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The big question: PC or Mac?

I haven’t stirred the pot in a while, so to prove that I am a professional writer after all, I’ll go tackle the most inflammatory question I can imagine, something that makes Bush vs. Kerry look like a game of paddy-cake.

What’s the better computer, a PC or a Macintosh?OS X closely follows the history of the first Macintosh in that the first version showed lots of promise, but had lots of problems, probably shipped too soon, and lacked some important capabilities. But Apple, to its credit, washed its dirty laundry in public, fixing the problems and adding capabilities. And now, OS X has a reputation as something that “just works.” And it has something to back it up with.

Windows XP, well, that joke about 32-bit extensions to a 16-bit graphical interface on top of an 8-bit operating system originally written for 4-bit computers by a 2-bit corporation that can’t stand 1 bit of competition is almost true. Microsoft bought the 8-bit OS from a company that may have stolen it. And while Gary Kildall‘s first operating system was 4-bit, he may have written CP/M from scratch. But I digress.

Unlike Apple, Windows XP tries really hard for backward compatibility. And for all the stink about the things SP2 breaks, I’ll bet you a dollar you can go download the 1981 edition of VisiCalc for MS-DOS and it’ll run just as well on your three-point-whatever gig Pentium 4 running XP as it did on the first IBM PC. And if you can find old copies of WordStar and dBASE II and Turbo Pascal, chances are they’ll run too. Old programs that break are at least as likely to break because of timing problems with CPUs that are almost a thousand times faster than they expect as they are because of Windows. Probably more.

Sure, you’ll find programs that break, but you’ll probably find a thousand that work for every one that breaks. Especially if you limit yourself to titles that aren’t games.

This is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that software you bought almost a quarter century ago still runs if you need it. If you think that isn’t important, I’ll introduce you to one of my clients who’s still using dBASE II. It sure is important to him. The curse is all that spaghetti code you need to keep those billions and billions of old programs running.

I have a little bit more sympathy for Microsoft when I remember that Windows XP is really OS/2 1.3 with DOS bolted on, and Windows 3.1 and 98 bolted on next door.

Just a little.

When you look at it that way, is it any wonder that sometimes when you plug in your digital camera it acts goofy?

But truth be told, more often than not, your mouse and your digital camera and all your other stuff works, whether you plug it into a Windows box or a Mac. And when it doesn’t work, it’s every bit as infuriating on a Mac as it is on a Windows PC. When Windows has an error code, it spits one out in hexadecimal. The Mac spits out an error code in decimal. I guess that makes the Mac friendlier.

But I guess it doesn’t matter whether I say “deleterious” in English or in Pig Latin. It’s still not going to be a word you’re likely to have heard today, either way. And there’s a decent chance it’ll send you reaching for a dictionary (or Google).

I’ll be frank: I hated OS 9 and OS 8 and everything else that came before it. I tried to get the Mac Toss turned into an official olympic sport. If there are any old Macintoshes in the pond in front of the office building where I used to fix Macintoshes, I know nothing about them.

But Apple knew it was b0rken and threw it away and bought something better. I still think they bought the wrong something better and would have gotten here a lot sooner if they’d bought BeOS, but they bought NeXT and got Steve Jobs back, so here they are.

All things being equal, I’d go with a Mac, if only because it’s got a Unix layer underneath it.

But all things aren’t equal. Macintoshes cost a lot of money. And when you’re 2 percent of the market, you don’t have a lot of software to choose from. I know. I had long love affairs with Amiga and with OS/2 before I threw in the towel and installed Windows. And it wasn’t until 1997 that I actually used Windows as my everyday OS.

When someone hands me a disk, I can read it. When someone tells me I’ve gotta try out this new program, it runs.

On the other hand, there’s virtually no problem with viruses and spyware on the Macintosh. If I want to spy on people or cause enough damage to make the front page of USA Today, I’m going to set my sights on 90+% of the market instead of the Macintosh’s 2%. Being a minority can have its advantages.

But, after living for years with good computers and operating systems that were years or even decades ahead of their time but had no software availability, I run Windows most of the time and exercise caution to keep my system clean. I don’t use Internet Explorer, I keep my virus definitions up to date, I don’t read e-mail from strangers and don’t open unexpected attachments, and I don’t install freeware software unless it’s open source.

And guess what? I don’t have any problems with my computer either.

I know and respect other people who’ve gone the other way. For me, there never was much choice other than PC hardware. I can afford a Macintosh, but that’s money I really need to be putting towards paying off my car and my house sooner, or saving for retirement. Or any number of other things. I’m a legendary tightwad.

Other people may have had their own other reasons for making the same decision.

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2 thoughts on “The big question: PC or Mac?”

  1. Well, we’ve been a PC household for 5 or 6 years now. And I’ll still keep a Windows box around with hardware 1 or 2 generations old as a gaming box for me and my son (currently a 2.4 GHz P4, 512 MB RAM and an ATI Radeon 9600). But my next computer will be a laptop and I’m leaning heavily towards Mac OSX.

    • In the laptop world, Apple prices aren’t nearly so different than other top tier vendors (e.g. IBM, Compaq).
    • Nobody understands how to make a computer just plain, no fuss usable like Apple. As Jerry Pournelle says about the Mac world, “it either works well or not at all” (and I’ve determined that what I want out of a laptop all works well on a Mac).
    • OSX is Unix. So if I want to get down and geeky with it, I can – but I don’t have to (unlike Linux/FreeBSD).

    Notes: I don’t consider Dell to be a top tier laptop vendor. We use their stuff at work and it’s quite frankly cheaply built stuff which doesn’t inspire confidence. Same with Acer, Gateway and the less expensive Toshiba machines I’ve seen at Costco, etc… I’m also a big Linux fan. We use it at work for servers (and my desktop), and I’m even RedHat certified. I just don’t want to always be in uber-geek mode simply to get something done with it at home.

  2. My next computer is definitely going to be a 30cm iBook when OS X 10.4 is released next year. If the 30cm models aren’t available anymore, I’ll just get whatever the smallest screen is.

    I buy notebook computers not for their power but for their portability. I couldn’t stand lugging around a 45cm PowerBook with me! I have to carry my heavy ThinkPad all over the place, and I’m tired of having three-and-a-half kilograms slung over my shoulder all the time!

    Dustin D. Cook, A+

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