I will be starting a couple of threads related to Revit on the Mac. This first one will be focused on “Infrastructure”, i.e. the Mac hardware, virtualization software, guest OS, etc. the later thread will focus on specific settings, techniques and such
Why a Parallels VM over BootCamp?
With any modern intel processor that supports VT-x the “virtual” processor will basically be the real processor. There is minimal performance loss due virtualization, at least with regards to the CPU. And Revit is performance limited almost exclusively by the CPU. That is, other than 3D manipulation, i.e. spinning the model around. Especially with shadows and ambient occlusion on. You will notice a difference here between Parallels and BootCamp.
So Revit in Parallels is going to be just about as fast as Revit in BootCamp as Revit on a native Windows machine. The more complex the model, the more Parallels will suffer when it comes to manipulating the model in 3D views, but updating a family with 50 instances isn’t going to be radically different. And 3D views will still be workable. The last place Parallels impacts Revit is RAM. You want to leave at least 2, and preferably 4 GB of RAM for the Host OS (the Mac), so if you need 8 GB for Windows/Revit, you are looking at 12 GB total. In BootCamp all RAM is available to Windows/Revit, so you need less. But that extra 4 GB of RAM costs about $50.
The other place where performance IS lost is the graphics RAM. Parallels uses System RAM to mimic graphics RAM, and graphics RAM is MUCH faster. However, the only place that Revit makes use of Graphics RAM directly is in caching textures for Realistic views. If you don’t spend a lot of time in views set to Realistic, you won’t notice the difference. Also, Windows 7 will use Graphics RAM to cache the full contents of all application windows, as well as to composite those windows. But if you are using Parallels to host Windows to run Revit and little else, you won’t have many Windows app windows to deal with, so limited and slower virtualized Graphics RAM will again not be a major problem. If, on the other hand, you are using Parallels to virtualize your entire workflow, with lots of Windows apps open, Outlook running, browsing the web in IE on the VM, etc. then you likely will notice a difference.
But in that case, why use a Mac at all? Just buy a D(H)ell and be done with it. My assumption for the remainder of this paper is that you will be primarily running Revit in the VM, and wherever possible using the Mac and OS X applications for your work. If that is the case, read on.
So, in exchange for this (manageable) performance hit and (affordable) need for extra RAM, what do you get from using Parallels? Well, you get a Mac. For everything else you need to do. Need to manipulate the pages in a PDF? Use the built in tools on the Mac rather than Acrobat. Need to add some entourage to an image you exported from Revit? Use Acorn instead of Photoshop. Need to do word processing, spread sheets or presentations? Use iWork instead of Office. All of these tools are much cheaper than the Windows options, and in my opinion superior as well. Mail instead of Outlook, Safari instead of Internet Explorer, TimeMachine for backups, the list goes on. For the sole proprietor or small office Revit and one of the free PDF printers is all you need to run in Windows, and Parallels makes working in Revit “almost” like a native Mac app. All those other tools are right there when you need them, rather than a reboot away. And in my experience, Windows doing nothing but Revit is much faster and more stable than Windows doing all those other things. Keeping the Windows VM clean and focused on Revit really makes a difference in performance and stability. Think of it as a nice extra benefit.
Why Parallels over VMWare Fusion?
I have used Fusion as well, and it is good. Indeed, all the benefits vis-a-vis BootCamp are the same. However, I find that Parallels wins when it comes to DirectX graphics performance (i.e. Revit) and is the better integrated with the Mac OS. The former is a real benefit when working in Revit, the latter is really more personal preference, but if you have gone to the Mac, a pretty and thoughtfully designed app is nice icing on the cake. For these two reasons I have stayed with Parallels. If something radically changes (like Fusion starts using VT-d and can directly virtualize the graphics card and graphics RAM) then I will looking closely.
What Mac should I use/buy?
This depends a lot on what kind of work you plan to do in Revit. All the old rules still apply. If you are going to be opening models over 200 MB (cumulative) then you will want to use a 64 bit version of Windows, and provide 6-8 GB of RAM (minimum) to the VM, while still keeping at least 2-4 GB for the host OS. That pretty much means an iMac or a Mac Pro, as the Mac Mini and MacBook Pro can only support 8 GB of RAM total (4 GB officially supported by Apple on the Mac Mini). On the other hand, if you are doing Single Family Residential work, with models that max out at 100 MB or so, you can easily use a MBP with 8 GB of RAM split evenly between Guest and Host OSs, and for very small projects or just learning Revit, a Mac Mini with 4 GB of RAM split evenly will also work fine. Maybe not snappy, but workable. For small models. And yes, a MacBook Air is also “workable” for smaller models. The CPU isn’t as good (Core 2) and the RAM is limited to 4GB total, or 2GB for Windows
The next question is overall performance. Assuming you are looking for a machine to do “real work”, the Core i5 and i7 CPUs are the only way to go. The new architecture beats the old Core 2 hands down. Beyond that you want to make sure the CPU supports VT-x, which is CPU virtualization, and Turbo Boost, which allows fewer cores to operate at higher speeds when dealing with non-multithreaded workloads. If you are going to be doing renderings in Revit then Hyper-Threading is also worth looking for, as it can provide a good 20-25% performance boost. VT-d is I/O virtualization, and I believe only Parallels Workstation Extreme for Windows supports this. Maybe in Parallels Desktop 7!
If you are buying a new MBP/iMac/Mac Pro, VT-x is supported across the board, as is Hyper-Threading. Turbo Boost is an option on all but the i3 based iMac.
Below are all the current MBP and iMac options. Those last numbers are the Turbo Boost multipliers, which increase the CPU speed by 133.33 MHz per multiplier. So that i5 520M, when maxed out on both cores doing a rendering, will be running at 2.4 GHz, but when running on both cores but not maxed out (i.e. most of the time in a virtualized environment) it will run at 2.4 GHz + 266.66 MHz = 2.67 GHz, the same as the i7 620M base speed. And in the rare cases when it is really just a single threaded situation (which I don’t think will happen much with a VM running) it could ramp that single core up as high as 2.93 GHz.
i5 520M x2 @ 2.40 GHz 2/4
i5 540M x2 @ 2.53 GHz 2/4
i7 620M x2 @ 2.67 GHz 3/5
i7 640M x2 @ 2.80 GHx 3/5
i3 550 x2 @ 3.20 GHz (no Turbo Boost)
i5 680 x2 @ 3.60 GHz 1/2
i7 860 x4 @ 2.80 GHz 1/1/4/5
i7 870 x4 @ 2.93 GHz 2/2/4/5
So what does it all mean. Well, if you are looking for a laptop, just get the best machine you can afford. From a CPU performance standpoint, you will likely not notice a huge difference between the i5 540M @ 2.53 GHz and the i7 640M @ 2.67 GHz, but the latter also has the 512 MB version of the GeForce 330M, which won’t make any difference in Revit, but that extra Graphics RAM will be useful in, say the Mac version of PhotoShop, where the images you are working on are stored in Graphics RAM for much better performance, as well as window compositing, etc. The 15” 1440X900 pixel screen is pretty much the smallest you can get Revit on comfortably, but the 17” screen makes for a much larger and less portable laptop. The screens on the 13” MacBook and the two flavors of MacBook Air are really too small for Revit in any useful way, so if you are going that route a second monitor may not be just a luxury.
On the iMac, I would say avoid the i3, and only get the i5 if you will pretty much never render anything. Also note that the i3 is only an option on the 21.5” screen, and for Revit that 27” screen is a wonder. Again, the best you can afford will do you well, but some of that performance (like the higher spec graphics card) will only come into play when on the “Mac side”.
You will notice that I have not mentioned the Mac Pro at all, because performance on the Mac Pro is thru the roof, and probably overkill unless you do a lot of renderings and want those 24 threads in a dual socket, six core with hyper-Threading machine, in which case you are probably concerned with 3DS Max performance, not Revit, anyway. Or you are doing MASSIVE models, where you need 32 GB of RAM so you can give your VM more than the 12-14 you are limited to on the iMac. And in those situations your choices are limited to the Mac Pro, and you are out of my league.
As for RAM, the iMac is a very easy upgrade, and you can save some money by ordering your RAM thru Crucial. I got an extra 8 GB for $100 to upgrade my iMac to 12 GB, whereas it would have cost $400 to just get it to 8 GB thru Apple. The MacBook Pro is slightly harder to upgrade, but still “user upgradable”. However, because the MBP has only two slots and both come filled, you will be replacing, rather than adding, so the savings isn’t as good as on the iMac.
Lastly, the SSD question. I have found OS X to show much more improvement in boot and app launch performance with the SSD as compared to the Windows 7 machines at the office, and this from an OS that is already more responsive anyway. But that is the only place an SSD will really show a performance boost. Even if your Revit files are stored on the SSD, file open will not be much faster because that process is really CPU limited. So splurge on an SSD if you want your Mac to be fast, but don’t expect anything out of Revit, or Windows, or Parallels (other than how fast Parallels launches, which is basically instantly)
Again, if you are doing small projects or just learning Revit, and older Core 2 Duo Mac Mini or MacBook Pro (or even 15” MacBook) will work. Beyond that, I really think the 27” iMac i7 is the sweet spot, with an extra 8 GB of RAM from Crucial taking it to 12 GB total, 4 for the host OS, and 8 for the Guest.
What about dual monitors?
Revit really is more useful (IMHO) when Properties and Project Browser are off to the side on another monitor. The same is true with a virtual situation on the Mac, and indeed things like Spaces in OS X can make the dual monitor experience better than you could ever dream of in Windows (more on this in the second thread!).
If you go the MacBook Pro (or MacBook) route, pretty much any external monitor will work. You may need adapters to deal with different connections (new MacBooks use mini DisplayPort), but you can make most any monitor work. And the laptop screen will make a good place to put those extra bits of Revit UI so you can focus on your work on the big screen.
If you go the iMac route, you basically get a Cinema Display for free, and if you happen to also have an iPad, then Air Display will turn it into a functional (and touch!) second monitor for only $10. Otherwise you are looking for a second monitor you can plug in to the mini DisplayPort.
A word about the Cinema Display. Yes, a grand for a 27” display is a lot of money. But there are some things to be aware of.
1: The Cinema Display is an 8 bit color monitor, not the 6 bit that so many of the less expensive LCD displays are. That means you get much more accurate color rendering on screen. This seems like something that should matter to Architects, Interior Designers and the rest. Perhaps not important for the Structural and MEP folks, but something to consider. There are other 8 bit displays as well, so perhaps a follow-on post can address color depth more fully. Anyway...
2: The Cinema Display is also a smart FireWire/USB hub as well as a smart monitor. What does that mean? If you have an external FireWire 800 hard drive plugged in to your Cinema Display and perhaps some nice Bose USB speakers as well, when you close the lid to your MacBook Pro the monitor goes to sleep. And the hard drive goes to sleep. And the speakers go to sleep. And the scanner if there is one. And printers. This can save real money in energy costs, and is surprisingly nice to deal with a system, rather than a bunch of peripherals that are plugged into each other but don’t actually work together all that well.
3: The Cinema Display is a great monitor. It really is better than most monitors that are not in this same price range. And it has a mini DisplayPort connection so disconnecting is easy, no converters, etc.
So, if you are looking at a MBP take a look at the CD while you are there. Unless you really don’t want to spend that money, in which case you probably shouldn’t look at it. OK, enough sounding like an Apple salesman.
Mice and Keyboards
If you are getting a new machine, you will likely get a Magic Mouse and the wireless keyboard. The latter works fine, with ergonomics the real question. On the former, you should look into MagicPrefs, which is a free tool that enables middle clicking. More on that in the second thread. if you have the older Mighty Mouse with the tracking pea, I am pretty sure the standard Mouse Preferences allowed for a Middle Pick, but perhaps someone can verify. Any other mouse will depend on its own drivers/preferences to support middle picks.
This is really the same decision making process you have when buying a PC. If you need a lot of memory, you need 64 bit. If you are buying new you have no choice, Windows 7 is the only thing for sale, unless you are looking for your OS on eBay or something. In which case you are on your own.
That said, my recommendation here is the same anyway. Just get Windows 7 x64. Even if you only give your VM 2 GB of RAM now, there won’t be much difference compared to a 32 bit OS, and you can add RAM later. If you never need to connect to a domain then Windows 7 Home will work fine, but you don’t save much money compared to Windows 7 Professional. I think $100, so I guess it would pay for that 8 GB RAM upgrade. If you need to log in to a domain then Pro is your only option. I would NOT recommend XP any more, unless you already own it, and are getting an old mac second hand and trying to learn Revit with a bare minimum money outlay. I wouldn’t recommend Vista under any circumstances.
Hopefully this rather drawn out missive is somewhat useful for those looking to make the Revit on Mac plunge. More info on specific settings in Parallels and such to follow. And anyone with something to add, or something they disagree with, please do!