This past week I finally made the switch. After over a decade on Mac, I’m moving back to PC.
I’ve really enjoyed the Apple products I’ve used these past years, but the company’s approach to creatives has, in my opinion, seriously languished, especially in respect to those who need more powerful equipment.
My first Mac was a 2005 Mac Pro, of the cheese grater variety. It was a heavy beast, but at the time it was pretty hefty in respect to the internals. I moved on to the 2008 Mac Pro some years later, and as the Mac Pros used to allow significant internal upgrades, I upgraded it about as far as it would go.
In 2014 that machine simply wasn’t cutting it anymore, and it was time to get a new machine. The 2013 Mac Pro Trashcan had just been released, and while I was intrigued by it, at the time my wife and I were in the middle of paying off our house, and I just couldn’t justify the $9000 price tag that would get me the machine I wanted.
I opted for the late 2014 iMac, which was the first to have the 5K screen. Even though it was consumer level machine, it still performed rather well considering its form factor and price.
With this machine I spec’d out most of the internals, save for the RAM, which I opted to upgrade via 3rd party for some significant savings. The interesting thing is that I had a trashcan Mac Pro at my then current employment, and while it was definitely faster, in truth it wasn’t $5000+ faster.
Apple had made some bets on where the industry was going in regards to internals and definitely made a bad bet. They also created a machine that they themselves later admitted had a design flaw which effectively designed them into a thermal corner. I enjoyed my time with the machine, but some constant issues with it degraded its luster in my eyes.
My goal had originally been to get the iMac as a stop-gap measure until Apple would surely release a 2nd generation of the trash can Mac Pro. After all, they had made a big deal about how it proved they could still innovate- they surely wouldn’t just make this and forget it, right?
Well, unfortunately, that’s exactly what Apple did. I watched as the years went by with no successor to the Mac Pro trashcan. My 2014 iMac was still going strong, but as 2017 rolled along I knew it would be time to upgrade soon. Every year, of course, I was expecting Apple to do something, anything, about this situation.
But they didn’t.
After all, here I was with a machine that was now essentially a closed box. I had upgraded the RAM as much as I could, but there was now nowhere to go. Things like offloading GPU power to eGPUs over Thunderbolt was floated as an upgrade possibility, but even still has yet to really meaningfully materialize. And even then this machine was stuck at Thunderbolt 2, which couldn’t even fully take advantage of an eGPU.
And all this time I was wanting to give Apple money for a new machine, but they simply didn’t have a machine for me to buy. To be sure, I could get marginal performance increases with the yearly iMac 5K updates, but that would of course mean spending the same amount of money for another closed box.
I didn’t do it.
Finally, after years of silence and neglect, Apple’s bumbling of the new Macbook Pro in 2017 caused such furor that it must have caused them to realize (how they didn’t realize this before is beyond me!) that they simply were not meaningfully addressing the professional market. People were opting for older versions of the Macbook Pro over against the new ones because of some questionable decisions that had been made.
In a rare mea culpa (or at least as close as it comes for Apple), they not only admitted this and their failures and design flaws with the new Mac Pro, but also in a rare bout of future-casting promised a soon forthcoming version of a professional iMac and a “modular” Mac Pro sometime later on.
At WWDC 2017 they gave a sneak preview of the new iMac Pro, which was a spec sheet drool fest when it came out. It even came in a really cool color. But as the euphoria of Apple maybe-possibly releasing a new pro-focused machine died down, the reality (at least for me) set in.
Like all iMacs, this was another closed box. But unlike the iMac 5K, you couldn’t even upgrade the RAM (yourself) in the “Pro” version. Instead, as they finally clarified later, it could be upgraded by a certified technician, which, of course, meant the potential loss of your machine for perhaps a day or more just to upgrade something as easy to upgrade (at least on other non-pro machines) as RAM.
Not to mention paying someone to do what in their consumer model you can do yourself in about 30 seconds… One started to suspect that this was because of the closed box nature of the machine and Apple’s obsession with thinness. Could it be (surely not!) that they had designed themselves into yet another thermal corner?
Benchmarks started to filter out, and while it was certainly a great machine, it wasn’t simply blowing away the competition. In fact, in many use case scenarios (like non-multi-threaded tasks) it was quite a lot slower than far lower priced consumer equipment.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for the iMac Pro was that all of these negatives came with quite a lot of sticker shock. The iMac Pro started at $5000 and only went up from there, maxing out at somewhere around $14,000. For myself, the configuration I was wanting hovered somewhere around $7500.
To be sure, these are not necessarily insane prices for all the hardware included. The iMac Pro boasts an impressive spec sheet. However, the ultimate problem for me came down to this: even though the value of the internals was in line with market prices, the fact remained that this was still a sealed box.
And no upgrades. If you want a new one in 2 or 3 years, you have to buy a new one (assuming, of course, that they release a new one…)
While I was initially planning on paying the premium for the hardware, I eventually realized that- for me at least- this would be a really insane thing to do.
It was this that led me to think about creating my own PC.
That and my iMac randomly died one day. There I was, minding my own business, restarting the machine, and it simply wouldn’t restart. Hours on the phone with tech support finally brought me to the point I already was afraid of- I’d have to wipe it and start over.
Fortunately, everything was backed up and I didn’t lose any data, but even after reinstalling Mac OS it still didn’t work properly. I decided it was time to pull the trigger.
Back when I first contemplated building my own PC around 12 or so years ago, you had to have much more expertise. It was a daunting task that could brick a computer quickly if you didn’t know what you were doing. I was hesitant to try and jump into that world.
But as I started to research the process, I discovered that custom PC building has come a long way in the past decade. So many more components work together, the case designs and such are much easier to work with, and there is a ridiculous amount of info on the whole process.
A bit of a warning: if you are making the change from Mac to a custom built PC, the shift in aesthetics can be little jarring. Macs tend to be minimalistic and understated, meant to blend into the space and perhaps highlight its own features more in terms of what’s not there rather than what is.
Custom PC builds tend to be almost the exact opposite. I would primarily describe the aesthetic as LOUD, although you can obviously still create a tastefully designed PC.
When you first start researching, you’ll notice an overabundance of LED lights, and it will become obvious that many custom PC builds are meant to draw as much attention to the machine as possible. Whether RGB lights on the RAM (or even power supply!) or custom water cooling loops, much of the PC build scene is about this sort of aesthetic. This is principally because a lot of the audience is comprised of gamers, for whom such an aesthetic often makes more sense. It is still not difficult to avoid this aesthetic if you want, but be warned that many of the examples you’ll see out there favor this sort of loud aesthetic.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
I’ve spent many hours researching my custom build, from figuring out what processor to get to weighing the pros and cons of water cooling or air cooling. There are almost unlimited options out there, but much will be determined by your primary use case. For me that is After Effects and Premiere Pro work, and many of the components I chose were precisely because of those applications. I’ve tweaked my potential parts list so many times, and continued to do so as I neared actually getting the components and assembling.
Once you get familiar with the components you want, it’s time to start ensuring compatibility. This has gotten easier over the years because so much is compatible with everything else, but it can be tricky to make sure you have the right motherboard with the right processor, etc.
pcpartpicker.com was a lifesaver. It lets you create custom builds with a standard list of needed components, but even better- it helps you ensure compatibility automatically. As you are going through your build, it will compare the items and make sure they work together and inform you if they don’t.
And once you start building, it can even create lists of compatible components. For example, you know your processor will be the Intel i7 8700K. Once you pick that, you can click on it, and it will give links to compatible motherboards, GPUs, storage- everything. It’s a terrific site that can help you dream of your custom build and then help you put it all together.
Even better, there is a great community of others who share their builds, so you can get a sense of what components they used and see how they fit together.
WATCH SOME BUILDS
As I was considering my custom PC build, my biggest point of anxiety was the actual building of it, since I was the one who would have to do it. However, custom builds have a come a long way, and now it is a pretty easy process.
Most of my anxiety went away as I started watching build walkthroughs, often even for nearly the same configuration as I was going to use, sometimes even in the very case I was planning on using. These hour long or so walkthroughs went through the process of installing every component, and watching these processes went a long ways towards convincing me that I could do this myself without too many complications.
The most difficult part was really near the beginning of the process in getting the processor mounted and the air cooler installed, but after that it was really just a simple matter of plugging X cable in Y slot. In fact, I ended up having more difficulty getting the I/O shield installed than anything else!
In effect, if you can put together a piece of furniture from IKEA, you can put together a custom PC.
Be sure to search for a build walkthrough using the processor you want to use, or perhaps search by what case you want to use. You’ll find tons of info which will make a custom build seem very doable long before you actually get the components.
BUY WHAT YOU NEED, UPGRADE WHEN YOU WANT
As I researched this machine, all those years of Mac life had conditioned me to think that I pretty much needed to buy what I wanted upfront, since most Macs are very non-upgradable. However, custom PC building is a whole new world in that it is usually pretty easy to upgrade components as you go.
In my case, I eventually want a lot of RAM, but decided to get 32 GB initially and eventually upgrade to capacity in perhaps half a year. All I have to do is open the case, pop the extra RAM in, close the case, and I’m done. With an iMac Pro, for example, if I wanted to upgrade the RAM I’d have to find a place that can actually do this, schedule a time for them to do this, and then be without my machine for the hours or days it takes for them to upgrade it.
And, of course, pay them for the privilege.
It’s also nice that when I want to upgrade in a couple years or so with newer components, I don’t have to drop another $7500 on an entirely new box.
That kind of seems silly now, especially for a machine with the designation “Pro.”
I was initially thinking about going with an i9 build, but decided on the i7. The great thing, however, is that when I eventually want to upgrade, all I have to do is replace the processor and the motherboard, which is around a $1500 proposition rather than getting an entirely new machine for $7500, which I’d have to do with Mac.
That seems a little silly now.
Blah blah blah- let’s get into the build! Here are the parts I chose and why:
CPU: Intel Core i7 8700K ($345)
Initially I was going to go for a ThreadRipper system, partially because of just how powerful it is, and hey, who doesn’t want 16 cores ripping into one’s work?
However, after much research, I concluded that, for my purposes, at this time ThreadRipper was not for me. While it achieves an insane multi-core score, unfortunately After Effects and Premiere Pro do better with higher single-core clock speeds.
Because of this, I settled on the Intel Core i7 8700K 6 core processor, which can achieve overclock speeds of 5.0 Ghz (I’m currently around 4.9) that After Effects and Premiere Pro gobble up with gusto. According to definitive research from Puget Systems, this processor is currently the go-to standard for After Effects and Premiere Pro, at least at this price range.
Motherboard: ROG STRIX Z370-E GAMING ATX LGA1151 Motherboard ($186.92)
I confess to not being that well-versed in motherboards, but from my research this one got some of the highest marks all around, especially in conjunction with the Intel 8700K. It has the RGB lights on it, if that’s something that matters to you. I find the overall design a little over the top, but my setup is for performance rather than prettiness, so it’s a wash for me.
Memory: Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB ($395.99)
When looking for memory, all I was interested in was fast and low profile. A lot of RAM out there includes RGB lighting which is fun, but usually comes at the expense of a larger vertical footprint. From my research there seemed to be potential issues with fitting certain GPU models in there with high profile RAM, so this one hit all my targets.
SSD Storage: Samsung 970 Pro 512GB M.2 ($314.33)
Samsung 970 Pro 1 TB M.2 ($449.99)
Long-Term Storage: Seagate Barracuda Pro 8TB 7200 RPM ($319.85)
The M.2 SSDs are some of the fastest options out there, and Samsung’s 970 Pro series is almost always on top in terms of speed and performance. My setup utilizes two of these.
The first SSD is exclusively for system files, OS and applications. The second SSD is basically a scratch disk/working file drive. And the spinning drive is for housing projects long term.
My rationale for this setup is that one of the biggest bottlenecks on any system can be the hard drives. Conventional spinning drives- even faster ones like 7200 RPM- simply cannot keep up with the demands of modern media and applications. They work better for relatively fast, cheap long-term storage where performance isn’t critical. As you can see from the price disparity, it is much more cost effective to get a huge, cheap spinning drive for this kind of scenario.
SSDs go a long ways towards relieving performance bottlenecks because of their greatly increased speeds, and because they have no moving parts, tend to be more stable day in and day out. Thus, I will house my apps and OS on one SSD, while having a few current projects on the other, in this way maximizing read/write performance all around.
GPU: ASUS GEForce GTX 1080 Ti ($849.99)
As far as GPUs go, this one is a monster. And while I’m neither a gamer nor utilizing a heavily 3D-based workflow, I wanted a GPU that wouldn’t slow me down. This one is by far the most highly recommended one I came across.
For some time in early 2018 the GPU supply was tightly constrained because of crypto-currency mining, and inflated the price of this card, in some cases nearly doubling its price, assuming you could find one. By the end of the first quarter the supply began to be less constrained, and prices steadily decreased. I waited long enough to avoid the markup, and it’s been a great card.
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-D15 ($86.20)
Originally I had planned on going with an all-in-one (AIO) water cooled setup. I won’t lie- part of the appeal was that the default colors on this thing are straight up UGLY. There was also quite the debate on whether water-cooling was superior to air-cooling.
After a lot of research, I found that air coolers actually tend to perform better than AIO’s, all other things being equal. Noctua’s products receive the highest plaudits hands-down, and so I decided to add this cooler and a couple other Noctua fans to my build. It’s pretty bulky, so I had to make sure it would fit the case, but all has worked out well.
I also discovered that they make colored plates to mask over the gross default colors, and different colors of fans to round out the aesthetic of one’s build. Bonus!
Additionally, the idea of having WATER constantly flowing through my computer case makes me kind of nervous…
Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA p2 850W 80+ Platinum ($159.99)
As a Mac user, I had never thought about the power supply. It didn’t take a whole lot of research to discover what I needed. As far as power supplies go, there are two numbers to look out for:
1. Wattage: This is basically how much wattage the power supply supplies to the system. The higher quality and faster and beefier components you have, generally the more wattage is required. You definitely want to make sure your power supply can accommodate everything, so either add it up or build your system on PC Part Picker which will calculate it for you.
2. Efficiency Under Load: This number is indicated by the number “80” followed by some sort of certification: PLUS, PLUS Bronze, PLUS Silver, PLUS Gold, PLUS Platinum. These certifications tell you how efficient each power supply is by determining how much energy is wasted under 100% load.
For example, a base PLUS certification will waste about 20% of the wattage under 100% load, while a PLUS Platinum will be somewhere around 10%. This is crucial because that wasted energy is spit out into the system in terms of extra heat, which can put more stress on your cooling if it’s not adequate. Plus, if your amount of power is just barely sufficient for the system as a whole, that wasted energy may create further problems.
My system build checks in around 504 watts, so I opted for the 850W Platinum power supply. This ensures that it wastes as little energy as possible, releases as little heat as possible and has plenty of overhead so as not to run into power issues.
Case: Fractal Design Define R6 ($129.99)
My case mostly sits out of sight, so the aesthetics aren’t crucial to me. That being said, I kind of wanted something that was somewhat stylish while still being understated with plenty of airflow.
The Define R6 won out on both counts, being a relatively small case with plenty of room for all my components. I really appreciate its modularity and overall “I’m barely here” aesthetic. It also has great cable management, which is a plus.
Monitor: BenQ 27” 4K Monitor ($449.00)
I really love the 5K monitor on my iMac, but unfortunately it cannot be used as a monitor for another system (weeping, gnashing of teeth…). I didn’t want to shell out a fortune on a 5K monitor, so I decided to take it a step down to 4K. I picked this monitor because it has some great color features that conform to specific parameters, and comes pretty highly recommended by designers and video creators alike.
OS: Windows 10 Pro ($139.99)
For me, most of the Pro edition features are things I wouldn’t actually use as I’m mostly working on my own. However, what tipped the scales towards Pro was that it allows you to defer updates, which allows me to finish projects that could potentially be broken by installing an update. It would also be annoying to have an update suddenly start running during my working hours, potentially costing me time and money. I was able to pick this up for only about $30 more than Home, so it made sense.
Final Price: $3854.00
As is obvious, this isn’t necessarily a cheap computer, but given that I need a system that can chew through 4K footage and After Effects comps, this sort of price is, in my opinion at least, very reasonable. And while I would have loved something as sleek and no hassle like the iMac Pro, the price and lack of upgradability simply made it an unreasonable option for me.
As I mentioned, I was initially torn between the ThreadRipper build and the Intel i7 8700K build, but I also realized that if a future version of ThreadRipper gained better single core clock speed, or if After Effects and Premiere Pro more heavily utilized a multi-core workflow, I wouldn’t be stuck. I could simply purchase a new processor and motherboard and install them without missing a beat, for a fraction of the cost of what I would have spent to move on to a more powerful iMac Pro in the future.
In the end, these sorts of considerations brought me back to the PC and tipped me towards going with a custom build, and I haven’t been disappointed.
Windows has taken a little bit of getting used to, but on the whole has been a relatively painless experience. Initially I was going to try and make some of my Mac peripherals work, but after messing around with the workarounds I decided that it’d be better to just embrace PC and Windows entirely. Relearning keyboard commands has a been a challenge, but I’m slowly getting used to it, and am even finding that there are some aspects of Windows 10 that I enjoy more than Mac OS.
Additionally, After Effects and Premiere Pro are exactly the same on Mac and PC, so the switch has been seamless. Actually, I say “exactly the same,” but that’s not true. Both apps perform far better on PC than on Mac, so I see that as nothing but icing on the cake.
The only thing I’m really missing is Screenflow, a screen capture app that is Mac only. There isn’t really a good alternative for Windows (at least in terms of feature parity), so I’ve been using OBS to capture. It’s not as elegant, but it gets the job done.
So far the PC build has been solid and a pleasure to work with. Everything is fast, and while I still miss Mac OS, Windows 10 is growing on me. All in all I am pleased with my PC build and look forward to using and upgrading it in the future.