Tools for the modern musician, #1: Computer

MacBook Pro, iMac or Mac Pro

I know I’m not going to convince any hard core PC fans with my thoughts here.  My hope is that anyone who is indifferent as to the type of computer they should by next would understand that more often than not you get what you pay for when it comes to computers.

Why not a Windows machine?  Here’s why:

  1. Your computer is your primary work tool.  Do you really want to choose a professional tool based mostly on price?  Do chefs buy their knives from affordable Chinese manufacturers so they can spend more money on their pans?  NO!  You need good tools all around.  So save up and buy a Mac as your next primary recording tool.  The computer is the central piece of your recording system.  Don’t skimp on it if you’re serious about recording.
  2. A $500 PC laptop simply CANNOT effectively record more than a few tracks at once without a ton of latency (which means delay between you playing the sound into the mic and hearing it in your headphones due to the computer having to process the signal).  Cheap computers should not be used for professional recordings and mixing.  They are cheap for a reason:  they are plastic budget devices with lower build quality and lower quality components.  You definitely get what you pay for.

    I wouldn’t even really use a 13” MacBook Pro (much less a MacBook Air) for tracking a full band.  The reason is that the smaller/cheaper Macs and PCs use the main computer processor to also handle the video screen processing, which obviously takes away from the computer’s operating power.  15”/17” MacBook Pros and iMacs have separate video processors, so they have more power to crunch those ones and zeros for recording and mixing.

    If you just need to do one track at a time, then go for the cheap computer if you’d rather spend your money eleswhere.  But it never hurts to have more power than you think you might need if you can afford it.

    Only get a Mac Pro if you need to install Express Card interface cards like Pro Tools HD Accel cards or video capture cards.

  3. Pro Tools, and most media creation/editing software simply runs better on a Mac.  This is because Windows focuses on universal and backward compatibility with any manufacturer’s parts.  There’s simply no way they can optimize the operating system to run its best in every possible hardware configuration.

    Both high end PCs (like the HP Envy) and Macs (there are no low-end Macs) use the same or similar processors, video cards, hard drives and DVD drives.  The primary difference comes down to the logic board design coupled with the operating system.  Even though the HP Envy has higher specs, it’s designed to be run by a generic “one size fits all” operating system, aka Windows.  Compare that to Macs which are run by the Mac OS designed in-house specifically for its hardware configuration.  That seemingly small factor can end up making a huge real world performance difference when running processor intensive tasks like in Pro Tools, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, etc.  How can it not be better to have a computer from a company that makes its own software for the hardware it designs?  It makes a bigger difference than you might think.

    I’m sorry PC fans, but Macs are simply put together better with more attention to detail.  Specification numbers (ie: 2.4GHz processor as opposed to 2.2 GHz) do not always equal real world overall higher performance.  It’s how those components interact and talk to each other as a system that makes a difference.  And Apple’s engineers are industry leaders.  Like with digital cameras, more megapixels does not equal better looking pictures.

    One example is run time on batter power in laptops.  17” HP or Dell laptop gets only 2.5 hours on it’s stock battery.  17” MacBook Pro gets SEVEN HOURS.  This is not just due to Apple’s new battery design.  It’s also because of how Apple optimizes the overall system in how it runs.  Why do you think Apple hasn’t made a 4G/LTE iPhone yet?  It’s because those chips required simply drain the battery too quickly.  They are biding time until someone makes a chip that isn’t so power hungry, if not working on it themselves.

  4. The Mac’s superior design and build quality ultimately also result in a device that has a much longer usable lifespan.  How many Macs do you see that are five years old and still going strong compared to the old PCs that you see?  I think the new line of PCs that are beginning to gain popularity might have caught up in this regard.
  5. While the cost of the initial computer is usually a few hundred bucks cheaper, you need to consider the long term cost of owning a PC vs. a Mac:
    1. Cost of Operating System software upgrade:
      • Windows 7 Home = $119 or
      • Windows 7 Home Premium = $199 or
      • Windows 7 Professional = $299 or
      • Windows 7 Ultimate = $319
      • Mac OS 10.7 “Lion” = $29.99 (one choice)
    2. Given that time = money, consider:
      • the time you’ll spend managing Windows’ security software wich can be free (Apple employees don’t run security software on their machines, so that tells me it’s not crucial for normal users), 
      • 3rd party driver setup and configuration for peripherals (which in my experience is not quite as smooth as with Macs - but possibly because I’m just faster on Macs than on Windows)
    3. Since Macs do last longer than cheap PCs - possibly twice as long if you treat them right - you’ll end up buying a new PC sooner than a new Mac.  Where’s the savings in having to buy a second computer sooner?
  6. While Windows 7 is much more stable and much more secure than its predecessors, in my opinion the Mac OS has been ahead for awhile on these factors.  Macs just work - unless you get a lemon, which is possible in any machine being manufactured via assembly line.  I’d rather spend my time working WITH my tools as opposed to working ON my tools.  Every Windows machine I’ve ever interacted with has made me scratch my head for some reason or another - a hard drive won’t mount, software settings need to be changed because of a particular component not working right, anti-spam and security software settings intefere with the software I’m trying to use.  Again, Windows 7 is getting better at all of this, but the Mac is already better and has been for awhile. 

    If you’re a computer tweaker and absolutely love Windows, then by all means stick with what you know and love.  If you’re just starting out with your first system and are indifferent, I guarantee that almost all of you will prefer using Mac OS after just one day, even if you’ve been on a PC for awhile.

    I’ve helped “convert” many friends and family members from PCs to Macs.  I can’t think of anyone who has ever told me that they’d rather go back to Windows once they get a Mac.  And I don’t know anyone who has said that overall Windows is easier to use than Mac OS X.  Not one single person. 

    People I know that prefer PCs over Macs do so for cost reasons OR because of a specific feature they “just can’t live without” that Macs don’t have.

    Corporate IT guys prefer PCs because the Mac’s enterprise configurations are vastly different than what they are accustomed to, and there’s no way that large companies will ever get rid of their PCs.  Hence my comment in the original list of tools for the modern musician.  Plus, while Macs offer tools to facilitate file sharing and communication with Windows machines, Windows does almost nothing to help sharing with Macs.

  7. Finally, Apple designs and manufactures amazingly beautiful devices from the inside out.  Have you ever looked inside a Mac Pro?  The engineering is absolutely gorgeous.  I know only true geeks like myself would appreciate that, but it does translate in the overall feel of the device when you use it.  There’s an overall quality that is definitely tangible when using a Mac compared to a Dell.  And there’s a sense of passion that I feel eminating from this functional device that originated with the designers.  Form does matter - especially to creative types.  How many people would rather drive a Hyundai instead of a Porche if given the choice?  Sure a Hyundai is a great deal, very reliable, and it’s plastic feax wood gives an initial sense of quality.  But Porches get your juices flowing and are monster performers.  There’s a reason Apple has true “fans” and PC manufactures and Windows just have “users”.

    And it’s no coincidence that HPs Envy laptop looks almost exactly like the MacBook Pro.  Imitation is the purest form of flattery, right?  At least HP is seeing the value in good design.

So keep in mind that buying any advanced electronics requires more than just looking at the specification numbers and price tag.  It’s also about user experience and real world performance issues like battery life and ease of use in getting done what you need.  Are you more concerned with figures or usability?

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