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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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...

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.

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