PC vs Mac: Which computer is better? - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

PC vs Mac: Which computer is better?

The answer is Mac, but that judgment requires a bit of background.

From my years of experience with both platforms, networked and standalone, office and home use, the Mac is the most intuitive, reliable, durable, well designed, high quality and expensive line of computers on the market.

The Microsoft Windows powered PCs are, by contrast, overly complex, buggy, and vary widely in quality depending on the manufacturer. They are also the least expensive computers you can buy.

The answer to this question, the most hotly debated in the personal computing world, is as much cultural and classist as it is technical and a matter of value for your money.

macdawnIn 1983 Apple released the Macintosh, which it promised would change the world. It was the first to market with a graphical user interface and a mouse. It created a desktop metaphor for files, folders, applications and drives. The user used the cursor, controlled by the mouse, to point and click on icons representing these items and to work with them.

The bad old days

PCs, on the other hand, not only already owned the business and enterprise markets, but were finding their way into the home market as well. Yet the Mac represented a serious challenge to this dominance for one basic reason: ease of use. Virtually all PCs ran the same operating system, the inscrutable MS-DOS, or Microsoft Disk Operating System.

Upon boot up, the user was faced with a nearly blank screen, populated only with the famous C prompt, officially known as the Command Prompt: C:>_The user then typed in the proper DOS command to start up an application or perform housekeeping chores on the computer. These commands were arcane and required rote memorization.

msdosAnd Microsoft, the author of this system, didn’t sell it to the growing number of manufacturers running MS-DOS– they made their money by licensing it. That is, Microsoft received a licensing fee for every PC sold to business or an individual. You don’t actually own that copy of Windows that came with your PC, or that expensive upgrade. You merely rent it.

Apple founder Steve Jobs and company promoted The Mac as an “insanely great” computer that could be operated by anyone without ever even reading a manual, the interface so intuitive that complete novices could get to know it in a few minutes and begin productive work almost immediately. And this was not hype; it really was that easy. I know because I was an early adopter and I used Macs in the publishing industry without once referring to a user manual.

Too little, too lame?

Microsoft had reason to fear the Mac. Their response was to counter with their own version of a GUI, Windows, which was actually nothing more than a DOS shell which overlaid the underlying text-based OS, with common commands represented graphically, but which still required reversion to Command Prompt for many tasks.

This weak but obviously Mac-inspired change drove Jobs into a fury, claiming Microsoft chief Bill Gates stole the unique “look and feel” of the Mac. Lawsuits followed, but availed him naught. Even the judges felt that the GUI was such an obvious next step in the evolution of computer interfaces that no one could rightly claim to “own” it.

mac-vs-pcIn the 1990s Windows gradually improved, became a real operating system rather than a DOS shell and achieved an indomitable market share of nearly 90 percent, while the Mac hovers around 8 percent. Still, Apple maintains its status as one of the most profitable businesses in the country, due in part to its high mark up of its Macintosh computers but also its highly successful iPhones.

Now MS-DOS is just a bad memory and every computer user is familiar with the GUI on both the Macs and Windows machines. The lesson one should take from the above is the business model differences between Apple and Microsoft.

We write code

Microsoft is almost entirely a software company. They make their money licensing their OS to hundreds of manufacturers. Apple is a computer manufacturer which writes its own operating system and many productivity applications tailored to its tightly integrated hardware specs.

Apple uses only the highest quality components and is a leader in overall quality of build and aesthetics of design. More importantly, they charge prices yielding very high profit margins.

nerdprettyboyMicrosoft has no input on the quality of PCs running Windows, and they run the gamut of very high quality–from such manufacturers as Sony and Asus– to the truly awful, which shall remain unnamed.

We’re 20 years now into the personal computer wars, and though Microsoft and Apple remain fierce rivals, they have also settled into somewhat vaguely defined niches. PCs still dominate the enterprise, and Macs dominate the art, graphic design, publishing and other creative sectors of the business world. This picture is painted with a broad stroke but holds true in a general sense, allowing room for some overlap.

The home market is more evenly split between Macs and PCs. Macs are also often found in schools, both because of ease of use, low maintenance, and a wealth of educational titles.

Could have been a contender

Despite the Mac vs Microsoft rivalry, Microsoft originally released Excel on the Mac, and Microsoft Word shortly followed. The success of these programs briefly opened a window of opportunity for the Mac to be adopted by business, but the high prices, the cost of replacing existing vast networks of PCs running costly proprietary networked programs, and the rapid port by Microsoft of Excel and Word to Windows brought an end to this opportunity.

Yes we have rubber type

In the early 1990s two programs appeared exclusively on the Mac, and changed publishing forever. These were QuarkXPress desktop publishing software, and Photoshop image editing software. Suddenly newspapers and magazines could be composed and laid out for publication on the desktops of composing departments. Quark was especially revolutionary. It allowed for unprecedented control of fonts, font sizes that could be enlarged or reduced by the thousandth of a pica, line and character spacing, and was actually so complex that a manual was needed.

Its clunkier rival PageMaker was cheaper and also ran on Windows,  but Quark dominated and explains why you see Macs in newsrooms and publications departments of businesses.

Jobs was criticized for his business model, especially his refusal to license the Mac OS to clonemakers. (This was actually done briefly in the late 1980s, but the results were disappointing, and the licenses yanked.) In 1985 Jobs was stripped of all executive powers by his board, and he soon resigned.

nextSales of the Mac tanked, and Jobs founded Next computers, which ran on latest generation hardware but more importantly its OS was based on Unix, a powerful mainframe system kernel. It was a workstation class computer which failed commercially but its many innovations, including the Unix-based OS, were to find their way into the new line of Macs introduced by Apple upon his return to the company in 1997. The flagship computer of this new line was the hugely successful iMac, which led the moribund company back into the black and revitalized the entire company.

Meanwhile, Microsoft was playing catch-up. With Windows 3.1, released in 1992. Windows began to look like its modern incarnation. Windows reached a pinnacle of success with NT, a system built from the ground up to be networked and controlled by central servers, and it too was based on a robust Unix kernel.

Then came Windows 95, the first system to be designed to work with the then nascent World Wide Web, and included Internet Explorer, the first proprietary web browser. The rapid growth of the Web fueled in turn the higher sales of PCs. It seems hard to believe personal computers predated the Web as we know it today, but what Bill Gates described as “The Internet tidal wave, the most important development since the advent of the PC”, is less than 20 years old.

Flash forward

You have to realize that though the look and feel of the early PCs and Macs were determined by their respective operating systems, their sheer processing power was determined by the speed of their hardware, notably their CPUs. Windows ran on Intel chips, while Macs relied on Motorola chips, dumped them for PowerPC chips, but eventually made the switch to Intel, which they use to this day. Despite rapid and constant advances in speed of CPUs, neither the Mac nor the PC enjoyed a clear lead in processing speed.

apple_loves_intelProcessing power has increased more than a hundred-fold since the earliest PCs and Macs, and dedicated graphics controllers and other ancillary helping chips free up the processor to perform at peak speeds.

The switch to Intel by Apple means–and this is somewhat of a dirty little secret–that with an Apple product called Boot Camp, you can partition your drive into two logical drives, and load Windows on one and decide on boot up which system to run. Since one of the most serious criticisms of the Mac is that it doesn’t run many popular Windows-only software, this is rendered moot by Boot Camp. If you work on PCs at the office and take work home with you, you needn’t refrain from buying a Mac because of incompatibility with your Windows program.

Nuts and bolts

If you buy a cheap Windows laptop, and a major component fails on you, you know not to blame Microsoft. They didn’t build the thing. If you need help, good luck receiving support from the Chinese manufacturer or Microsoft, which charges you for live troubleshooting.

If you have a problem with a Mac, (unlikely, but they do occur) you can receive free in-person help at the Genius Bar of your local Apple Store. Since its high quality components are unlikely to fail, it is usually a software problem. Such problems are usually cleared up while you wait, and then you’re on your way.

800px-Macbook_pro_15_2010Macs cost 20 to 50 percent more than their similarly specced PC counterparts. A 15-inch Macbook Pro with maximum specs lists at $1,799. A 13-inch maxed out Macbook Pro with Retina display can run you $2,499. A low end Macbook Air is available for
just under $1,000. High powered, equivalent PC laptops range from $600 to $1,000.

This might be all you need to know, but there are other considerations. Macs exceed all other computers in the quality of design, build and functionality. Mac OS upgrades are usually free. Support is superb. Macs never wear out. You can reasonably expect them to last up to ten years.

Despite the increasing quality of PCs from previously mentioned manufacturers, PCs rarely last more than five years. And they become obsolete faster. Major system upgrades, such as from XP to the current Windows 8.1, cost hundreds of dollars. You can save money by purchasing a bare bones model from a decent manufacturer, and buy and install high-powered graphics cards, more RAM, large capacity hard drives, and CD/DVD drives, but is it really worth all the trouble? After all that effort, in the end, you still have a Windows PC, not a Mac equivalent.

And it is my judgment that the Mac is clearly superior in every quantifiable way, and even in some intangible fashions. Macs rarely crash, a daily event for PCs; their longevity spreads the initial high cost over many years, making them more affordable; they are largely compatible with PCs in general and their applications can usually handle files created by PC apps; and you can take one out of the box, plug it in, and begin using it immediately without referring to a manual.

PCs, especially those running the completely overhauled latest OS, Windows 8.1, face a steep learning curve, what with its new and, to me, counterintuitive and confusing card-based front end. Microsoft, which has seen revenue drop as sales of PCs across the board shrink in favor of highly capable smartphones and tablets, is trying to create one seamless user experience across all its Window powered devices, from its smartphone to tablets to its RT tablet/laptop hybrid to its PCs. It is not succeeding, yet Microsoft still has an enormous installed base of corporate and business PCs and huge cash reserves. They have the wherewithal to keep trying till they get it right.

The Mac, on the other hand, does not reinvent itself. It is already close to perfect, so improvements and new features are added incrementally, and they invariably add to functionality and make the computer even easier and more convenient to use.

Macs just keep getting better. Windows is getting…well, weirder.

New or used, still the best

If you are looking for a home computer or one for your small business, buy a Mac, if you can afford it. Also there is a thriving market of used and refurbished older models, which bring Macs into the PC price range. I was given a six-year old Macbook Pro, on which I couldn’t run the free and highly capable bundle of productivity apps that come with new Macs, because I couldn’t upgrade over the Web from system 8.3 to the minimum requisite 8.6. I made an appointment at the Apple store with the Genius Bar and they manually updated my system to the latest OSX, at no charge, and it’s as good as brand new.

mac-vs-pcI go through a lot of computers. My freelance editing and writing business doesn’t require the latest and greatest hardware. I basically need just a moderately fast, RAM-packed word processor, and I usually have two or more cheap PCs, one to work on and the other either as back up or to cannibalize for parts when my work computer, inevitably, fails. But I plan on switching over to my Mac as soon as I have finished my current projects and can migrate my files.

I haven’t owned a Mac in a while and I’ve noticed several improvements. Speed and smoothness in transitions, for one. A dock at the bottom of the screen which scrolls through your recent apps as you mouse over it. A magnetic power connector that leaps from your hand to plug itself in. Faster WiFi using the new 802.11ac protocol. Extremely fast flash memory, which is solid state as in a USB stick, as opposed to the standard spinning disk drive read by a laser. The new Thunderbolt connector for attaching to more than one monitor or, with an HDMI adapter, to your television.

But the basic elements of the user interface remain the same, I don’t have to worry (as much) about viruses and Trojans that plague the PC, and I don’t save incessantly as I write to avoid loss of work in the event of total system lock up or crash.

Take it for a spin

If you’ve never used a Mac, or even if you haven’t used one recently, go to your local Apple store and test drive the different models. The company welcomes, even encourages you, to try them out. Though there are many superficial similarities to PCs running System 7, still the most widely used version of Windows by a large margin, you will notice the not-so-subtle difference.

The biggest rollout of new Macs in the brand’s history came in 2012. Apple released  updated versions of its Macbook Pro, which comes in 15-inch, 13- inch and 11-inch screen sizes; upgraded versions of its Macbook Air notebook, in 11- and 13-inch size and equipped with the shockingly clear Retina display; the all-in-one desktop iMac; the Mac Pro desktop, and the Mac mini.

Prices vary widely between product groups and within each group as well, according to how much RAM, processor speed and storage space one desires. The little known Mac mini comes with only a small case and the guts of a low-end Macbook Pro. You must provide keyboard, mouse and monitor. It can easily be configured to run the Mac system, Windows, or both. It is the cheapest Mac you can buy, coming in near the $500 mark. Prices for the others begin at just under $1,000, all the way to $2,400.

I also encourage you to read up on Macs vs PCs on the Web. Though this is where the culture and class differences among users that I mentioned at the beginning become apparent. Most discussions devolve into flame wars, impassioned arguments of a personal nature and very nasty. PC devotees tend to dismiss the Mac as a toy, because it does not natively run many popular PC programs. They regard Mac users as effete, sandal-wearing, ponytailed rich hipsters who don’t want to get their hands dirty tearing the guts out of a PC. Mac users tend to regard PC fans as ill-informed tech fanboys who love complexity for its own sake, and who delight in getting their hands dirty tearing the guts out of their PCs.

Read instead the professional reviews on tech sites such as CNET, and less technical reviews to be found in columns by experts in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Their opinions may vary in particulars from my own, but I believe I am in the mainstream among informed users and writers in my recommendation of a Mac over a PC.

In any event, it’s been a few years since I used a Mac for business, and I’m happy to be home again.

But I think I’ll keep my PCs, just in case.

Writers note: The scope of this column, consumer technology, is wide and vast. I will never lack for subjects to write about. But Id like to hear from readers about what subjects theyd like covered in future articles. You are encouraged to get in touch with me via the Contact the author link at the end of the About the author box below, and offer your requests and suggestions.

About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.