Switching from Mac to Windows: A digital artist's guide

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Since the dawn of the personal computer, a battle for platform supremacy has raged between macOS and Windows. While Windows is the dominant force in nearly every area of business, Apple and its macOS has for a long time been the weapon of choice for creatives.

Fundamentally, a computer is a tool, and if you're creating digital or 3D art or video work, you'll need bespoke tools crafted to your specific needs. That means a fast pen-enabled, multi-core CPU for modelling tasks, and enough graphic card grunt to make the most of the latest generation of GPU-accelerated workflows and render engines.

When we last looked at switching from macOS to Windows, there were many compelling reasons to do so. There had been no new 'Pro' desktop hardware in several years and the MacBook Pro had proven to be a disappointment, with users who did not agree with Apple's notion that everyone needs a dongle for their laptop.

With the launch of the iMac Pro and potentially a new, modular 'Mac Pro' on the way, Apple has stepped back into the professional marketplace for creatives (although this impressive hardware does come with a hefty price tag). 

With the launch of the iMac Pro, Apple has stepped back into the professional marketplace for creatives

The iMac Pro is a particularly compelling option for video artists. With the adoption of Thunderbolt 3 and better external GPU support coming for macOS, is the iMac Pro enough to make 3D and video artists ignore the pull of Windows?

While there are now better options for staying loyal to macOS, there are still a large number of reasons to consider a switch to Windows – or at the very least explore a hybrid environment. 

As an artist who has used a mixed Windows and macOS environment for my professional work for the past four years, I can offer some insight to macOS users who might want to make the switch.  In this article we'll take a look at what Windows has to offer for digital artists.

Windows: The pros

First of all, let's concentrate on the good points about Windows. First of all, app switching is, on the whole, pretty painless. Most software is now tied to the user and for all the big names – Cinema 4D, Maya, the Substance suite and Adobe's Creative Cloud suite – you can access your account by simply logging in and downloading the Windows version. It's the same with most plugins.

For 3D artists, most of the innovation is still happening on the Windows platform. For example, GPU render engines such as Redshift are better tuned to Windows at the moment. If you want to work with a VR-certified machine, Windows is still a better choice – only the HTC Vive is currently supported on macOS. 

Windows also offers benefits in terms of speed; I have always found viewport performance in 3D apps to be vastly superior on Windows to Mac.

Applications like 1Password and DJV make moving to windows relatively painless

Applications like 1Password and DJV make moving to windows relatively painless

As for Windows itself, Windows 10 is very solid, and Windows Explorer is more 'malleable' than the Finder in Mac OS. There is also a raft of solutions available 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. 

If you're worried about losing access to your favourite productivity applications, fear not – a lot of previously Mac-only apps are now available for Windows. For example, I have depended on 1Password to hold of all my password details for years; with the 1Password account feature my Windows PCs, iOS devices and Macs are now all synced.

The inside of a upgradeable laptop, something Mac owners haven’t seen for quite a while

The inside of a upgradeable laptop, something Mac owners haven’t seen for quite a while

Then there is the hardware itself. 3D and video artists are dependant on power, and a decent GPU-enabled desktop can be bought for the fraction of the cost of a Mac with equivalent power. If your software is dependant on NVIDIA-powered GPUs for CUDA acceleration – common both in 3D render engines and video editors – using a Windows machine is by far the easiest option (although there are macOS workarounds using external GPU boxes). 

Unfortunately, the graphics card shortage caused by cryptocurrency users buying up every GPU available at inflated prices does make bespoke PC building harder than it has been for a couple of years.

Wacom's MobileStudio Pro range show Windows' ability to adapt to a variety of form factors

Wacom's MobileStudio Pro range show Windows' ability to adapt to a variety of form factors

The biggest advantage to moving to Windows is that there is a lot more choice of form factors in the Windows space: everything from touchscreen laptops to enormous 12 GPU-card equipped desktops and tablet computers. Odds are, there is likely to be a Windows machine that could suit a bespoke working environment more readily than a Mac.

Windows: The cons

While on the surface, performance, value for money and configurability all seem like obvious wins for Windows, there are downsides to consider. Until comparatively recently, Microsoft didn't make its own hardware, and compared to macOS, a Windows machine can still can feel like a selection of parts and drivers. 

There is not the hardware quality, consistency and the reliability of a Mac (especially for those of us who have access to an Apple Store). The macOS still 'looks' better out of the box, and has a lot of helpful bundled applications, including Preview, QuickTime player and the excellent Finder preview, quicklook and column view. These can be replicated on Windows but only with the use of third party apps or hacks. In terms of backup, Time Machine is still a better one-stop solution. 

In my experience, Macs are more dependable. Whenever I have taken a PC laptop out on a job with me, the battery has either run down because a background process has failed to quit, or the machine has only run at half-power because the CPU and GPU are being throttled.

The iMac Pro is the powerful yet quiet creative solution that's been missing from the Apple lineup

The iMac Pro is the powerful yet quiet creative solution that's been missing from the Apple lineup

Compare this with the latest MacBook Pro, which does not throttle down any component while on battery power. The MacBook Pro also has an incredible standby time when the lid is closed and it's dropped into a rucksack.

The latest generation of Macs are very quiet in operation, and while I have not used one, the new iMac Pros seem to be able to run most computationally heavy applications with little strain on the fan.

Although expandability is still an issue on macOS – especially on the laptop front – Thunderbolt 3 can be an effective way of adding functionality to a Mac. For example, you can introduce more graphics grunt via an external GPU box, which now natively supports the latest AMD Radeon cards on macOS (NVIDIA support is available through some third party solutions, with native support on the way). Thunderbolt 3, as it uses the same connector as USB-C, means you can connect a plethora of peripherals to your Mac.

There are signs that the pro software market is sticking with the Mac. GPU render engines such as Redshift and Octane are available for macOS with the correct hardware, and Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X are back at the forefront of their respective creative fields – especially when combined with Apples new Pro hardware.

Finally, it's possible to run Windows through any Mac via the Boot Camp software, turning your Mac into a multi-platform solution.

Time to switch?

As with all things creative, everyone has their own workflow and solution. If your Mac is covering all your work needs, then we wouldn't recommend making a switch – especially with Apple resurgent in the professional market. 

However, for new and existing 3D artists, it's worth exploring Windows for the potential benefits it may offer. Windows machines offer cheaper creative solutions and form factors, such as pen-enabled touchscreens, tablets and multi-GPU desktop monsters that can chew through render tasks as fast as you can throw them at them. Plus, they can be upgraded with stock components to make your investment last. 

There is nothing to be afraid of whichever computer platform you choose to use. Both options are interchangeable, and there has never been a better time to craft a bespoke creative solution for your needs. 

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