With Windows 7 coming up, it's time to yet again ponder on whether Microsoft has the upper hand in operating systems. Here's 15 reasons it doesn't.
A journalist colleague of mine recently put this question out there:
"I'm sure I'll either get ignored or flamed for this but what's with all the pro-Mac stuff at the moment? It seems as though everyone […] is either using or recommending Macs these days.
I'm not wanting to start a flame war here but I'm genuinely interested in why this general shift has occurred.
Do people think Vista is truly that awful that they can't use it or even recommend a normal Windows desktop/notebook? I use it every day and I admit I don't like it much either but I don't think it's that bad that I'd jump to using or recommending a Mac instead..."
I long ago stopped actively seeking out Mac vs PC discussions (partly because Macs are now PCs -- so the argument is more about Mac OS X vs Windows vs Linux than a proprietary Mac architecture vs an x86 PC architecture), but I still find it confounding that after all these years, people still don't know the basics of the upsides of Macs and OS X. Perhaps it's because of the tiresome arguments from people like this.
So here's my answer. Note, despite what I said above about the argument really being between operating systems these days, I've looked at Macs as a hardware and software combination in this article, pitted against regular PCs running Windows.
Do you agree/disagree with the points here? Tell me why -- but make sure your points are solidly argued, and make sure you read the whole article before flaming me. There's an important bit right at the very bottom.
1. Reliable sleep mode
The killer feature of every Mac which can't be underestimated (and you don't realise how important it is until you own a Mac) is OS X's 100% reliable, near-instant suspend and resume.
Windows PCs have just never had this. Reliability on Windows is hit and miss, and it's nowhere near instant. As a result most people are in the habit of shutting down their PC totally -- or worse, leaving them on 24/7, chewing up power.
The difference between Mac and Windows in this respect is the difference between broadband and dialup internet. Back in the 90s, many people couldn't see the point of paying extra for an always-on internet service, as "it only takes a minute to connect using the dialup…"
I always shake my head in bemusement when I read about Microsoft working on dramatically shortening boot time on Windows. Boot time shouldn't be such a pivotal issue if suspend and resume worked well. Mac users probably reboot their Mac on average about once a month -- and often only to install an OS update. Which leads to my second point.
2. Extremely fast boot times
Rebooting a Windows PC can be such a painful experience that you really procrastinate doing it. Unless you're running on the highest spec hardware, Vista can take minutes to start up.
Mac OS X starts up from a cold boot in about 25 seconds on a current-gen MacBook Pro. As another journalist contributing to the discussion observed, this is not a faked boot speed, where the operating system maker has rushed to get the login window on screen, but delayed loading the rest of the OS. It's a genuine boot-to-usable-desktop time.
3. Apple uses good quality parts.
Aside from the operating system, Mac hardware is usually good quality. Apple's fit and finish doesn't generally bend and creak like the plastic panels on many PC laptops; Apple's keyboards are high quality; Apple selects good quality parts like very good LCD panels for its screens.
You can essentially buy a Mac product sight-unseen and know you'll be happy with the quality of the display, whereas PC laptops are a huge grab bag ranging from horrendous, dim rubbish to spectacular. (I have to admit I personally don't think the basic MacBook screen is of a quality that I would want to buy, but then, I think it's still better than a lot of PC notebook screens.)
4. Less blinking lights.
Apple doesn't festoon its hardware with blinking lights and inconveniently placed wireless on/off buttons, headphone jacks, etc.
PC manufacturers are starting to understand this and are producing increasingly clean designs (The HP 2133, pictured right, is quite a good example), but it's still my #1 bugbear about PC notebooks.
When I'm using my laptop in a dark room at night I don't want five bright purple and orange status lights blinking away at me. And when I'm using the laptop propped up on my legs on the sofa I don't want to be constantly accidentally turning off the WiFi. I don't want the headphone jack mounted on the front of the notebook, because when I plug the headphones in, the jack will be bumping in to my body if I've got the notebook propped up on my knees, lying on the sofa.
This lack of basic design refinement can make PC notebooks annoying to use for the entire lifespan of the unit (and it's not always something you can 'see in the shop before you buy' -- consider how many PCs are corporate-issued, or bought mail-order these days.)
5. OS X + Windows is better than just Windows
Ignoring Linux for a second, on a Mac I can legitimately run OS X and Windows (natively, or under virtualisation). On a PC I can only legitimately run Windows.
It means I can use OS X for everything, but if there's the occasional application for Windows I need to use (specialised company application; MS Access; mobile phone firmware upgrader utilities) I can easily do use Windows.
Another of my colleagues said she's found a good use for OS X's Spaces virtual desktop feature -- OS X on one desktop and Windows on another desktop. Of course, you can always pause a virtual machine, too, which means having Windows on-call when you need it doesn't need to be chewing up CPU time in the background.
6. Easier to troubleshoot Macs.
It's usually pretty easy to figure out what's going wrong with a Mac. There are three applications that help you and are all in one place and easy to find in the Applications/Utilities folder:
- Activity Monitor (a more powerful version of Windows Task Manager)
- Console (which shows all system logs in one place)
- Disk Utility (which helps you identify disk integrity issues).
It's very rare that you can't get a decent hint of where a system problem lies from those three apps. On Windows, similar apps are available in the system, but they're more scattered and immeasurably more difficult for the average user to find.
7. A culture of good quality community software
There's a culture of very good quality freeware/shareware with excellent user interfaces on Mac -- probably a result of Apple leading by example in user-interface design and shareware authors emulating this.
The average Mac user could get away with only purchasing Microsoft Office and using freeware/shareware and Apple provided software for everything else.
On Windows, the signal to noise ratio in freeware/shareware is extremely high. There's so much junk software out there; it can be hard to find a tool that's good quality.
Some examples of exceptionally good shareware which I don't think there's an equivalently good Windows alternative for (taking into account both the software capabilities -and- the front-end GUI):
8. More useful apps out of the box
Every Mac comes with some very useful apps that don't come on Windows. (Of course, you can easily download them for Windows, but ubiquity of app distribution can make or break a platform -- it's why people have never really equated Symbian Series 60 phones with "useful applications".)
Useful apps on every Mac:
- Time Machine.
Yes, this is no barrier to a Windows power user. But remember, the majority of computer users are not power users.
9. Neat and contained system settings.
Apple is very neat with its OS config settings. In Windows, there's many, many places you can change system-wide settings -- the registry, add/remove programs, the hardware manager, the services manager, network connections, control panel, etc.
On a Mac, the OS config settings are basically all in the control panel (with a few exceptions -- notably, the default browser can only be changed through Apple's own Safari browser -- evil.)
It makes both using a Mac and supporting other people using Macs much easier. One specific example: it is overcomplicated to guide a user to editing the TCP/IP settings for a particular network adaptor on Windows, but it's one of the most common things you have to do to resolve network issues.
But accessing network adaptors is a cinch on Mac OS X...
And TCP/IP settings are easily accessible under "advanced".
10. Apple doesn't load the system up with crap.
Oh sure, Apple festoons its OS with hooks into online services designed to get you to spend money. But on the whole, Apple's festooning with vendor-specific services is much less intrusive than on Windows.
Just about every (brand name) PC sold comes loaded up with junk that keeps popping up at you reminding you your six month trial is about to run out, and some apps are deliberately difficult to uninstall.
Macs come with iPhoto (linked to with Apple's book/photo printing service), MobileMe (stays out of your way unless you specifically activate it), iTunes (to purchase stuff through the iTunes store) and so on. Basically, Apple doesn't try to force its way into your wallet like PCs tend to -- Apple takes a carrot approach with some genuinely useful services rather than a stick ("your PC is our advertising billboard, cough up buddy").
Of course, this isn't a problem with Windows itself per se, but it is inextricably married to the Windows user experience for most people.
11. Tonnes of small reasons make Mac OS X better.
There are a large number of very small reasons a Mac is great to work on:
- every version of OS X has sophisticated screenshot capability built in. CMD+4 provides a selector marquee. CMD+4+Spacebar takes just one window. CMD+3 takes the whole screen. You can set the format of the screenshot file and where Mac OS saves it.
- The inbuilt image viewing app is powerful -- it can view PDF and open/export to most other image formats; you can crop, resize, rotate, adjust colour balance, etc.
- Expose lets you quickly see all your open windows, or your desktop, or just the windows of your current app. Way better than ALT+Tab (which Macs also have) or Flip 3D (which Macs thankfully don't have.)
- The Dock is much more efficient to use than the Windows start menu and taskbar -- the icon opens an app or returns to it if it's already open. It doesn't become crowded when you have lots of windows open.
- Target disk mode allows you to boot a Mac into a mode where the whole machine acts like an external hard drive. Plug it to another Mac using Firewire and you have the easiest way in the world to do a system-to-system drive mirror. (Though, disappointingly, Apple didn't include this feature in its latest MacBook.)
- Quick look lets you view pretty much all major file formats by clicking on the file and pressing the space bar -- no need to wait for an app to launch. Windows simply doesn’t have this.
12. Still no need for additional security software.
On a Mac, you don't have to run additional security software, which therefore doesn't slow down the computer, doesn't cause problems, and you don't have to shell out for an annual subscription for it.
This is an enormously contentious point. Some people will argue black and blue that you need to be a good citizen in the world and make sure you're scanning for Windows viruses on your Mac email in case you accidentally forward on a virus sent from one Windows user, to you, to another Windows user.
My opinion is: if Fords have a problem with their wheels falling off that's never going to be resolved, I'm not going to drive my Holden slowly on every road just because a Ford might find its wheels falling off at any time.
And what's with Microsoft selling OneCare anti-virus? It has decided to make money off selling a fix to a problem in its original product (Windows). That's just offensive.
13. Apple seems largely to be lameness free
On the whole Apple seems to come up with far fewer lame ideas that were non-starters to begin with. Microsoft, on the other hand, is the master of lame ideas. For example, Sideshow in Vista. Windows Ultimate Extras. 10 editions of the same OS. XPS file format to compete with PDF. One size fits all UAC -- "You just tried to change the date. Did you really mean to do that?"
14. Power of the Linux command line with Photoshop CS4
Just for a moment, let me diverge from Mac vs PC and take a look at Mac vs "all the alternatives".
There are a few key apps that are, for many people, 'must-haves'. Microsoft Office. Adobe Reader. Adobe Flash. Photoshop.
Linux can satisfy almost all of those needs. But Photoshop is a sticking point. Although there has been great progress in WINE -- even sponsored by Google --, you can still only run Photoshop CS2 (or CS3 if you're lucky.)
And don't tell me the GIMP is a total Photoshop replacement. I've tried it many times. Its user interface just isn't up to scratch yet.
The reality is, until Adobe really puts its support officially behind Linux (like Google has with Picasa, for example) it's always going to be an uphill battle.
With OS X, you get a polished OS, with the power of a UNIX/Linux command line (not the lame DOS-style prompt of Windows) and the ability to run the latest, officially supported version of Photoshop.
15. File sharing is much easier
Sharing files between computers has always been something that feels like it should be a lot easier than it is. Of course, one of the reasons for this is the need for security, which is opposed to ease of use, because security is about putting up barriers.
But it's also about user interface design. Mac OS hasn't always been easy for sharing between computers; in fact I'd say it's only 10.5 which has got it mostly right. But in 10.5 it actually is easy enough for ordinary users to use -- if you want to share the files on your computer, you switch on file sharing in control panel.
Shared computers on the local network appear in any file management window in OS X like a disk drive -- and when you try to open them, you'll be prompted for a system username and password.
It's the first form of computer file sharing that really puts it in front of the average user's eyes without them having to do anything to get to it.
Whoah, hold up there, anonymous flamer.
Before anyone tries to put words into my mouth: here's what I'm not saying:
- I'm not saying a Mac is a remotely good choice if you're a career gamer, though there are enough games and adequate performance to satisfy a casual gamer (someone who likes to play a game once a week, isn't involved in the gaming scene and wouldn't know what LOLZ actually meant.)
- I'm not saying Macs 'just work' and never have problems, because like any computer, they do.
- I'm not saying hardware compatibility is the same with Macs. There are endless hardware devices that don't have Mac drivers. It's just that there's enough good ones in every category that do have Mac support for it not to be a problem.
- I'm not saying Macs are for people who like building systems from scratch, or having maximum opportunity to chop and change parts at will.
- I'm also not saying Apple is a nice company to deal with -- it's not. Its whole corporate ethos seems to be "be smug and arrogant; turn your back and pretend everything's fine, oh and also, polished plastic never gets scratched" as often as possible. (Though frankly, the superior hardware and software goes some of the way in actually allowing them to get away with this, and mostly, the front-end customer service is very good.)
- I'm not saying that Apple is always good at admitting faults. While it is generally good with warranty if it admits a problem, if it is in denial about a problem, it will sometimes make people wait a year before they will begrudgingly accept the cost of fixing it across the board.
- And finally, I'm not saying Apple's DRM (which it refuses to share with anyone else) is anything other than a repellant policy, from a company that has a monopoly position.
On balance, though, Macs just let you get stuff done, whereas Windows computers constantly find ways of annoying you.
That's my take on it. What's yours?