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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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. 

Image: CNET.com


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.

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