[Academic Tech] The Windows nerd [begrudgingly] gets an iMac

…And almost immediately put Windows on it.

Then decided to be a bit more open minded and give it a whirl to try out the hardware and software.

TLDR: I’m a windows guy, MacOS is smooth and nice, but a few differences give me a learning curve that I simply can’t prioritise over my myriad other commitments. The big show stopper is lack of Nvidia on Apple devices.

Let’s set the scene:

I’m pretty heavily invested in the Windows ecosystem.  This comes from two places: Firstly, I was (and still am, to a lesser extent) into PC gaming. Whilst things are changing in that area, it’s still almost a given that if you want to play most games, you need a Windows machine. Secondly, Macs are really expensive for what they are, and for someone that wants to squeeze out every ounce of performance for each pound spent, Macs were never a good value proposition regardless of build quality.  I’ve never had an Apple device of my own.  I have dabbled with Linux in the past, and found it both fun to use, refreshing in being different to windows, and until relatively recently, using Linux was pretty vital to a lot of simulation software. That last point is mostly irrelevant since Windows 10 started including the Windows subsystem for Linux, which has completely transformed the way I can do work. Running Windows 10 means I can run all the Windows and Linux programs I need. I think the only software I’ve ever wanted to use a Mac for was Horus/Osrix for CT segmentation, but there are plenty of Windows options instead. I’m also a resentful Android user, since Microsoft threw in the towel on Windows phone, though I’m seriously considering downsizing to a dumb-phone before too long, and using my Surface for email on the go.

On top of the practicalities, I’m also just interested in Windows 10, following Windows blogs and subreddits. I have a begrudging respect for Microsoft, who seem mildly more trustworthy than Google and mildly less form-over-function than Apple. The recent push for Microsoft to embrace other platforms has helped, even if it feels like they neglect Windows itself a bit too much. I have computers with stable releases, but also computers with insider previews of Windows 10.  For the most part I enjoy using the OS, but every time I see a glitch (like the bloody task view causing windows to nudge slightly, or the arse-backwards implementation of dark mode) I look longingly over at MacOS that seems so slick and smooth. Anyway, point is I’m invested in the Windows ecosystem, it’s what I know and enjoy.

I’ve been at my job just about 5 years now, and was still on my first computer. For someone that does high performance computing including simulation, digitization, and 3D visualization, a 5 year old computer is not ideal.  However, our IT department don’t supply decent computers, and I don’t currently have any grants that could specifically pay for one. After speaking with my head of school, it turned out there was a fully spec’d 2017 27” iMac sat in a box being unused (it was bought for a member of staff that then left), so I took that in lieu of a decent Windows machine.

The Hardware:

It’s an iMac.  It looks like all the other iMacs made in the last few years.  It’s lovely, but the design is a bit dated with bezels over 2cm on every edge (and that Apple logo glaring at me every time I look at it).

The screen is lovely and crisp though, and the 5k resolution is very, very much appreciated (although more on that later within MacOS).  In fact, I’ve forgone my usual second monitor, because the 5k 27” screen is enough on it’s own (and the tidier desk that creates also helps with productivity). As an aside, Apple removed the ability for newer iMacs (post 2015) to act as an external monitor, i.e. there’s no video in.  In this day and age of massive electrical waste, I find that unacceptable. It’s the primary reason I’ve not treated myself to a Surface Studio yet, because it means that after just a few years when the internals are out of date, the excellent screen becomes useless.

One thing I really must compliment is the lack of reflections on the screen. Despite being this big glossy slab of glass, the screen has almost no reflections. This is something Microsoft needs to address in it’s surface line, desperately. Compare my Surface Go to the iMac:

Both screens are off. Notice how much stronger the reflections are on the surface.

Inside the machine is a quad-core intel i7-7700K at 4.2GHz, 16Gb of 2400 MHz RAM, a 2TB Fusion drive, and a Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB VRAM.  It’s all reasonably good stuff.  Except the Radeon. It’s not that it’s a bad card – in fact it’s way better than my previous computer. The problem is, almost every piece of GPU accelerated scientific software I use is based on CUDA, which requires an Nvidia card. For photogrammetry, for instance, the only software that can run on this machine, regardless of Operating System, is Agisoft Metashape. Other packages such as Meshroom, VisualSFM, COLMAP, 3DF Zephyr, Reality Capture, all require Nvidia cards. The same goes for a lot of the CT segmentation software, at least for anything with deep learning (though in fairness I don’t use that, yet). And Maya’s renderer Arnold is now GPU accelerated, but only for Nvidia.

It’s usually silent, but if I’m doing 3D work, or running a small simulation, the fans do get pretty noisey.

I’m generally all for keeping standards open, and preferring to not get locked into hardware, but there’s a reason everyone’s using CUDA (I think it’s easy and it’s fast), and the fact is most of the software I use requires or benefits from an Nvidia card with few alternatives. That an Apple device can’t be configured at all with an Nvidia card is a massive negative for me.  I know Apple are working on Metal, their own GPU API, but that’s just going to make the Mac/PC divide worse.

Outside of the machine itself, it came with an Apple Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse, and Magic Trackpad 2.

The keyboard has good type feel – not as good as my surface keyboards, but good travel and not too loud (unlike the current Macbook keyboards that feel and sound terrible). Aside from that though, it’s a US layout which is mildly annoying (@ and ” are swapped, which is the biggest thing that catches me out), and the lack of a numpad inconveniences me every so slightly.

The trackpad is stunning, and with a bit of tweaking works perfectly well in Windows too (in fact, using these drivers).  I wish there was something as good as this made specifically for PC.  It’s genuinely a joy to use.  Unfortunately, lack of being able to middle click and drag means I can’t use it exclusively in a lot of 3D software like Maya or Ovito. I can, and do, however, use it to navigate the desktop and general computer to the point I barely need a mouse. Which is good because…

The Magic Mouse is the single worst piece of technology I’ve ever had the misfortune to use. Sure, the touch-sensitive surface for scrolling is nice, but the mouse has the sharpest, most uncomfortable edges of any mouse I’ve ever used. I just don’t find it ergonomic at all.  Clicking feels terrible, and attempting to middle click is not worth the hassle. Then there’s the infamous charging port, located underneath the mouse so that it can’t be charged while in use. Form-over-Function at it’s finest.

The magic mouse. Designed by someone that hates your hands, or who has never used a mouse before.

I use the Magic Trackpad 2 for general navigation, and when I need a mouse I use my bluetooth Microsoft Arc Mouse.

The Software:

Ok, so the hardware is generally fine, and entirely suitable for most 3D work (minus rendering/photogrammetry) and great for office work.  How about MacOS?  For info, I’ve upgraded the OS to Catalina, though didn’t spend enough time with Mojave to really get a feel for the differences. 

I’ve been primarily a Windows user since the mid-90’s, and got into Linux in a fairly big way between 2006 and 2013. More recently, I’ve embedded myself 99% in the Windows 10 ecosystem out of convenience as much as anything (I’d happily move to Linux if it offered anywhere near the interoperability between devices, and if Office was native)

As a heavy Windows 10 poweruser, modern Windows is second nature to me. That means I know the really useful features and shortcuts, but as many Windows users will appreciate, it also makes me acutely aware of the many, many, many rough edges in the operating system. Things like janky animations in task view, the wierd mix of UI styles from the last couple of years (“modern” or “UWP”) and UI parts that haven’t been updated since 1995 and everything inbetween.  It’s just exasperating that 5 years after Windows 10 was released, all this roughness to the UI is still prevalent. My previously limited experience of MacOS left me awed by it’s slickness and polish.

And rightly so! I’ve been using MacOS on and off for a couple of months now, and it’s just so smooth. Gestures from the trackpad such as closing your fingers to bring up the app view are really cool (though in fairness Windows 10 has caught up a little in this regard). Light and dark mode are implemented almost perfectly, as far as I can see, and the transition between them is graceful, completely unlike Windows 10’s ‘effort’ where everything that isn’t UWP remains either unaffected, or flickers wildly.

MacOS has it’s bar along the top, which populates with appropriate menus depending on the program, rather than as is the case in Windows where each program window has it’s own menu items in the title bar. This takes a bit of getting used to if you’re coming from a windows background, but it’s not entirely counter-intuitive.  I know Ubuntu’s Unity and some other Linux Desktop Environments adopt(ed) this UI paradigm. Once I got past muscle memory of looking at the top of my active Window, I felt it was six of one, half a dozen of the other really.

The other immediate difference on the desktop is the dock along the bottom, which takes the place of Window’s Taskbar, in terms of presenting open windows and permanent application shortcuts. This I do find a lot more intrusive than Window’s taskbar.  Even on small settings, it’s pretty large, and because it doesn’t go across the entire width of the screen (until you fill it with shortcuts), it leads to this weird dead space at the bottom of the screen. I know you can set it to auto-hide, as you can with the Windows taskbar, but that’s never really worked for me.

Finder is pretty much explorer – I know a lot of people have been calling out for tabs and nested views in Windows explorer, as Finder has, but it doesn’t really do it for me. Presumably that’s just experiential bias, rather than anything regarding usability, but I prefer multiple windows to tabs within a single window (both of which Finder can do).

I installed software from downloadable dmg files, and through the Apple store, and both were pretty comparable to Windows’ versions. Uninstalling seems a little counter-intuitive to me, dragging the application icon to the bin, but again, I’ll put that down to experience rather than usability.

One area I did take issue though is with screen scaling. The iMac has this lovely 5k screen, which I would appreciate for the greater real estate that brings – more documents side-by-side, or more sub-windows open in Maya, for instance. But it seems MacOS doesn’t want me to use it that way. In the display settings, the default scaling clearly states “Looks like 2560 x 1440.” Even the smallest scaling “Looks like 3200 x 1800.” As a reminder, the resolution of this screen is 5120 x 2880. In other words, Apple wants me to use the high

I realise this sounds like a very minor point, but it means that I can fit less on the screen in MacOS than I can on Windows. As an example, here’s Maya opened on the same view, against the same wallpaper on Windows and MacOS. The wallpaper is shifted slightly, but I’ve resized Maya so it’s the same size in both. Notice how the UI is much smaller in Windows 10?

And this is at 125% scaling in Windows – I could go down to 100% and the UI would get smaller still. Obviously I don’t want things too small, and as I age I’m sure that scaling will get cranked up, but you get the idea – if you want more on screen, Windows is the way to go. If there’s a way to do 1:1 scaling in MacOS, I haven’t found it yet.


It’s a nice machine. It’s already a couple of years out of date, but beggars can’t be choosers and if I want something better I need to find the funding for that. But it’s absolutely fine for preliminary 3D work, and absolutely fantastic for office work. Unfortunately, the lack of Nvidia in the Apple ecosystem means I’m severely limited in software options for high-end 3D work and simulations.

Having played with MacOS, it’s more obvious than ever that Microsoft need to pull their finger out and focus on UX polish in Windows for a year or two. However, the difference isn’t as great as I originally thought, so I’m going to stick primarily with Windows for now, simply because I’m faster through experience. I will dip into MacOS occasionally though, to keep my skills up to speed in multiple operating systems.

7 thoughts on “[Academic Tech] The Windows nerd [begrudgingly] gets an iMac

Add yours

  1. The things I miss from Windows in mac OS

    – minimize to dock by clicking dock icon
    – expand window instead of making it full screen when maximizing, i know double clicking title bar does this but not always
    – cut and paste instead of copy and move

    1. Holding down the “option” key when maximizing should cause the window to expand and not full screen. The icon for Maximize should also change when you hover over it with the “option” key held down.

    2. Holding down the “option” key when maximizing should cause the window to expand and not full screen. The icon for Maximize should also change when you hover over it with the “option” key held down.

  2. Re iMAC and lack of NVIDIA GPU – have you considered installing an external GPU card connected via thunderbolt … ?

    1. I have, but unforunately enclosures are quite expensive, and from what I’ve read there’s a pretty significant performance loss (which makes the enclosure+gpu cost all the more galling). Have you any experience of external gpus?

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