The digital artist's guide to switching from Mac to Windows

The battle between which platform is better between Mac and Windows has been raging since the dawn of the personal computer. While Windows is the dominant force in nearly every area of business, Apple, with the Mac OS, has for a long time carved itself a niche in the creative field.

Fundamentally a computer is a tool, and digital artists especially need bespoke tools crafted to their specific needs.  When the latest ‘trashcan’ Mac Pro was launched in 2013, many digital artists were prepared to stick with Apple because the machine had potentially enough grunt to last, and Apple promised a push for OpenCL acceleration, to help combat the dominance of Nvidia’s CUDA platform.

Four years on, while there are some notable exceptions, CUDA is still the dominant platform for GPU acceleration and Apple hasn’t updated the same Mac Pro it launched in 2013 in anyway, (other than to recently increase the UK pricing by around £500).

With Windows there is a huge range of specifications in laptop and desktop which can cater for the latest in GPU acceleration methodologies

With the new MacBook Pro announcement, no new desktops were announced (the 5k iMac is now over a year old). This meant that no amount of touch bar intricacies or reduced weight can hide the fact that for many Mac-based artists, Microsoft's push for creatives – with products like the Surface Pro, Book and Studio, along with the soon to be released Windows 10 Creators update – is very compelling. With Windows there is a huge range of specifications in laptop and desktop which can cater for the latest in GPU acceleration methodologies alongside AR and VR which have many artists considering the ‘big switch’.

I am one of these artists, after three years of working across both platforms, who has now moved the majority of my production over to Windows, with the purchase of an Alienware 17 to replace my MacBook Pro. This isn’t to say that I don’t think Apple makes great laptops, I'm writing this article on my favourite Apple laptop…the 12.9 inch iPad Pro. 

So what have I learned and what are the gotcha’s about switching? First of all let’s concentrate on the good points about switching to Windows... 

The good

First of all app switching is on the whole pretty painless, most software is now tied to the user and all of the big names such as Cinema 4D, Maya, Substance Suite and Adobe Creation suite are all painless to move across by just logging in to your account and downloading the Windows version. It's the same with most plug-ins.

For digital artists, most of the innovation is happening on the Windows platform. For example, GPU render engines such as Redshift are exclusive to Windows at the moment, and if you want to work with a VR certified machine, again that is a Windows-only option.

The second is the speed improvement, I have always found viewport performance in 3D apps to be vastly superior on Windows to Mac.

A solid option

As for Windows itself, Windows 10 is very solid, and Windows Explorer is more ‘malleable’ than the Finder in Mac OS. There are also a raft of solutions to make Windows feel more Mac like, such as the FastPictureViewer codec, which shows thumbnails for a huge range of image formats, and DJV, which can act as a good media player. Also a lot of Mac only productivity applications are now available for Windows, for example, I have depended on ‘1Password’ to hold of all my password details for years, with the new 1Password account feature, Windows, and iOS and Mac’s are now all synced.

Applications like 1Password, DJV and Fast Picture Viewer, make moving to windows relatively painless

Value for money

Finally there is the hardware itself, especially with the recent UK price increases implemented by Apple, it is no longer the case that buying a similarly specified Windows machine would cost the equivalent of a Mac. 

One of the reasons for that is that many of the Mac component’s are at least one generation behind, and that with the introduction of the current generation of GPU’s such as Nvidia’s Pascal series, incredibly powerful hardware has never been cheaper. Also most Windows machines are upgradeable over it’s lifespan, making the initial cost lower, than having to load up a MacBook Pro to full spec on the day it’s bought. 

For example the UHD Alienware laptop I just purchased has access to it’s RAM Slots, as well as one SATA SSD and three M2 SSD ports all available for me to upgrade to at anytime, not to mention Thunderbolt 3 and Alienware’s proprietary GPU Expander port to enable external GPU’s to be added to the mix when the internal 8gb GTX 1070 runs out of puff, and for all hundreds less than a MacBook Pro. 

The inside of a upgradeable laptop, something Mac owners haven’t seen for nearly five years

The bad

So while on the surface performance, value and expandability all seem like obvious wins, there are potential downsides.

Up until very recently Microsoft didn't make their own hardware, and compared to Mac OS, a Windows machine still can feel like a selection of parts and drivers. 

There isn’t the hardware quality, consistency and the reliability of a Mac (especially for those of use who have access to an Apple Store). The Mac OS looks better, and has a lot of bundled applications like Preview, QuickTime player and the excellent Finder preview, quicklook and column view which are only available on the Mac platform, and in terms of backup, Time Machine is still a better one stop solution. 

Cross compatible software

Another bug bear is GPU performance, while on the surface a GeForce or Radeon card may seem like a more sound investment than a workstation card, Apple does have some special sauce that they use with their graphic drivers to make the screen seem smooth, which, in my experience, can only be replicated on Windows by using an Nvidia Quadro or AMD FirePro Card.

Also not all software is cross compatible, for example After Effects users who are dependant on Fxfactory plugins are out of luck, and some app platform switching can take a couple of days, for example ZBrush. 

I still keep a 2012 cheesegrater Mac Pro to encode ProRes, although Avid’s DNXHD is a great cross platform alternative.

In fact the one key piece of advice I would give to anyone considering switching, is keep at least one Mac around. It can act as an excellent NAS (network attached storage) if it isn’t being used for production work.

If it works don't fix it, but if it doesn't....

As with all things creative, everyone has their own solution and if your Mac is covering all your work needs, then don’t switch. However, for most digital artists I know, the Mac platform is limiting either technology areas that they want to learn more about or, even more importantly, just not capable of creating the assets that are required. 

If this is the case, then there has never been a better time to switch to Windows. Many Windows machines offer creative solutions and form factors such as pen enabled touch screens, tablet form factors or multi GPU desktop monsters, which can chew through work as fast as can be thrown at it and can be upgraded, making the investment last. 

There is nothing to be afraid of if you want to make the switch and it could be the change that unleashes a new wave of creative opportunity.

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