Real World Producer's Guide: Switching from Mac to Windows

It's a topic that arouses emotions in many people, but the fact remains that there isn't one perfect system for everyone. Matt Hepworth shares how he switched from a Mac to a Windows system.  

Waiting for a new Mac Pro? According to Tech Crunch, you'll be waiting for another 9 to 18 months. Do you have creative projects to deliver in the meantime? One option is to move to a Windows-based computer. That's what Matthew Loel T. Hepworth did, and this article details his experience doing so.

Last February, I delivered a big project to a client and did so in record time. While that's something I do on a weekly if not daily basis, this time was different: it was the first time in 26-years I hadn't done the editing on a high-performance Mac. Instead, the machine I used was a Windows-based PC. Normally I would have used my hot-rodded, 12-core, "cheese grater" Mac Pro, but my client's timeframe demanded higher performance than my 2010-era machine could provide. I chose a Windows computer for a variety of reasons, and I'd like to share with you that experience.

Apple's Current Product Line

Remember when Steve Jobs retook the helm at Apple, albeit in an interim-CEO capacity? One of the first things he did was trim the vast number of Mac designs down to four: two consumer products (the iMac and iBook) and two pro machines (the PowerBook and Power Mac.) With a portable and desktop for each kind of customer, it all made sense.

But the Mac landscape of today befuddles me. They still offer consumer machines in the MacBook and iMac series, the only current 'pro' desktop they offer is the iMac Pro. (While you can still buy a brand new Mac Pro cylinder designed in 2013, that hardly seems like a wise investment, at least in my opinion.)

Why I Didn't Buy An iMac Pro

I seriously considered buying one of Apple's new space gray iMacs, but it didn't make sense to me. First, they're quite expensive. Second, they're technically a sealed box. Yes, you can gain access to the internals by removing the front glass, voiding your warranty in the process. But you still can't upgrade the GPU because it's soldered to the motherboard. You also can't add more internal storage devices, nor add PCIe cards without adding an eGPU chassis. And third, I already have a workstation and monitors I like. Finding room to cram the iMac Pro and its 5k display into created many unappealing compromises and redesigns of my workspace.

The 2017 iMac Pro

The 2017 iMac Pro

While there were ways around those issues, the determining factor for me was this: I don't use Apple's pro software, namely Logic and Final Cut Pro. While both programs are great, I don't use them. I've been nervous about committing to Apple software ever since they killed Logic for Windows, discontinued Aperture, and the whole Final Cut Pro X rollout was handled very poorly in my opinion. Instead, I rely on Adobe Creative Cloud (mainly Premiere Pro and Photoshop), as well as Steinberg Cubase Pro and WaveLab Pro. Yes, I could have purchased and learned Apple's pro software, but that would have taken a lot of time and put a kink in my ability to deliver for my clients quickly. What I needed was a fast box that would run the software I already know.

Why I Bought Windows Machines

A computer booting to an operating system doesn't provide me with a paycheck. It's only when I launch an app that I can end up invoicing for my services. The great thing about all the software I use is that it's cross-platform, meaning that it runs on both Mac and Windows. While I'm not a fan of Windows, I started looking at what PC manufacturers had to offer. I needed bleeding edge specs to be able to meet my client's delivery dates. I ended up with two computers: a fully-loaded Dell XPS 15 9560 (with an Nvidia GPU, more on that later) laptop for road use, and a custom-built tower based on the 18-core Intel i9-7980XE processor for the studio.

The Origin PC, one of the many boutique PC makers

The Origin PC, one of the many boutique PC makers

Pick A Card, ANY Video Card

My venerable Mac Pro has an Nvidia Titan X video card in it. If I'd gone with an Apple offering, it would have been an AMD product. Since Premiere Pro takes full advantage of the CUDA technology in Nvidia GPUs, I went with one GTX 1080 Ti, but can also add up to three more in the same chassis and STILL have room left over for more PCIe cards. It had been a long time since I was able to add whatever hardware I wanted without making sure it was Apple-compatible, let alone having a large number of slots with which to expand.

Growing Pains

I feel like Windows 10 (specifically the Fall Creators Edition, version 1709) is the best version of Windows yet. It's more stable than Windows 7, and puts the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Windows 8 to shame. Be that as it may, it lacks the cohesive feel of the macOS. For example, a control panel screen has the basic settings on it, but you need to find the 'show advanced features' button to reveal all the settings, which are grouped together in a separate Windows 7-like tabbed box. You also don't get office apps that come with Apple machines like Pages and Numbers, requiring a subscription to Office 365 (or something like it) should you need such programs. You won't have Messages or much access to all the other macOS/iOS integrated apps that round out the Apple ecosystem, but those aren't things my clients care about. They want their projects delivered on-time and on or under budget, and absolutely don't care what OS I'm using.

One significant disappointment was realizing I'd have to install a compulsory antivirus program on both new machines. Not knowing who made the best program with the smallest parasitic performance hit on the computer, I put Sophos Home on the laptop (the same app I use on my Macs), and ESET NOD32 on the tower. Both programs are a huge improvement over the older security programs that tended to make a brand new computer feel like it was already 5-years old. I'm happy to report that both programs work invisibly in the background and don't hog resources.

Input devices are another issue. A mouse is like an old pair of shoes: you put them on and say, "ah...that's the ticket." After using the Apple Magic Mouse for years, it seems like no one makes a great touch mouse for Windows. I've tried the Microsoft Surface Touch and the (now discontinued) Logitech Ultrathin Touch Mouse, but nothing works as well for me as the Magic Mouse. While there is a hack to get the Apple mouse working on Windows, it's not as good as using the same mouse on a Mac. That has required me to seek out the perfect mouse for me, and the quest continues.

I also miss the column view of the MacOS. While there are clever ways to move files around in Windows 10, column view was what I was used to. But one thing I love about Windows is being able to hit the maximize button without having to hold down the Mac Option key to get it to fill the screen. (Why Apple changed that without a preference option to keep it as-is I’ll never know.)

Modifier Muscle Memory

Select All is Command...I mean, Ctrl - A. Quit is Command - Q...I mean, Alt - F4. If you're a keyboard shortcut fanatic like me, it will take time to remember which modifier key to use because they're different between Macs and PCs. Many operations I could perform without looking at the keyboard because my muscle memory was so finely tuned. So it's taking some time to execute those shortcuts without thinking about the keyboard geography first.

Was It Worth It?

I know I said the iMac Pro is expensive, and it's one of the things that prevented me from buying it. That's not to say that the i9 tower I had built was much cheaper. By the time you install the fastest single processor on the market (about $1,700.00 by itself), 64 GB of RAM, a high-performance motherboard, two large NVMe SSD drives, and a modern GPU, it can quickly add up. In my case, it was about $9,500.00, which is roughly the same price as a middle-of-the-road iMac Pro. But the PC is much more expandable AND has more than twice the storage space. The highest-capacity internal SSD you can order for an iMac Pro is 4 TB, whereas my machine has a 1 TB system SSD, 2 TB work SSD, (both have redundant 1 and 2 TB backup SSDs), and 8 TB of RAIDed hard drives for local storage with room to grow. Oh, and RAIDing the drives could be done through the UEFI or in Windows, and did not require a $50.00-per-computer utility to provide what the macOS (up to Mac OS X 10.10.x Yosemite) used to do by itself.

As for the laptop, it was $1,100.00 cheaper than the MacBook Pro equivalent and had double the RAM and SSD space AND a 4k touch display. But the Killer Wi-Fi card was very slow on my 802.11ac network. After working with Dell online for about an hour, they recommended replacing it with an Intel 8265 card. Two days later, a technician showed up at my studio to install the card. It took less than 15-minutes, which is less time than it takes to visit The Genius Bar, let alone having to ship it off if it needs a serious repair. I found Dell's service on this issue second to none.

All 36 logical processors of the Intel i9-7980XE in action.

All 36 logical processors of the Intel i9-7980XE in action.

So was it all worth it? Emphatically I say yes. All my software feels much faster and zippier than ever before. Render times are much faster, and I revel at how quickly I can complete a project when I see all 18-cores/36-logical processors crunch the numbers. When I'm on the road, I don't have to set my video card to 1/2 or 1/4 quality just to get multicam video to playback without dropped frames like I would on my MacBook Pros. A project that used to take 45 minutes to render on my MacBook Pros took only 6-minutes on the Dell XPS. (Granted, those Macs are all 2011 machines, but it's still a vast improvement for me.) Overall, I'm thrilled with the performance of both computers, and my clients are happy because I can complete their projects faster.

Now that Apple has confirmed that the new modular Mac Pro won't be shipping until sometime in 2019, I'm even more happy with my decision to move to Windows. But I'm also confused by why it will take a Pro Workflow Team at Apple 2.5 years to build a computer that creative professionals need. We already know what we need: a box with a fast CPU, lots of RAM, a speedy GPU, a sure-footed system bus, and expandability. (Man, I hope they don't put a Touch Bar on the Mac Pro. I'm joking...sort of.) While I'm eager to see what Apple come up with, I could no longer afford to wait. If you're using Apple software, you have to stay on the Mac and hope they build a box that can both perform to your satisfaction and be within your budget. But if your software is cross-platform and you need a performance boost sooner than later (whenever Apple decides 'later' is), then moving to Windows might be a solution for you.

Tech Crunch article: https://techcrunch.com/2018/04/05/apples-2019-imac-pro-will-be-shaped-by-workflows/ 

Learn to make music on Mac, PC, Linux, iOS and Android in our courses in the Ask.Audio Academy: https://ask.audio/academy?nleloc=new-releases 

Matthew Loel T. Hepworth

More articles by this author

MATTHEW LOEL T. HEPWORTH has been teaching music technology since 1984. The son of educators, he has the ability to thoughtfully instruct people to get the most from complicated music products and software. He authors the Cubase and WaveLab tutorials for macProVideo.com and authored several books including WaveLab 7 Power!, The Power i... Read More

Discussion

Vanhaze
You could also have gone the Hackintosh way 😉
MattLTH
The Hackintosh method is really labor-intensive, plus it dramatically narrows your choice of hardware. Like I said in the article: I get paid to produce audio and video products for my clients, and they won't pay me more to use a Mac or Hackintosh. However, if a Hackintosh works for you, use it by all means.

MattLTH
ivandub
I've been an Apple user for over 10 years but, lately, have been disappointed by the direction they are taking with their new products. Their obsession with making their laptop lines thinner and thinner has resulted in them having to ditch useful ports (USB3, Thunderbolt) for those tiny USB-C ports which require adaptors or docks to use all your gear not to mention their pricing which is more and more unaffordable for the average person. Then there are those "butterfly" keyboards which are failing at an alarming rate. I'm no fan of Windows but am also considering changing over if Apple continues on the path they've chosen. Then, too, there's always Linux.
MattLTH
I'd love to use Linux is any of my apps (like Cubase, Nuendo, WaveLab, Creative Cloud CC, tons of plug-ins, etc.) ran on it.

MattLTH
profdraper
Been there, done that a couple of years ago. Dell T9170 workstation, 4k video & sound production. No probs, very fast, reliable, no looking back. BTW, the Hackintosh route is the absolute worst of both worlds. The mind boggles ...
MattLTH
I hear you. It's difficult to buy the idea that a Mac is better when your projects get completed so much more quickly on a PC.

MattLTH
BJ Boyd
I've also made the transition from Mac to PC over the last few years (I was a loyal Apple user for the best part of 10 years). Primarily using Windows, but I've recorded and mixed a whole album in Linux (using Ardour). The good news was that any software I had purchased to use with my Apple products I could download and use the windows versions for free (that included Ableton Live, Cubase Elements, Izotope and more).
I definitely feel Apple have "dropped the ball" in the last few years and having closed systems that you can't upgrade was one of the reasons I moved to windows. No regrets, I'm very happy with my Windows laptop & desktop set-up.
MattLTH
Thanks for your insights, BJ. I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of cross-platform software.

MattLTH
Stevegalante
I wonder if you are using Protools and, if so, if and how is it using all the 36 cores ?
MattLTH
Hi Steve. No, I don't use Pro Tools. I'm more of a Cubase & Nuendo user. But my best guess is that the 7980XE would move a lot of numbers in PT.

MattLTH
Stevegalante
It would be nice if you could make a test jut to see how many cores PT would use....
Joel Laviolette
It's timely to read this. I am in the exact same boat. I have a 2012 Mac Pro 12 core. I switched to a Mac back when I was on Cubase 5. Just yesterday I bought the parts to build an i7-8700K and Windows 10. I came to realize that even though I prefer Mac OS, when I am sitting down and working on Cubase, it doesn't matter what DAW is in the background. I'm disappointed that Apple let us down for so long. :-( I was actually considering getting the cylinder Mac Pro because I actually really like the portability of it. I could imagine being able to take it while traveling and not having to deal with transferring projects between my Macbook Pro and my studio computer, but the cost of it compared to the performance of this new i7 is so vast that I couldn't justify it.
MattLTH
Thanks for your thoughts, Joel. I feel like there are more and more people who recognize the app to be more important than the OS.

MattLTH
The Beggster
Yep. Me too. I was a Mac user from 1991 until 2009, then when Apple started dumping the server stuff (at the time I was installing systems in post studios) I dabbled with Windows on the desktop and Linux on the server end on non-Apple machines as part of my investigations, and then I jumped in feet first with my next upgrade in about 2010. I haven't looked back and Apple's shafting of their pro base has made my decision feel prescient. I still support Macs for the (diminishing) number of clients who still use them - mostly graphic design guys, anyone else needs more performance it seems but I no longer recommend Apple unless the client specifically insists. Windows 7 was a little bit strange but I found it surprisingly good, considering my uninformed opinion of Windows, based on NT from about 1997. The antivirus thing was a head-scratcher at first, but I've been using free anti-virus and firewall stuff (Avast) with no problems and very little admin overhead (most of the commercial packages are full of bloatware and do far more stuff, unrelated to virus protection, than most of us need). Options opened up, I could put whatever cards I wanted in my machines and use non-ECC memory for a huge saving (on a workstation, not a server) and, so far, I have not identified a single problem with memory corruption.. There were a few bits of software I missed and I skipped Windows 8 (straight to 8.1) so missed that little bit of awfulness. Windows 10 is good, although I actually wish I'd stayed with 7. Microsoft has gone all Apple on me, what with updates and other background stuff I prefer to have knowledge and control over (without having to jump through hoops) - I still like to know what my computer is doing. Anyway, my experience has been pretty good and I wouldn't go back now. The key is to not buy the bargain basement stuff. That's awful. Instead, consider how much you would spend on a pro Mac (if one existed), cut a couple of grand from your budget and go to a reputable assembler (PCSpecialist is who I use in London). You'll get a beast with more power, more expand-ability and, if you do it right, even have something that looks as good as a Mac. Not that this really matters, as the author says, you're only really on the clock when you're in your software so as long as something looks 'pro' for when clients come around it doesn't matter if it was designed by Sir Jonny.
MattLTH
I fully concur. No client has said, 'ooo, what a highly-fuctional OS' or 'ooo, what a pretty machine', followed with, 'you should charge us more.' Clients want their projects on time and on/under budget. They don't care which OS you use and which box you run it on.

MattLTH

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