Switching from OSX to Windows

Over the years, many users of non-trivial applications have reported compatibility problems in OSX and it looks like there will be even more reports in the future, starting with Catalina. This may be a good time to review your options and consider switching to a different platform.

If you are satisfied with your Apple platform and you like to put the Apple stickers everywhere you go :), please stop reading now. This article is only for those thinking about a change. If you consider your computer a tool to make music (or any other audio or video processing application for that matter), I'd like to help you with the transition. It quite doesn't matter if you are tired of compatibility problems, the lack of functional software choices or the value per $. It's actually really simple to switch to a PC, it will save you money, time and nerves. Having said that, us audio folks will always be a small minority of computer users, never in the mainstream, and will never be completely satisfied by any OS.

As a side-note, I'm a software designer and developer on both platforms and have several of these computers, so in a way I feel educated in this areas. I also know for a fact that other audio developers feel the same way. But I'm not a guy, who is used to keeping quiet so... :)

First of all, here are some questions you probably have:

  • Will I have a hard time switching to Windows?
    That’s unlikely. Windows gets easier to use, you can learn about its features when you want to use them and it offers advanced features when needed.
  • Will my new computer be slower?
    No, unless you buy some garbage for a few bucks :). If you spend as much as you would spend on your Mac, you will get quite a more powerful computer.
  • How about stability problems?
    Windows itself is very stable; application crashes are rare and “blue screens of death” are almost unknown these days.
  • How about viruses, hacking...?
    OSX is less targeted by hackers than Windows, because there are about 1/10th the number of users, but both systems are pretty well protected. As well as the built-in security, there are many third-party Internet security and Anti-virus programs for Windows, which I would actually not recommend, since they are useless unless you do something dangerous yourself - download and use malicious software, mainly pirated software, which almost always contains viruses or malware. That's why the hackers do that in the first place... But such software is easily avoided.
  • How about the user experience?
    Windows and OSX are more similar than you may think, I'll point out the main differences later in this article.
  • Will my new computer have an Apple logo?
    No, but you can use a sticker :).

Choosing the hardware - laptops

The heart of every computer is the hardware. You are probably used to something like MacBook Pro. It's not a bad computer, it's not great either though. The good news is that, on the PC side of things, you can do better for less money. The bad news is that you have to choose. Well, it's not exactly a bad thing to have a choice if you ask me, but some people just like to go to a store and say "I want a computer", and assume the shop assistant will reply "Sure, we have MacBook Pro", so they can just say "yes". The good news is, it's super simple to make the choices. First find an online store in your country, which allows you to filter the selection by features, and follow a few pointers:

Display

Size matters. I'd recommend a 15,6" model for a reasonable music production. I'm actually going for a 17" when the time comes. Besides the screen estate, bigger computers are usually faster, since with more space come bigger motherboards and other components and also the ventilation can be made more effective. It will weigh a bit more, but a MacBook Pro 15" isn't exactly light either.

Screen resolution is super important, because it essentially defines how much stuff you can keep on a single screen. 2880x1800 as used on the best MacBooks may seem like a lot, but OSX effectively uses that resolution to make things look smooth, but does not really let you access the individual pixels, so effectively that's a "smooth 1440x900" screen. While it's possible to hack it and access the physical pixels the way we do with our plugins, almost no other software does that, so in the end the screen estate is quite low. The good news is that your situation is about to improve. Most PC laptops have at least 1920x1080 resolution. My favourite Dell Precision has 3840x2160, now that's something. Super smooth and you can see a lot on it at the same time.

The last important thing about displays is a touch-screen feature. Right now in 2019 MacBooks still don't have a touch-screen. Many PCs have had touch-screen support for years, and there are even those which can be rotated to convert them into a pad, or from which you can remove the keyboard... There are lots of innovative options, if you are into that.

CPU

Audio processing often requires lots of CPU power and can partly be parallelized. I'd recommend Intel i7 or i9 processors with at least 4 cores, ideally 6 of them. Often different models of these CPUs are available and they will mainly differ in the clock speed (frequency, e.g. 4GHz). Interestingly just a little higher clock often comes with very little performance improvement and much higher price tag, so it is usually not worth it to buy the more expensive model. But, you have the choice.

Memory

16GB is enough, 32GB is awesome, there's hardly any need for more, even with sample-based plug-ins that need to load their samples into memory.

Storage

I'd recommend going for an M.2 SSD, these are fast as hell, and are actually used in MacBooks too, though more expensive there and intentionally impossible to upgrade. As for size, the bigger the better :). I'd go with at least 512GB, 1TB if possible, ideally even more. Some companies like Dell allow you to customize the components and you are actually able to end up with ridiculous configurations such as 4 x 2TB M.2 SSD in RAID for even higher performance. That may be overkill though...

GPU

Graphics card may not seem important, but with high screen resolutions and lots of audio analyzers, complicated plugins etc. it may actually become relevant. But these days all GPUs are so fast that you really need just the slowest dedicated one. I'd go with one from NVidia, good experiences here. By dedicated I meant "not the Intel GPUs", which are usually on-board and while they do work, from my experience these are not good enough.

Keyboard

What? I can choose a keyboard? Well, every laptop has a different one, and it's mostly about layout. You'll get used to anything, but you may for example want the numpad, which is handy with many DAWs. Feel-wise, rest assured almost all keyboards will be an improvement on what you are used to anyway from MacBooks and I doubt you'll miss the touch bar...

So which one?

The great thing about having a choice is that you can follow your heart so-to-speak. Just look around and make an emotional choice from those that match the parameters and your price range :). I personally have had great experiences with laptops from Dell (Precision), Lenovo (Yoga) and Asus (Zenbook). All have their small flaws, nothing is perfect, but all have served me well.

Choosing the hardware - desktop computer

If the computer is going to stand in your studio, there's certainly no reason to buy a laptop. Whether you like it or not, big computers are just faster. The CPUs and everything may seem to have the same names, but those used in laptops are generally limited models, which won't drain the battery too quickly and burn your lap (or whatever the laptop is going to stand on). Desktop computers are also really easy to extend, especially when it comes to hard drives, different graphics cards, DVD writers etc. And unlike what you may have come to expect for Apple, the desktop computers are actually cheaper.

Again, you will need to make a choice about the configuration and you have usually 3 options:

  • Choose some predefined / pre-built model from a manufacturer.
  • Choose the components and let the shop build it for you.
  • Order the components and build it yourself.

The first option is the easiest; Windows and other software will probably be preinstalled. But please note that while predefined models may be slightly cheaper, choosing one will be hard considering how many there are on the online shop(s) that you look at (probably).

Guess what, I'd recommend building your own computer yourself, simply because it's fun and a cool experience. You'll kinda feel that the computer is truly yours ;). And it's actually really simple, every 15 year old can now build a computer, and they do that regularly. So why wouldn't you? ;) Anyway if you don't feel like it, the other options are fine too.

You want your computer to be fast, silent and have lots of storage. Easy huh? Well, actually yes. So as with the laptops...:

Display

Go for a big one with huge resolution. I have a curved 38" with 3840x1600 and would never go back. It's not HDPI, but from distance it doesn't seem to matter anyway. With that resolution I can easily have a project, mixer and several plugins on a single screen...

Case and power supply

The case needs to be big enough (for possible expansion, more disks etc) and silent. Fractal Design makes awesome ones. And get a silent power supply with at least 600W. When the computer doesn’t have enough power, in extreme cases weird things may start happening, like devices unable to connect. I went for a "Be quiet!" model, because I wanted it to be quiet :). You know, often the heart is your leader when choosing.

CPU and fan

Go for an Intel i7/i9 processor with, say, 8-14 cores if your budget allows. 10 cores seems enough. Audio processing can rarely be parallelized more than that due to various dependencies between channels, so having 20 cores doesn't seem useful really. And when it comes to the fan, buy the "passive" one, you know, the big aluminium thing, that will cover half of your case and have a tiny little fan inside it "just in case". It will be quieter.

Motherboard

Don't underestimate this! Unfortunately it's nearly impossible to choose well without reading reviews, and as a lazy man I never did, so I usually just choose an expensive one :). I have great experiences with ASUS. Make sure it supports M.2 storage and is compatible with your CPU - for example, these days the i9 is made for socket "LGA 2066" (whatever that means), so make sure your motherboard is also designed for "LGA 2066". If you are not sure, I'm pretty sure the guys on the online shop will help you with that, they will probably try to sell you the most expensive stuff though :). The manufacturers’ web sites offer much guidance on processor compatibility, but it does get a bit geeky. And make sure that it and the case have all the connectors you want (USB2/3, eSATA and so on).

Memory

Same as with laptops - 16GB is enough, 32GB is awesome, there's hardly a need for more. Each memory chip also has a maximum frequency, but it seems like these day, these are generally faster than what most mainboards can handle. Either way, there's no compatibility risk here, these 2 components will just agree on the lower frequency from both. Take a set of chips, such as 4x8GB, it's faster than using a single big chip on most mainboards.

Storage

M.2 SSD is a must, at least for the main system drive. If you can buy a big one to fit all your samples and projects, even better! If not, buy a regular SSD. Then you can just buy some huge classic HDD with something like 10TB of space for backups and projects you no longer need.

GPU

I'd recommend a passive (heat-sink, but no fan) one from NVidia, or at least something small. Just make sure it supports the native (recommended) resolution of your display, especially if you are using 4k or more. Speed is not really needed, but on-board GPUs won't do the trick either.

Operating system

Just go with Windows 10 Home, I'm a pro and I have never needed the professional version, I don't even know what's so awesome in there. Some old schoolers say that Windows 7 / 8 are better. I cannot agree at all. Of course, everyone is a little scared when upgrading, but Windows 10 is the fastest and most stable of all. Mark my word :)

One point I must make here: the automatic Windows 10 Updates. Some users have encountered various problems after some of these updates. You can disable the updates or even disconnect the computer from the internet. I personally keep every machine online and install all updates automatically and I never had any problems, but maybe I'm just lucky :).

And then???

Well, the supplier will deliver your new system components to you, you'll open the boxes, start feeling scared, spend the rest of the day reading manuals, looking at cables and connectors and figuring out what to do with all this Lego and... then you’ll start putting it all together, piece by piece. Finally you will plug in the computer, start it up, feel even more scared, "will it work?", "what if I messed something up?", and then it will start working and you will feel happy and proud ;). Much better than buying a preassembled computer!

By the way, you may need an external DVD reader to install Windows (assuming you are building your own computer yourself). These things cost almost nothing these days. A USB stick would do the trick too, but you may need a bit more expertise to make that work (or love googling). People may scare you with BIOS stories, but no worries, it's unlikely you will even need to open the BIOS. Just plug the DVD reader in, insert the Windows DVD, follow the instructions...

Software! How to use Windows when you are used to OSX?

So, you have bought or built your computer, Windows has started and now the thing you were so afraid of is coming true. You need to start getting used to something new! Good news is, it's really simple. These systems are actually remarkably similar. And more great news is: you don't need to worry about compatibility here, because things just do work, despite propaganda that often says the opposite.

The first time you run Windows

The first time Windows starts an initialization wizard will be displayed, just a bunch of nonsense like setting up your username, language, timezone and stuff like that. Pretty much the same thing is displayed when OSX is run for the first time. If you buy a standard model, drivers are usually installed, if not, you may need to install something. Windows come with most drivers and others are automatically downloaded, but who knows. Personally I just get online, find the mainboard I bought, and download and install whatever comes with it. Same for the GPU, though perhaps this one is also not needed. And your new desktop computer is now ready to go.

There's one specific thing though - Windows doesn't have built in low-latency audio drivers, so you need to install one yourself, it's called an ASIO driver. Assuming you are using some professional audio interface, you need to install its drivers (and a Control Panel application) anyway, whichever OS you are using, but if you have a laptop and somehow you settled on the internal audio device, just download and install the ASIO4ALL software. That one is an ASIO driver that works with pretty much everything.

How to work with Windows

Same as with OSX. Both platforms have some sort of panel with applications at the bottom. You can pin your own applications there, on Windows it also contains the time, system icons and stuff (OSX has these items on another panel on top). In general OSX uses a lot of space for these 2 panels, so on Windows you'll have more space for the actual applications. You can install various widgets and whatever, but I doubt you want that, you just want to make music, right? OSX has the old-school menu on the top depending on which application is selected. Windows has it attached to each applications, which makes much more sense to me and causes fewer problems.

OSX settings are available from the menu, in Windows it is called Control Panel. To run anything on Windows, just click on the Search box in the bottom left, click the Windows logo in the bottom left, or press the Windows key on your keyboard and start typing what you want to do. That includes applications, control panels and any kinds of settings. So if you for example want to check the printers connected to your computer, click it and type "print". Unlike OSX, Windows also has a standard way to install and uninstall applications and plugins - in Control Panel choose “Programs and Features” to list your installed programs, find what you want to remove / change and click on it for the available actions.

One final thing if you are an oldschool Apple user, do not forget that your mouse has a right button and mouse wheel, remarkably cool things :).

How about your DAW and plugins?

Pretty much all software is available for Windows, and OSX is nearly always a secondary platform. The only exception is software from Apple itself, which means Logic and GarageBand. While GarageBand is an easy to replace application, if you are used to Logic, you may hesitate. Rest assured, there's nothing unique about Logic, its functionality is similar to Cubase, Reaper, Studio One and other classic DAWs, just with, in my experience, worse workflow and several problems. So it should be easy to switch to something else, since all these DAWs work in a very similar fashion. If you like huge versatility and have a geeky attitude, go for Reaper. If you want the easier way, go with Cubase. There are plenty of other options as well.

So what is the problem with Apple anyway?

Imagine you are a builder (the software developer of a DAW/plugin...) and you started creating a big factory some time ago. You have built the foundations, walls, started putting some equipment for various companies (your customers, the users) in it. And obviously the factory needs a roof, right? You started building your factory with a very specific roof manufacturer (Apple) in mind, which uses some odd roof attachment system, not a perfect one, but it does the trick. But suddenly this manufacturer comes in and says "sorry, we have a new attachment system, for which you need to make your factory one meter shorter and change the attachment bolts". Of course you, being the builder, know this is a total nonsense and all they need to do is a little gadget (converter) from the old roof attachment system to the new one. But they just won't do that, and even worse, they won't let you do that either. They just won't install the roof until you remake the entire factory. So you as a builder are in trouble. Your customers asked for this roof, which isn't special in a way, it just has a specific colour that other roof manufacturers don't make (and there are many of them, cheaper and often better ones). But to make it all work, you have to spend a huge amount of time rebuilding your factory for no good reason and after that some equipment (ProTools 10) now won't even fit in, because the factory will be too small. That's a situation without a reasonable solution and it happened several times before, but it seems to be getting worse than ever.

So the real question is, do you want the developers of your DAW and plugins to spend their days trying to fix the problems arising from system upgrades, or to improve their own software products, making them more functional, more powerful, faster, stable and easier to use? If it's the latter one, then the only solution seems to switch to Windows. The only one, who can make a difference is you, the customer.