So, as it happens, Apple computers are still pretty hip, but when I started this gig so long ago addressing that hipness and taking the edge of it was a top priority. There was an element of dishonesty in spouting my opinion about Macintosh computers because I hadn’t really used them for any length of time, (at least not since the release of OS X, which really is the important detail).
Well, no more. I spent the summer in a professional software development environment and was given my choice of Mac or Windows. Given the two, (meaning, not given the option of Linux), I would have chosen Macintosh anyway, but I was urged by my team to make that choice, so I did. With the experience over I have quite a bit more to say about the question of Mac versus Windows. Let’s get to it.
First, as I’d always said, the question for me wasn’t whether Macs were any good, it was whether or not they were worth the significant price jump. Some people shrug at the price difference; I think they do not understand how large it is. To make sure I was being fair, I built what I feel is a good default laptop on both Apple’s online store, and Lenovo’s, (Lenovo being the high end of Windows laptops, both in quality and price). To summarize, I began with a 15-inch Macbook Pro as it has roughly the specs that any serious work machine should have.
I upgraded the RAM to 8 GB and included all the usual display adapters, (if you think you don’t need those adapters in the workplace, you are daft). This came in just under $2,000. I built the same machine from Lenovo’s T series, (Roughly their equivalent of the Macbook Pro), making sure to include a camera and upgraded the processor to an Intel i7. There are some slight variations in processor and display type, but these machines are basically the same, and the Lenovo costs only $1,000 – half the price. I will tell you right now that the remains of this article come out more or less in praise of Macs, but I’m not sure they are twice as good as Windows machines.
However, doing a straight price comparison based on components is not quite right either, as the Mac can offer some experiences that Windows simply can’t; I’m thinking right now of the Thunderbolt display. To have it described to you is not quite the same thing as using it. The description is simple: it is a very large monitor with built in speakers, USB ports primarily meant for a mouse and keyboard, and a simple octopus cable that let’s you connect both video and power to your laptop. When your laptop is on but the lid is closed it interprets the Thunderbolt as its primary display. In other words, you turn your laptop into a desktop, (and you only need to plug one thing into the wall). Disconnecting your laptop from this screen/speakers/mouse/keyboard set up is extremely easy, and so your mighty desktop becomes a nice portable laptop that you take to your meeting or your presentation. Again, it’s more impressive in person than in description, but I don’t think equivalent functionality can be had /so easily/ on anything that doesn’t have an Apple logo on it.
Of course, the Thunderbolt display costs an additional $1,000, so now we’re talking $3,000 for your workstation, but we can also say it is undeniably better than the Windows experience. The right analogy is fine wine. You can spend significantly more on wine and you will get a higher quality, but the quality usually isn’t proportional to the price increase. It is a matter of personal taste, really, to determine whether or not the price increase is justified.
With fine wine in mind, it is fair to judge the Mac on all the little conveniences it gets right. Starting with the external hardware design, the Mac is somewhat famous for its power cord, which attaches to the laptop via magnet, preventing big lunks like me from ever breaking it. It is again one of those nuances that have to be experienced instead of read about, but in general the matter of plugging things into your Mac is more pleasant; a minor detail, but it’s these minor details that make the difference between a good wine and a great one. However, counter to this is the choice of brushed steel to case the laptop. It looks nice, and probably wins on durability too, but every time I fumble with a USB port I get a metal scratching noise that is only slightly better than the proverbial nails on the chalkboard. Again, a minor detail, but this is how you have to judge the Mac: Does it succeed as an elegant piece of of designer art? I can’t credit Apple for the Thunderbolt experience and not complain about the noise brushed steel makes when you scratch it; what they’re selling is perfection.
And moving on to the actual software, I was surprised to find OS X just as quirky as Windows. Again, just little things, but the sort of little why-isn’t-it-working-right? things that I had figured were just the domain of the known-imperfect Windows. Halfway through the summer my laptop stopped recognizing my keyboard through the Thunderbolt. A coworker spent an afternoon with no menu bar. Frequently after logging in and working for a few seconds the Mac would inexplicably kick back out to the log in screen as if I had never typed my password. After an evening in suspension, sometimes the computer would just not be able to recover and had to be restarted. These are the sort of weird little ticks that happen all the time with Windows; I was disappointed to find them just as prevalent on a Mac. The Mac propaganda has you believe the user experience is so much better, I made the leap of assuming that my primary use complaint with Windows – that stupid little inexplicable quirky things happen – had been ironed out in OS X. Oh well.
I am not without praise for OS X, though. Being a Unix variant, OS X has many conveniences for the programmers among us, (unless, of course, you are developing for Windows or really want to use Visual Studio – both very reasonable scenarios). I find it ironic, however, that most of the enjoyment I got out of the Mac was for reasons very oblique to the average user experience. I like Mac for its built-in command line terminal, complete with all standard Unix shells and utilities, including ssh and scp for seamless remote work. Even more, I enjoy the Apple key, another subtle nuance in Mac’s favor. On the Mac, the command/apple key more or less replaces the control key from Windows. Copy/paste in windows is crtl-c and ctrl-v; on Mac it’s command-c and command-v. This is not an important distinction for the common user, but the programmer should perk up when I tell you that Macs also have a control key and that the control key still does all of the things it usually does when you are on the command line. In Windows and Linux, you are left with the awkward scenario of keyboard shortcuts changing depending on what type of thing you are looking at. ctrl-c isn’t always copy, because on the terminal ctrl-c is kill process. On Mac, command-c is always copy and ctrl-c is always kill process. A fine wine detail, but I can’t stress enough how much this consistent behavior improved my summer.
But I have a hard time fathoming how these details appeal to the common user. This is actually one of the great ironies of the Macintosh – that the most concrete arguments in its favor are arguments the common user wouldn’t understand or appreciate. Most people don’t realize that the brand has made inroads on two major demographics: the don’t-want-no-hassle common user and their polar opposite, the competent Unix geek. Mac excels as a professional grade, hassle-free Unix system and appears on the laps of computer science professionals everywhere. I think enthusiasts of both Mac and Windows have the mistaken belief that Windows is for people who are more computer literate, but in fact Macs have enormous appeal to the most computer literate among us. Windows, at the end of the day, still has the best selection of software, but this is more or less the beginning and end of its appeal.
However, given that Mac seems no better on the quirky nuisance level than Windows, I’m not sure why so many users are convinced they are getting a better experience, especially considering the price difference. Maybe the price difference is precisely what drives the notion that the computer is better. If you invest more money into your computer, are you more invested in having a good experience? Is the Mac just a status symbol? (For some people, the answer is definitely yes). I invite feedback from Mac enthusiasts because I’m sure my own experience is tainted – I’m clearly biased toward caring about certain features and not others. If you prefer the brand and don’t prefer the command line, leave me a message.