PRODUCTS

By Ben Hart,

Working from home – the case for buying a desktop computer

In the past few articles in this working from home series, we’ve been looking at some of the best ways you can improve your remote working life – in these post-pandemic times – when more and more of us, by choice or not, are working from home. In the next few articles, we’ll be looking at your options should you wish to purchase a new computer, starting with desktop PCs.

Pictured an example of a PC of yesteryear, an original Apple desktop machine.

You could be forgiven for thinking of desktop computers as a relic of times gone by, as Apple try and convince us all that an iPad Pro, pictured here with the “Magic Keyboard”, is the only computer we’ll ever need, but a desktop machine is still the better option if you’re planning to use your computer for work that consists of power hungry tasks, especially to do with productivity, such as video editing, game development (or gaming itself), music production, photo editing, computer aided design or 3D rendering – or any other processor intensive workloads. That’s not to mention the ability to easily upgrade, at least in the case of a Windows PC. Apple, while aggressively pushing their undeniably enticing second-generation iPad Pro, are still producing a wide range of desktop devices.

The (Mac) tree of knowledge

When considering your new purchase, just like Eve in the Garden of Eden, you will be faced with a dilemma over whether to choose the seemingly more desirable Apple option, or the more boring alternative that may well end up turning out better for you in the long run. Okay, maybe it’s a bit unfair to associate Apple with the devil himself, although some of their business practices are hardly angelic.

Apple’s selection of desktop machines range from the Mac Mini, pictured – which, isn’t a hugely superior solution to using a laptop to power your desktop setup, unless you take into account just how easy on the eyes the thing is – to the Mac Pro, which has a starting price of £5499, although if were to go all out and max out all the options on the configurator you’ll end up at £53,547.98, which is enough money to pay for a brand new Mercedes GLC SUV and have enough money left over for an extremely high-end Windows machine, or alternatively put down a deposit on a half a million pound property! No monitor is included, and Apple’s only offering is the 32” Pro Display XDR, which starts at £4599 and that doesn’t even include the stand which will set you back another £999, about enough to buy a couple of lower-end Windows desktops, although at least Apple have chosen to use a non-proprietary DisplayPort monitor connection so you are free to pick an option that doesn’t cost the price of a second-hand Audi. There are also a couple of third-party LG displays available to buy on the Apple store, the LG UltraFine 4K and UltraFine 5K displays for £629 and £1179 respectively – although these are both excellent monitors, you can be pretty sure you’ll find a similar quality display, including from LG themselves, for considerably less elsewhere.

Even the cost of the Mac Mini, whilst not reaching the stratospheric heights of the Mac Pro, could hardly be considered a low cost option, with the base model reaching £1,699 once you’ve added a decent amount of memory and storage, and bear in mind that, again, that’s not including a keyboard and mouse or monitor, which will all have to be purchased separately, and the truth is, the small size of a desktop computer like the Mac Mini means that many of the same compromises that laptop manufacturers make in order to keep their products performing well whilst at the same time not producing too much heat or noise, not to mention actually fitting all the components into a device with such a small footprint, still end up being made, and without the advantages of portability that laptops offer. Usually smaller devices have their processors locked to a lower clock speed to keep temperatures down and thus avoid the need for huge fans, and smaller, proprietary components fitted to save on much needed space, limiting the ability to upgrade, which should be one of the big advantages of a desktop over a laptop, although Apple’s machines are all pretty lacking when it comes to upgradability. It has to be said though that Apple have managed the difficult task of fitting all the necessary components into the Mac Mini remarkably well, delivering an exceptional product, but for a price.

Of course Apple’s larger models like the ridiculously expensive Mac Pro don’t have the same compromises needed to retain acceptable thermal and acoustic performance as they are enclosed in a more standard desktop tower style case, but the lack of upgradability remains; the Mac Mini is by no means the only Mac product to be made up primarily of proprietary Apple componentry, making upgrades difficult for Mac users, which seems to be the point – Apple want you to be happy with your purchase, but only for a few years until you end up needing to buy a new computer, most likely from Apple again; they’re not making money if people aren’t buying new models every couple of years.

They don’t want you to be able to upgrade, nor do they want you to fix the device, either yourself or with the help of a computer specialist, some of whom have challenged Apple in court, like Youtuber Louis Rossmann over the ‘right to repair’ people’s broken Apple products. This issue has been discussed by the US legislature, and Apple have made some concessions in recent times, with the Mac Pro range (pictured here next to the Pro Display XDR) featuring upgradable storage, although the proprietary Apple NVMe solid state drives cost £600 for a single terabyte drive, whereas a Windows user can pick up a high-end 2 terabyte NVMe solid-state drive for under £400. Likewise, on the Apple store, two 16GB DDR4 memory sticks with a clock speed of 2933MHz cost £800, compared with two sticks of Corsair Vengeance 16GB 3200MHz for PC at under £150 on Amazon, and the AMD Radeon Pro W5700X MPX graphics card which is available on the Apple store online for £1000 is roughly equivalent to the AMD Radeon 5700XT which can be had for under £400. Oh, and if you fancy some wheels to go on the bottom of your Mac Pro, that’ll be £699. It should be noted that it often is possible to upgrade a Mac Pro using non-Apple components, but that often entails some hacks here and there, and could end up voiding your warranty. The so-called ‘Apple premium’is alive and well it would appear.

Pictured: no this is not a mock-up; Apple are actually selling a set of caster wheels for £699!

Despite all the downsides, questionable business practices (no not tax avoidance; all the tech companies are guilty of that) such as the “planned obsolescence” tactic which is bad enough consumer-wise and particularly heinous when you consider the resultant environmental and social costs, before we even mention the “premium” (read extortionate) pricing, Apple do make some spectacular products, and they do have their advantages over Windows machines.

Unlike Windows, which has to run on a virtually infinite combination of components and peripherals and therefore requires a driver for literally every piece of hardware that you want to use with your Windows machine (although Microsoft have come a long way in making driver installation more and more seamless in recent years), Apple’s closed system architecture means every Mac comes already optimized for Apple hardware and software out of the box, with one of their key selling points being their plug-and-play nature, with hardware and software all designed from the ground up around the Mac ecosystem.

Also, Macs have historically been less prone to viruses and malware attacks, presumably because hackers want to reach the greatest number of users to cause the most amount of damage, and PC users outnumber Mac users by about seven to one, so it makes sense for them to focus their nefarious behaviour on PCs and their users. Many workers in the creative industries swear by their Mac Pros, which are well known for their excellent performance at things like video editing or 3D rendering, and the big PC manufacturers have yet to come up with branding and design that comes close to Apple’s stunning aesthetics.

There are some beautiful and powerful Mac desktops to be had, such as the base model 21.5-inch iMac, cheap by Apple’s standards at £1049, and including a monitor, albeit with no extra options added. The mouse is £99 and the ‘magic’ keyboard £149. On a price to performance ratio, it is still lacking significantly, with an old fashioned hard drive rather than a solid state drive, only 8GB of  memory when 16GB is considered the minimum to ensure decent performance in many modern applications, at least on Windows machines, and that memory is only rated at 2133MHz when 3200MHz is considered standard these days on new Windows PC builds, although it must be noted that Apple’s machines are generally better at making the most efficient use of their resources than PCs so it’s difficult to make direct comparisons between the two platforms.

Another downer is the fact that the base model iMac comes with a hard disk drive, when solid-state drives are becoming more and more the norm, as they are not only considerably faster, but more reliable, durable and longer lasting in part due to their lack of moving parts. You can pay £100 to add a “fusion drive” to the entry-level iMac; these kinds of drive are known by everyone apart from Apple as solid-state hybrid drives, and are a pretty obsolete technology as they were made at a time when solid-state storage was too expensive for the average consumer, whereas nowadays, as we mentioned above, solid-state storage has gone way down in price and you can grab ultra-fast drives on Amazon such as the 1TB Sabrent Rocket Q  for only £109.99, or the high-end 2TB Seagate Firecuda 510, pictured below, for just £383.78, which makes Apple’s £200 charge to add a measly 256GB solid-state drive to the iMac look like a complete scam.

A few choice options for buying a Mac

Mac mini starting at £799 from the Apple store

The Mac Mini is a fantastic piece of engineering; the fact that Apple have managed to fit all this tech inside a 20cm² box is truly an impressive feat, even more so when you consider the fact that the machine runs near silently. This engineering does come at a price though, as with all Macs. We used the configurator on Apple’s web store to configure a system that will meet most user’s needs and the price came to £1699, quite a bit more than a similar spec Windows machine, plus it should be noted that this system lacks a discrete graphics card, instead relying on the main Intel Core i7 processing unit’s integrated onboard graphics solution.

An external, eGPU can be added, connected via the system’s Thunderbolt interface, but these are, again, rather expensive. The only option that Apple sells directly on its web store is the Blackmagic eGPU, an attractive looking unit that contains an AMD Radeon Pro 580 graphics processing unit, costs £699. The Radeon Pro 580 isn’t particularly high-end by today’s standards, being released in 2017. According to tech experts techpowerup.com, the similarly priced Nvidia RTX 2070 Super has a relative performance of around 222% compared with the AMD chip inside the Blackmagic eGPU, while the similarly performing AMD 5500XT can be had for £204.99 on Amazon. It would probably be possible to use a non-Apple approved graphics card with an Apple machine, but it would certainly require some messing around with drivers to get the thing to work, which totally goes against Apple’s ethos; that its products should “just work”, and that’s not to mention the fact that you’d need some kind of external housing and interface to get the thing to work with the Mac Mini, again throwing Apple’s key advantage out of the window.

The base model Mini comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, which sits at the bottom of Intel’s Core line of CPUs, below the Core i5, Core i7 and Core i9, and comes with a fairly measly 8GB of DDR4 memory running at 2133MHz when 3200MHz is fairly commonplace for a new PC, and with a solid-state drive of just 256GB, which would be considered about enough for a boot drive only on a Windows machine. Where Apple excel though, is at making the most of their systems’ componentry, squeezing out every last drop of power; due in part, to the fact that, as Apple themselves say “(the operating system is) designed specifically for the hardware it runs on – and vice versa.” By building both the software and hardware from the ground up to run together exclusively, Apple manage effectively to do more with less, which is especially true of the Mac Mini considering its diminutive dimensions.

The iMac starting at £1049 – the computer that made all-in-ones fashionable (again)

The iMac is the desktop that made all-in-ones cool again. Just like the retro Apple Macintosh pictured at the start of this article, the iMac combines monitor and components in a single case, as pictured here. Again, they’re great-looking and not particularly cheap – starting at £1049, we managed to reach £2349 just getting the specs up to a minimum level of performance by today’s standards. As mentioned above, the base model comes criminally lacking in the kind of components that would be considered standard fare on even a low-end Windows desktop. You are given the unenviable decision of choosing a hard-disk drive, slow even by hard-disk drive standards, or a 256GB solid-state drive*, which as we said before would be considered not much more than a boot drive on a Windows machine. 8GB of memory is standard, when, as mentioned above, 16GB of RAM with a far higher clock speed than the 2133MHz found here, is considered standard on new Windows machines and whilst upgrading to 16GB adds £200 to the subtotal of your iMac build, an 8GB stick of Corsair Vengeance RAM with a higher clock speed can be had for just £37.97 on Amazon at the moment.

*There is also a ‘fusion drive’ option; Apple’s name for the hybrid drive, which combines a traditional hard-disk drive with a small amount of solid-state storage to increase speeds slightly, although in the Windows ecosystem these are basically defunct due to the low cost of solid-state drives.

Bear in mind though that the £2349 price that our acceptably specced configuration does include, unlike the Mac Mini, both an inbuilt monitor, and keyboard and mouse.

The Mac Pro

As we spoke about before, the long-awaited Mac Pro range starts in price at £5499, although a quick play around with Apple’s configurator, to create a system with enough power for a working-from-home professional (this is the Mac Pro after all) brought the cost up to £8,799.

Here’s a summary of the key specs:

  • 3300MHz 12-core Intel Xeon W processor with “Turbo Boost” up to 4400MHz
  • 48GB DDR4 memory
  • AMD Radeon Pro W5700X with 16GB of GDDR6 memory
  • 4TB solid-state storage

The Mac Pro is a monstrous machine fit for the most demanding purposes, and if money is no object, and all the software you use is available for Mac, then grab one before Apple try and kill off desktop computing for good!

Macs do have many advantages over Windows machines; their hardware and software is integrated into the single Apple ecosystem, they generally have  greater stability, in part due to the above, also lower risk of malware, a particularly intuitive and user-friendly operating system, and full, seamless integration with any other Apple device you may own such as an iPhone or iPad.

One of the biggest advantages Mac’s have is that you can be sure that if you buy a new Mac, it will run all of Apple’s programs, be it for word processing or something more intensive and power-hungry like music or video editing. A £5000 Mac Pro may be able to keep multiple tasks running at once, and render 4K video in a shorter space of time, but the more entry level iMac mentioned above will still be able to run the same applications, albeit not as quickly and without multiple processes running all at once. With a Windows PC, you need to do a bit of research to know which parts will be compatible with both each other, and the software you plan to use, and to know which parts will be powerful enough to support the tasks you intend to perform.

Pictured: A Mac running Final Cut video editing software

Apple and Microsoft seem to have their respective fanboys / apologists who will follow either company over a cliff, and if you’re an Apple user and intent on buying a Mac, most likely there’s nothing we can say to convince you otherwise, but just keep in mind that for whatever amount of money you spend on a Mac, you’re all but guaranteed to get a better performing Windows machine for that same price; we’ll be talking about buying a Windows desktop PC in our next article in this series on how you can make the most out of working from home.

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