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Mac vs. PC

In the latest installment of Apple's Get a Mac ad series, Mac and PC put their differences aside (mostly). I was IM'ing with one of my co-workers earlier this week and, when the subject of my new Mac came up, I told him that I didn't really care anymore about OS X or XP; both seemed about the same for me. For every plus or minus for one, I could come up with an equivalent for the other, and it's hard to come up with problems that are fundamental or a condition of popularity. It's even harder now that the two use the same hardware. I drew up a short list of comparisons in the extended entry.

This isn't meant in attack/defense of either PCs or Macs. It's simply the realization that, for me, my ability to get stuff done is no longer impacted by what OS is installed on a machine. I recognize that for many, many people (e.g people who buy PCs from HP loaded with crapware, update: people who need Unix environments), this statement is not true, but I've spent the last two weeks working on both OSes interchangeably. Quite frequently, I've written a bit of code on one, checked it in, and then immediately picked up where I left off on the other. I've done the same with blog posts, e-mail, videos, and feeds.

Perhaps this is a recognition of the preeminence of Web apps, or perhaps it means that the two have copied each other enough that the differences become harder to notice. Regardless, it's nice not to care anymore.

  • PCs have better major party software support. Macs have cooler 3rd party software.
  • PCs have better shortcuts for accessing menus. Macs have better mechanisms for editing keyboard shortcuts.
  • "Things just work" on a Mac, but the number of those things is small in comparison to Windows.
  • Safari and IE are both worse browsers than Firefox.
  • Outlook and Mail are nice e-mail clients, but I still prefer Thunderbird (Mail doesn't support labels).
  • I prefer the Dock to the Start Menu. I prefer Alt-Tab on Windows (it switches between windows, not apps)
  • Both have gadgets. I prefer Google Sidebar.
  • I like Adium and Trillium equally.
  • Apple keyboard layout sucks. Windows has ugly fonts.
  • Both have iTunes.
  • Forward looking: OS X has a hackery terminal. Vista has IronPython and the new Vista command line, which look pretty hot.

Comments (7)

For me, I'm still more productive quickly on a Mac OS X. It takes me less time to get Mac OS X ready then it does Linux or Windows.

For windows I have to download and install a unix environment then port all of my environment to that unix environment. Cygwin changes so often that I need to port to it every install. With Vista x64 I had to port my environment to Interix Services For Unix. It has taken for ever to get it to work and it doesn't have native emacs. I have cscope and others plugged into a Win32 port of emacs so I loose the power of X11.

Mac OS has a very stable Unix environment built in. I don't have to change my config for every different compile option of TCSH.

I'm totally a Unix guy. So having owrking X11, tcsh, Cscope, and emacs is important all the time.

kwc:

Very true. I've added "people who need Unix environments" to the list of people for whom the OS differences matter. It does seem the case that Cygwin will forever suck. I've done all my hacking in recent years in Java, Python, and our own languages, so it's been quite awhile since I've had to use a Unix command line (I'm more than a bit rusty). I'd probably be less rusty if I didn't find Cygwin to be so flawed. Honestly, I find it a bit weird that the dos and Unix command lines are the same exact command lines I used in high school, which perhaps is why I'm interested in Monad/.NET/IronPython.

AJB:

While I see where you are coming from, as a long time Mac user I suspect you are missing some of the elegance and benefits of the consistency of the Mac UI. No it's not perfect, but it's orders of magnitude better.

Let me try saying that another way. Moving from Windows to Mac OS X is relatively easy, and at first, it doesn't seem like a great deal of difference. Moving from Mac back to Windows is like one of those history based reality TV shows like "1900 house" or "pioneer house". You can still achieve anything you used to be able to on a Mac, but everything requires much more work.

As you own a mac longer you begin to appreciate the deep consistency that makes you that much more productive than on Windows. Take something trivial like quitting an application. Since 1984 there has been one consistent keyboard shortcut - command-Q. On windows, there is little to no consistency. A few years ago (around W2k vintage) I counted over 10 different keyboard shortcuts to quit an application. While in theory there is more software for windows, in my experience most users confine themselves to a small core set because the inconsistency makes it so frustrating to learn more.

Of course the example I gave is trivial, but it is played out many, many times throughout the OS. Not just in keyboard shortcuts but in every aspect of the UI. The most frustrating one in my opinion is remembering where to change that application setting buried 4 levels of menus down, but was it File->Preferences, or Edit menu, or Tools->options ->advanced tab of the dialog-> more settings button? I know I changed it earlier in the year...

I remember one of my friends who switched, after only a week or two was telling me the story of how he wanted to change a setting, so he went to where he thought it should be and changed it there, then kept looking for what else he had to change because it seemed it was too easy that it should work the way that one would think.

The real pay off though is when you get your second Mac, and you use the migration assistant. Quoting another one of my switching friends...

"It's funny, all the Windows users around here wished me well with getting my new laptop set up when I left yesterday. Comments like "I guess it'll be a late night getting everything set up", or "it's gonna take a while to install all your software", or "I hope you've got all your network settings and passwords and stuff written down somewhere" etc. Since we pretty much set up our own Dell boxes here at work when we changed, the ongoing hassles of a move from the old computer to the new one were pretty fresh in everyone's minds.

They were pretty surprised when I told them it was already set up. Completely. Including all my data files, applications, bookmarks, network settings, passwords, preferences, etc. When I unpacked the new PowerBook at home, I literally went "Now, what was I going to do tonight? Hmm, check email, respond, read a couple of photography web sites I bookmarked yesterday, see what's new in the RSS reader, do a spot of online banking." I didn't need to go back to the old PowerBook for anything at all.

I played around with a few System Preferences because of the bigger screen, and I had to pair my bluetooth devices again. That took all of a couple of minutes. Sure, it took a couple of hours to transfer everything across the FW cable, but that was unattended and I did it at work while I was busy doing other stuff.

I reckon this type of migration from old to new hardware must save at least 2 days of lost productivity, not to mention the added safety of not having to manually copy your files over and possibly forget to copy some stuff. This rocks!
...

...it's now a month since I got my new PowerBook, and I haven't even opened the lid on my old one since moving all my stuff across. I wanted to wait a little while before flipping it on eBay, you know, just in case there was something on there I'd forgotten. There wasn't."

While any computer competent person can work quite productively in both OSes, OS X is so much more elegant, that if you can train yourself not to expect the hard way, it will free you to be much more productive.

DWalla:

You can Command-Tab on the Mac to change applications... HOWEVER... if you want to flip through open windows of an application... simply use Command-`

Ken:

@Dwalla: that's a very, very useful shortcut key, thanks. I've been using Command-H poorly for this.

@AJB:

* Quit shortcut: Alt-F4 works across Windows. Windows 95 had bad consistency, but I no longer have issues. In fact, I can pretty much operate a PC entirely via keyboard, which is important because I have RSI. That really isn't possible with a Mac, unless you want to start assigning custom keyboard shortcuts. Also, pull up the Force Quit menu option under the Apple menu: can you name all three keys those icons correspond to? I've asked several Mac users for help but still no answer.

* Preferences: Very true... I would make a larger criticism that this seems due to the fact that some Microsoft applications have multiple preferences menus, due to preference overload.

* Migration: a great feature, but I use 4 computers, so my problem is synchronization, not migration. Installing apps does take time, but the rest is handled through other means.

* Elegance: Mac does do good visual design. I am annoyed that I can't get my software to look as good on Windows as it does the Mac. But visual design is not the same as usable design. One example of bad Apple usability is the notorious circular dial on Quicktime from several years ago. Another example is the iPod: pressing up moves the menu to the left, pushing the center moves the menu to the right, and rotating scrolls menus up and down and volume left/right. You get it soon enough because there aren't that many buttons, but I won't say that its elegant. Don't get me started on the Mighty Mouse or the location of USB ports on the iMac.

My overall point is that there are goods and bads, and both sides get better all the time (often by copying each other or others). For me, the good and the bad have finally evened out now that Macs finally have equal hardware performance. And for you, Macs are still better than PCs, as they are for my friend pqbon.

Macs prefer visual design and simplicity over more features and performance. Windows prefers backwards-compatibility and customizability over consistency and simplicity. One of my co-workers watched me load up our software on my PC and was shocked: it was literally 5x faster than her similarly aged Mac. That can be up to an hour a day I am saving. I also work heavily with photos, but iPhoto is a tortoise -- I would never be able to go through the hundreds of photos I have to on a regular basis. $40 gets me great software on a PC. So, I'm glad I can choose the best OS tool for the job now: simple when I need simple, fast when I need fast.

AJB:

Hi Ken

Interesting comments, and not unsurprising I guess. A few clarifications.

Elegance is not just good visual design, and moreover, elegance is not the same as simplicity. I believe that on the whole (yes I am generalising, and yes there are bad examples from Apple - QT circular dial for one) OS X has far more "affordance" than windows, and that generally, things are more intuitive (unless of course you would naturally think that "Alt-F4" suggest quitting - or is that exiting). And yes there is more consistency now in Windows but nothing like on the Mac. As I said, I deliberately chose a trivial example, and Alt-F4 might work on all apps but why is it alt-F4?

On the Apple side, the icons for the keys you refer to are not that self explanatory, are they? They are, in order listed on the menu, option-command-escape although I suspect most long time mac users would say command-option-escape. The circle with the up arrow sort of suggests "escape" in hind sight, but I wouldn't want anyone to have to guess what it meant :-) Not much affordance there.

On the preferences thing, I think it is more than preferences overload. That's a design / implementation view of the problem but not a causal one. I would suggest that it is actually the absence of a clear, elegant mental model that they want the user to construct which drives the (lack of?) design goals and principles. A well designed product will lead a user to construct a mental model that is consistent, discoverable and potentially complete. Instead, MS provide a haphazard way of getting to all the [ feature bloat / bells and whistles ] because the propellors seem to outweigh the designers in Redmond, despite the millions they purportedly spend on usability labs.

Fundamentally Apple have a product view of the world, where as Microsoft have a feature / technology view of the world. Both are driven by marketing, but MS marketing is driven by checklist bigger better higher faster marketing, whereas Apple marketing is driven by minimalist elegance and strong sense of "product".

Interesting observation on the iPod, and honestly not one that I noticed. I think you (and I guess others must have as well) applied a spatial metaphor where one was never meant to exist. You are not navigating "left" and "right" on an iPod, but through a hierarchy - "up" the hierarchy, and "select" a menu item. The constrained UI meant a metaphor much more familiar to those of us from an earlier computing vintage before any GUIs or even DOS. It was perfectly natural to me, and I never thought in terms of left and right.

Generally, both OSes have improved with regard to synchronisation within their own echo systems, but unfortunately cross platform sync is painful still. I have seven computers in the house, plus a few remote with various synchronisation requirements. On the whole I think Apple at this stage have a better framework and architecture with their sync services, although MS have come a long way. This is one area I wish they would work together on a common approach. In the end I fall back to unix command line tools, and yes I agree, Cygwin does seem doomed to forever suck.

I agree with your comments about iPhoto. I manage thousands of images, and would never think of doing it in iPhoto. The metadata support is too weak for serious use and it is too slow. And yes, the Intel transition seems to have restored the parity of the two platforms, that was robbed by Motorola's defiance of Moore's law.

I suspect there are many like you, for whom the underlying platform makes little difference. In a sense you are all better off than I, because I am doomed to frustration when I use Windows at the lack of consistency, lack of elegance, and lack of design.

kwc:

@AJB: you continue to make good points, and I thank you for being the first one who has told me what those darn icons are -- my only guess was the last icon was the power button. For cross-platform sync, you may want to give Foxmarks and Foldershare a shot, if you happen to use Firefox and are willing to risk using software made by a company now owned by Microsoft ;). I haven't actually given Foldershare OS X a shake yet, so I can't endorse it yet.

Affordances are important, but their role is educational. My brain has already been warped to the point where it understands things like Alt-F4, and as such, I can merely appreciate the fact that it has not been terribly difficult finding where Preferences menus are on Apple, even if I find the occasional oddity (e.g. the default Web browser preference is on Safari's preference menu).

Thanks for the comments. As a side note, I wrote my tribute to affordances awhile back.

http://kwc.org/blog/archives/2005/2005-05-15.affordances_of_a_sevenfoot_egg.html

(NOTE: edited comment to trim it down -- I rambled off topic a bit)

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