So…I Bought an iMac [Part 2]

If you missed part one of this riveting tale of geek suspense, read it first.

I suspect I’m not alone in this statement: as my life has become more complex – especially since having two kids – I’ve come to value simplicity and things that just work more than ever. When I was younger and had the luxury of spending a whole day troubleshooting a tech problem, it was fun. I relished the thrill of conquering a challenge and learning new things along the way. Especially back when my full-time job was being a computer geek that had a broad variety of experiences with Windows hardware, digging into a problem and coming up with a solution worthy of publication was part of what I did, and who I was as a person. Since 2011, that hasn’t been my career any longer, so the appeal has lessened over time.

I still relish learning new things of course, but when I’m pressed for time, I’d rather solve it and move on instead of doing battle with obscure technology issues. I’ve long heard the mantra “Macs just work”, but I dismissed it as mostly hype. After all, my Windows PCs “just work” too…though if I’m being brutally honest, they only “just work” because I’m the one taking care of them and keeping them tuned and running smooth. Windows, for me, is a stable, fast platform with rarely an issue. But that’s only because I take extraordinary care to tune my machines like a Formula 1 race car and am careful about new apps and changes. Sitting down in front of most of my relative’s Windows PCs is a better indication of the average state of affairs for the platform. It’s rarely pretty.

The word that keeps rattling around in my head as I ponder this subject is integration.

So what led me down the path I never thought I’d trod? If you went back five years ago and told me in late 2015 I’d spend almost $3000 USD on an iMac, I’d have laughed at you. Why would I spend that much money on a computer I couldn’t easily upgrade? Why would I buy a computer with fewer software choices, fewer hardware choices, ultimately a computing platform that makes up less than 1/10th of the computers in the world? Five years ago, I couldn’t answer that question. Today I can, at least in part.

The “I” Word

The word that keeps rattling around in my head as I ponder this subject is integration. It’s not an easy word to explain; to me it means the interlocking pieces that make up a computing platform: the hardware, the software, the services, the purchasing process, and the warranty. How all those pieces fit together gives you the experience of that platform.

If there’s one thing that always bothered me about Windows as a platform, was the downright ugly integration so many of the OEMs did. Anyone who’s purchased a PC from Dell, HP, Lenovo, or any other mainstream OEM knows this pain. The pre-installed crapware. The terrible “value added” software the OEMs put on the machines. The UX inconsistencies of OEM apps with the core Windows UX. The way the machines would be abandoned in terms of drivers and updates. That first boot experience where multiple pop-ups are assaulting you because the system is out of date, the trial-ware anti-virus wants you to sign up, the OEM wants you to register, etc. It’s all so damn ugly.

For years, the first thing I’d do with a new laptop would be to re-install Windows and hand-tune it for maximum performance. The fact that Microsoft sells Signature Edition PCs at their stores is an indictment against the approach nearly all major OEMs have to consumer machines. Microsoft knows that consumers hate the way most OEMs do OS images. Whether there are teams of people who desperately try to justify their “value” to the PC chain, or it’s just scratching out a bit more profit in the brutal-low margin game of PC manufacturing, most Windows PCs lack the proper integration of hardware and software. Microsoft’s entire Surface computing line is proof that they know the value of tight integration, and since none of their OEMs were doing a good enough job, they stepped in to show them how it’s done.

Some of the smaller gaming PC companies get this and ship fast, smooth system images, but they make up small numbers in the overall ecosystem. And there’s only so much they can do to smooth over the process if the motherboard manufacturer releases a BIOS update that nukes your system. They lack deep integration. One of the reasons why I’ve had always custom-built Windows desktop machines, and paid more for them than a big OEM’s machine, is the ability to pick the hardware I want and create a lean and mean Windows system image. That takes time and effort though.

Camel, Meet Straw

The above is only a small fraction of what has slowly grown from fringe thoughts in my head to a full-blown “I should try a Mac” sentiment. Like most people, I had a proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” incident. I bought my Dell XPS 13 earlier this year, it came with Windows 8, and it screamed. It was insanely fast – in fact, Dell was remarkably restrained in their software build for it. Other than Dell utilities and apps, there was little to no additional software. Once I bought the 1080p version, I was very pleased with it.

Then I did the Windows 10 upgrade, and things went downhill from there…it wasn’t just one thing. Every time I’d open the laptop to resume from sleep, it would be extremely sluggish. I could watch the taskbar icons re-draw themselves one by one. Dell had some built-in app that would automatically run from a command line every so often – usually after coming out of sleep mode – and I’d see a black command-line window pop up for a brief second before vanishing. Lightroom was strangely slow. I had no end of graphics driver crashes using Adobe Photoshop CC, and Dell was over five versions behind on their graphics drivers vs. what Intel was shipping. And of course you can’t install the Intel drivers because Dell won’t let you (the software install fails). My new shiny laptop felt bloated and sluggish. I was mad.

So I did what any self-respecting geek does: I re-installed Windows 10 from scratch. I carefully installed each Dell driver one by one, skipping the ones where the default Microsoft driver was working well enough. I hand-tuned and tweaked the system until it sang – which, truthfully, doesn’t take much with Windows 8 or 10. Both are lightweight and scream on reasonable hardware, but only if the install image is solid. My Dell XPS 13 was once again just as fast as it was the day I bought it, only now it was running Windows 10. I also upgraded the SSD to 512 GB; I was set to use it for 2-3 years easy. I kept asking myself though “Why the hell did I have to do all this just to get a fast system again? Why was the Windows 10 upgrade not an improvement?”. Chatting with others on Twitter, it’s just a commonly accepted answer that in-place Windows upgrades rarely go well, and for maximum performance a complete re-install is needed. In 2015, I find that hard to accept as OK.

The Desktop Equation

When I looked at my aging desktop – which stunned me by lasting 7 years and still being quite fast –  it was time to replace it with something new. I made the decision to buy a custom rig from Digital Storm; a quiet but powerful Slade to be specific. A few years back, I’d have bought the parts and built my own system (or paid for the basic hardware to be installed). But I simply don’t have the time or desire to go down that road again (until my son Logan is older and building a PC becomes a rite of passage with him). Picking the parts and having experts assemble it, and even, gasp, overclock it for me (!!!) was something I accepted. I was so close to ordering it…but the thought of having to manage and care for another “Formula 1” PC, to tweak and tune it, left me somewhat cold. New, sexy hardware is great, but did I want to go down that road again?

If it was just about hardware, I honestly might have pulled the trigger and been typing this on a Digital Storm PC today. Hardware is only part of the equation however…

The Dominos Fall…

While this was happening, I’d spent some time fighting with desktop video apps. I don’t edit a lot of video, but enough that I’m always looking for good software tools. I use Sony Vegas Pro 13 for editing work videos, and while it’s fast, powerful, and fairly stable, it’s got the same terrible UI it had a decade ago (or more). I had a find a YouTube tutorial to figure out how to put a logo in the bottom corner because the software is so incredibly obtuse. I went on a rampage, installing several video editing apps – Premiere Elements, Premiere Pro, Movavi, and others – and was thoroughly disappointed with all of them. Microsoft abandoned Movie Maker years ago. Premiere Elements in particular had me screaming at my monitor: it has this fairly nice UI, and as soon as I tried to add a title and change it, the whole UI locked up on me – the same problem I had with it 6+ years ago. Some things never change with Adobe software. To complete a video editing project, I fired up iMovie on my five year old Mac Mini, finished the project in the very easy-to-use software, and waited a very long time for it to render (that thing has a 2.4 Ghz Core 2 Duo CPU!). The point is, it worked. I didn’t have to fight with the UI to get my project done.

Layer in the fact that I’ve been using iPads for several years now, and seeing some really innovative photo and video apps on it, while struggling with some of the lack of integration between Windows and iPads…had me thinking about a Mac. Now there are certainly things that drive me insane about the iPad – namely how hard Apple makes it to simply get photos and videos onto it in a way that other apps can access. Part of that will be fixed as more apps adopt iCloud and Dropbox support, but Apple could have made it easier.

My aging twin Dell 27″ monitors put out enough heat to cook a hot dog on, and I’d been pondering a 4K or 5K replacement monitor – something with more pixels and lower wattage (which means less heat) – when I started looking at the new 5K iMac and pricing out the Slade PC plus a Dell 5K monitor, the iMac was cheaper…which shocked me. Suddenly the Windows side of the fence had no cost advantage (though I’d known this for a long time when it came to high-end laptops – Windows laptops were always just as expensive as Macbooks). I went to an Apple store and spent some time using the 5K iMac. I was impressed. My thinking began to shift…

Let me wrap up this long, rambling missive with this: the lack of integration on the Windows side, the lack of quality video editing software, and the fact that many of my core apps are cross-platform (Lightroom, Photoshop, Evernote, Office, Chrome, Handbrake, 1password, etc.), nudged me toward taking the gamble that using an iMac would be an improvement in my overall day to day computing life.

So has it? Well, as I publish this I’m on the verge of having used the iMac for a full week, and it’s been a very interesting experience. Watch for a series of blog posts that explain just how interesting…

Read my blog post about the first day of owning my 5K iMac.