Religion aside, is Mac better than Windows?

That age-old question is as relevant as ever. And there are some nuts-and-bolts things that make the transition a challenge.

Updated at 6:45 p.m. PDT with additional discussion about OS X local search.

I once was a God-fearing Windows user. But when an Apple shrine, uh, store opened in my area, I began to ask myself the age-old question that has confounded even the greatest biblical prophets: Is the Mac better?

I avoided the Mac for years for the usual reason cited by the Windows faithful: a dearth of hardware and software. (The so-called Mac tax was never really an issue for me.) That said, I won't go into a broad platform critique because I risk rehashing Windows-versus-Mac religious arguments that have been repeated millions of times for (digital-age) eons. (Besides, I'll leave that faith-based debate to the digerati of the world.)

Suffice to say, I now use a MacBook full time. Though, in the spirit of complete disclosure, I do have a Vista-based HP tower that I still use when there's something I absolutely can't do on the Mac. And, no, I have not gone the Boot Camp or virtual machine route yet.

So, without getting into an unwieldy philosophical argument, there are some nuts-and-bolts things that make the transition a challenge (and it's different for everyone, as every user has different needs.)

And one more disclaimer: I'm writing this from the perspective of a Mac neophyte/new user. Not as a seasoned Macophile that can instantly troubleshoot issues as they pop up.

Docking stations (lack thereof): This is a biggie. I had grown attached to the convenience of Hewlett-Packard docking stations. Apple should have connectors for docking stations (or port-replicators) built into MacBooks. The ease of popping an HP business laptop--which I had been using for years--in and out of a docking station cannot be overstated.

Microsoft Entourage: This is not the Windows Outlook equivalent. In a word, it's slow. In two words, very slow. (Note: I can't use the OS X "Mail" client because it can't run the email programs that I use.)

Web compatibility: All things should be equal here. But they're not. Like many people, I use both Safari and FireFox. Last week, there was a live video stream that, while it loaded on my MacBook Air, wouldn't run. The applet was there but it wasn't streaming. I didn't have time to figure out why it wasn't streaming. I just needed it to work. Out of desperation, I tried it on the Vista-based HP tower. It streamed immediately. In my book, that's a problem. And generally, on many Web sites that I use, Windows Media Player (that is, WMP v.11) is more adept at streaming video than the applets that come standard on the Mac OS X platform.

OS X local search: OS X local search is great (e.g., Spotlight) but it won't let me exclusively search a folder full of JPEG files. This issue was validated by a Mac "Genius" at my local Apple Store who admitted it was "odd." Let me repeat, an Apple Genius verified that I could not do this. Of course, I can find these files a dozen other ways but there's an application I use everyday that would be a lot easier to use if I could search JPEG files exclusively in that folder.

(Update: After a second visit to my local Apple Store and a separate discussion about changing the user short name--which the Genius did, as this process is a little tricky--I can now do JPEG searches on one of my MacBooks. I do not know how this came to be fixed, however, as it was an unintended consequence.)

Hardware compatibility--in this case, camcorders: I found this out quite by accident. I was in my local Best Buy (Southern California) and overheard one of those illuminating matter-of-fact dialogs between a customer and a salesperson. "Are all of these camcorders Mac compatible?"--the customer asked. "No," the salesman said. "Only the Panasonic and Canon." After the salesman was done helping the customer, I followed up with more queries. The upshot: Most other brands are not Mac-compatible, according to the Best Buy sales force. Does a Best Buy salesperson always know the bottom-line, gospel truth about hardware compatibility? Probably not. But the larger point is that's what he is telling customers. And it's always an ugly reminder of that cliche that a lot hardware is not compatible with the Mac.

The Mac philosophy of how to use external displays: This, I suppose, is more a philosophical argument than a practical argument. But, to me, the way Windows handles external displays (with a laptop) using Fn-F4 is straightforward and extremely practical. And--returning to the lack-of-a-docking-station argument--inserting/removing a laptop into/from an HP dock is so well executed that it becomes second nature to the user: the internal laptop display shuts off, the external display goes on, and the external display automatically adjusts the resolution. Again, this may be partially a case of me simply being more accustomed to the Windows way of doing things--but not completely: Windows wins the ease-of-use award here.

No built-in 3G option: I've talked about this before in other posts. HP, Dell, and others offer integrated 3G connectivity. That said, I fully expect that this will become less of an issue when 4G hits, as I am confident that Apple is savvy enough to stay in front of this trend.

Of course, the list goes on (lack of development momentum from some software vendors on the Mac, being another minus often cited). But I would be remiss at this point to not preemptively answer the critics who will say, "Well, if you're going to whine all the time, go back to Windows you a#%*!#@." (And that's putting it charitably. Mac minions tend to be slightly more contemptuous.)

The reason I switched to Mac (if anyone really cares) was hardware, not software. I looked at all of the HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Sony laptops and saw nothing that came close to a MacBook Air. Not even remotely close. The Air is an incomparably well-balanced design that is light, fast, and aesthetically a knockout, to boot. The other unibody MacBooks inherit these attributes too.

Oh yeah, Mac OS X beats Windows in a lot of ways. You can run Windows, after all, if you choose, with Boot Camp or VMware Fusion. And all of the well-known virtues are true. You're not constantly on Virus/Worm/Malware alert, the interface is more intuitive in some ways, it's more streamlined than Vista, it boots faster, and the list goes on. I guess I can live without a docking station--for now.

So, as of summer 2009, which is better, Windows or Mac? Dare I ask?

See also:
Switcher's lament: The case against Mac

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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