2008
10.22

Mac vs. PC

It’s what seems to be an age-old question: get an Apple computer or don’t? From the perspective of a person who spent a ton of money on Macs recently 9and who is writing this article on an aluminumiMac), and otherwise has used PCs, here are the points of contention, with notebook computers as the focus:

Design – Yes, PC makers’ new designs are getting better and better, but Apple takes the cake here, generally speaking. Appearance may be a matter of taste, in which entrants from Dell, HP and evenLenovo (fka IBM) may win, but design also includes build quality, where Apple handily wins against all but the most business-focused of the PC line. Aesthetics also translate into performance improvements of sorts; the newMacbooks, due to their aluminum unibody construction, are about a pound lighter and 30-50% thinner than comparable non-Apple machines. They also feel stronger. If nothing else, Apple is the king of fit and finish, especially with the latest round ofiPod and portable upgrades. The contrast is as stark, if not as practical, on the desktop side of things, though Apple’s desktop aesthetics come at the expense of minimalism…

Ports and Expansion – Sorry Apple, PCs win here. As long as Steve Jobs reigns as Apple CEO, his philosophy of “less is more” will deprive Apple machines of such ports asHDMI, limit USB connectors to a ridiculously low number compared with PCs, and insist on proprietary video connectors on all but the low-end and high-end desktop Macs (the Mac mini and Mac Pro are now the only Apple computers that have an industry-standard video out connector, and the Macmini’s days may be numbered, with no upgrades in practically forever). Also, ahem, no FireWire on new Macbooks, more inexplicable because Apple pushed the standard so hard in the beginning. As to expansion capabilities, the Macbook Pro has an ExpressCard slot, and the Mac Pro has tons of expansion capabilities. For other Macs, you can upgrade the memory (iMac and Macbook series) and the hard drive (Macbook series) without voiding your warranty. This stands in opposition to PC units, where most desktops allow you to dive into the case, upgrading whatever component you want, and where the vast majority of notebook PCs haveExpressCard slots and plenty give easy access to upgrade the memory, hard drive, wireless card and maybe more.

One more thing: you don’t see media card readers on Macs. Useful, but you’ll have to buy your own and hook it up externally.

Compatibility – While a surprising number of applications do run on the Mac within OS X, and the rest will run either in a virtual machine or under regular Windows via Boot Camp, the fact remains that Apple computers work best under OS X. In Windows, right-clicking on aMacbook is a pain…hopefully fixed with the new touchpad methodology…and on my iMac neither video nor sound drivers do much more than work passably. Simply put, Macs run OS X best and Windows as a distant second, though a Mac may well run Windows better than a comparable PC, if only due to the lack of “bloatware” that typically arrives packed onto a consumer computer hard drive. That said, I’ve survived just fine, withVMWare Fusion and Boost Camp, on Apple-only hardware for months now, though I find Apple’s proprietary iWork formats enough of a lame duck to use OpenOffice or Microsoft Office 2007 for such tasks.

Specs – PCs generally win. Apple isn’t as obsessive about upgrading their product line at every announcement as the PC industry is; they have no direct competition forcing them to do so. Granted, Dell hasn’t been keen on upgrades recently on processor architectures, but some of Apple’s units are simply rather outdated. TheiMac series has ATi Radeon 2000 series graphics chips in them, or an nVidia GeForce 8800 if you pay the big bucks. Both were not leading-edge when they came to market, and now they’re two generations behind the new stuff. Worse still, the Mac Mini, which is two Intel graphicschipsets, three processor architectures and one “die shrink” (45 nanometer vs 65nm) behind the curve, with no price reduction in sight. On the other hand, nVidia 9400 chipset was first seen in the new Macbooks, the GeForce 8600 paired with the “Santa Rosa” chipset came out first on the Macbook Pro, and the ATi Radeon HD was popularized by the aluminum iMac. But when Apple isn’t making a huge bound forward in technology, it’s flat-out stagnating.

Also, memory and hard disk space are generally skimpier on Apple units than on PCs of the same calibre. A $600 laptop comes with 3GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive, a $650 unit may well include a 320GB disk. Apple’s $1300 “entry level” notebook? 160GB of hard disk space, 2GB of memory. Upgrading to 3GB of memory and a 320GB disk would cost Apple around $50…pathetic, no?

Additionally, Apple seems to choose rather random specs to differentiate between “Pro” and “Consumer” system lines, and seems to do so more often now. Even between models there will be distinctions where you have to switch to a higher-end model of the same family to get a single specification you want.FireWire, backlit keyboards and faster processors are a few examples.

Price – Not much, if any, comparison. In some cases an Apple computer will have a relatively small price delta between it and a Windows PC, but s a rule the “Apple Tax” is very, very real. Particularly when comparing starting prices for computers and choosing only the specs you need (versus what Apple says you need) you can configure a fine PC for much less than an Apple that will do the same thing. Granted, an HP or Lenovo IdeaPad might have a slower processor bus, DDR2 memory (versus DDR3) or Intel integrated graphics instead of an nVidia part, but if that’s all you really need for web, e-mail, productivity, video-playing and light-to-medium photo editing, you’ve just walked out of the store with a computer half the price of a Mac with which you’d do the exact same thing. Plus, if you want to run Windows on Apple hardware, you pay for Windows. Don’t get me started about how Apple downgraded the processor speed on its lower-end Macbook by a slight margin instead of upgrading to a higher-end part along with the newer architecture, or how you can get the processor of the $2500 MacBook Pro in a $1200 Dell. Or how a 16″ HP notebook can compare to a max’d out Macbook Pro, for the price of the entry-level MacBook Pro.

To add insult to injury, Steve Jobs on Apple’s recent earnings call flat-out threw a wet blanket on the inexpensive, somewhat student-focused netbook market (Asus’ Eee PC et al), effectively calling any $500-or-less computer a piece of junk. If I remember correctly, Apple had a Mac mini at that price back in the PowerPC-baseddays, though ostensibly Steve was talking about the notebook market. Also, his words were to the effect of “we can’t make a non-junk $500 computer, it’s against out DNA”, lending credence to the BMW-like property of Apple simply being unable to produce a budget-class machine from their factories. “Satisfying user experience” be hanged; Apple has shipped products that aren’t terribly fast at what they do (Mac mini series) or don’t have customer-satifying features (FireWire!?!) even lately.

Choice – PC wins. Apple has three consumer notebook configurations, one of which will be phased out soon. Three more configurations are professionally focused, with one of them possibly headed for the cutting room floor. On desktops, there are two low-end models (Mac mini), three or four (depending on how you count it)midrange models and one pro-focused model. In all, two notebook models, three desktop models. Simple, but limited. HP alone has 12.1, 13.3, 14.1, 15.4, 16, 17 and 18.4 inch laptop screen sizes (pick the one that fits), with several of these being available in different models tailored to different budget segments and different applications (business vs. consumer). Dell is similar; their major focuses are 13, 15 and 17 inch notebook models on the consumer end, with 14 inch models bigger in business sales, but they offer low-end,midrange and high-end options for most screen sized, plus the same for business. Desktops have similar variety. Confusing? Possibly, but certainly not one-size-fits-all like Apple seeks to do. Plus, if you don’t like what Dell is doing, buy an HP,Lenovo, Zepto, Gateway, Asus or ZT Group machin. Or build your own. No such choice on the Mac.

Software – Contrary to popular belief, Mac OS X isn’t “intuitive” if you’ve been using Windows all of your life. It takes some getting used to, a lot more than, say,Ubuntu Linux. On the other hand, Apple’s digital media suit is very good, and so far Macs haven’t been targeted with the malware threats PCs have. Yet Windows Vista isn’t as bad as people make it out to be, and it has tons of features, matching and sometimes beating Apple’s product. It’s also quite secure (if you don’t like the incessant bugging of the User Account Control, grab Norton’s version of theUAC ). Maybe I’m just tired of the nagging Apple ads, but at this point, for day-to-day tasks, the familiarity of Windows (Vista) probably equalizes whatever advantages OS X has, unless day-to-day work involves heavy media production.

So, in conclusion, choose what you will. Try before you buy if you can, particularly when switching platforms. In some cases, buying a Mac may be “worth it”, but don’t be ashamed if Apple’s ‘one size fits all” doesn’t fit you, whether for budget or other reasons. In that case, you’ve got a lot to choose from. If you get an Apple product though, have fun, enjoy…you paid for it!

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