blows your single PCIe SSD away on bandwidth.
        You're comparing a $5k Orange to a $4k Apple.
        There's a $3k spec Alienware 18 that's more comparable to your maxed out iMac in terms of performance.
      • If I'm not running first person shooters but want

        4 screens for the REAL ESTATE, then what the *&*%^ do I care what a gamer's opinion is.
        • why do you even need an iMac then?

          again, the problem here is the lack of requirement definition before the hardware selection.
          Having read his other articles on this subject, the choice is the fanboy default "heck, I'll just throw money at a maxed out Apple"
          The requirements came AFTER the fanboy choice and designed to be the limit of this machine.
        • yeh, and why stop at 4 screens?

          because that's the limit of the iMac.
          again, specs designed after the choice.
      • Did you read the article?

        He started with a requirement (one of many) to run at least one Mac-only application. This means that the ONLY option is a Mac (unless you are into pain and attempt a Hackintosh or choose to run in a VM, both a violation of the OS license terms). This completely invalidates all the "why don't you just buy/build this PC?" replies. I do not know what his Mac application dependencies are but that MUST be the starting point for a reasoned analysis. Based on that pre-condition, I stand by my statement.

        Your comments on licensing are inappropriate and wrong-headed. Any business that ignores licensing requirements is asking for trouble. And, of course, there is the ethical issue but I suspect that would not trouble you.
        • So why even compare it with a non-Mac?

          If you want to compare it with non-Mac, then you can't scurry back to the excuse that you NEED a MAC to justify.
          He basically had a generous budget and wanted to max out an iMac without a clue as to actual performance criteria requirements. There's nothing wrong with wish list shopping like that, but when you try to justify it technically by using half-baked methodology like comparing it to an Alienware 18 top spec model that's 20% more expensive but has DOUBLE the GPU performance and more than DOUBLE the SSD performance of his fanboy drooling iMac PCI-e SSD (GOTTA HAVE A PCI-e SSD or it's not good enough right?).
          It's an attempt to run it past the ignorant, and it would fly well if it was Macrumors Forum, but some of us actually do this for a living and it doesn't pass.
      • Translation:

        Warboat does not like anything Apple and will go out of his way to justify this religious hatred of his... no matter if he uses facts, FUD, or lies.
        • That's not true Athynz!

          I like my good ole Apple II
  • Re The iMac ....

    There are products that stand out above the rest with the iMac being one of them. It is the Ultimate All-in-One Desktop Machine that other manufacturers aspire. With its Stunning Build Quality as we come to expect from Apple, a Display which is outstanding, High Quality component used throughout all inside a Compact enclosure the iMac is an extremely compelling product.
    However there are downsides most notably the inability to carry out post purchase Hardware Upgrades. I have the 2012 21" iMac and to take advantage of the benefits of SSD I run OS X Mavericks from a USB 3.0 External Hard Drive on a 512GB Crucial M4 SSD. Performance is outstanding as you would expect but to have the option of installing internally would be no doubt beneficial.
    • seriously?

      In 2011, the iMac I bought in 2009 developed burn marks on the screen due to the not-good build quality. And I'm hardly the only iMac user who had that problem... Since then, iMacs have had faster and hotter processors put into smaller spaces. The 2011 iMac I used at college was emanating so much heat I was sweating. The trend does not look good and these things are not well made. They look pretty, but that does not pass as "stunning build quality". HUGE DIFFERENCE.