It’s come to my attention that it’s almost four years since I wrote my one of my first Pro Tools Expert articles - Five Reasons I Use A Windows PC For Pro Tools. This also coincides with it now being six years since I set up 8dB Sound and made the decision to base it mainly around Windows technology. Looking back at my article, I’m not struck by how much has changed, but more by how much has stayed exactly the same. In this article, I’m going to take a look back at my original reasons and see how they stack up now.
Back then I said:
“For the most part, once you’re in Pro Tools, there’s little or no difference in the user experience. The only thing you might notice is that the CMD (Windows Key) and ALT keys are the other way round on a Windows UK keyboard, as are the quote marks and the @ symbol. One easy fix is to use an Apple Keyboard, and switch your keyboard settings to US layout.”
I completely stand by this, but now I would say not to bother swapping your keyboard for an Apple model - the excellent Editors Keys range can really help with the transition.
“Yes, the “Blue Screen of Death” is scary, with all its hexadecimal and technical terms, but to the trained eye, and with the help of the app “BlueScreenViewer”, it generally gleans more information than the “grey multilingual screen of doom” or indeed the “bombs” you used to get on Macs. In Windows 8.1, the BSOD has been replaced with a less informative but friendlier screen. Hopefully if you get your hardware and software install right, then you shouldn’t be seeing the BSOD. Since upgrading my hardware due to a steadily worsening motherboard issue, I have not seen the BSOD once.”
Four years on and Windows 10 is now with us. The plug’n’play support is vastly improved and as my server build article demonstrated, a clean Windows install is now a swift and painless operation, and none of my pro-audio software has been dramatically affected by Windows updates. It’s still very rare to get BSOD lockouts. If it does happen, nowadays it can include a QR-code that you can scan with your phone to get more information about what fault has caused the issue.
“In Pro Tools 12, Avid have opened up your choice of audio interfaces even more, with WASAPI support. However there is currently a bug that prevents video working properly when using WASAPI. Up until this, Windows users have been restricted to using ASIO interfaces or running Asio4All.”
Unfortunately, WASAPI support with video is still not working and there aren’t any signs of it being fixed yet. ASIO is still the best way to connect audio interfaces to your Windows Pro Tools system.
One major change in my rig since then is that I have replaced my MOTU audio interface with an RME FireFace802. RME have some of the best most reliable drivers out there and using just the USB2 connection, the RME has performed incredibly, with low latency and rock solid stability. This is why it’s important not to sling the blame at Windows first, if you do get issues.
“Windows systems can use the following connections – PCIe, USB2, USB3, USB3.1, Thunderbolt 2, Firewire 400 & 800, Serial, VGA, DVI, HDMI, DP, M2, SATA, the list goes on and on. These are all industry standard connections, so you have an incredible choice of hardware.”
This is still the case, though you can now add USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 to that list. Indeed I can simply and cheaply upgrade my system to these two standards with a sub £100 card. Despite specifying my current system with dual Thunderbolt 2 (a rarity on Windows systems), I really haven’t used it an awful lot. This is because of all the other connection possibilities available and the availability of rock solid drivers as mentioned earlier.
“On a Windows system, USB actually runs pretty quickly, and is more reliable than FireWire. I have enough PCIe slots to fit whatever GPU I wish and still fit a BlackMagic video card and Audio DSP cards should I wish to. I have plenty of power outlets within the case, so I don’t have to mess around with Y-connectors or worry about my PSU capabilities.”
Again, this is still the case. Indeed I have only made one major change to my core system in four years, which was to install my operating system on to a NVME M2 SSD and upgrade my RAM to 32GB. The NVME M2 drive having over five times the speed of the already zippy SATA3 SSDs makes using Windows entirely effortless and incredibly slick. This combined with the fast DDR4 RAM brings completely stability in performance to an already solid system
“My system can read and write to NTFS, FAT, exFAT and HFS. It does require extra software to read HFS, but then Macs also need software to write to NTFS drives properly.”
Since moving all “spinning” media to my server and having a decent amount of SSD storage locally, I’ve found the need for the ability to read non NTFS drives on my main system has decreased. Nowadays I mount incoming physical media on my server first, virus scan it, then copy it across to my “work” local storage over gigabit ethernet.
“The reason I bought the specific MacBook Pro that I did - a 2.2GHz i7 Quad core 2011 model, was that the construction allowed me to easily upgrade the RAM, and change the internal hard drive and optical drive into SSDs. It also has the best connectivity for the money - a similar spec new Windows laptop being more than 50% more expensive. I needed to go mobile quickly and had a limited budget and so chose to ‘cross to the dark side’.”
This in my opinion is where there has been the biggest change in the Windows DAW experience. As my review of the Dell Inspiron Windows Laptop showed, the introduction of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 to Windows laptops has completely reversed this situation. Now you can get off-the-shelf MacBook Pro beating performance and user serviceability/upgradeability for far less money than an equivalent Apple device.
Just how far Pro Tools on Windows laptops has come was reinforced recently when I was mixing a 26-part series in 5.1. I was mixing the episodes in my own studio just outside Bristol then final reviewing them with the client in London. During my two-hour commutes each way on the train, I was making the numerous deliverables using my Windows Pro Tools laptop system, connected to 2TB of SSD storage via a USB-C caddy. What was shocking was that my laptop was able to bounce multiple 5.1 stems out to disk from a 200+ track session with lots of live plug-ins, more than three times faster than the review studio’s MacPro 5.1 could. This is because the Windows laptop has the latest high speed connectivity and a far superior GPU.
That isn’t to say though that I haven’t kept my toe in Apple waters. Since losing my MacBook Pro, I have built a “Plan B” machine, which doesn’t run Windows as its primary operating system. As its name suggests, I mainly built it as a back-up system in case of emergency, but also due to the now decreasing amount of software that doesn’t run on Windows. Indeed I now only really have two software suites on my Plan B system that I don’t have on my Windows systems and I’m assured that both of these have Windows versions in rapid development.
“The latest 5800 i7’s with DDR4 memory and SATA3 utterly scream along. Incredibly fast boot times, even on Windows 7 with Microsoft Security Essentials (antivirus) installed.”
Here’s the thing - since writing that article four years ago, my core hardware hasn’t changed. I also haven’t got any reason to change or upgrade that hardware - I aimed high to begin with and that small extra investment in wisely chosen hardware has paid dividends.
Now, Intel have gone up to i9 processors, but with this latest generation of chips, more advanced features such as hyper-threading have slowly filtered down into the lower range of processors. You can get motherboards with multiple M2 drive connectors, Thunderbolt 3 and 10G ethernet now. My advice from experience though is that Asus motherboards, in particular the older X99 series, provide excellent compatibility, value for money and reliability.
“Pro Tools 11HD was a huge game changer for Windows users. 64bit code unlocked the lovely multi-core power that modern CPUs have. It also freed Avid from the shackles of having to use QuickTime as the video playback engine. .. for many Windows users, the whole PT11HD Video performance wasn’t an issue at all. I’ve been using Pro Tools on Windows since version 7. Back in those early days I was able to do some direct comparisons. Running PT7LE DVTK, I compared my Windows hardware (a lot lower spec than now) and identical spec Apple hardware running the same software. Doing fast turnaround factual television, the Windows system (PT7LE on Windows XP) consistently out performed the Apple system.”
This is still very much the case, as my experience with my Windows laptop shows.
Value for money
“I am in charge of my destiny, equipment wise. After five years, my old motherboard finally gave up the ghost. I replaced the CPU, motherboard, RAM and PSU, for less than £900. This also gave me a system which I could expand later – I’ve just fitted a £65 PCIe card that gives me dual Thunderbolt 2.”
Indeed, since writing the original article, I have not had to drastically change the core architecture of my Windows system at all - it was that well future-proofed when I did that cost-effective upgrade
“With “off the shelf” integrated systems (including some laptops by the likes of Sony and Dell), if you want any kind of future proofing, you have to spend as much money as you (or your bank) can afford, right from the beginning. With a self-build or “standard desktop” system, individual components can be replaced or upgraded as and when you require, by yourself.”
Dell in particular have managed to spectacularly prove me wrong in this respect. The Dell laptop that I bought last year is very upgrade-able and user repairable and comes with an incredibly detailed instruction manual that takes you through all the steps. The innards are accessible with a single standard screwdriver and there are no specialist tools required. Since purchasing this laptop, I have upgraded the RAM from 16GB to 32GB and swapped the second “spinning” hard drive for a 1TB SSD. This reduces battery consumption, lowers heat and improves reliability. I was able to do this quickly and simply using just one standard tool - a Philips screwdriver.
“I often see enquiries along the lines of, “will this gaming machine be suitable for Pro Tools?”. Have a think about it - what are the prime objectives of a gaming machine - to reliably play back HD (and sometimes 3D) pictures in sync with live object based surround sound. Pretty similar to a Pro Tools machine. In my experience, Avid’s published system requirements can be taken with a small pinch of salt. Most times I’ve seen people having issues with Windows systems, they’ve stuck to the letter of the Avid spec, which doesn’t take into account the latest available technology. What I am about to say will go against common advice, but I’ve found that you don’t have to fully implement ALL the Avid recommended “optimisations” that make Windows ugly to look at and clunky to use. That is my experience - others may vary.”
The above laptop is a case in point. My Dell Inspiron 7577 is indeed specified as a “Gaming” machine, in that it has a reasonably powerful GPU (graphics card) with a whopping 6GB of its own memory. What some Mac users may not realise, is that the more powerful your GPU, the slicker your Pro Tools will be as Mike showed when he upgraded his graphics card in his Mac Pro 5,1.
The only optimisation that I use from the list recommended by Avid is to stop USB devices from being automatically powered-down. It is still possible to make Windows very clunky and ugly, but with today’s processors and GPUs, this really isn’t necessary any more.
“Yep, I’m actually proud of being a Windows Pro Tools user. If anyone tells you that they don’t need to know tech to be creative, then I’d point out that the very best musicians, and indeed vocalists, have an incredibly detailed and intimate knowledge of how they’re producing that sound, and how to manipulate it to best effect.”
My persistent support for Windows has actually paid dividends. Only this week, I was approached by a client purely because of my devotion to the cause. They were re-assured that I would understand the platforms that their workflow is based upon.
The vast majority of video editors, visual effects artists and video mastering facilities that I work with on a daily basis, in all genres from commercials to feature films, use Windows. An increasing amount of musicians I work with are also moving away from Apple. The reasons for this are simple - bang for buck and increased compatibility. Visual clients need to be able to take full advantage of things like NVidia GPUs and UHD video IO/acceleration which still use PCIe slots. With Adobe now supporting the Pro-Res format in Windows, this shift is further accelerating.
“If you’re the sort of person who’s willing to “reach round the back of the rack” and get their hands a bit dirty, a Windows system is for you. Even if you prefer OS-X, I would strongly suggest that for a non-portable system, you look into self building a Hackintosh (there are many articles online giving detailed procedures and recommendations) or look into the likes of the wonderful Pro Tools PC systems or Scan 3XS systems. “
I now wouldn’t really recommend a Hackintosh. With Apple using proprietary co-processors and potentially moving to Arm processors, plus Apple not supporting later NVidia GPUs, this field is becoming a lot more difficult. My current opinion is that this will bring you more technical stress and unreliability than an equivalent Windows based system. Just spending a few minutes on any of the Hackintosh social media forums reveals that a lot of users encounter daily show stopping issues.
“Best of luck, and remember that as a Windows user, you have 95% of the computer using population alongside you.”
This still applies, but as our recent polls show, you now have an increasing amount of DAW users alongside you. I am somewhat of a veteran - my first Windows Pro Tools system was in 2005 and even then my Windows Pro Tools system was outperforming equivalent or even better specified Mac Pro Tools systems.
Pro Tools on Windows is not quite at the tipping point, where support is as good as it is for Mac users, but it is very near the fulcrum, especially as there are some software tools that we use in audio post-production that are Mac only, though that number is steadily decreasing.
As ever, my advice is, go for it, and remember that there are a lot of people, including on this blog, who can help.
What Do You Think?
Are you a long term Windows Pro Tools user? Or are you considering moving to Windows for your next Pro Tools system? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.