Why I Switched to the Mac

It’s official. I’ve switched to the Mac.

Long-time readers will know that I bought an Apple laptop – an iBook – a few years ago, but I’ve continued to use a Windows desktop machine at home. That machine was getting more than a little long in the tooth though, and it was time for a replacement.

I’ve spent the last year or so debating getting a Windows desktop vs. a Mac one, and it was a damn tough battle. It’s undeniable that the fastest Intel-based Windows machines are faster than the best of the PowerMacs (including the dual 1.42 Ghtz beauty that I got), and it’s a fact that there are many, many more software titles for the PC than the Mac.

Those are hard obstacles to overcome. So what did the Mac offer that got me to spend my hard-earned cash on their computers instead a Windows box? It’s a lot of little things that added up to one towering incentive, and that incentive can be summed up in two words: user experience.

First, I’ll preface this not-so-little rant with this background: I use PCs and Macs every day. I have a laptop and a desktop running Window XP Professional at work, as well as a PowerMac running Mac OS X Jaguar. I also make heavy use of my own iBook, also running Mac OS X Jaguar, during my day job. So, generally speaking, I know of what I speak.

I have no philosophical issues with Microsoft or its Windows “monopoly”, which so many in the Mac community foolishly (and stupidly) rail against. That said, I’ve grown disillusioned with the Windows platform, mostly because it seems like an aimless, haphazard and generally unrefined collection of technologies. It’s not nearly as bad as Linux, but when using it I can’t escape the feeling that the whole thing is jerry-rigged with the digital equivalents of bubble gum and duct tape. The user interface for Windows reached its peak with Windows 98 2nd Edition, and everything since then has been awkwardly shoehorned into an increasingly ill-managed UI. XP tried to remedy this situation with a more rounded, “warmer” set of themes for the user interface, but the end result was cartoonish at best, and insulting at worst. The whole thing is in need of a massive overhaul and some new operational metaphors in order to truly take advantage of the operating system (not the least of which is taming the disorganized monstrosity that is the “Start” menu).

In addition, the OS seems to have reached the high of stability with Windows 2000. Despite all the hype to the contrary, I find Windows XP Pro to still be crash-prone. Perhaps not as bad as previous Windows 9x iterations, but it’s still buggy. My Windows laptop, for example has been re-imaged three times in the last month because of imaginary driver conflicts, including one error that corrupted the allegedly unassailable XP registry, and another that prevented the OS from launching into safe mode (even command-line safe mode). My case is undoubtedly extreme – I know people who claim that Windows XP runs just fine … but most of them also say that Windows 2000 was far better.

Compare this to the Mac. I will not say that Mac OS X is perfect, nor that the last two years of its evolution have been smooth. But I will say that my Macs crash extremely rarely, and that I’m able to run my iBook for weeks – weeks! – on end without rebooting. In my experience, especially on laptops, Mac OS X delivers the stability that Windows promises, but doesn’t quite deliver.

The user interface for Mac OS X is pristinely beautiful, offering a sense of grace and elegance that you never find in the Windows world. Now it does do some stupid things – the Dock, for example, is not nearly as useful as the old Apple menu, and I simply don’t understand why Mac OS X won’t let you “cut” and “paste” a file to a new location when it will let you do the same with “copy”. But these are minor quibbles – for the most part, working in OS X is a pleasant, almost relaxing experience. Everything is where I would want it to be, and it complements my work style perfectly.

It also wins the usability battle hands down. I have CD burners on almost all of my Windows machines and the process is clunking on all of them. They require third-party software to burn CDs, and this software tends to be overly complicated, awkwardly designed, and counter-intuitive to use. They seem like add-ons, rather than the essential utilities they should be.

Not so Mac OS X. In OS X, I can simply insert a blank CD, copy some files on to it, and then click the “Burn” button on any Finder window (the Finder is the Mac equivalent of Windows Explorer). iTunes makes it even easier to burn CDs – all you do is select one of your play lists and then click the burn button – how freaking easy is that?

The Mac makes editing digital video ridiculously easy, from the Firewire port that’s standard on all machines to the first-rate consumer video editing software iMovie. I ran screaming from video editing in college because it was too damn hard – I once spent six hours editing a 3-minute video clip by hand (granted, this was in the pre-digital editing days). With iMovie, I could’ve done the same work in 20 minutes. I’ve played around with the video editing software bundled with Windows, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what Apple’s done. I haven’t burned any DVDs on the Mac yet, but I expect that iDVD will be just as easy to use.

Digital photography is also a breeze on the Mac. While edit most of my photos in Photoshop, the Mac’s iPhoto software does a good job of organizing my shots into “film rolls” and the Image Capture application does an excellent job of importing my photos.

And then there’s the music. I played around with a bunch of MP3 players on the PC, as well as Windows Media Player, and not a one of them was as easy to use as Apple’s iTunes. iTunes doesn’t try to stand between me and my music, like Windows Media Player does, nor does it try to oppressively control it (again, like Windows Media Player does). Importing music from a CD is as simple as putting a CD in the drive and hitting the “import” button, and I freaking love the flexibility of its dynamic playlists (for example, here’s one query I have: “Show me my top 25 Rush songs, as determined by the number of times I’ve listened to them”. Here’s another: “Show me every song I’ve flagged as ‘heroic’ in my library.” And then there’s the Apple Music Store, which is simply the best digital music service out there.

So what of the obvious Mac drawbacks, namely speed and software? Well, as far as speed goes, I may have lost bragging rights to some of my PC friends in that category, but you know what? My PowerMac is still pretty damn fast, fast enough to play the latest games without any slow down, and more than fast enough to handle all of the digital video that I plan to through at it. Would I like to be able to see Macs are the fastest computers on the planet? Sure. Do I think that Macs are a lot faster than people give them credit for, because the processors are designed differently from Intel chips, and thus, don’t need the over-hyped high 4-gigaherts processor? Definitely. But ultimately, Macs are more than fast enough to get all my jobs done, and that’s what’s important to me.

As for software, while Windows may have more software than Macs, for the most part, that’s not a big deal because the essential software — Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver’s Web development suite, Quicken, Adobe Photoshop, and all the major Web browsers and plug-ins — have Mac counterparts. And when a major piece of software isn’t found on the Mac — like Microsoft Access — there’s almost always a Mac-native equivalent that’s as good (in this case, it’s Filemaker Pro)

The Mac gaming line-up is strong, although not as strong as the PC. Almost every major gaming title, from Unreal Tournament 2k3 to Return to Castle Wolfenstein to Warcraft III, have been ported to the Mac, although admittedly these titles take longer to show up on the Mac than they do on the PC. In fact, every game I’ve wanted to play in the last year, with the exception of Galactic Civilizations, was released on the Mac.

Further, since the release of OS X, the Mac has seen an explosion of home-grown software that’s as cool or cooler than stuff I’ve seen on the PC. Of particular note are CrystalForge (an RPG tool), Konfabulator (a collection of JavaScript-based mini-utilities), Watson (a Web utility that bypasses the Web browser and the surprisingly useful Coffee Break Pro (a productivity tool that reminds you went to take breaks).

A last, fundamental part of the Mac experience is this: it just works. It’s a refrain you’ll hear often among geeks who’ve made the switch (many of whom can be found lurking around orielly.com) — Macs work without you needing to tweak them, fight with them, or really even think about them. Because Apple controls most of the hardware, you run into very few of the driver problems and software conflicts that you encounter on a Windows (or Linux) PC and if you do run into problems — or want to upgrade — the process is generally painless. When you spend 90% of your waking hours working with computers in one form or another, having a machine this easy to use is a real relief.

That said, you can still geek out if you want to. Power Macs are upgradeable — just like PCs you can add new graphics and PCI cards, as well as multiple CD players, four hard drives and up to 2 gig of RAM. Upgrading, like everything else on a Mac, is painless — I couldn’t believe how easy it was to open the case and install more memory after I got my new machine. And Mac OS X’s beautiful GUI? You can ignore it — because OS X is based on Unix, you can pull up a terminal window whenever you like and immediately begin accessing the cryptic innards of the OS via the command line. OS X ships with Apache Web Server already installed, and you add open source programming languages like Perl and PHP, as well as the open-source database MySQL. You can also run X11, a geek standby that lets you run all manner of Unix programs on the Mac and heck, if you’re feeling really hard-core, you can even configure your machine to book directly into Unix’s text-based interface.

Windows interoperability has always been a challenge on the Mac, but its gotten a heck of a lot easier since OS X came out — you can now easily browse Windows networks (well, easy for geeks, a little harder for everyone else). It’s not perfect — I’d really like to see Apple go out of their way to create a more seamless connection between the two, especially when it comes to sharing printers, but it works well enough.

There are, of course, still drawbacks to the Mac. Battle Planner, a utility I use for managing my HeroClix army, only runs on Windows. Same goes for ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer and a handful of other RPG utilities which run only on Windows. For them, I’ll still need to hop on my wife’s PC, or save up enough coin to purchase Virtual PC, a Windows emulator for the Mac. There’s also the drawback that most of my old software — like Microsoft Office — will run on the Mac, and so I’ve had to purchase Mac versions of them, an added expense that can’t be overlooked (but which is mitigated in this particular case because I started “switching” with my iBook laptop, and thus spread out the cost of conversion over several years).

But these negatives are minor compared to the productivity benefits I reap from an attractive, easy-to-use computer and operating system. That’s why, after much debate, I finally decided to switch to the Mac. Are Macs right for everyone? No. If you’re a hard-core gamer, or if you have a lot of software that only runs on PCs, then Macs probably aren’t for you. But for me, they’re about as perfect as a computer can be.

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