How the iMac broke my 18-month PC upgrade cycle

David Gewirtz eats PCs for breakfast. Every 18 months or so, he's needed to upgrade his main machine to handle his ever-increasing workload. But not now. This time, a mere iMac has broken the cycle. Read on to learn how.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Image: Apple

I have a confession to make. I have not adopted the post-PC mindset. Sure I have smartphones and more tablets than any rational human should need. But when I do real work, I rely on desktop computers with tons of RAM and really fast storage.

And for the past decade or more, every 18 months or so, I've needed to upgrade to a new machine.

It's been like clockwork. I buy (or configure and build) the fastest, most robust machine I can find, spending far more money than I like, go through all the hassle of moving all my work, storage, configurations, applications, and love to the new machine.

Then, right about month 15, I come to the realization that I've used up that once new machine and need more power. By month 18, I'm swearing up a blue moon, and decide once again to cause damage to my wallet and upgrade once again.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

More great project ideas

Many of you might not understand the need for so much power, but the sort of work I do (which ranges from programming to giant PowerPoints to simulating entire networks of computers with up to sixteen live, active VMs) eats horsepower for breakfast.

My projects nearly always get more complex, the scale of them tends to grow, the number of things I need to work on nearly simultaneously tends to increase, and after a while, I realize the only way I'm going to meet my next set of deadlines is if I have a faster main machine.

This cycle reached its zenith in the fall of 2013, when not only did I need a main machine with more power, I needed two: one to run Windows software and one to run software only available for Macs.

The problem was actually manifesting itself through the summer of 2013, but I knew that Apple was set to announce the previously teased cylindrical Mac Pro, so I held out until Apple announced the pricing and availability of the Mac Pro, along with a new, updated iMac.

I fully expected to be an early Mac Pro buyer, but as Why I bought a tricked out iMac instead of a Mac Pro shows, the iMac proved to be the better purchase decision for my needs. I decided that since the Mac could run Windows software (either in a VM or a dual-boot variance), I'd replace my 18-month old trusty Wintel box with a Mac.

I went with the VM approach running Parallels because that would allow me to drag and drop between actively running Windows and Mac applications -- which, since the time I bought the iMac, has saved me an almost unmeasurable, but definitely noticeable amount of time.

The iMac I bought was maxed-out: it has 32GB of RAM, a terabyte of flash storage, and all the fastest configuration options that were available at the time of purchase. It cost about as much as a small, ten-year-old car, but was much, much faster.

Like all my primary desktops, I fully expected (I didn't like, but this cycle is a fact of my professional life), so I fully expected to need to replace that Mac after about 18 months -- which, the astute observer might notice was roughly last May.

May came and went and not even a thought crossed my mind about replacing or upgrading the iMac. I was up to my ears in projects, working seven days a week, pretty near 16 to 18 hour days, and the Mac was keeping up with everything I threw at it. It just did its job, it was fast enough and powerful enough to handle everything I threw at it, and so I didn't even notice that the 18 month "I can't stand this machine anymore" cycle flew right by.

Uh oh. Trouble.

November came, which marked the two-year anniversary of the iMac, and that I did notice. In October, Spotlight completely stopped working. I did storage integrity scans to no avail. I deleted and rebuilt the Spotlight indexes, also with no improvement. Spotlight couldn't even find applications.

The problem, I was convinced, was the El Capitan update for OS X. I was convinced that something in that update nuked Spotlight in my configuration. I thought about going back to Yosemite, but reverting back to an old OS on a Mac is not a fun (or intuitive) process.

To say I was frustrated is an understatement. What had been a perfectly functional machine turned into a troublesome, unhelpful pain. No amount of Web searching, command-line command writing, calling on Mac guru friends, summoning demons from the dark, or making offerings to the tech gods would help.

I thought the machine was finally toast. I started to prepare myself for the expected, incredibly annoying trek to the equally incredibly annoying Apple Store and the so-called Genius bar. I didn't expect good results, but after the amount I spent on the thing, I figured I owed it to myself to look into every option.

And then, in the first week of December: salvation. Apple released 10.11.2, its second major update to El Capitan, and suddenly my iMac was performing properly again. Suddenly, it was its old self and was running just about perfectly. Suddenly, I no longer needed to consider whether or not I had some sort of hardware failure, or needed to revert back to an old OS, or consider buying a new main desktop.

Suddenly it all worked again

And I got back to work and promptly, once again forgot about my every-18-month upgrade cycle. The iMac, which is now two years and two months old, is once again working like a champ.

The thing that's most interesting to me is that the major Spotlight failure (which caused me no end of angst), is the only problem I've had with the machine. It's still as fast as it was when I got it. It's able to handle any new software I throw at it without wheezing like a geezer. It's still perfectly able to run a pile of VMs, Windows, OS X, and drag and drop between them all.

It's rock solid. I have no expectation of needing to replace the machine, possibly for at least another year (if not longer). In fact, back when I wrote about choosing the iMac over the Mac Pro, I specifically stated that I was not producing 4K videos or doing 3D rendering. I said that if that were the sort of work I was doing, I probably would have chosen the substantially more expensive Mac Pro.

However, I am now working quite a lot in 4K video. I'm doing a lot of 3D work for my 3D printing discovery series. The surprising thing is that the iMac -- the two year old iMac -- handles these new workloads just as smoothly as anything else I've thrown at it. Even two entirely new classes of workload haven't slowed this beast down.

This is the first time since well before XP first came out, that I haven't needed to replace my main machine inside of 18 months. That's a surprising, amazing fact and one that definitely makes the case for the Mac as a solution.

For those curious about why I didn't just build my own PC and upgrade components, I just want to remind you I need software that runs in both OS X and Windows. That pointed me more in the Mac direction. But even in recent years, when I could have just used components in a tower PC, I found that pre-built machines took a lot less power and a smaller footprint, so I pretty much stopped building my own boxes about four years ago.

Yes, I still hate the Finder. But the rest of the Mac is pretty darned sweet. And it does its job. Yes, the machine was expensive (wallet-bleedingly so), but if you figure that I might get twice (or more) the life out of this machine than I have all the main machines I've used in the past, the Mac actually becomes substantially more cost-effective than those previous Windows-only machines.

So there you go. That's how my late 2013 iMac broke my 18-month PC upgrade cycle.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards