PC vs Mac for Photography


When it comes to photo editing, both PC and Mac platforms can be very powerful and highly capable, with each having its own list of pros and cons. Choosing one platform over the other can be a difficult choice because there are so many different aspects and variables to consider. Hardware, software, operating system, cost, design/aesthetics, simplicity, ease of use, stability, upgrade options, resale value, size, and weight are some of the factors one might look into on both PCs and Macs to make the ultimate choice. And what makes it even tougher, is that some of these factors can carry very different weights. For example, cost and hardware are often the two major factors that influence purchasing decisions the most. So let’s take a look at a number of above-mentioned factors and see which platform is potentially a better choice for photography needs.

Preface

Having been a PC user since my first 80286 machine many years ago, I have never been particularly attracted to other platforms. I built pretty much every machine I have used so far and I love the fact that I have the freedom to pick, choose, install or upgrade all of the components of my system. I still enjoy the feeling I get after putting components together, firing up the machine and hearing that first post beep and the BIOS screen, showing me that everything is working correctly. Perhaps I love building things too much and fiddling with issues when they come up, but as a techie at heart, PCs have always been my “thing” in both my personal and past corporate life.

Over the years, I have enjoyed trying out many different hardware components and operating systems. I have had my fun days of running DOS, Slackware, FreeBSD, BeOS, Redhat, Fedora, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Windows 2000, XP, 7 to name a few, and not so fun days messing with Windows NT 3.51 and Windows ME. In my past corporate life, I have probably tried out pretty much every flavor of server hardware and operating systems as well, running large enterprise networks with huge datacenters. Such has been my life as a dedicated “PC guy”.

Along the way, I have seen my share of the Apple world as well, particularly when I had to troubleshoot everything I was thrown at in those IT help desk and call center days. At a later point in time, I picked up a few Apple products for personal use, but mostly in the music / mobile area: iPods, iPads, and iPhones (I have been using the iPhone since the third generation). After so many years, my first Apple computer purchase for personal use was a few years ago, when I got a 27″ iMac Retina. I primarily bought it for presentations and photo reviews during workshops, as I did not want to drag a PC with a large monitor with me every time. It worked out great and I have no regrets. Since then, I have been trying to actively use the iMac for everyday tasks, including post-processing.

For the most part, however, I have been able to successfully dodge most of the Apple world, keeping myself away from the hardcore fanboyism that seems to have always been very strong in the Apple community. If a decade ago one could practically get into a fight when talking about PCs vs Macs, it seems like things have not really changed for the better today – any time this topic comes up, people seem to lose it very fast. I understand loyalty, love, devotion, support, and dedication for a particular brand, but in all honesty, none of those really matter to me when it comes to choosing tools anymore. I pick what works for me and move on.

Therefore, I would like to clear up that I have no intention of bashing or scrutinizing either platform. I have zero loyalty to PCs or Macs, just like I have no loyalty for a particular camera or a lens brand. I laid out my past experience for a reason so that you can better understand my background and my point of view. Although I will do my best to remain objective, please keep in mind that it is still my perspective and experience, which can be vastly different from yours. We could be right in our own ways – I guess you could call it “objective subjectivity”, or was it “subjective objectivity”?

So before I jump into comparisons, I would like to ask you, our dear reader, to keep the discussion civil. If you have a point you disagree with me on, kindly state your thoughts and your experiences and share it with the rest of the readers. But if your fingers are itching to type something nasty, please keep it to yourself or vent someplace else 🙂 Thank you for understanding!

The Unboxing Experience

Before we dive into the really important points, let me first talk about something many of us would consider ridiculous – the unboxing experience. Traditionally, PCs and PC components have never exciting to unwrap and unbox, as that was never really the focus of manufacturers. Computer parts would be shipped in ugly, brown carton boxes and if you were lucky to find a neatly printed manual among disposable plastic-wrapped pieces, you would be happy.

Apple has always been about delivering the experience, and it starts with the packaging. The darn box that contains an Apple product is beautiful to start with! Then as you start unboxing the contents, you realize that everything has been thought-out design-wise not only from the product but also from the packaging standpoint. And this experience is mirrored on every product – whether you are opening an iPhone case or a big iMac box. Everything is beautifully and tightly organized, and even simple things like the protective plastic look so strangely beautiful. Simple, elegant, brilliant. And it sure as hell works!

The idea of starting the excitement from the moment one opens the box has been such a huge marketing success for Apple, that everyone has been trying to copy that ever since! Apple really paved the way to make the packaging look sexy, and today, so many other products now have similarly beautiful and shiny boxes, colorful manuals, neatly stacked box contents and the simple, yet elegant design. And whenever we see such packaging, the first thing that comes to our mind is “quality”. Yup, through its products, Apple has placed a subliminal message into our brains, which makes us perceive a product higher when it is packaged beautifully.

Who would have thought that packaging would have played such a key role in assessing product quality?

Hardware Differences

All right, now that we have gone through the process of product unboxing, let’s talk about something that really matters – computer hardware. Which platform has better hardware, PC or Mac?

Back in the day, when Apple used to run on IBM’s PowerPC processors, one could argue that there were significant hardware differences between the two, but once Apple switched to Intel, those differences pretty much vanished. Today, both PCs and Macs can run Intel CPUs of similar generation and processing power. The PC architecture is a bit more flexible, since there is an option to also run AMD CPUs (Apple products are exclusively based on Intel microarchitecture), but it is not really an advantage, as AMD CPUs are generally not faster than Intel CPUs. So at the end of the day, there is no underlying hardware difference in terms of raw power – both PCs and Macs are equally capable systems.

However, there is one disadvantage to Macs – they are manufactured by a single company, while the PC world is comprised of tens of thousands of manufacturers of all sizes. Actually, let me rephrase that: Apple does not really manufacture hardware components. It finds the components it needs and buys them, or works with specific manufacturers on making components that are designed specifically for Macs.

For example, the motherboard, which is what houses a CPU, RAM, video card and all the connections, is designed by Apple engineers, who modify the original Intel specifications to remove certain components like eSATA ports and accommodate Apple’s proprietary ports like Thunderbolt. Apple engineers also write custom firmware / BIOS for motherboards to make them suitable for the hardware and the Mac Operating System (Mac OS). Once the design is complete, Apple has manufacturing partners like Foxconn (China), who then manufacture those parts specifically for Apple.

Product assembly then takes place at a different facility, which can potentially be owned by the same manufacturer. Aside from the motherboard, the Fusion drive, some Apple-specific hardware components, and exterior cases, all other components are purchased from standard PC component manufacturers. For example, HDD, SSD / PCIe Flash Storage, Video Cards and RAM are all standard PC components that are commonly available and compatible. Even the panels that Apple puts into its Retina screens and monitors are made by companies like Samsung, which also manufacture similar components for the PC market.

So why is this a disadvantage to Macs? Because of potential timing issues and the heavy need for R&D resources. When something new comes out, it can be pretty much instantly available in the PC world. With companies focusing on specific components rather than the entire machine, new computer parts can flood the market right after the product is launched. In the case of Apple, things cannot take place that quickly. Product redesign, integration, firmware development, and testing all take time to properly execute. For example, when Intel announced its 9th generation microarchitecture, you could build or buy a PC based on the same architecture. With Apple, you always have to wait until new machines are announced.

While hardware is extremely important in terms of performance, the marriage of hardware and software for a fluid, stable system is even more important. How good is hardware, if the software is buggy or cannot keep up?

I would call this one a tie, as timing is not critical for most people.

Software Differences: Drivers and Integration

One key advantage of Apple is their excellent integration of hardware and software, which without a doubt, has played a huge role in the success of Apple products. Macs are often regarded as more stable than PCs mainly for this reason. And it is true: it is so much easier to take control of software and hardware integration when you only need to deal with few hardware suppliers and components. In short, dedicated hardware always wins.

With PCs, you are dealing with several CPU manufacturers, dozens of motherboard manufacturers that offer different models with different feature-sets and the list goes on and on with all other components, which all have to be able to talk to each other nicely at the end of the day. Once you put it all together, then you deal with software, which is often the root cause of stability issues. Buggy drivers, buggy firmware and sometimes incompatible hardware can be pretty frustrating to deal with for an average user.

Apple products generally do not have such problems. The motherboards are carefully designed to work with the chosen hardware components and everything is cherry-picked to perform the best for that platform. Once components are put together, drivers and firmware are optimized for that specific hardware, so one does not have to deal with third party drivers or support. As a result, you end up with a more stable system and less hardware and software integration headaches to worry about in the long term.

As PC users, we are used to running periodic driver updates, firmware updates and operating system updates. And when things break, which they sometimes do from time to time, our best method to eliminate issues is to do a fresh or “clean install”, wiping everything out and starting from scratch. Mac users rarely go through the same hassles, because software, firmware and driver updates are delivered in a single update package. There are no independent components from third party manufacturers to be hassled with.

Does this make Macs better than PCs? Generally yes, but there is one exception – and that’s Microsoft. As you may already know, Microsoft has been putting a lot of resources into hardware manufacturing with its Microsoft Surface and Surface Book lines of laptops. In my opinion, with this move, Microsoft will be a direct competitor and potentially a direct competitor for Apple in the future, since Microsoft is following exactly the same methodology of successfully coupling hardware and software together. Just like Apple, Microsoft can optimize its drivers and operating system to work well with the carefully chosen hardware, delivering rock-solid stability. And it certainly works – my Surface Pro is one of the most stable PCs I have used to date.

Operating System Differences

What about the underlying software that talks directly to computer hardware, the Operating System? On PCs we have the choice to run any OS, including Windows OS and Linux / Unix (and even Mac OS for that matter), while Macs are designed to natively only run Mac OS. You can install Windows alongside Mac OS and emulate certain hardware components with Boot Camp, but the stability and the support aren’t there. So that in itself can be considered to be an advantage for PCs – freedom to choose any operating system without any concerns. However, most people rarely ever experiment with anything other than Windows and Mac OS, so the ability to run other operating systems natively on hardware won’t matter for most users. Thus, at the end of the day, it is basically the battle of Windows vs Mac OS. So which operating system is better and more stable?

This is one area where Apple fans will defend their territory big time. And I don’t blame them – for some people, switching from a PC to a Mac made sense and alleviated a lot of pains. Dealing with driver and stability issues can surely get frustrating and exhausting rather quickly and when you don’t experience the same concerns on a Mac, you surely get the impression that Mac OS is better. However, that’s not the case – the fault herein does not lie with the operating system per se, but rather with the hardware and software integration I have talked about earlier. If one is able to get solid hardware with well-tested drivers, Microsoft Windows is a very stable and reliable operating system. I personally have not seen a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) for years on any of my machines. Unless you have serious hardware issues or nasty viruses (more on viruses below), you should never be seeing errors!

True, Microsoft has had its share of bad days. Remember the Windows 98 BSOD moment with Bill Gates? We all had our good laugh that day and we have seen many more failures afterwards too. Windows Millennium (ME) was a total disaster. Few people liked Vista and Windows 8 did not get much love either. However, let’s not confuse functional and feature differences with stability issues. I was on a beta-testing team when Microsoft launched Windows 2000 and since the day the OS got a complete overhaul, with the underlying kernel running on NT code, Microsoft Windows has been a solid and a reliable operating system. All the instability issues we have seen have been the result of poor software and hardware integration, which Microsoft started to tackle later on with signed drivers. Still, it is nearly impossible to get every hardware vendor to integrate well with all components of software – the biggest challenge for any OS maker. So if your experience with Windows OS has been bad, you most likely had some serious hardware or software compatibility issues.

As I have already pointed out above, Macs are going to have less overall stability issues due to better hardware and software integration and compatibility issues (except when compared to Microsoft’s PCs). However, that only applies to the operating system layer and the basic, OS-provided applications – the same does not apply to third party applications. Just in the past 6 months, I have seen many cases of all kinds of software crashes on the iMac Retina that I have been using. Badly-written applications randomly crashing, (Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Photoshop CC, Lightroom CC, and other third-party apps) and Adobe compatibility issues with the latest Mac OS, to name a few.

In short, crap software will be crap on any machine, whether it is a PC or a Mac. As a PC user, I always made the assumption that Adobe’s software runs better on a Mac (I thought that Adobe optimized its code better for Macs). Nope, not true. It sucks resources and wastes memory on my PC and it is no different on my iMac.

When doing our first video project, I thought that doing editing on my iMac would be a good idea. After just a few hours and dozens of application errors and shutdowns, I ended up moving the project back to my PC – it was simply unbearable. In this particular case, I was better off working on my PC than on the iMac! I was still experiencing occasional crashes, but there were nearly not as bad. And with a lack of proper GPU support for AMD’s video cards, my Adobe Premiere Pro was much slower on the Mac. Adobe later pushed a few updates to take care of these stability issues, but it was already too late – I did not want to trust the Mac to run any Adobe apps reliably.

In summary, there are no serious differences in operating systems in my opinion. Both Windows and Mac OS are equally reliable.

Viruses and Trojans

What about virus and trojan outbreaks? We hear about this one a lot too, with Apple fans arguing that Apple machines suffer from much less software and hardware exploit issues. This one I have to agree on – and the main reason is popularity. With Apple having a much smaller market share than PC, which is generally less than 15% of the total market, hackers are always going to target machines that are in the abundance.

Simply put, there are far more PCs out there to target compared to Macs. For mass-hacking and denial of service attacks, the more machines in the inventory, the better. So naturally, PCs would be better targets, as they have the volume. But that’s changing quickly. With the rise of Apple machines and gadgets, more and more hackers are targeting Macs.

I would say this one is a win for Apple for now.

Security

Security is another area where I don’t consider one OS to be superior to the other. Both require elevated privileges for installing software, both prohibit easy launching of downloaded files, and operating system files are protected from modifications. Back in the day, Apple fans could brag on Mac OS being based on the more stable Unix platform, but that argument is a moot point for me personally. I have been using Unix and Linux systems extensively (for example, this server is running on a customized Linux server) and I can tell you that I equally ran Windows OS in an enterprise environment, with the same 24/7 stability and availability.

Design and Aesthetics

I don’t think there is a need to say much here, as we all know which one is going to win. Apple makes beautiful products and sadly, I cannot think of a single PC that is as aesthetically as pleasing as a Mac. When was the last time you saw a truly beautiful PC? There are some slick cases out there, but that’s about it. Once you add all the ugly wiring, the thought of “beautiful and simple” quickly vanishes. PC manufacturers have tried every possible design and the result is sadly one ugliness after another.

The only exceptions are some PC laptops and tablets like Microsoft’s Surface, or Dell’s XPS line with carbon fiber casing. These can be beautiful, simple and sleek to use. But in all honesty, none still beat the aesthetics of Apple products.

Ergonomics and Ease of Use

Another area Apple is very strong at is ergonomics. The idea of a simplistic design also equally applies to navigation and use of both hardware and software components. After using the iMac, I have to say, nobody has the trackpad in the PC world figured out when compared to Apple. In fact, all PC trackpads suck badly. Every laptop trackpad I have used to date has been junk – very frustrating to use, even on the latest, most expensive machines. And let’s not even remember IBM’s horrible joystick that was stuck in between buttons – what a terrible idea that was!

To truly appreciate navigational ergonomics, give the Magic Trackpad a try. It takes a bit of time to get used to, but once you get the hang of it, you will never want to use anything else. And this trackpad experience is mirrored across all Apple products. It just works! Apple invented multi-touch and hand gestures, so it is no wonder why they are so good at it.

As for ease of use, that’s another stronghold of Apple. When Apple released the iPhone with a single button, people laughed. When Apple released the iPad, people laughed again. But those two products have been extremely successful because of their simplicity of operation. Today, every phone maker is copying the same idea – now we even have buttonless phones!

Upfront Cost and Performance

If so far it appeared like I was giving all the credit to Apple, this is one area where it will be a huge slam on Apple’s face. If one evaluates cost and performance (which go hand in hand), Macs don’t stand a chance against PCs. I could build a very fast PC, which will slaughter pretty much any Mac out there, at half the cost. Don’t believe me? Take a look at my ultimate PC for photography article and try to find a similarly spec’ed Mac (hint: it does not exist). For about $2K, my PC would be screaming fast, delivering unbelievable performance.

So if we look at the desktop space, Apple cannot really compete. In fact, Apple does not want to compete in that space, because it knows that it won’t stand a chance. That’s why Apple’s focus has been primarily on mobile devices, laptops, all-in-one machines and maybe a bit of workstation class environments (Mac Pro). In these areas, Apple surely has very appealing products, which in some cases are priced fairly.

Now there are some exceptions. For example, the iMac Retina is a very unique machine, which actually has no real PC equivalent. If one were to build a similarly spec’ed machine, it would be much bigger in size and its cost would most likely surpass the iMac, since a 5K screen alone would cost $1500+ (the screen is one of the main reasons why I bought an iMac Retina).

So the cost factor has to be looked at on a case by case basis. Overall though, with a few exceptions listed above, Apple products are generally priced much higher than PCs when looking at very similar specifications.

Now if we look at sheer computing performance, that’s another area where Macs will usually lose. PCs can be designed to accommodate high-end components and can be flexible enough to push their limits beyond specifications. One can get a fairly cheap setup and overclock it. It might not be as stable as a result, but it will obliterate a competing Mac in performance. That’s why PCs are so much more popular among gamers, 3D animators and anyone else seeking hardcore performance. People can push hardware to the limits and get far more done in a much shorter period of time.

Upgrade Options

Another area where Apple struggles is upgrade options. Once you buy a machine, it is easier to get it replaced, than to upgrade its components. Aside from a few exceptions, like swapping out a hard drive or upgrading RAM, there is little future upgrade path for a Mac. PC users can buy components and reuse them in their future builds with ease, saving money in the long term. It is far cheaper to upgrade a motherboard with a CPU, than to buy a brand new machine.

Some Macs make it extremely difficult, or nearly impossible to switch out components. For example, the all-in-one iMac is so stuffed inside, that even an experienced techie would have a hard time swapping basic components like the hard drive. I wrote about this in my previous article on how to buy an iMac.

Now some people might argue that Apple computers are a long-term investment, that upgrades are not needed and the machines generally can serve longer, which makes it worthwhile to spend the premium on them. I am sorry, but I don’t buy that argument. Unless I really want to move up to something faster, my PCs are also built to last for at least 5 years, making them worthwhile, long-term investments.

Resale Value

When it comes to resale value, Apple always wins hands down. Whether you have just built a PC, or have been using one for a year or two, good luck trying to sell it – PCs have practically no resale value! I cannot remember the last time I sold a PC I built, as nobody really wants them. The majority of the PCs out there are either thrown away or recycled for that reason. I personally end up recycling too, or sometimes use them as “museum components” (hard drive plates and magnets are particularly fun to play with). I am done with accumulating a stash of hard drives, RAM and CPUs – that just ends up going to junk / recycling anyway.

Apple products always have a higher resale value and this applies to all Apple products, not just Macs. People sell used MacBooks, iMacs, Mac Pros and Mac Minis all the time and they fetch surprisingly good prices on the used market. My moderately used Surface Pro 3 that was worth $2K at the time I bought it, is selling dirt cheap today after a year of use – less than half of what I paid for it. And that’s a very solid product with a very high quality and desirability. I would not even think about trying to sell my used PC desktop. I would probably make more money selling individual components, than trying to sell the whole thing and even then it usually would not be worth the effort.

So if resale value on Apple products is better, doesn’t that make them a better choice for long-term investment? Isn’t it worth paying the price premium upfront? Well, if you are the type who does not mind selling computer gear before upgrades, then it would probably be a true statement. However, most of us often end up either keeping computers until they fail and have no resale value, or pass them on to our family members, friends or various donations. As appealing the resale value argument might be, unless you have previously done it and you know that you will be doing it in the future, I would not consider it to be a valid argument.

A potential win for Apple, if you have the track record of selling used gear.

Photoshop and Lightroom Performance

As I have stated earlier, Macs don’t have any particular advantage for running post-processing software like Adobe CC. Buggy releases are equally bad on both platforms. If a piece of software has memory leaks, there is a big chance that those memory leaks will be mirrored on both Mac OS and Windows. And this has been my exact experience when running Adobe software on my iMac – it can be equally frustrating and slow. Occasionally, there are platform-specific issues and compatibility issues.

For example, the infamous menu bug that we have seen on pretty much every iteration of Lightroom is mostly a PC problem. Adobe still cannot figure out a way to fix it, although the development team did come up with a few tricks to try to address the issue. On the latest version of Lightroom, if the software detects malfunctioning menus, it throws an error and asks to restart Lightroom. This particular bug does not exist on OS X. There are some other bugs that are present on Mac OS and not necessarily present on Windows. In some cases, it could be an operating system library conflict. When Apple pushed El Capitan, it presented a lot of problems with Adobe software. It took a few updates for Adobe to make their software usable again. These problems were obviously non-existent on the Windows platform.

In short, there is not much difference in performance when running applications like Photoshop and Lightroom on both Mac OS and Windows operating systems.

Display Quality and Calibration Accuracy

While Apple releases very impressive, high-resolution displays / screens for Macs and puts quite a bit of marketing pitch in showcasing their displays as photography-friendly, most Apple monitors are not best suited for accurate color reproduction and calibration. While things have definitely gotten better during the past few years, making Apple screens more or less acceptable for photo work (after the company started to push IPS panels), they still lag quite a bit when compared to professional monitors. So if you work with colors every day and you need the best accuracy, you will have to invest in a high-quality monitor that can be properly hardware-calibrated.

Speaking of calibration, that’s definitely a weakness of most Apple monitors. On all iMacs, for example, the only adjustment control you have is brightness. There is no way to change contrast or to fine-tune other monitor parameters. Setting desired brightness levels for proper calibration can be painful, since there are at most 16 levels of brightness, versus the typical 100 that you get on good monitors. On top of that, pretty much every Apple monitor has a reflective surface, making them painful to work with in bright environments.

This all does not mean that these screens cannot be calibrated – while Apple does a decent job at color reproduction from the factory, you should still invest in a good colorimeter like the X-Rite i1Display Pro and calibrate every display for best results.

So keep this in mind when looking at Apple monitors. While those screens certainly look beautiful, they are not necessarily the best ones to work with for photography.

This one is a disadvantage for iMacs and Apple laptops. For everything else, you will need to buy external monitors, just like you buy for PCs, so there are similar considerations for both.

10-Bit Support

For years, Apple refused to provide proper 10-bit support on Mac OS at the operating system level, making them unusable for color-critical work. On PCs, video card manufacturers like NVIDIA have been providing 10-bit support for years, as long as you purchase the right pro-level card, like the NVIDIA QUADRO series cards.

Starting from the OS X El Capitan release though, Apple finally integrated 10-bit support into the operating system and now every Mac running the latest OS can finally output colors in 10-bits.

Used to be a disadvantage for Mac, but now is a tie.

Summary

In this article, I have only touched some of the factors when considering a Mac vs a PC. There are many other areas I could expand into, such as software availability, specific ergonomic and design concerns and much more. But I am not sure if there is any value in expanding this discussion even further, as we have already covered a lot.

At the end of the day, the choice of a system does not really matter. Both Macs and PCs are good enough to be used for a variety of uses, including post-processing. I provided my arguments and you can feel free to weigh each one and see which are more important for you.

For me personally, the PC makes more sense to use for post-processing, which has been and will continue to be my platform of choice. I am very familiar with it, I pick and choose what I need and I don’t have to spend a ton of money to get the speed and the components I need. But for others who are not as tech-savvy, or perhaps have bad PC experience, the Mac might be the way to go. It is simpler to use, it is more intuitive, well-designed and will probably have less problems in the long run.

Would love to hear your thoughts and your preferences – please share in the comments section below!