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.


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, 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.