The Great Mac-PC Debate

It’s funny how far the protagonists championing either PCs or Macs will go to push their cause. I moseyed into my local CompUSA on Jan. 19, 2003, where I found two ViewSonic representatives showing off Microsoft Windows Powered Smart Displays in the store’s Mac section. As I approached, one of the salesmen lithely snatched two shoppers eyeing an Apple iBook and pitched them on a Smart Display.

I returned later when the salesmen was alone and piped, “Say, you’re going to scare all the Mac customers away.” “That’s the idea,” he shot back. I must have made some kind of brilliant observation, because he gave my daughter a set of promo street style headphones for my troubles. So, now she can wear a Windows logo while plugged into an Apple iPod. 

Smart Displays are a dumb idea, by the way. For $1,299, you get a 15-inch monitor that can be detached from the computer and carried around the house for doing the Web or fetching e-mail. A stylus acts as a mouse, and the monitor connects back to the PC using 802.11b wireless. Of course, the keyboard is back with the computer, which isn’t much good if you want to do anything more than read the news in the john. If I really wanted a wireless device I can carry around the house, hell, I could buy a reasonably good notebook for 1,300 bucks. And it would be a real computer. (The sales guy told me the CompUSA sold five Smart Displays the previous day, by the way.)

Anyway, the incident and a same-day reader question about Macs vs. PCs got me to thinking about the Great Debate. It’s one I often have with myself. “PC or Mac? Mac or PC?” For four years I drove myself crazy trying to pick one over the other. This week I’m hot on Macs. But what’s right for me, may not be right for you.

For most people, the decision should be more difficult than it really is. There are millions of Windows PCs shoppers mindlessly falling prey to the incredible—and not really inventive—Intel-Microsoft marketing machine. This mighty marketing machete slashes down Macs—and older PCs, for that matter—by way of the great megahertz myth. Under this myth, PCs are always improving; newer is always better, and newer means faster, which also is supposed to be better.

You know that’s a crock, right? C`mon, are you just going to believe you’re orange because I say you are? So why believe the mindless marketing mush that says newer or a faster processor is better? Trust me, the clock speed long ago shot past the performance the majority of software applications need to run. Yet, believers make the marketing effective. Suddenly, last month’s 1.1 jigahertz processor with the stopwatch and switchblade knife isn’t as good as this month’s 1.11 jigahertz model with the built-in digital stopwatch and metallic blue switchblade knife. Oh, please people, show some sense.

Think of other things you buy everyday. How often do you buy a new car or television? Is last year’s model auto all that different from the 2003 releases? My family used the same TV for 12 years, replacing it only after breakdown. Sure, lots of people are plunking down big bucks for large-screen TVs or HDTV models, but that’s because of some rather exciting technological benefits. For a long time, whether Sony or Zenith, the new year’s model TV wasn’t that much different from last year’s. Do you buy a new mattress every year because of sweeping technological changes that will make sleep better? C`mon. But we treat PCs differently.

The Intel-Microsoft marketing strategy is particularly effective driving potential Mac buyers to the PC. So you walk into your CompUSA looking for that cute little swiveling Apple computer you saw on TV. But when you check the Mac’s specifications, you see that there is only an 800MHz processor in there. But that HP PC on the next isle has a 2GHz processor and, eh gads, it sells for the same price. The buyer is then assaulted by the memory of little green men (OK, they’re yellow and blue) in a recent Intel commercial extolling the benefits of Pentium 4 processors. And he remembers that computer magazine story he read while waiting at the barbershop—you know, the one about how important is clock speed. It’s not. Important, that is.

Apple invokes a different kind of mindlessness when it comes to buying computers. Front man and CEO Steve Jobs dazzles glazed-eyes Apple acolytes each Macworld Expo as he unveils new products. Jobs delivers an amazing keynote address. If, like Al Gore. the whiz-bang magician told you he invented the Internet and Apple introduced the network first on Macs, you would believe him. January 2003’s Macworld keynote was one of Job’s more masterful performances, with amazing slights of hand as he unveiled products with new technologies—Bluetooth and 802.11g wireless, among others—ahead of most PC manufacturers. He stunned the crowd with the 17-inch PowerBook, even though most attendees wouldn’t want to lug around a portable that big, and its cute 12-inch sibling. Strangely, the most important part of the notebook message was lost in the hype marketing new features: Apple effectively lowered the price of PowerBooks, which is something to cheer about.

This is Your Brain on Marketing
I sometimes chuckle about how passionate PC defenders and Mac zealots can be about their computer platforms. For them, it’s an either or decision, and anyone not in their camp is an enemy. Truth be told, there is plenty of room for both PCs and Macs in the market place. That’s what competition is all about. Competition means choice and hopefully ever-improving products. But choice isn’t always easy, and some companies work to prevent it. There are good reasons why state and federal trustbusters spent nearly five years prosecuting Microsoft. The company has an amazing knack for releasing products that only work with Windows or make it difficult for consumers and businesses to choose anything but Windows.

As one analyst said to me recently, “It’s like all the Microsoft products have glue on them”. Once you use a Microsoft product, “It’s hard to get it off you”, he said. His point: Microsoft uses interlocking proprietary hooks to lock in customers, potentially removing their choice to use the products beyond the original free decision. Along these lines, Microsoft’s Jan. 20, 2003 release of a new toolkit that would allow music labels to create copy-protected CDs could be a watershed event. One not so unlikely outcome scenario: CDs created using the copy protection could only be played on music players supporting Microsoft media formats or on Windows PCs; songs could only be extracted to a Windows XP PC or used with portable music players that connect to Windows PCs. Think it couldn’t happen? There are good reasons why the group developing the technology within Microsoft is called the Windows Media Division. Microsoft wants to use digital media to sell Windows—only Windows.

This type of tactic is a common Microsoft practice. Not coincidentally, it feeds the megahertz myth marketing machine. The harder it is for consumers and businesses to buy anything other than Windows, the more mindless their decision will be. That hurts Apple. That hurts Linux and other competing operating systems. And it hurts computer buyers most of all. In areas where Microsoft has gobbled up standards, such as for creating Web sites or using file formats, it’s a Windows world. Surf the Internet and most Web sites look best using Internet Explorer 6 for Windows. My daughter stopped using the Mac because many computer games now use Microsoft’s DirectX technology, which only is available for Windows. Microsoft consistently releases software developer tools, often for free, that sticks their eventual product to Windows like super glue. So more and more people must choose a PC, not because they want to but because they have to.

That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone would choose a Mac or even a Lindows PC if all things were equal. In the world of choice, beyond monopolies and marketing myths, PCs are right for some buyers and Macs for others. Sorry, defenders and zealots. Still, Microsoft’s monopoly might is an undeniable factor for most computer shoppers, whether or not they are consciously aware of this factor.

OK. So, you’re shopping for a new computer and wondering whither PC or Mac. You heard Gateway sells a PC with a 15-inch flat-panel monitor for $699 after $100 rebate, but you’re attracted to the flat-panel iMac’s nifty design. The first thing you need to do is forget all the marketing hype surrounding processor speed. A PC with a 3GHz processor isn’t necessarily better than one with 2GHz or even a Mac with a 1GHz chip. That’s an Intel-Microsoft marketing machine manufactured metric. It’s an arbitrary criteria for evaluating computer purchases.

Yet, stripping away the marketing myths makes choosing between PCs and Macs or even between different types of PCs fairly difficult. There are several fundamental differences between the two computing platforms that make either right for different types of personalities.

Are you the kind of person who likes to rebuild Chevys or half-century-old radios? Maybe you delight in 100,000-piece puzzles that take decades to solve or researching whether a distant ancestor was an assassinated Roman emperor. If so, a PC is for you. Because of the great marketing myth—today’s PC is way better than yesterday’s antiquated model—Windows computers are the tinker’s delight. You can also have fun with Windows XP’s exciting little quirks and Microsoft’s nearly daily (OK, maybe several times a week) release of operating system fixes and updates. A Windows PC is perfect for wiling away the hours fixing, tweaking and upgrading. It’s sure to satisfy.

Or maybe appearances are important to you. Working out seven hours a day to be just oh-so cut is your thing. You feel good, when you look good. And you feel better when you know people see how good you look. Macs sure look good. You could be the talk of the neighborhood with a shiny, Titanium PowerBook on the coffee table or flat-panel iMac perched on a living-room stand. If that’s you, maybe a Mac is a better choice.

Breaking the Gigahertz Gap
OK, all facetious joking aside, there are more reasons for buying a computer than processor speed. It’s true there is a gigahertz gap between PCs and Macs, but for most situations that is not material to a buying decision. (Have I said this enough times yet?) Like most other products, your decision should be no more than what appeals to your personality or consideration how you want to use the thing.

Two criteria make Windows PCs compelling choices for many people: Compatibility and price. Thanks to the Microsoft monopoly, many would-be purchasers have lots of reasons to pick a PC that have very little to do with preference. Many everyday tasks are better done on the PC, because Microsoft has made sure this will be the case. The aforementioned Web browsing and computer gaming are good examples. The number of Web sites supporting Windows Media formats is another. There are plenty of other reasons why a Windows PC is more compatible than a Mac. Strangely, almost none of this has to do with evaluating the computer on the features you want to choose. It’s about features you might be forced to choose. Let’s say you really like the design of the flat-panel iMac and you’re set on buying one. But you also are a heavy gamer and find your two most favorite games only are available for Windows PCs because they use DirectX. So which is more important to you, buddy. Maybe you run a small business and use Intuit’s online version of QuickBooks. Too bad, the feature requires Internet Explorer 6 for Windows.

The price issue is more compelling. PCs cost less than Macs. Period. Apple simply doesn’t sell lower-cost computers than some PC makers. No new model Mac sells for as little as a $699 Dell or Gateway PC with 15-inch flat-panel monitor. If lowest price is your primary buying criteria, a Mac may not be the best choice. But moving beyond the absolute lowest price, Macs are much more competitive with PCs. Even then, price is only a minor consideration, because the features are different between PCs and Macs.

Take for example the 12-inch PowerBook introduced on Jan. 7, 2003. The high-end model comes with an 867MHz Power PC G4 processor, 256MB 266DDR SDRAM, 32MB nVidia GeForce4 420 Go, 40GB hard drive, DVD recording drive, integrated FireWire 400, USB 1.1, 10/100/1000 networking, 56kbps modem, Bluetooth and Mac OS X for $1,999. The price is very competitive, and a DVD recording drive is unheard of in this class of portable. But compare that to the Toshiba Protege 3500 Tablet PC, with a 1.33GHz Pentium III processor, 12.1-inch TFT display, 256MB of SDRAM, 40GB hard drive, USB 2, 10/100 networking, 56kbps modem, Bluetooth, 802.11b wireless networking and Windows XP for $2,299. Adding wireless networking to the PowerBook raises the price to $2,098. Overall, the PowerBook costs less than the Protege and performance should be comparable between the two portables. From there, different features are really drive the buying decision. Toshiba’s notebook turns into a tablet, on which the user can input written text or drawings with a stylus. Whereas, the PowerBook packs a DVD recording drive and much faster wireless and wired networking. Which is more important to you?

The flat-panel iMac is another good example. The midrange model, with 800MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 15-inch flat-panel monitor, 256MB of SDRAM, 32MB GeForce2 MX graphics, DVD recording drive, 60GB hard drive, integrated FireWire 400, USB 1.1 10/100 networking, 56kbps modem and Mac OS X, sells for $1,699. For $100 less, you could pick up the Gateway Media Center PC, which packs a 2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 17-inch flat-panel monitor, 256MB of SDRAM, 128MB GeForceMX 440G graphics card, CD-RW/DVD combo drive, 60GB hard drive, FireWire 400, USB 2, 10/100 networking, 56kbps modem and Windows XP Media Center Edition. Besides the 100 bucks, the Gateway comes with a larger display, faster USB, more graphics memory and, through Microsoft’s digital media OS, TV watching and recording. The iMac benefits from a swiveling display, the DVD burner, support for 802.11b wireless networking and a crisper, brighter, digital flat-panel monitor. Would you rather watch someone else’s movies via a TV tuner or make your own? The answer to this question, among others, would have more to do with the buying decision than how fast the clock speed is on the processor.

Other factors to consider: Operating system is not a significant point of decision as it once was. Windows XP and Mac OS X offer fairly comparable features, although Mac OS X 10.2 packs some goodies missing in Windows XP, such as burning DVDs from the file menu. Microsoft’s OS doesn’t run that much differently on a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 processor than a 2.8GHz chip. Apple appears to have done a better job optimizing its OS for the processor. For normal functions, I have seen little difference, say, between running Mac OS X 10.2 on a 1GHz PowerBook and Windows XP on a 2.66GHz HP Media Center 883n PC. In fact, in some ways Mac OS X outperforms Windows XP, despite the more than gigahertz gap between the processors. By the way, the Mac’s legendary ease of use is true.

Another important buying consideration revolves around digital media. Many people are now looking to their computers for having fun with digital music, photos and movies. Microsoft is betting big on the aforementioned Windows XP Media Center Edition, which offers up a second user interface for accessing digital media features via remote control. The software titan sees promise in making living-room entertainment a part of the PC experience. But the first iteration of the software is flawed. The TV watching quality is so-so and working with music or movies isn’t any easier than under the normal Windows XP user interface. Things could improve, though, when Microsoft updates the OS in early 2003.

Apple, by contrast, has refined a strong digital media strategy and has leapt ahead of Windows PC makers by positioning the Mac as a hub for connecting digital devices and easily creating or using digital content. Apple offers six major digital applications: iMovie 3, for creating home movies iDVD 3, for burning home movie DVDs; iTunes 3, for managing and listening to MP3-formatted music; iPhoto 2, nifty software for managing digital images; iCal, for calendaring; and iSync, for synchronizing contact and calendar information between Macs, Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, Palm handhelds or Apple’s iPod digital music player. In January 2003, Apple combined iDVD 3, iMovie 3, iPhoto 2 and iTunes 3 together to make the iLife suite. This suite, and many other digital media features apart of Mac OS X gives the Mac much advantage over PCs—at least in this one area.

Buying a new PC or choosing between a PC and a Mac should be about much more than clock speed. Strip aside the marketing myths and you end up with the same criteria for any other purchase: Does it appeal to me and what do I want to use it for. So, which appeals to you?

Photo Credit: Arild Storaas

Editor’s Note: On Aug. 1, 2017, this post was recovered, using Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of Date is authentic.