An unbiased view on Macs

I don’t know why it’s so difficult to find honest, unbiased views on Mac OS X and Apple computers. I know a lot of Mac fanatics and anti-Mac fanatics. I regularly participate in a Linux forum (the Ubuntu Forums, specifically), and it seems to be the same deal there—some users making it sound as if Mac OS X is the be-all and end-all of computing experiences, and some making it sound as if Macs are just the biggest ripoff that Apple can get away with.

Are non-Apple users just ignorant people waiting to be (or too poor to be) enlightened? Are Mac owners unthinking sheep who just do whatever Steve Jobs says?

Why can’t it be somewhere in between? Why can’t we acknowledge that Macs have some good points and some bad points? As I have mentioned before on my blog, Macs are computers. They are not magic. They are not garbage either.

Here is what I consider to be the God’s-honest-truth as the good and bad of Macs, and this is from someone who uses Mac OS X and Linux at home, and who uses Windows at work.

The Price
The entry level for purchasing a Mac is very high compared to purchasing a Windows PC. This should be an incontestable fact. If you compare spec-for-spec on low- to middle-end hardware, the Windows PCs will be cheaper for sure. As you get into more high-end hardware (the most suped-up Macbook Pro, the most suped-up Mac Pro), you’re far more likely to get a better deal with the Mac than the Windows PC.

What I have stated above I have observed by comparing many Windows systems to Mac systems over the years. Once you present a Mac fanatic with actual dollar amounts, you get the backpeddling about the difference in money being worth it and about Mac OS X coming with iLife and Windows having nothing like Garageband. You also get the anti-Mac fanatic proclaiming that Mac is overpriced garbage and Apple is ripping off its customers.

I don’t want to get into questions of whether the price difference is “worth it” or not. That is something each computer user must decide for herself. Right now I just want everyone to agree—Macs are usually more expensive than Windows PCs with similar hardware specifications.

What does this mean? Usually, not a whole lot. As I said before, most Mac fans will pay the difference anyway and think it’s worth it, and most anti-Mac fans will refuse to pay the difference. If you’re on the fence, though, and like Mac OS X and Windows Vista equally (i.e., if you are marginal and almost non-existent segment of the population), then I would say if you have basic needs (email, web browser, word processor, photos, music) and have only a little money, go for a cheap Windows PC (or even a Linux PC). Otherwise, go for a Mac PC. Simple. Isn’t it?

Hardware
I’ve heard many a Mac fanatic say Apple charges more for Macs because the hardware is superior to non-Apple PCs. I’ve also heard many an anti-Mac fanatic say Macs have exactly the same hardware Windows PCs have.

I have found the exterior hardware for Macs to generally be well-thought-out and well-designed. In that sense, the exterior hardware is superior. The edges seem to be smooth and aesthetically pleasing. The weight seems to be reasonably light for the size. The blinking light for sleep mode is not obnoxiously bright (it slowly fades in and out instead of blinking on and off). The power cord for laptops is magnetic (and, yes, I am, like many others, clumsy, and I do trip on power cords, so it’s nice to have the cord pop out without breaking when that happens). The power button is never too small to press, and it’s flush with the surface so as not to be too obtrusive. The laptops all have backlit keyboards and high-resolution displays.

But the interior hardware is exactly the same as the interior hardware in non-Apple computers. I’ve seen hard drive failures in Macs just as often as in Windows PCs. That’s because those are hard drives manufactured by the same people who manufacture hard drives for Windows or Linux computers. The RAM isn’t some special RAM made by Apple. The graphics cards are regular graphics cards also in Windows PCs. Macs use Intel, Nvidia, Seagate—all the regular brand names in Windows PCs.

Apple does put a lot of care into making sure laptop speakers aren’t tinny and webcams work in low light. The hardware is always well put together. That doesn’t mean the hardware is of a superior build.

Customer Experience
I don’t agree with Apple’s closing off (via End User’s License Agreement) of people using Mac OS X on non-Apple computers. I do, however, agree with their being proponents of tightly integrating the software and hardware by limiting the supported hardware options and thus making it easier for OS X developers to optimize the operating system (it doesn’t have to work on everything, just these few models). I wish Ubuntu went this route. The Linux kernel, of course, does try to support as much hardware as possible, but it’d be nice if the Ubuntu developers could especially vouch for no bugs or regressions occurring in certain Ubuntu-supported laptops and desktops.

Of course, Apple does sometimes take it too far. They don’t say “Oh, install it on whatever you want, but we support only these models.” They say “These models only. Only our computers. No other computers.” And that’s generally the Apple way, which is good and bad. If you play the Apple way and don’t mind those restrictions, it can be a very good experience, because you don’t have to worry about anything. If you buy an Apple TV, an Airport Extreme, an Apple Cinema Display, an iPhone, and a Macbook, you know they’re all going to play nice together.

The flip side of that is that you may not get as good support or as seamless an experience with non-Apple products. Maybe the wireless card in your Macbook Pro isn’t playing nice with the WPA encryption on your D-Link router. If that happens, do you think Apple is going to say “So sorry. We will work on getting that working as soon as possible?” No. They’re going to say “It should work, but if you want to make sure it works, buy this Airport Extreme instead.”

It’s certainly possible to use non-Apple peripherals with an Apple computer, but you will constantly get the message from Apple “use our stuff, use our stuff,” and they’ll have very little sympathy for you not using their stuff.

User Interface
Even though Mac OS X’s interface has some nice touches (uninstalling applications by just deleting the application icon from the Applications folder, being able to drag and drop files to an application icon to launch the file in that application), I’ve generally found Mac OS X does not have an intuitive user interface. But I’ve also found that intuitiveness is highly overrated. There are counterintuitive aspects to Windows and Linux as well. These counterintuitive parts of Mac OS X are surmountable, but I do get annoyed when Mac fanatics keep repeating that Mac OS X is intuitive, when it is not. Here are some bits that are counterintuitive. If you can get over these quickly, maybe a Mac may be good for you:

  • Enter renames files. Cmd-O opens them.
  • Double-clicking an application download does not install the application. It mounts the application into a disk image container that has inside the application files that should then be dragged into the Applications folder.
  • Dragging icons from the Dock to the desktop does not move or copy the icons. It makes them disappear in a poof of smoke.
  • Even though you can cut and paste text or copy and paste files, you cannot cut and paste files through the menus or through a universally recognized keyboard shortcut (like Cmd-X, which works for cutting text).
  • Dragging mounted volumes to the trash ejects them.
  • The plus sign on a window has no consistent or predictable behavior. “Zooming” is pretty much useless (supposedly, it adjust the window size to fit the contents of the window, but if the content size changes, the window does not dynamically shift to refit the contents), and in iTunes you don’t even get a zoom—you get a switch between mini player and normal player.
  • Closing the last window of an application does not close the application. This can be useful for some applications, but it doesn’t make sense for most of them.
  • Windows can be resized from only one corner (and that corner may well be behind the Dock).
  • There is no keyboard shortcut to access the toolbar menu.
  • The symbols for certain keyboard keys are confusing (option, control, command, shift).
  • The toolbar is for applications and not for windows within in application. This sounds great in theory… until you are using a huge monitor or extended desktop.

One thing I will give Apple, though—they seem to have put a lot of thought into their interface decisions. For every counterintuitive tidbit I see, I also can easily imagine a rationale for it. A lot of it sounds good in theory but just works out poorly in practice.

Looks
Why doesn’t it matter to Mac users that Mac OS X is counterintuitive in so many ways? Well, apart from the fact that people just get used to counterintuitive interfaces and deal with it, Mac OS X is a beautiful interface, and that beauty makes a lot of its users overlook the counterintuitive aspects. Now I’ve heard many a Linux user say Compiz looks much better than Mac OS X and can do fancier stuff. In screenshots, yes, I have seen some amazing-looking Compiz themes. And, yes, Compiz can do fancier things (raindrops, wobbly windows, spinning cubes).

But Mac OS X has really smooth animation that I have never seen in Compiz. Everything seems to just flow. I rarely see excessive pixelation in icons or stuttered movement when dragging things. And even though a lot of Linux users I’ve “met” online think Aqua is ugly, every person I know in “real” life thinks Mac OS X just looks amazing. I love the high resolution icons, and I’d love for my Linux computer to look just that way (and not a single Mac clone theme I’ve encountered over the years has come close to the real thing).

One thing I will say against the Mac OS X look is that it isn’t very easily customizable. If you’re into customization, I don’t know if Macs will be your bag, though.

I’ve also not seen any real performance gains in OS X. I think all the Mac users claiming Macs are faster than (Windows) PCs must have had malware-infested Windows installations. If anything, I’ve found OS X to require (perhaps like Windows Vista, as opposed to Windows XP) a lot of RAM in order to perform adequately. The smooth animations I mentioned before may also contribute to perceived notions of better performance or speed.

Security
Here is another area where I rarely see balance presented. On the one hand, you have some Mac fanatics saying Macs are nigh-invincible—use a Mac, and you won’t have to worry about any malware. Go on your merry way! On the other hand, you have some anti-Mac fanatics saying Macs offer no security advantages over Windows, and the only reason Macs haven’t been exploited as much as that they aren’t as big a target for malware writers.

The truth is somewhere in between. Yes, a larger marketshare does make you a juicier target for malware, but Macs do generally have better security than Windows, especially Windows XP. Macs are not invincible. You do still have to use strong passwords, not enable extra network services, install security updates, back up your files regularly (note: antivirus is as useless on Macs and Linux PCs as it is on Windows PCs). But Macs implement sudo, which allows administrators to operate as a limited user and temporarily escalate (after a password authentication) to root privileges. Unlike Windows Vista’s UAC, this isn’t annoying, and it also cannot be easily turned off.

Unfortunately, since more and more malware uses social engineering (i.e., tricking the user instead of exploiting software vulnerabilities), Mac OS X will be compromised more and more (as we recently saw with the trojans in pirated copies of iWork and Photoshop) if Mac users continue to be complacent about security.

Security isn’t just the best or non-existent. There are many shades in between (good, okay, bad), and if you have an ignorant and gullible user who can be tricked into installing software from untrustworthy sources, then all your operating system security goes out the window anyway.

I’ll also say that if you are a Windows user who is considering going to Mac for only security purposes, don’t bother. If you like Mac OS X for other reasons, that’s fine. If you actually like Windows, there are some easy ways to make Windows just as secure as a Mac (use a limited user account, install Windows updates, use Firefox with the NoScript extension, get rid of useless antivirus software, turn off autorun, etc.). And if you’re just looking for an alternative to Windows, most Linux distributions actually have more robust security than Mac OS X, and they’re free.

This is like that lie about Macs not crashing. If you have a problem with Windows crashing, you’re either using Windows ME, or you don’t know how to secure your Windows installation (see tips in last paragraph). Occasional crashes might happen on any OS, though. I’ve seen the blue screen of death on Windows XP about as much as I’ve seen the rainbow circle of death on Mac OS X or the black screen of death on Ubuntu Linux. Crashes happen. Get over it.

Application availability
If you are part of a small minority of computer users who uses computers for high-end commercially created gaming (instead of using a game console or just not gaming at all, like the rest of us), then of course you will use Windows. If you use Windows-only applications, you should use Windows. But if you are reliant on only cross-platform applications, then you can choose from Windows, Mac, or Linux.

And for all those Mac users who say “Oh, you have all these Windows-only applications? That’s what boot camp is for,” are you really going to suggest people buy a Mac only to install Windows on it?

The applications you use should be one of the primary reasons you pick an OS. If you need specialized software, make sure it works on the operating system you pick! Only if you are like me (email client, web browser, office suite, photo manager, music player) can you pick from any OS on the market.

Is Mac OS X for you?
Unfortunately, despite my long rant about the pros and cons, I don’t think anyone should make a computer purchasing decision based on what people say on the internet. (Unfortunately, with the dearth of Linux netbooks available in brick-and-mortar stores, I had to do that.) If you are a Windows user thinking about moving to Mac, don’t believe the Mac fanatics, and don’t believe the anti-Mac fanatics. Go to an Apple store and try it out yourself. See how you like it. If you don’t have an Apple store near you, just find someone with a Mac and ask to try it out (it helps if you say you’re thinking about getting one… it also helps if you’re in a public place like a coffee shop and not in some dark alley).

I’m a big Linux fan, and I prefer open source software, so I won’t be switching to Mac full-time, but I do enjoy the time I spend on my wife’s Mac (which has made it financially impossible for me to also get a Mac, anyway). It is a good user experience. It’s not perfect. It’s not magic. It’s not god-awful. It’s just good. Same as Windows. Same as Linux. Just use what works for you.

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18 Comments

  1. Err, actually, most of the Mac hardware is superior to PC hardware. For example, most Intel Core 2 Duos use 6 MB of cache

  2. Still concerning the hardware, The Rebuttal of AppleInsider to MS ads [Microsoft’s latest ad attacks Mac aesthetics, computing power]:

    «he can’t upgrade his new system to use the faster DDR3 RAM specification used in the MacBook. That would make his system faster overall and allow it to take full advantage of the installed CPU’s 1066MHz front side bus, which HP chose to cripple by pairing it with a 533MHz memory architecture to save money and deliver a cheap system for people who don’t know what they’re really buying»

  3. This memory speed making computer running fast is just another ripp off, it makes no differnce whatsoever in real life.

    osx is bloatware and it runs slower than vista even with 6 mb l2 cache.

    I got rid of my imac 7 months ago and went with asus n50vn with windows vista and happy about it. I had usibility problem with os x, if you go into nested folders you will notice that previous folder will not be highlighted when you back out of it.

    os x leopard folders icon suck big time, vista icons are shiny and look awesome.

    I will agree with ubuntucat that you should choose os based on what you going to use it for.

    I want to use ubuntu for 3d blender and do like opensource philosphy but I am really frustaed with wireless support of ubuntu which is really crappy at the moment, but I am hopeful that it will be fixed sometime in the future.

  4. Thanks for writing one of the few “fair” essays on the matter. I am a long time Windows user and I am considering purchasing a MAC.

    I have been looking for a fair minded article on the topic for quite some time. I don’t own a single product made by Apple and I never have. My only reason for the interest is that it is time for a new computer.

    I have played around with several Apple products (iPod, iPhone and Macbook)and have always come away thinking…huh, that thing is pretty cool.

    Probably a silly reason to switch OS’s though. I have been using Windows since 3.1 came out and I already pretty much know how to do anything one might ever want to do with their OS. Might be kind of annoying to have to relearn the simplest of tasks.

  5. Balanced views here. I would just add that my iBook G4 (now used by my partner Ruth for BBC and DVD watching) runs the most recent OS fine and can perform most of the usual tasks, so the longevity is there. Try finding a current version of Windows that will run on 6 year old hardware.

    I work as a teacher and I have an interest in learning centres and libraries. On a recent visit, I saw a library that had 20 iMacs in use as student machines for Internet and use for assignments. The rationale was simple: yes, they are more expensive, but they can dual boot into Mac OS and Windows and the Mac OS side gives the art and design students access to their specialised software, and they take up less space than a CPU and monitor.

    One day. we will have ubuntustudio there instead, but that could be a longish time coming.

  6. I have the current version of Ubuntu running just fine on hardware I bought between 1995 & 1998 (Abit BX6r2). I have it running on IDE & SCSI. Nvidia TNT & Matrox G400 video boards…

    I’m writing this from a PC built around an MSI MS-9105 motherboard (dual Tualatin PIII-S CPUs — VERY obscure!), built up with parts that are 8-10 years old.

    One of the most amazing things about Ubuntu is that it seems no matter what collection of hardware you pop the LiveCD into, it somehow knows how to run it. Without ever downloading (or worse, searching for) a driver…

  7. Good article. “unbiased” is a strong word though, and while it is a good attempt at an unbiased viewpoint, I don’t think anyone can truly be unbiased about such things completely (myself included). I can definitely see a bias in your listing of counter-intuitive things about OS X. While all the things you list a true, I don’t necessarily see them as intuitive or counter-intuitive… it is just different or annoying. It is only counter-intuitive if you have some preconception or a preference about how it should work already, and I think that expecting an “installer” for applications, especially, is one of those things. On the other hand, what I do see as counter-intuitive about OS X applications is the inconsistency in how they are installed… some have installers, others do not… Some are in disk images that you mount, others are in zip files…

    Thanks for a good read.

  8. I did try to be as unbiased as I could. Obviously there are human limitations to this. The main reason I put unbiased in the title is for search engines. When people search for unbiased views on Macs, I want them to find this post.

    I did my own search for unbiased views but couldn’t find any that came even close to unbiased. Obviously there are some things that will irk me that don’t irk others and some things that will impress me that won’t impress others, but at the moment (and this could change—I hope it does, actually) this is probably the most unbiased view of Macs you’re going to find on the internet.

    Nevertheless, I don’t see how bias shows through in my list of counterintuitive things about OS X. I’m pointing out inconsistent or unpredictable behavior (Cmd-C working to copy both text and files but Cmd-X working only to cut text and not files), or things you would not be able to figure out on your own. I don’t use an installer file in Linux. I use the package manager. That is far more intuitive than either the setup.exe or the application.dmg. You go to Applications and see Add/Remove and get a list of applications you can add or remove. With a white disk on the desktop, I have no idea what to do with that. In fact, I had to do a Google search in order to figure out how to install applications in OS X.

    There are counterintuitive things about Linux and Windows as well, of course. Why does the Start menu in Windows have Shut Down in it? Why does Windows have a Control Panel icon for Add or Remove applications when it’s used only to remove applications? Why in Gnome does Control-Q quit most applications but you have to use Control-W to close the Nautilus file manager? For the Gnome panel, what’s the point of having to manually lock and unlock applets if you can’t even drag the unlocked applets without right-clicking them first?

    Yes, I am human. But I am a human who regularly uses Mac OS X, Windows, and Ubuntu Linux. I don’t bag on any operating system (and I’m one of the few people I know who refrains in this respect). I prefer Linux personally, but I like Windows and Mac OS X, too. I’m in as good a position as anyone to say what’s intuitive or counterintuitive (although it’s almost a moot point because familiarity trumps intuitiveness anyway).

    What you may perceive as bias may have to do with how much time I spend on certain aspects of Macs and OS X. I’m not approaching this in a vacuum. I’m mainly trying to dispel myths about Macs (both positive and negative). Even though there are a lot of things I like about OS X’s interface, the myth is that it’s intuitive and easier to use, so that’s why I spent more time explaining what’s counterintuitive about it. Likewise, there is a myth that Macs are overpriced PCs that have nothing more to offer, which is why I spent time explaining some of the physical design elements in exterior hardware that make Macs appealing to people. At the same time, I’m trying to counter the notion that Macs have superior interior hardware (which, as you can see from the other comments, is still a persistent myth).

  9. I try to be rather unbiased myself. I also use all three operating systems regularly. As I said, it is a very good article, and it shows that you genuinely made an attempt to simply make an observation rather than say that one thing is better than the other.

    To me, it is more intuitive to simply drag an application from a disk image into an “Applications” folder instead of placing files all over my machine, and not giving a through indication of what files were placed where. Anyway, I didn’t and don’t want to argue about whether one method is better than the other, but you have stated that the method of installing applications on a Mac is not intuitive before, and I just disagree, but maybe that is just my preference for using Mac OS X. :)

  10. Great article. I try to explain a lot of these points to co-workers all the time. I use a MacBook Pro Unibody and all three operating systems (triple boot OSX, Win7, & Ubuntu). I also use Ubuntu Remix on my HP Mini. People see my MBP and are drawn in by the look and feel of the machine and start asking questions. I think I will help save my time and point them to this review.

    As for price, it looks like Apple just lowered them on their laptops.

  11. I use OSX,XP, and over a dozen other *nix distros. All have their good points and bad points. I cannot however, in sincere good faith, recommend a Mac to anyone. The higher initial investment is not warranted even with the better construction of the machine and its more asthetic presentations. I’m running Damn Small Linux on an old 1997 Gateway laptop with a 150mhz processor, 224mb ram, 3gb hard drive, and a netgear 10/100 PCMCIA lan card. I also still have Windows 3.1 running on a PII 350mhz frankenbox contraption. I also routinely assemble/connect bare components on a test table to conduct experiments regarding hardware, software, operating systems, and peripherals(cooling fans where/when necessary).

    For anyone reading this and contemplating paying the premium for a new machine, unless it’s a do-or-die don’t waste your money. Somebody somewhere has a deal you just can’t pass up. I’m always checking newspaper ads, craigslist, and even ebay for those bargains. Don’t be afraid to offer less than someone is asking and, as always, know what you’re buying and what it’s REALLY worth. To wit, you can buy a brand new full-feature laptop today from Newegg or Best Buy for UNDER $350.00 so don’t let someone snooker you into paying too much for their old, out-of-warranty machine.

    And as always, your mileage may vary, buyer be aware and beware…

  12. You can buy Sony Acid Music Studio which is otherwise comparable to Garageband and in addition offers studio quality mixing for Windows. You can also get Vegas Studio for Sony which is more powerful than either Imovie and Idvd or you can get the Adobe Elements bundle (which include stripped down versions of Photoshop and Premiere).

  13. I think what Ubuntucat is saying about intuitive things is that there are certain behaviors that a user of XX OS is used to that either don’t translate or are different than YY OS. I’ve worked with software that used X and C (no control) for cut and copy of text only. And hitting return/enter when an icon is selected is just plain ‘normal’. I love my Macs, and my Windows Wintel PCs, and my SGIs and my Suns and my Linux based Wintels … but there are idiosyncrasies to each system and depending on your previous experiences they may be huge problems to you.

    Before OS/X, renaming groups of files on a Mac was beyond tedious. And backups of the system were amazingly easy on the old MacOS; copying a certain set of files was it. No backup program, just copy and voila! Backed up system. I fell in love with that feature.

    As to installers, going from Wintel Windows PCs to Mac was a bit unnerving … but once I got used to it (especially in MacOS) the Windows way appeared to suck. And once I moved from Slackware to Ubuntu, the installs were far easier. My only problem is when you go to load some program, you should be given the info about drivespace and what this will use, clearly and loudly.

    Personally I think OS/X is ugly as &*() BUT it is beautifully consistent; My iPhone s pretty, but except for the actual icons themselves, it looks just like any other iPhone. I can’t change layout or colors or … or … Since I like to personalize the machines I use, I’m either going to make my own Linux based phone device or go with Android if that appears too costly. Consistent is good for learning, after that consistence for the sake of consistency sucks (to me.)

  14. Thanks for the article. Windows user and linux dabbler. Considering buying a Mac for design and web coding purposes (as the stigma is that they are superior in this arena).

    Based on your article, I think I will stay with windows.

    Regards,
    Wes

  15. I’ve been using computers since the Commodore 64 was the personal computer of choice. I am not computer-savvy, though–even though I use one 10 hours per day. I just switched to a mac air, because the PC companion to some software I’m using isn’t up-to-snuff yet. I already have lots of little complaints about the Mac. For example, there’s no icon for “applications”. And if you user the “finder” feature and type-in “applications”, no folder appears. Why not? So, of course, I learn I must use the “finder”and hit “command-shift-a”. Obviously no-one would ever divine that command from ether. You have to learn it. NOT INTUITIVE. By comparison, I can always find software on a PC by simply searching.

  16. Now ten years after the initial posting MacOS still doesn’t have touchscreen support. The touch-bar is a joke. Windows 10 kinda sucks except on the Microsoft Surface where its a beast. It puts my MacPro to shame and I was once a fan.

    Linux is where it’s at now. I love open source and Linux fits me like a glove. Distributions have gotten so good that they can compete with any proprietary offering in terms of polish now. Linux Mint is always touted as a beginners distro but I have been using since I switched and that was a while ago.

    I use other distributions too. I like to switch it up but I do not distro hop like I used to. I have five of six distributions I really like and enough computers to satisfy my desire to keep them all instead of settling.

    I thought my Windows days were over but I acquired a Surface and discovered Windows can be pretty good. My experience with Linux has helped me to understand what makes Windows less secure and I’ve ‘Linuxized’ Windows 10 on my Surface and it’s as secure as it will get.

    I also installed Deepin 15.x next to Windows on that Surface and it has continued to amaze me ever since. Deepin seems like it was made just for that system much the way Windows 10 does as well. The Windows experience on Microsoft’s Surface Pro is as different as night is to day compared to the Windows 10 experience on ‘regular’ equipment.

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