Don't Buy the iMac Pro, Build This Instead

I've been a full-time wedding photographer for the past eight years and an Apple fan since I was in fourth grade. But today, that has all changed. Here is why.

In fourth grade, I remember using the Apple II GS workstation in math class. When I was in high school I learned Photoshop on the famous colored and clear iMacs. In 2004 I bought the first line of the G5 white iMacs and I upgraded a few years later to a Mac Pro tower with dual processors. In 2008 I bought a Macbook Pro and after that a 27-inch iMac i7 with an array of connected G-Tech hard drives. So to say I was an Apple fan would be an understatement; I was truly committed in every way.

Six months ago it was time for an upgrade and I was willing to pay an extremely high price to purchase a computer that could keep up with my busy wedding photography business. I went to my local Apple Store and was sadden to see Apple's current workstation options. It felt like Apple was completely neglecting the pro market. As an example, a top of the line 27-inch iMac costs $5,300 and this doesn't even include the market's latest hardware. $1,400 of that price was for the RAM alone (more than double the market price). I was told by an Apple Store employee that the new line of iMacs are no longer user upgradable, and if I attempted to add RAM after the sale it would void the warranty. I was willing to pay a premium for an Apple computer but this was ridiculous.

When it comes to the physical look and design of Apple computers, it's obvious that they are still the king. How do they do it? Throttling. Have you ever held a powerful GPU? They are huge; almost the size of an iMac by itself, and that's why you can't get a powerful GPU in any Mac. Even if an iMac has the same chip as a comparable Windows computer, by slowing down the performance of that chip, it will create less heat, and Apple can save space. I love the beautiful design, but for my business, I need the best tool for the job, not the sleekest.

If you're anything like me, you're probably a big fan of Apple's operating system, but if you really think about it, you may realize just how little you rely on your operating system. I don’t know about you, but for me as an actual working pro my software needs are simple:

  • Email
  • Lightroom
  • Photoshop
  • Photomechanic
  • Premiere Pro
  • Word and Excel
  • Google Chrome and Google Calendar 

None of the computing needs for my business require an Apple computer. But, when I thought about building my own computer, I realized that the Apple ecosystem was limiting me. Here's a list of things that you could never do with an iMac: 

  • Ability to experiment with VR.
  • Ability to play some 3D AAA game titles.
  • Ability to integrate ALL external drives inside of one case (clear off my desk!).
  • Ability to have removable internal storage for offsite backups.
  • Ability to replace or upgrade any part at any time.
  • Ability to use a screen larger than 27 inches and not have to have more than one (or have to use Thunderbolt).
  • Ability to use the latest tech, and have full control over power and performance.

So I decided to leave Apple and for the first time in my life. I built a PC, and not just any PC, “my” PC.

My Computer Components

Now, I will save you the time in totaling this all up and tell you that it’s $7,213 before shipping. That might sound like a lot, but it is still more powerful and way cheaper than a top of the line iMac Pro and external storage. If you're unfamiliar with building a computer, check out this video.

My Workflow and Data Backup System 

Speaking of storage, one of the things that I am most proud of on either system (Apple or PC) has been my personal “data workflow” which I shared here on Fstoppers about this time last year on my Apple computer system. I am so excited to have been able to finally refine this and drastically reduce the amount of “mess” needed to accomplish the same task with this PC build. I use separate internal drives (listed above) for different applications. Then, every night at 3:30 a.m. my system looks at all the connected drives one by one and writes not one, but two copies of all the data creating a mirror on large 8 TB drives (basically a RAID 1). One of them is the master backup and lives in my PC all the time. The other is the offsite drive and this is ejected, and replaced with a third 8 TB drive once a week and taken offsite. So, this means that all my data is on four drives at all times and one of them is offsite. The program that I use on the PC to manage all of this, ViceVersa Pro, is incredible and costs just $60. I would strongly recommend this setup for anyone who can not afford to lose their clients data, and complete details can be found in the video at the top of the article. To me, this is what it means to have a professional setup and workflow.

What's It Like Using Windows?

Coming from a lifetime of using OSX, moving to Windows was my greatest fear. I can tell you that all of the little things that I loved about OSX are now available in Windows 10, and a current PC is not like it was years ago. Microsoft has finally caught up to Apple in this sense and is leading in many ways. Gone are the days of worrying about blue screens of death or viruses. My computer just works and the operating system is almost completely forgotten as I use the same software that I used on my Mac. 

macOS is a closed system with hardly any user options. This is not the case with Windows 10. You have the control to use your computer how you see fit, but, at the same time, it doesn't require any customization if you'd rather keep things simple. Using Windows 10 has been incredibly easy, and at no point have I wished I was back on macOS.  

I am not here trying to say that Windows PCs are the best solution for everyone, it all depends on how you use a computer. If you don't have a long list of performance expectations, then Apple’s products may be the best choice for you. But, if your goal is to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, you may want to consider building a custom rig to meet your exact needs. 

Don’t just listen to me, or any one person. Do your own research and become your own expert. Don’t let emotion cloud your judgment when it comes to high ticket items like this. Do what makes the most sense, and don’t be afraid to consider all of your options. I can tell you that my only regret is that I did not do this sooner.

Written by Travis Harris.

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Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, the OS is still the biggest barrier to me. I currently have need for windows so have it installed and just find the whole experience to be very poor. The gap is certainly narrowing though. (Though, in all honesty, I feel like thats just as much due to a slow decline in Apple's quality as it is an increase in the quality of Windows)

Travis Harris's picture

Hey Ryan! Yeah, I agree. The OS was my biggest fear, but so far so good with this new system. I truly have no regrets for practical use. It works great!

I've switched back to a Windows 10 desktop last year after using Macs for 6+ years. While indeed there is still a little gap in stability between Win 10 and MacOS, the user experience is more or less the same. I mean, I use the same softwares on both platform, they behave absolutely the same way. How dives daily into the depth of its OS? So, according to my own personal experience, the fear of the OS is now overrated, except if you use ONLY Apple services and apps.

joel germain's picture

has for stability i agree that apple is more stable but the problem most of the time is the component use. A lot of time, the problem is ram compatibility. But when you go with 100% compatible part, and you bios to make the computer overcloack like you want it..... there is no more problem.

But good news for you all. Go Ryzen hackintosh if you want to complete apple package with today's component for a reasonable price.

Eduardo Francés's picture

Windows has come a long way and Win10 hasn't given me a single problem.

I have a Lenovo Ideapad Y700 (i7 6700, 8gb ram, GTX 960m) and it is a blast to work with it.

And it has more ports than a Macbook :^)

That is not very difficult, isn't it.

michael andrew's picture

What if you just used Lightroom and Photoshop on an ultra Fast work PC? I am thinking about this, I dont see how an "operating system" would prevent me from using Lightroom and Photoshop exactly as I do on a mac.

Travis Harris's picture

Yes. This is basically what i have done here. My PC also houses all my drives for my data workflow. My video covers everything.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Just looking at LR and PS in a void, yeah the user experience is pretty similar, but I don't use those two apps in a void. I remember having this argument with a PC fanboy a while back and after me giving a long list stuff that drives me nuts about Windows, he offered a long list of ways I can configure the computer to avoid that problem and agreed that "right out of the box" the Windows user experience can be pretty rough.

To me, I don't want to have to research like crazy and learn the system at a very high level just to get it functioning the way I want it to. I don't even change any settings on macOS and its great right out of the box for me.

Software is also a big deal, a lot of apps I use are mac only, and the windows equivalents of them leave a lot to be desired. Mostly because they usually are all so different. I find most macOS apps follow similar user experience paradigms (aka the ones set fourth by apple) so user experience across many apps is more consistent, where as on windows every interface feels different to the point of frustration.

Ultimately though, anecdotal experience is king for me. In the last couple years I've installed windows 5 or 6 times on different machines. Every single time I run into a different weird problem that I have to debug in order for the machine to operate properly. I never have this issue with Apple, fresh installations just work right out of the gate. I'm a photographer, not an IT person, I hate dealing with that sort of thing. macOS may cost a lot more on onset, but I almost never have problems that suck my time away, which I value at higher than the difference in cost between the two machines.

Also support is another huge one. At any time I can just calll Apple and they are eager to help me and often do very successfully. With custom built windows rigs every aspect of the machine is tied to a different company and if it is failing you have to depend on that company's support, if they even have it. Usually outsourced to a a support call center in a country with poor english.

Travis Harris's picture

Coming from someone (me) who has used Apple, and OSX since 2004 and have invested TENS of thousands on all the systems I have had with them.. this is what I think. I think using Apple, and OSX is a lot like riding in the back of a limo when you need to go anywhere in a car. Its nice, you dont have to worry about anything, and its luxury. For the most part you just sit there, and relax until you get to your destination. Agreed? The problem is that while thats all fine and good.. there are times when "I" want to drive. I want a different car, and I want to take my own roads. i.e. I WANT more control. This is where the PC / Windows is best. The down side (like in life) you need to learn to drive, and that comes with a curve. It can be good, or bad depending on what your trying to do. I think Apple makes the best "personal" computer. But, in many cases that personal computer is not enough for the wants and needs of a business, or custom data workflows as I have shown. Perhaps a dedicated PC makes the most sense for work, and Apple for the personal life.

michael andrew's picture

I commend the video and what you have accomplished but lets just get down to Brass Tacks here, Macs are more expensive and currently do not offer the same performance no matter what the budget. This is the problem, I cant hand apple 100,000$ today for a computer as well spec'ed and built and performing as 5,000$ worth of PC available to build ones self. This is the issue, I honestly do not care about the money, because to be honest with you it always levels out, you save 1000$ on a computer but you gain 2000$ in stress fro whatever reason. It is mind boggling that Apple currently has no Pro computer up to todays standards.

Every second day I have to switch my USB cable from one port to another (yes, I have 2 of them, did I mention that can't use consistently external USB drive because of that?) just because my camera stops tethering on one of them. Did I mention as well that issues with complete absence of Nikon D810 tethering to Lightroom on Mac are still not resolved?

Grass is always greener on other side. Mac has it's nice share of problems and freezes not less than Windows.

For file operations I often go to PC as it is not just more convenient (can I create a folder just clicking on the list of files? OK, I'll try next time...), it is 10-20% faster in terms of transfer speed.

For event work selection and editing I use Mac exclusively as it just feels faster.

Travis Harris's picture

I sware by Lexus. I love them, and have never had an issue with my
SUV. On the other hand Lexus replaced thousands of major parts on cars worldwide. A guy replied below that MSI motherboards are crap, yet mine is working great. In my 14 years of Apple computers (two iMacs, Mac Pro tower, and a MBP) I have had PSU fail, inverter fail, on the Mac Pro, I had one cinima display go bad, I had the logic board go bad in the MBP, and then a year later the screen died and is now $700 to fix. My last iMac did the best, but devolved bad thermal issues in the end. I have had many times where all my machines at one point or another have required a hard reset and reboot, and all of this shows that it just not matter. Any mass produced product is going to fail at some point and people will have different experiences. That said, I'm not complaining. I think this is life and how things go. If my Lexus developed a bad transmission, I won't think they are now crap, if my new motherboard fails, it does not mean Apple is better.

Travis Harris's picture

Hey Bob. For sure. Your correct, what your saying is true. What I am saying is also true. It's funny how things end up working out with physical products. Apple's closed OS is both their biggest strong point, and weak point all at the same time. It does have some advantages, just as you are saying.. but, it also has some disadvantages, much of which I have run into as a pro user wanting to create a workstation that can sustain my business in a practical way. The crazy thing is this.. as much as Apple is popular among "creatives" its a tiny, sliver of the world wide computer market. Most business (in volume) use PC's not only because they are cheaper, its also because they are a lot more configurable. That's the one thing Apple does not want users to do (locked down OS). So, Apple is great for the masses, and "average" users, even pro use as long as your not doing what I am doing with data (and thats an argument all on its own) Let's not forget that I have used an i7 iMac for the past 7 years with all my external drives connected.. (again need to see my videos to better understand) So, I truly know all about it :-) If I was the CEO of Apple I would be doing the same thing. "Make computers for the everyday folks" if someone needs more, then go and build your own. Period. This is really the summery and bottom line. The more they can make the computers become big "ipads" and run more and more like IOS (what they want) then they can get all the people on the same page and wave one magic wand and everyone who adopts this, will be happy. Nothing wrong with ANY of that :-). Me, my system and my 9 drives of data workflow are another story. I very much outgrew Apple. I needed (and wanted) a more personalized computing solution. So, I was willing to take matters into my own hands and learn to drive.

joel germain's picture

actually... it won't change much BUUUUUTTTT i must say i really miss the CMD on the keyboard that is missing on windows so shortcut are a little different.

The problem is getting to know a system. Two of my friends own Imacs and because they aren't the most computer literate persons, I had to figure how to set this up for them. They both liked the design and they both wanted an all in one.

In the beginning I was amazed about how clumsy everything works in an Imac. But is it really or is it just a case of not knowing how stuff works?
But gradually I figured things out. CMD is the same as control in a computer for instance. CMD and click is right mouse button. As far as the rest goes, it is all pretty much the same.
Now I find an Imac as easy as a pc although I am still much more at ease with a pc.
The only big difference is that I think Lightroom really behaves really frustratingly in an Imac.

Leigh Miller's picture

I did the opposite. Switched from a monster Win PC to Mac Pro and my experience has been smooth as clarified butter.

Saying it again....Adobe products suck. Hardware is light years ahead of software. It's improving though...and I no longer need Photomechanic.

Chad D's picture

YUP :) adobe is so behind in software while they made small jumps with the recent LR some are saying its slower ?

i switched the other way last month mac to pc but really its a computer both are fine both do job both have pros cons if you use mostly adobe the hardware jumps are minimal anyway :)

Travis Harris's picture

Yeah, for sure I wanted to be careful and not say that I thought one was "better" than the other.. but, for my specific workflow in my video.. the PC has been the best tool for that job and I am SO happy now. Apple needs to re-launch their computer business to attract more pro users. Until that happens, I think the PC is the way to go IF you want a setup like what I showed etc. Otherwise Apple is a just fine computer for the most part.

I just saw a video where one pro suggested NOT to use OSS because ① They are “clunky”, and ② they are not as advanced. ①I have long known that Adobe Lr & Ps use many OSS components, and ② recently found out that they use 16-bit integer colour pipelines (except for HDR). Additionally, Lr & Ps do not multi-thread well, (use multiple cores well), and do not utilize the GPU well, (and where they do use it, they are reportedly slower).

I have been using Linux and OSS exclusively for over 15 years, and was under the impression that The GIMP was the only photo-manipulation title still using an integer colour pipeline, (but the 3.0 version will solve that). Most of the OSS Photo software are made by professional photographers, or by people in the imaging industry, (such as working for ILM, or some other imaging industry), and are often better than Lr & Ps.

Some claim their is too much of a learning curve, but in actual fact, there is to much of a “re-learning” curve, meaning, if one is just starting out, the learning curves are similar. If one is switching from any program to another, the new program always seem difficult or “clunky”, simply because of lack of familiarity.

I felt that switching from Digikam to DarkTable, (but now glad I made the switch, since Digikam is also a 16-bit integer pipeline), and again when I considered moving to RawTherapee, (since DarkTable, as of this writing, cannot handle the Pentax PixelShift technology, (which I actually do not yet use).

So I have apps which can utilize multi-cores/multi-threading, GPU acceleration, 32-bit floating point colour pipeline, …to simplify, products which do not suck!

P.s., multi-core and powerful GPUs give Adobe photo products no real benefits. Stick to more GHz CPUs and more RAM.

Kim Ginnerup's picture

Windows is not an option for me either I use Windows every day at work, and it irritates the heck out of me. So my private computing is Mac only. Windows is definitely better than it was when I left 10 years ago. In the same period I find mac computers become increasingly more expensive to a point where I find it hard to justify. But not enough for me to make the switch back.

Travis Harris's picture

Hey Kim! Thanks for reading my post and hopefully have watched my video. I hear ya. I too was in the same boat back when I had a 9-5 "job" Apple was so nice back then to come home too. This is why I started my business with it in 2010. :-) But, so much has changed, and my demand for real performance is very much beyond that of what Apple offers. Apple is going a different direction, and its no longer the best tool for many "power" users, or people who want a little more control as I showed in the video. As long as the machine you use makes you, and your bottom line happy.. thats all that matters ;-)

chris bryant's picture

Hi Kim, my experience is similar to you. I rather rather use an abacus than use Windows. I would rather pay more than use Windows. I would rather use Linux than use Windows. I would rather take up philately than use Windows.

No, it is not fanboism, WIndows looks awful, like it was design by five year old and will have tantrums also like a five year old and for no apparent reason. Many of my Win 7 users in my day job hate Win 10. Whereas my Mac is just so pleasant to use, does the job. It just works and has done since I bought it in 2011 (MPB). I recently upgraded the drives to two 525Gb SSDs, installed High Sierra and it is back to business as usual.

But, if people are happy with Windows, then that is all that matters. But I feel Windows, like a wild dog, will turn round and bite them when they least expect it. It is only a matter of time.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Well, you open Photoshop. It's open now, besided the closing and resizing buttons on the right or left depending on the OS. Enunciate 10 differences. Thank you, bye.

Travis Harris's picture

It sounds like you should just stay with Apple. Lol. Remember, I'm not trying to get people to switch. I could not care ANY less what you personally do. I'm just sharing my experience, and it's interesting because I come from many years with Apple.

Robert Nurse's picture

Same here. I use Windows all the time in my day job and in my photography. That's why my next computer is going to be an IMac. No matter how much of a beast you build, eventually, Windows is going to choke on it's attempts at being an OS that tries to do too much. The beast you build today won't be as such in short order. I've used Windows systems since ver 3.1. I hated Apple until I actually used one and loved it.

Travis Harris's picture

I think for many people they just want something different. That's totally understandable. The important take away here, is that I have specific reasons for switching to a PC. Please watch my video in full, and then will make more sense. When you have my type of workflow.. Apple is no longer a good option.

That's a really positive side of Mac - even if you want to go really hard in terms of performance and upgrades, you just can't. You are with you nice and cosy system forever.

I find Windows on my work pc also really annoying. Probably because at home I have a high-end system and at my work I have a really, really cheap Dell Pc.

Travis Harris's picture

LOL, that would do it! So far on this system.. I don't see any difference between Win10, and OSX. I mean.. I dont understand what people are using in the OS that is so good / bad. My system is on 24/7 the apps are always open, and its just a machine to do my work and in my case.. a container for my data workflow system of drives. There are no error messages, no issues, no "fooling around" with the OS what-so-ever. It boots, it loads the programs, and it does all this with ease just like before on my Mac, and it has been flawless for almost 4 months of 24/7 use.

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