Operating System Guide: Windows vs. Mac (vs. Linux)
Last updated: May 2019
Which operating system is the best? Which OS' laptop or desktop computer is the best?
The simplest questions always need the longest answers, have you noticed that recently? A question that will no doubt rumble on through the ages of PC users, gamers, content creators, and various professionals: What is better, Mac or PC?
In this big guide, we're going to take a look at the main Apple range and compare against various manufacturers' Microsoft offerings to try and figure out what's best. (We'll also discuss self-built options for both Windows PCs and GNU/Linux PCs.)
So settle in for some surprise winners, and prepare for a fight in the comments!
Introduction (and Rule 1: This is Not a Bashing Contest)
You might think that an article like this on a PC building site would just be a few thousand words of throwing insults Apple's way. For the purposes of this article, what does "not a bashing contest" mean? Well, it means that—at any point in this guide, if there's going to be a "preferred" option to go for—our reasoning is going to be explained in a logical way.
We are all about balanced builds here at Logical Increments, which is why we spend so much of the space on this site strongly recommending that you build your own PC (to maximize build balance, cost effectiveness, component quality, customization options, ease of maintenance, and more). But the idea for this guide came about from a discussion over when a Mac might be the most logical choice. Plus, we want to be able to showcase the best options regardless of brands. This means that we'll not just be looking at raw hardware performance here—but also available software, market share for various industries, price-to-performance ratios, and so on.
Because of this, we have decided to split this guide into 3 broad sections:
- Section one is a breakdown of features, functions, and programs on macOS compared to Windows and Linux systems. Although this won't be an exhaustive list, it should give a little indication as to why some people prefer one platform over another.
- Section two will then be looking at the laptop range from Apple and comparing against Windows laptops. With this, we'll pay additional attention to screen, I/O ports, and cooling of the hardware crammed into these portable devices.
- Finally, section three will then compare desktop options for each OS. This will compare self-built Windows or Linux PCs, pre-built Windows PCs, and pre-built Apple PCs.
So, with the battlefield marked out, let's get down to it!
Section 1: Apple vs. Microsoft vs. Linux (Security, Software, and Features)
2000 was a crazy year in computing. That Y2K thing was a dud, but a few big announcements happened in that year that would change Apple into the powerhouse of today. What may shock you is that it all happened over the course of a few hours.
The date was January 5, and Steve Jobs (Apple Interim CEO) was marching onto the stage for his keynote address at Macworld San Francisco. During the course of the keynote, he would make 2 announcements. Firstly, he showcased OS X to the world for the first time. Second, he announced that he was dropping the 'Interim' from his title and becoming the permanent CEO of Apple.
If you have the time, go look back at the old recording. It was 2000, so you have to be patient with potato recording quality! Yet, like the iPhone unveiling 7 years later, it does make you wonder: Did people know how much of an impact these announcements would have on the industry?
For Apple's part, OS X has gone on from strength to strength. It is used in every main hardware product that Apple makes. For this comparison, we'll be looking at what is now called macOS, specifically the 10.14.x Mojave release.
Microsoft, by comparison, seem like seasoned sages at the software game. Admittedly, they haven't been great with releases at times. Who remembers ME, Vista, and more recently 8.1 with fondness? However, for this comparison, we'll be looking at Windows 10 versions. I say versions (plural) as we will bounce between Home and Pro editions depending on what makes sense for the build, as well as what is packaged with pre-built machines.
Finally, there are additional points for GNU/Linux systems, when comparing to both Apple and Windows. With Linux being open-source, it offers some unique options not available in a narrow Apple versus Microsoft battle!
Is Market Share Important?
The business folks will of course say yes here. Yet there is a mismatch in the numbers here, as Apple has a higher price to entry versus Microsoft products. This is shown in the average purchase cost statistics. For Apple's part, they're happy with people spending upwards of $1400+ on any given system. Microsoft may get more users with a $600 average system purchase cost, but it also means you have to have significantly higher volume to match Apple's profit per purchase.
You could chase those kinds of discrepancies and strategy differences in circles all day. However, a better thing to look at here is density of users in a certain profession or industry. Yes, Microsoft has the huge lead of almost 80% of all OS installs globally versus almost 15% for Apple with macOS. Yet that market share for Apple is massively skewed towards the creative industries. So, why is that? Well, that's going to be the focus of this first main section: software, features, and functionality.
A) Security and Stability
"If you have a mac, you don't need security."
This was a belief of many for a long time in the industry. There is some truth to this—but it's mainly because of the market share note above. Put simply, there are far fewer computers running macOS, so there are less threats out there for it; malicious software and various scams tend to target the largest potential userbase. But if you still think that's a compelling factor—well, there are even fewer consumer GNU/Linux installs, so (in that sense) it would be even more true to say that, "If you have a Linux computer, you don't need security."
Like any piece of mass marketing, the default is going to be going for the largest impact. So, for the hackers out there, that means targeting Windows systems. However, because of the belief that a Mac doesn't need security, this has also left them potentially more vulnerable. There is a nice blog post on this very subject on Kaspersky's blog. The IT Governance website goes into even more detail about this, with giving examples of overall reported threats.
Yet that's not all. Ask any large-scale business which is their preferred, secured OS of choice and it'll be Linux all day long. There are countless servers running versions of GNU/Linux all over the world, because of that stability and security. Why is that, you might be asking? Well the answer is simple: Linux is the most secure OS because its source is open. Anyone can review it and make sure there are no bugs or back doors. However, for an average (non-corporate, non-server) user, Linux might seem too complex to use or at least set up correctly.
Another big thing to consider is that, at the hardware security level, Apple and Microsoft are essentially one-and-the-same.
Who remembers the whole Meltdown and Spectre issues debacle from January 2018? As those issues were a hardware vulnerability at the CPU level, Apple and Microsoft systems running Intel chips were equally impacted. This is something which we'll discuss further a bit later on, when looking at specifications—as it's not like the old days when Apple made their own chips to go into their systems. Generally speaking, they're all using the same broad hardware from the same manufacturers, so it's a level playing field here.
One thing that is different is build quality and design. Apple have been traditionally better at their internal design—but as many, many examples have shown, their computers (with cases glued shut and part diagrams kept under wraps whenever possible) are not the best when things go wrong or you want to upgrade. Non-Apple laptop PCs are very similar in this regard, but for non-Apple desktop PCs there are numerous advantages in terms of being able to address issues by yourself or through third-party services.
Surprise! Although the hardware range (at least in terms of driver support) isn't quite there with Linux, it is always improving (joys of an open-source platform). So, because of the huge security bonus with it, Linux wins this category hands down.
With the hardware side being more-or-less a tie, this leaves macOS to take second place in this category—even if that's more of a quirk of its undesirability to hackers, rather than its superior security software.
B) Software Offerings
"Ecosystem" is the one word you'll hear whenever looking into Apple software. Everything from Apple's phones to tablets to PCs are all kept within the singular Apple ecosystem—which is their exclusive, tightly controlled family of software (including their operating system, group of standard programs, and their suite of professional-grade software).
Now, some will point out that Apple having a monopoly on the experience and options of their users isn't that great. If your sole reason for staying on a platform is because you don't have to move data or choose software... yeah, it's not great. That will so often be the biggest strength and weakness of Apple, depending on who you speak to!
However, I mentioned earlier that Apple has a huge creative following; why is that? Well, that in part is down to the quality of the software within the walled garden of their ecosystem. Be it music with Logic Pro, video with Final Cut Pro, or publishing a book with iBook Author—Apple has some seriously heavy hitters in the pro-grade creative software space.
Rather than "walled garden," I'm sure the phrase Apple would prefer that we use is "seamless experience."
When you think of Windows software options, you should picture an American grocery store. A staggering abundance of options for just about everything you may ordinarily wish to make, but plenty of redundancy and junk food in the mix (but no real instructional guidance, and maybe a few missing ingredients for niche customers).
PC gamers (for example) are starting to chafe at the prospect of having a different digital store for each major publisher, whereas as the singularity of the Apple store is far more controlled and managed. Plus, Apple offers the same general process for installing software, too; this makes things easier to use as you know what to expect. Installing a program on Windows can be more complicated, and the less said about fully uninstalling programs on Windows, the better.
Microsoft has made an attempt at creating their own uniform setup in the form of the Microsoft Store on Windows 10, but it remains true that the real benefit of Windows is precisely what you can find outside of the store: a tremendous amount of flexibility for a user—from downloading a program to configuring a program to running the program once it has installed. The huge range of software that's out there because of the popularity of Windows, and the level of customization and control over that software afforded to the user, cannot be overlooked. Although Apple has some very unique software for creatives, giants in the industry like Adobe and Avid have superb, broadly-compatible software that is hugely adopted at this point in time.
The other large benefit in Microsoft's favor, when compared to Apple, is gaming. Due to the size of the Windows userbase (not to mention Microsoft's considerable direct involvement in the games industry), developers and publishers always prioritize Windows compatibility. When a game releases on PC, it is practically guaranteed that it will be available on Windows, with Mac and Linux usually being supported later or not at all. The gaming industry is huge, and according to the Steam Hardware Survey data, 96% of all systems on their platform are Windows -based. So if you like your standard PC gaming, there's really only one choice here.
GNU/Linux is quite good in regards to the notion of uniform design, as most of the main branches have standardized install setups. Nested launchers and other sources of redundant design are simply not allowed unless they can be shown to provide additional functionality (e.g. using Wine to run Windows programs on Linux). The real downside for Linux in this category is a smaller userbase.
The result of the relatively unpopularity of Linux among average users is less options for consumers (but more options for specialist power users). That being said, there's still a huge push for Linux adoption due to the massive potential of its admirable open-source nature.
This even extends to gaming, where industry-shaping company Valve has been pushing SteamOS and Linux games hard. The best thing for games developers here is that Linux is generally easy to code for, with SteamOS making life easier (and right now there's not as much competition). As a gamer, I just love the variety of games in the top sellers list!
So, with its open-source nature, the level of control it affords users, and (of course) it being available for free—the fight isn't over here just yet for GNU/Linux. But its software options don't currently hold up for the average user when compared to the immense variety and support of Windows or the polished simplicity of Apple.
At the end of the day, the average developer will go where the market share is, and that's Windows. Apple does a great job at curating their store, which is why they edge out the runners up spot over the free-and-open-source Linux. But Microsoft wins outright here, just on the sheer scale of software options available.
A selection of popular free software that can be multi-installed via Ninite.
C) Miscellaneous Features
Welcome to the big wide world of buzz words! Although there are some unique features on show here, a lot of the "Only available on..." titles are simply the same feature of another platform by another name! What we'll be looking at are a few of the most touted features of the platforms, and seeing what's worth having.
Smart assistants are becoming more and more a part of our lives, with not only Apple and Microsoft, but also Google and Amazon getting in on the fun. As a chap from Liverpool in the UK, voice commands are often an... interesting experience. Cortana (Microsoft's assistant) tends to be the most consistent with me, yet then again as most of my time is spent on a PC and I allow Cortana a lot of access through privacy controls, I'm not too surprised. Siri (Apple's assistant) has the most consistent experience, though, for those using it—as it's the same across all devices (THE ECOSYSTEM), which is a huge bonus.
Both Google Assistant and Alexa (Amazon's assistant) are hot on the heels with huge cloud processing performance backing them up, but until Google and Amazon release robust operating system options—they're not really eligible to win this category.
As someone who spends far too much time looking at a screen, a good dark mode is seriously needed. For instance, it is 9:20 PM when I'm writing this, and I have many things turned down simply to protect my eyes.
Although Windows 10 does have a dark mode, by default it's only for the OS and store apps. Everything else is depending on the software being used. Apple have them beat here, thanks to the uniform install setup, so when they included a dark mode with Mojave, it became damn near uniform across the board. Very handy for those late night rendering projects! GNU/Linux isn't so bad in this regard either, as its themes setup on the likes of Ubuntu make changing these quite easy, although there's additional steps to get it to work quite as well as macOS. Windows and Linux users may have to resort to third-party color alteration programs like f.lux to protect their vision.
This one is an immediate three-way tie. Much to their credit, the developers behind all three operating systems that we're discussing in this article have done a great job (some of them only more recently, some of them from the very beginning) at providing accessibility options for the wide variety of users that may want to utilize them.
Screen readers, magnifiers, colorblind themes, cursor and text resizing, and more are all available in some form for each platform. There are even some efforts to expand into interesting new territory (such as the experimental eye-tracking-based control options in Windows 10), but at the very least users can rest assured that proper basic accessibility concerns have been considered.
This is another one that Apple has Microsoft beat on. Although both have the capability to "spy" on you, Apple has again shown a far better grasp of UX design in making this far easier for a user to go through and control. Basically, an Apple user can more clearly see what their webcam and microphone are up to!
GNU/Linux, however, is almost surely the winner of this particular matter, as it grants full control over anything and everything that the user wants (again, the joys of open source).
Touchscreen or touchpad? Your choice of device will determine the touch interface available, yet for laptops and desktops there is a shift with Apple going universally with touchpads, and Windows devices having touchscreens and/or touchpads.
This allows Apple to beat out the competition yet again, due to the functional consistency provided by choosing a standard across device types. Pinch zoom, two fingers to scroll, one finger to left click, two fingers to right click, and all of the little multi-touch actions will all be immediately familiar to Mac users, regardless of their device of choice. Although Microsoft really caught up ground with Windows 8 (who thought someone would use Windows 8 as a positive example?), the fact that they have different manufacturers making their Windows devices makes it a little harder for consistency to be maintained sometimes. Especially when it comes to sensitivity and touch response.
Some may complain that Apple loves to do things differently, but they are still the kings at merging software and hardware together. This might not be so true in the future, as our range comparisons below show signs of weakness from them, but as of now Apple win when it comes to features. It's down to their general care shown when merging features of macOS with their available hardware.
This is the only category where GNU/Linux doesn't really compete much (other than, as usual, a stellar degree of customization and control), but that's primarily because they're not a hardware manufacturer like Apple nor associated with dedicated hardware manufacturers like Microsoft. And yes, that's still our decision after deducting points for Apple's removal of standard ports like headphone jacks...
Section 2: Apple vs. Microsoft (Laptops)
This second section will be looking at the laptop range from Apple, and comparing it against select Windows laptops with similar design priorities and prices. For this purpose, we'll pay additional attention not just to the specifications, but also to the screen, any unique I/O, battery life, and cooling capabilities crammed into these portable devices.
Of course, while it is possible to alter a laptop to run GNU/Linux or to dual boot Linux and another OS, that's not really what this section is about. Rather, this section simply aims to figure out which currently-available laptops are superior (in terms of raw power, price-to-performance ratios, features, et cetera) in two categories: those that prioritize a small form factor at the expense of all else, and those that prioritize performance/power at the expense of all else.
For this, we'll be looking at laptops made by Apple (with macOS pre-installed), and comparing them to laptops made by others manufacturers (with Windows pre-installed). There are a few laptops being sold with Linux distributions pre-installed on them, but they tend to be niche products from small companies rather than broadly-available, competitive machines. So we'll be setting aside GNU/Linux for the time being, although it will reappear in this article further on, in the desktop computer section.
Although there are piles of variations in each line-up here, our method will be comparing the Macbook and 15" Macbook Pro models against several Windows laptops. So let's get into it!
A) Ultra-thin Laptops
For when performance is important... but only if it comes in small packages! These super-slim laptops cram performance into seemingly impossibly small chassis, ideal for users who are constantly on the go and don't want to add piles of weight onto their busy lives.
You know, I do have to hand it to Apple. They do love their slim devices.
Currently, the higher specifications are selling from as little as $1200 (Rose Gold or Gold versions), with $1249 for Space Gray and topping out at $1449 for the Silver model. These each have a Recommended Retail Price of $1600, so they all represent savings. Yet, as the Space Gray is the middle value, we'll go with that as our rough benchmark price (with the $50 saved to the Gold models to keep in mind).
This color-based price slashing has cut into the current Macbook Air line, with the only benefit there being a slightly-higher-clocked 8th-gen dual core i5 (1.6GHz) for a heavier and less slim model. So because of this, the current Macbook beats its Apple brethren in this category.
- CPU: Intel 7th-gen 2-core i5 (1.3GHz base clock, 3.2GHz boost clock, 4MB L3 cache)
- GPU: Intel HD Graphics 615
- RAM: 8GB (LPDDR3, 1866MHz)
- Storage: 512GB SSD
- Screen: 12-inch LED (IPS, 2304x1440 resolution, 60Hz)
- Battery Life: ~10-12 hours
The biggest thing here is the size. It's not an Air in name, but at only 0.35-1.31cm in height from the lowest to highest point, that's one incredibly thin laptop.
There are a few conditions for that size, though. The CPU is clocked low to keep it cool as there's not much in the way of additional cooling one could possibly squeeze in there. Plus, as you're about to see, Windows users really do expect to get a dedicated (non-integrated) GPU when looking at this price point.
Say hello to the Windows ultra-slim, giving Apple a run for their money.
"The best laptop you've never heard of." That is the actual tagline Huawei used in all the media about this laptop, and it seems like they're not far off in that assessment.
Although it is not quite as thin as the Macbook (coming in at a "frankly huge" 1.52 cm at its thickest), it more than makes up for it in specifications. Very impressive for a $1300 laptop! Let's take a look.
- CPU: Intel i7-8550U (1.8GHz base clock, 4.0GHz boost clock, 8MB L3 cache)
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce MX150 2GB
- RAM: 16GB (LPDDR3, 2133MHz)
- Storage: 512GB SSD
- Screen: 14-inch LCD (IPS, 3000x2000 resolution, 60Hz)
- Battery Life: ~12-15 hours
A fifth of a centimeter evidently makes a very big difference! The newer 8th-gen Intel CPU is not only faster than what's in the Macbook, but it also has more cores and threads, making this laptop a superior multi-tasking machine. It's also coupled with 16GB of faster RAM, as well as a dedicated GPU. The larger screen and resolution are designed with this in mind, giving you an awful lot of surface area to work with. It even comes in Space Gray...
Although the slightly-higher-specification CPU is nice as it's a jump from 2 to 4-cores, for productivity on the go, the real treat here is having that dedicated GPU; even a small one like the MX150 is far better than an integrated Intel GPU. And, as mentioned above, the doubling of RAM to 16GB (which is also faster) is just the icing on the cake.
Equally handy here is the fact that—because this is running an 8th-gen CPU—it is a little bit more energy-efficient, meaning the already-impressive battery life from the Macbook is surpassed by the 12-15 hours of life here.
If you're wanting to match exact specifications instead of price, you can drop down to the i5 version of this laptop (with 8GB RAM and just integrated graphics) for $1129. But for the extra $170, the better CPU, better GPU, and additional RAM is well worth it and frankly the better deal.
Winner: Windows (Huawei MateBook X Pro Signature Edition)
Although not quite as slim, the performance increase at a similar price point is simply too large to ignore.
This was honestly tough, and goes to show just how much variation there is in the laptop market. On the one side, the Macbook is almost impossibly thin. The tapered edge going all the way down to 0.35 cm and being 1.31 cm at its thickest means that if you must have the slimmest, you've got to go with the Macbook; there is no thinner.
Looking at specifications alone, even the Windows laptop's i5 version is about as powerful as the Apple option. Yet it's hard to just dismiss the Macbook at that point, as the Windows i5 variant is super close in both price and performance to the Gold and Rose Gold editions of the Macbook. However, if we look at the i7 version of the MateBook X Pro, the comparison swings firmly in the favor of it over the Macbook. Hence the verdict.
Honorable mention here also goes to the Macbook Air at $1300. The poor thing doesn't really get a mention right now, because it has been "out-smalled" by its own brand; the Macbook is slimmer, lighter, and higher-performing for the money. Yet even if you bump up to an Apple laptop that is a bit larger and with a slightly higher-specification CPU, the Huawei still wins.
Ultra-thin Laptop Alternatives
B) High-performance Laptops
When hardware performance is king, size becomes less of an issue. In this section, we take a look at the pricey high-performance laptops on the market, to see what you can get when you splash the cash on a top-end laptop model!
macOS: Macbook Pro i9
Here come the big boys! Long considered the flagship of the mobile Apple range, the Macbook Pro has been around for a long, long time. Although we compared the "standard" models with the Macbook above—as they're just as available as anything else, we're going to go with a higher specification Macbook Pro here.
The i9 version we're considering comes in at almost $3000, while the lower-tier i7 version comes in down around $2500. But we're focusing on the maximum performance for this section, so i9 it is!
- CPU: Intel 8th-gen 6-core i9 (2.9GHz base clock, 4.8GHz boost clock, 12MB L3 cache)
- GPU: AMD Radeon Pro 560X
- RAM: 16GB (DDR4, 2400MHz)
- Storage: 512GB SSD
- Screen: 15-inch LED (IPS, 2880x1800 resolution, 60Hz)
- Battery Life: ~10 hours
For those of you not dead-set on maximizing performance, you can also consider dropping down to the i7 version and a 256GB SSD for about $2200. So do keep in mind that, even moreso than with the Macbook models, there's a potentially huge price range we're working with here.
As a model for creatives, the Macbook Pro is honestly hard to beat if you're after a portable machine. Yes, there are cooling issues if you start doing some more intensive tasks, but some would say that's simply what you get for trying to shove an i9 into a laptop. Either way, let's take a look at the competition.
Windows: Dell XPS 15 9570
I know I said above that it was mad of Apple to put an i9 into a laptop, yet I never said they were alone in this. Coming in at about $2600, this is a laptop at a similar price point that comes stacked with power.
As we're still within a few hundred dollars of the Mac (which would be hugely significant for options below $1000, but is not as staggering a divide at this level), we're in a similar ballpark in terms of price as well as performance. Let's take a look:
- CPU: Intel i9-8950HK (2.9GHz base clock, 4.8GHz boost clock, 12MB L3 cache)
- GPU: GTX 1050 Ti
- RAM: 32GB (DDR4, 2666MHz)
- Storage: 1TB SSD
- Screen: 16-inch LED (IPS, 3840x2160 resolution, 60Hz)
- Battery Life: ~7-8 hours
So, although Apple never say publicly exactly what chips they're using, based on specifications I think it's safe to say that these 2 laptops have the same CPU.
The GPUs are very close too, although the GTX 1050 Ti wins out for being a newer card with slightly higher performance.
Finally, doubling up on both RAM and storage is a big tick in favor of the Dell, and can seriously help with resource-intensive work like rendering and video editing.
If I had trouble picking the first winner, this one is tougher. Both can be recommended at this price point for specific purposes and honestly at almost $3000 you're not exactly going to get a bad laptop here.
For professional video editing, professional rendering, and/or gaming, the higher raw power and lower price make the Windows laptop the winner.
But for professional audio editing, professional photo editing, and/or all-around productivity work (office tasks, light media editing, etc), the software suite, Thunderbolt ports, and better battery life of the Macbook Pro i9 make it come out on top.
High-performance Laptop Alternatives
Section 3: Apple vs. Microsoft vs. Linux (Desktops)
In the world of desktop computers, Apple is generally all about the self-contained, all-in-one (AIO) units. But on the Windows or GNU/Linux side, as our site showcases, there is a massive amount of choice when it comes to either building your own PC or selecting one of the numerous Windows-bearing pre-built options.
We want to be fair to all parties, so we'll first be comparing the Mac options in this section against prebuilt computers with similar design priorities (as well as prices). But just leaving it at that would ignore the fact that some people have different design desires than what Apple is providing, and the fact that some people may simply want to see a comparison between the best of macOS desktops and the best of Windows or Linux desktops (regardless of design). So after those two sections, we've also got a section that presents a couple of example self-built Windows/Linux systems, and compares them to the Mac options.
So, to be totally clear, the three parts in this section will be as follows:
A) Midrange All-In-One Prebuilt Computers: iMac vs. midrange Windows AIO system
B) High-Performance All-In-One Prebuilt Computers: iMac Pro vs. high-performance Windows AIO system
C) Self-Built Computers: (iMac or iMac Pro vs.) midrange or high-end self-built Windows/Linux systems
We're not going to include the Mac Mini here, as it's overpriced for its specifications, although it's a nice small machine. Plus we're not going to include the Mac Pro, as it is due for a refresh and/or re-design soon; but more importantly, the iMac Pro can have higher configurations.
So with the general plan in mind, let's get go!
A) Midrange All-In-One Prebuilt Computers
The realm of the good all-around machines, handily built into the screen for discrete design.
As mentioned above, in this section we will be looking at the new iMac and seeing what is available to compete against it from the Windows-running market.
macOS: iMac 3.0GHz
We're going with Apple's most popular model, which is also the good middle ground of the 21" iMac range. Namely the 3GHz i5 model, which comes in currently at about $1200. Let's take a look at the specifications:
- CPU: Intel 4-core i5 (3.0GHz base clock, 3.5GHz boost clock)
- GPU: Radeon Pro 560X
- RAM: 8GB (DDR4, 2666MHz)
- Storage: 1TB 5400RPM HDD
- Screen: 22-inch Retina (4096x2304 resolution)
The screen of this model is a really key element in Apple's favor. Not only is this a high-resolution screen, but crucially it has DCI-P3 color support, making it a dream for video creators who need that guaranteed color space for production.
As far as the rest of the specifications go, they're more or less what you'd expect. A decent-clocked quad-core, a reasonable amount of RAM, and a dedicated GPU to match. The only real disappointment is the 5400RPM HDD. Can we not at least have 7200RPM drives, Apple? I know that they love to upsell folks onto the Fusion drive so they need more separation between the speeds in their various models, but this will end up hurting them in the cross-company comparisons, as you will see in a moment.
Windows: HP Pavilion 24-X037C
At this level, you can get a lot of different things for your money, yet it goes to show how different manufacturers focus on different things. This particular HP model comes in at about $1100.
This HP technically has a larger screen, but it is a lower resolution (1920x1080) and also a smaller color space. However, it does have some component bonuses to compensate. Let's take a look:
- CPU: Intel i7-7700T (2.8GHz base clock, 3.8GHz boost clock, 8MB L3 cache)
- GPU: AMD Radeon 530
- RAM: 12GB (DDR4, 2400MHz)
- Storage: 1TB SSD
- Screen: 24-inch LED (IPS, 1920x1080 resolution, 60Hz)
Like I said above, this is where you can go back and forth with different models. The i7 here has a slightly lower base clock but can boost higher than the iMac. It has more RAM too, at 12GB, making it better for multi-tasking. However, with the lower-tier GPU and screen, it makes it significantly less useful for power users and creative professionals.
Winner: macOS (iMac 3.0GHz)
No real surprise here. Although it has slightly lower specifications overall, the hugely impressive screen alone more than makes up for this. Between that and the better GPU, the iMac is the superior midrange AIO option.
The biggest negative of the iMac is the slower HDD and less RAM. However, it is worth noting that it is possible to choose the very fast Fusion drive and faster 3.4GHz i5 (with the same 3.8GHz boost) for another $200; and, in a rarity for Apple, you can actually upgrade your RAM too. However, the main thing then is you're going to be competing with other, higher-specification Windows AIO models at the new price point.
Although the SSD and the slightly-higher-specification i7 are nice on the HP, the poorer screen performance, smaller GPU, and general design when compared to the Apple really does pale in comparison.
Midrange All-In-One Desktop Alternatives
B) High-performance All-In-One Prebuilt Computers
To me, this is the most interesting section to look at, mainly because this is the realm where you're saying, "If I have the money to buy the best all-in-one PC available, what should I get?" And you may be surprised at our conclusions!
This tier of PC is where the monstrous iMac Pro line-up comes in. We're going to give Apple a good solid "middleground choice" from their range... a $5000 model. The range starts at $5000 (the one we'll be using for comparison), and higher-specification models come in at an eye-watering $7000+. Plus, remember: that's not even the highest version! There's a higher-specification "standard" model too.
Apple have created their own biggest problem here: that sort of price tag leaves the field open to an insane amount of competition.
So, what can we get for our money? Let's find out:
macOS: iMac Pro 8-core
Like I said above, it's not as if you're not going to get a monster for this sort of price tag. That 8-core Xeon is just the tip of the iceberg, as this is literally fit-to-bursting with performance. So let's take a look at what a $5000 iMac Pro offers!
- CPU: Intel 8-core Xeon W (3.2GHz base clock, 4.2GHz boost clock, 19MB L3 cache)
- GPU: AMD Radeon Pro Vega 56
- RAM: 32GB (DDR4, 2666MHz)
- Storage: 1TB SSD
- Screen: 27-inch Retina (5120x2880 resolution)
I mean, what a machine! Like the other Apple products before it, we're going to be throwing it up against other machines at its current price; in this case, that means ~$4600, so it has come down a touch from its RRP.
As if the screen wasn't impressive enough in the standard iMac, Apple goes all out on the Pro, giving a 5K P3 color monitor.
You can guess the market Apple is going for here; everything screams high-end productivity performance. From the 8-core Xeon to the 32GB EEC RAM (yay for error correcting RAM to limit rendering issues) to the beefy Vega 56 GPU to the 1TB SSD.
If there is a problem with this product, it is the obvious one: it costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $4500-5000.
That being said, with the screen being so high-performing and the hardware being almost equally impressive, the competition has to be pretty special.
Windows: Microsoft Surface Studio 2
I... just look at it, it's so beautiful!
Coming in at $4300 through Newegg comes the phenomenal Surface Studio 2. As it is so cheap compared to its competitor above, we could even throw in the Surface Dial for $80 while leaving a noticeable gap below the price of the iMac Pro.
There are other specialist all-in-one machines out there around the right price (looking at you Origin Omni) but as they seem impossible to acquire, we're going for a current model, even though the Surface Studio 2 is over $300 cheaper than the iMac Pro.
Now, all hyperbole aside, if there ever was a system that looked like it was designed to directly compete with Apple, it's this. So let's take a look at the specifications!
- CPU: Intel i7-7820HQ (2.9GHz base clock, 3.9GHz boost clock, 8MB L3 cache)
- GPU: GTX 1070
- RAM: 32GB (DDR4)
- Storage: 1TB SSD
- Screen: 28-inch PixelSense (4500x3000 resolution)
So, there's a few things to consider here. First, it's clear what you're paying more for, on the iMac Pro: more cores, EEC RAM, a marginally better GPU, and a slightly higher-resolution screen. The argument could be made that, if you need the extra performance, then you can pay for it—although it's worth pointing out that the performance difference is relatively small, especially when compared to a price difference of anywhere from $300-700 depending on the retailer.
Second, with the Surface Studio 2, the physical workspace flexibility it provides you due to how the display stand folds down with what Microsoft calls a 'zero gravity hinge' does open up the system to far more uses. By comparison, the hinge on the iMac Pro seems a bit... old-school. Coupled with unique interface ideas like the Surface Dial, and you have to say that Microsoft has a really solid system here.
Winner: Windows (Microsoft Surface Studio 2)
This is just from a pure price-to-performance standpoint. As I mentioned above, if you absolutely must have the bit of extra performance, then pay the ~$300-700 extra and get the iMac Pro. Otherwise, the Studio 2 wins out.
Honestly, I think they're both great models: they both have great performance and versatility; they're both beastly all-in-one touchscreen devices; and they both have large, high-resolution screens which are P3 colour compliant, so the creatives who need that color accuracy can't really complain.
High-performance All-In-One Desktop Alternatives
C) Self-built Computers
After all, self-built PCs are the Logical Increments way! If you're not sure what it means to "build your own computer," take a look at our quick four-minute primer video on the process. After that, you may also want to check out our new user guide and our build recommendation chart for any budget (the 'main attraction' of our site).
So, what are we going to be doing in this section? Well, if you look back over our previous categories, we had two rough price points: $1000-1500 (midrange) and $4000-5000 (very high-end). Me being me, I see those price ranges and I smell some Logical example builds coming along! However, unlike a lot of our builds on the site, where we leave things like Monitors and the cost of the OS up to you, we're going to include specific choices this time.
Our hope is to provide a fair, accurate picture of what sort of performance you can get for your money if you go this route, for comparison to the options above. As these systems can run Windows or GNU/Linux, the primary point of comparison will be between these systems and the Apple machines discussed in this section thus far (although the Windows prebuilts will be mentioned where relevant).
The primary tradeoff of the systems in this section is that, while they provide more freely upgradable/customizable options over the all-in-one systems, that control and flexibility comes at the cost of having an additional tower instead of the entire system being built into the screen.
The $1100 iMac Killer PC Build
So, if this was just component hardware costs alone, you can see from our main build chart that this sort of budget would sit right in the 'Superb' tier and it would utterly blow the pants off the winner of section A, the iMac 3.0GHz.
Yet as I mentioned above, we need to consider OS and screen:
Looking at the OS first, we could go for a GNU/Linux build which would be great, as our OS would then be completely free! My personal Linux distro recommendation, if you're used to either an Apple or Microsoft system, would be Mint. From both sides there is familiarity, so you'll get up and running pretty quick. Other popular choices are Ubuntu, Debian, and Manjaro.
Or, for feature set and compatibility, you can buy a Windows 10 key.
Assuming you're buying Windows 10 for $120, that takes our parts budget down to $980.
One of the bigger considerations here, as Apple have one of the best, if not the best screen at this price point on the market.
In the end, we have to take a small hit here, and we can't beat the resolution without blowing the budget. Instead, we're going with the physically larger BenQ 23.8” BL2420PT for about $230. We get a 2560x1440 resolution monitor, with 100% sRGB and Rec. 709 color space as well as a CAD/CAM and Animation Mode. Essentially, this allows us to cover all our design bases.
However, with this cost, our available components budget goes down to $750.
When picking these parts, I left a little bit of wiggle room in the budget for delivery costs, just to be smug. Seriously, though, let's break it down for the performance improvements:
The Ryzen 5 2600 is a 6-core/12-thread overclockable CPU. It comes complete with the AMD Wraith Cooler, which AMD specifically designed to allow overclocking of the CPU. The additional cores and threads make this a bargain multitasking CPU and far higher-performing than the 3.0GHz 4-core i5 in the iMac.
GPU: RX 580
As the iMac was relying on just the integrated GPU of its CPU, the other big jump in performance here is with the dedicated GPU. The RX 580 8GB is seriously powerful for the money. If you're into gaming, the 580 would allow you to play any game at max settings at 1080p, and still has reasonable firepower for some 1440p gaming if you want to use your screen resolution to its fullest.
RAM: 16GB (DDR4, 3000MHz)
We're doubling up and getting faster RAM with this 16GB kit, which further supports the CPU in multitasking.
Storage 1: 256GB NVMe M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 2TB 7200RPM HDD
I did say that slower HDD would come back to haunt the iMac, didn't I? Not only do we have a 2TB 7200RPM traditional HDD, but we also take advantage of the M.2 slot on the motherboard to get a blistering fast 256GB NVMe SSD as well!
Motherboard: ASUS Prime B450M-A/CSM
Power Supply: Corsair CX450
Case: Corsair 88R
On performance, the self-built machine wins hands down despite costing over $100 less, and does go to show what sort of additional power you can get when you go out and pick through the multitude of parts that are available on the market today.
That being said, the biggest advantage the iMac has is that it is all self-contained in the screen, so if you're after a compact and prebuilt model, then it is still a great choice.
Ah, but I hear you cry about a keyboard and mouse?! Well, there are plenty wired and wireless combo options available to keep things still within the budget, as everything listed above actually comes in around $50 under the $1100 target. However, this might be a good time to make you aware that we actually have guides for keyboards and mice, too.
The $4500 iMac Pro Killer PC Build
What happens when you give a builder a $4.5K budget? Well, if you go to our main page for a hint, the only tiers that can possibly hit that price (depending on part choices) are the two absolute highest ones—the Extremist and Monstrous tiers.
We're also going with this budget because it sits in between the prices of the iMac Pro and the Surface Studio 2 from the section above. So, in theory, we should be able to get something around the same ballpark to compete with those high-end all-in-one options.
So let's start breaking this down!
As with the midrange build above, there are many wonderful free GNU/Linux OS choices available... but we'll be assuming that you want to use Windows 10, for the sake of the comparison.
This brings our component budget down to $4380.
So, this is not going to be the easiest thing to pick in the world. You simply cannot get a truly-high-performing monitor on the cheap; that just doesn't happen.
As much as it eats into the budget, we've gone for the BenQ 27-inch 4K PhotoVue Photographer Monitor for about $1100. Yes, this is a monitor which on its own costs more than the entirety of the previous build, OS, and monitor. We're into the big mad world now, folks. As its name suggests, this is a 3840x2160 LED IPS monitor, boasting 99% Adobe RGB, 100% sRGB, Rec.709, and DCI-P3 support.
Realistically, it's about as close as we're going to get to the screens of the competition, even if it takes our budget for parts down to $3280.
This time there's about $100 to spare in the budget after picking the parts below. Once again, some of this could be put toward a simple wired or wireless mouse/keyboard combo and the rest put toward the various minor delivery costs; or you could take that ~$100 and browse for something snazzier to match the build, in our mouse guide and keyboard guide.
Now let's look at a breakdown of the major components, so you can properly compare this build to the high-performance all-in-one PCs in section B:
With this budget for parts, it was pretty obvious that we could go really big with this build's central processor. The Ryzen Threadripper 2920X is a 12-Core/24-Thread behemoth of a CPU. It beats the heck out of a lot of server-grade CPUs, let alone what Apple and Microsoft have gone for in their AIO systems.
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master ML360
One of the big negatives for all-in-one systems in general is that the cooling setup on them is often very tight, resulting in limits on base and boost clocks (or worse: throttling of performance in resource-intensive tasks). The Cooler Master ML360 is a large-radiator liquid cooler made for the TR socket, allowing us to enjoy optimal cooling.
GPU: RTX 2080 Ti
Now, most users may not really need an RTX 2080 Ti here (unless your work is in rendering, or you do a lot of gaming), so some professional users—especially those lacking infinite hardware needs—may consider saving some money by throwing something like a QUADRO RTX 4000 in there to still get 8GB of GDDR6 compute goodness (down from 11GB of GDDR6 VRAM in the 2080 Ti). Either way, this is a seriously solid addition, which beats what the likes of the Vega cards and the GTX 1070 can offer.
RAM: 32GB (DDR4, 3200MHz)
So, still 32GB here, but—as we aren't going with EEC RAM—we've gone instead for super-fast 3200MHz RAM from G.SKILL in quad channel to really squeeze the performance from the Threadripper.
Power Supply: Rosewill Photon 1200
Honestly, in the abstract 1200 Watts is a little overkill, but it allows for overhead if you're overclocking (you're going to want to overclock to maximize performance in a system like this), with enough left over for if you're ever going to add a second GPU in there.
Storage 1: 1TB NVMe M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 2TB 7200RPM HDD
The 1TB M.2 SSD is mainly to cover what is in the AIO systems, as they're likely using Samsung parts; yet we're using one of their best, plus a 2TB standard HDD too.
Motherboard: ASRock X399 Taichi
Case: Phanteks Enthoo Luxe
I mean, are you going to look at those specifications and say you wouldn't acquire this if you had the chance?
Yes, you are going to end up with a tower here (not just a beefy, PC-laden monitor). And yes, you are going to have a slightly lower-resolution screen (this is the only time I have ever referred to a 4K screen as "lower-resolution"). But every single other aspect of this build either outright beats or matches its corresponding aspect in both the iMac Pro and the Surface Studio 2.
Winner: Windows or GNU/Linux (self-built PC)
Whether you're looking at the midrange or the (very) high-end, you can't beat a custom PC. Those of you with some background knowledge about PC hardware will not be the least bit shocked by this outcome. The fact that building your own PC can provide you with the best possible build balance, component quality, price-to-performance ratio, customization options, maintenance options, and more—is basically the whole reason that Logical Increments exists!
Outside of the crazy high-end all-in-one systems (and comparing them to self-built systems), there's an awful lot of back-and-forth between the manufacturers.
On the one hand, you can go with the super-slim Apple products with sleek software and features—but, on the other hand, throughout their range there are clearly some viable Windows based pre-built systems too.
Where it all falls down for the pre-built systems is when comparing to the self-built towers at the end. With a high budget, you can clearly get the best PC performance with discrete hardware that is available on the market, if only to lose out a little on the screen. Which makes it all the more sad that Apple stopped making these babies. Yes, I know that part of the problem was that you'd then get builders like us making our powerful towers and just hooking up an Apple Cinema Display, and Apple would effectively lose out as they had all these cinema displays and people not committing to their ecosystem. Still, I have known mad folks to still buy an iMac and just run the screen through Thunderbolt.
Like I said, some folks can just spend money on anything...
Yet I do hope this huge guide has been some help for you! The war is very much ongoing between the brands, and (like I said at the very start) don't just discount GNU/Linux. You can install distros really easily these days, and the more user-friendly setups allow for a lot of easy switching over from macOS or Windows 10.
What did you think of our various picks for winners, our reasons behind them, and our PC builds? Would you have gone another route? Let us know in the comments!
Chris is a contributing writer for Logical Increments, and has worked in the gaming and technology industries as a community manager for many years, as well as a live streamer. He has been building PC's for over 11 years.
When Chris is not here creating builds and guides, he can be found at University, studying for a BSc in Video Production as he makes the transition over to the film industry from gaming. You can read more about his journey on his website.
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