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Apple Watch: Goodbye

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OK, so this is the last Apple Watch on the New Zealand Herald online. The 485th. I will switch the blog to my mac-nz.com site until I find another home on a media outlet - I am in talks with a couple, but I'm still negotiating - and open to offers.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Advertising and Illustrative Photographers' Association, where an audience of AIPA Auckland members watched three presentations - one on Eizo monitors (they're great, and self-calibrate, but cost $4000 and upwards), another showing a Mac versus a PC handling Lightroom and Photoshop, and a question-and-answer panel session with five representatives of two top advertising agencies talking about how they choose photographers for campaign shoots. This was really interesting, if a bit depressing (basically, budgets are shrinking here, too - isn't the recession supposed to be over?).

Photographer Andrew Hales approached me to talk about Apple at this second presentation. I've met him before. He was a staunch critic of anything Apple on this Herald blog from the outset (in the comments), but eventually I met him and came to realise he might be critical, but was open-minded enough to discuss the issue rationally.

Andrew got a PC assembler and seller to make up a pretty powerful model - I only managed to get my hands on a 27-inch i5 iMac. People assume I work for Apple (I don't, and at the risk of boring at least myself with the constant repetition of this fact, I have actually never worked for Apple) but my resources are limited apart from the fact that I am known to write about Apple while assisting people learn more about their Apple devices. So that's where I'm coming from when I try to borrow equipment for reviews or discussions.

That said, I managed to borrow an awesome 4K monitor from iStore, an Apple Reseller in Takapuna which sells them for $999, which is pretty impressive. This is a Philips 28-inch UHD LCD, 16:9 ratio HDMI displaying 3840x2160 pixels. We also had an impressive 6TB LaCie Thunderbolt external drive (iStore sells these for NZ$899; the LaCie 8TB is $1199 and there's a 12TB for $1559). We plugged the 4K into the iMac as a secondary display. Every Mac, as you probably know, supports two displays out of the box. This even includes the Mac mini. The exception is the Mac Pro: that supports six displays out of the box, or three 4K displays and another 'normal' one. The iMac's graphics card was a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M.

Hayden Collier from iStore offered me the shop's Mac Pro display unit as a loaner for the event, but I turned it down as I didn't want to put him to too much trouble. Yes, that was dumb.

Actually, there's a slight problem with the 4K displays and Apple in that current video adapters only support 30Hz and not 60Hz. The display looks fine, with the most visible effect being a strange flickering jumpiness to cursor movement. Minor, perhaps, but annoying. We looked high and low for an alternative adapter, but couldn't find one - but this is something I expect Apple to address, or help address, in future. (Meanwhile, rumours swirl that Apple is working on a 4K Thunderbolt display and a Retina iMac ... we wait in hope.)

So there we were, with this set up alongside a massive black PC thing (probably not its official name) also running two displays, in front of a rather (justifiably) sceptical audience.

As expected, an i5 CPU is inferior to an i7. Not all i5 CPUs hyperthread (execute two threads almost simultaneously on a single processing core), all i7s do, and i7 CPUs are generally clocked higher. i7-powered machines, especially for processor-intensive applications such as video encoding and rendering, 3D modelling and high-end graphics work (and gaming), are superior. Also, most computers fitted with Core i7 CPUs also have larger caches, which helps too. But this particular iMac, although pretty much a consumer model, was no slouch with its built-in 27-inch screen, 3.4GHz 4-core processor, 256Kb L2 cache, 6MB L3 cache, but 'only' 8GB RAM.

When Andrew asked me to present the Apple part of the discussion, he said something to the effect that many photographers spend a lot of money on their photography gear but neglect the computer part, whereas in the old days, when this second component was the darkroom, that wouldn't necessarily be the case. In retrospect I now suspect that Andrew's subtext (and/or point-of-view) was along the lines of 'you can buy an amateur solution like a Mac, or a custom PC designed from components fitted together to suit your business'. He didn't actually say this, but either way, unfortunately, I probably played into his hands, but I honestly thought a Mac Pro was 'unfair advantage'. Still, I should have tried to borrow an i7 iMac. My partner uses one for massive photo projects that have, in the past, culminated in such things as a seven-metre-wide high-definition print stitched together from literally hundreds of high resolution digital photographs. She is, needless to say, very happy with her 27-inch i7 iMac with 12GB RAM, although I find it slow as it's only fitted with a standard hard drive.

The fusion drive in the i5 I borrowed was pretty impressive. Startup from off is 22 seconds and Photoshop CC 2014 loads in under 4. This is dramatically different to my partner's 27-inch, which takes just over two minutes to start up and just under a minute to load Photoshop (CS6).

Altogether, this i5 iMac would cost you NZ$3119 inc GST configured as above. If you added $320, you can get it with a 3.5GHz Core i7 CPU.

Computer Lounge supplied the PC: it was a 6-core i7 based computer with 32GB of ram, 2 x 256GB SSDs and 8TB of storage. Computer Lounge added 2x27in sRGB monitors with 2560x1440 resolution, a Wacom tablet, a 'high-end keyboard' and a mid-range graphics card, all for just under $5500.

Andrew reckons he can build a system for a friend that uses an i7, 256GB SSD, 16GB RAM, 2TB hard drive and a 24in Monitor for only $2000. He reckons a similar spec and performance iMac costs $3999.

Sure, we've always known PCs were cheaper. Macs have other benefits and advantages - for example, critical reliability.

Andrew ran some performance comparisons. He found his own workstation "a lot faster than the Mac at rendering and exporting photographs" and likewise The Computer Lounge system was faster again.

But Andrew found that when working on individual files, there was very little, if any real difference in performance. For those on a tight budget, or working at a more enthusiast level, he thinks the Intel i5 computer could be a good choice. He was also impressed by how quiet the iMac was, even when pushed hard.

Here's the second-to-last word on this debate from Andrew: "The only real conclusion we came to was Apple gives you a limited number of options, while having a system built for you gives you total freedom."

Freedom to get viruses and compatibility issues ... Limited options with the Mac has always been the case, excepting the previous Mac Pro which was user expandable, with easy access to the innards. But the Mac stuff is way more attractive, very competent and effective, easy to expand with very fast Thunderbolt drives, no messing around with adding video cards to drive extra monitors (and no messing around with sound cards either, come to that) and there are plenty of Macs available with SSDs, Fusion Drives (SSD/traditional HD combos) and more ... and I reckon a Mac Pro would have blown that PC out of the water, and that's a comparo I'd like to see.

I look forward to comments on this.

I will run Andrew's comments in full on mac-nz, where you can also comment (I moderate them). My own site is, of course, a source of Apple news, tips, tricks and help (as it has been since 2007), but other than that I recommend the following helpful agencies around the country:

There are still active (and interesting, helpful) Mac User Groups or 'MUGs' around the country - for example, in Blenheim and Palmerston North.

bmug.org.nz
pnmug.freewebhost.co.nz

Apple has a page that lists more.

SeniorNet in Auckland and Christchurch have special - and very successful - Apple sections to help with iPads, Macs and iPhones. If you're over 55 you can join with voting rights.

macsnrs.org.nz
seniormac.org.nz

Good luck, and goodbye for now - Mark Webster.

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