PC or Mac

August 20, 2010

Over the past 3 or 4 months our home computer has been falling apart. First one of the internal drives died, then one of the CD drives failed. An intermittent burning smell makes me suspect a problem with the power supply. Our Windows XP desktop sometimes lapses into a cheap-looking imitation, as though the graphics processor can’t manage to render everything properly, and the networking card fails from time to time for no apparent reason. Basically, the whole thing is dying and it is time to get a new one.

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some research on available systems. The last time we bought a computer was five years ago, so pretty much everything is new and improved. Passing over the fine details, I can see that I face two basic decisions: whether to get a desktop or a laptop, and, more portentously, whether to get a PC or a Mac.

As to the first of these dilemmas, my default position is to get a desktop, simply because that is what I have always done. I notice, though, that the laptops that are available today are far more powerful than our current system, and perhaps a laptop would be convenient: when I am working at my desk it can be connected to a larger monitor, but when I am not at my desk it can be moved around. On the other hand, a desktop system of the same price as a laptop system is a much faster and more powerful machine. So that question remains unresolved.

The PC vs. Mac question is vexing. I would not buy a laptop from Apple — they are simply too much money for too little computer — but the iMac is tempting. With everything integrated into the monitor, there would be no cables other than the power cable, and that would make for a very clean desk. This is attractive because my desk in our new house is quite a lot smaller than my old desk, and I am finding that with my monitor, wireless receiver, three speakers, and two external drives it is rather crowded. It would be great to sweep all that aside — well, all but one of the back-up drives — and replace it with a single, sleek, white monitor.

I am also told by all the Mac owners to whom I have spoken that they are sweet machines. They run well, are fast (after all, they don’t have to run Windows), and have fewer security issues. Also, they are cool.  On the other hand, Mac owners can be smug, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to me.

The main trouble with Apple is that their things are too expensive. The iMac that I would want is listed at $1600. I can get a PC with the same specs for half the price. Having a nice clean desk would be nice, but I am not sure it would be that nice.

This is just me thinking out loud. If you’d like to offer an opinion on either of the questions over which I am deliberating, I am happy to hear it.

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17 Responses to “PC or Mac”


  1. Laptops are often problematic as a primary computer – the fan sucks in dust from the outside air, which can very quickly choke up the machine and cause it to overheat. This problem is worst if it sits on your desk most of the time. (Certain brands are apparently worse than others – my previous computer was particularly ill-designed in this respect.) I would get a laptop only if you actually intend to travel with it.

    I can’t comment on the PC/Mac issue as I’ve never owned a Mac (an admission that no doubt calls into question my credentials as a performing artist. . .)

  2. Adam Hincks Says:

    Don’t forget that on a PC it is still possible to run an operating system instead of the standard-issue virus.

  3. Christina A. Says:

    I (heart) our MacBook laptop.

    It is our main home/family computer, having been retired from every day use by my husband. He got a little PC web-book for work since he bikes there, doesn’t need much and it was super cheap. Why wreck the good laptop?

    Anyway, I like it. Ours is about 3-4 years old and is fast enough etc. and I think it was a basic model. I’ll send you an email with the specs we have.

    As for Laptop vs. Desktop – what’s better than reading emails on the couch? or watching youtube in bed (when spouse is not home, of course)? or typing in Starbucks or on the back porch? and I hate wires and boxes and all that stuff.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I hand’t thought of the dust problem, Osbert. I wonder how one knows whether that will be an issue or not. Presumably one wants the cooling fan to blow the air out of the laptop, not suck it in.

    I take your point, Adam. What flavour of Linux do you recommend? I put Ubuntu on an ancient laptop that we have lying around, but I wasn’t that impressed by it. In particular, I had to rig up a way to get it to connect to our wireless home network, and it would fall off within a couple of hours, requiring a reboot. (On the plus side, rebooting didn’t take too long.)

    My wife’s laptop runs Windows 7, and I’ve been pretty impressed by it so far. True, one needs a beefy system to make it go, but once it’s up and running it seems quite smart and easy to use.

    Christina, the computer we are replacing is also our main family computer, so it will be our main workhorse. Our principal activities, besides looking up addresses and answering email, are music management (my iTunes library is 380 GB), photo editing and management, occasional video editing, and watching movies (we have no TV). We don’t need a super high-end system, but the MacBooks, I’m afraid, are insufficient.

  5. cburrell Says:

    This system from Dell looks pretty sweet: the i5-750 quad-core processor (the same as one gets in the top-end iMac), 1 TB drive, and 8 GB RAM, all for half the price of the mid-range iMac. Pretty tempting.

  6. Jim Says:

    I’ll second Osbert’s concern about overheating and laptops. I don’t know about Dells, but I melted the motherboards in two Toshiba laptops early in grad school — apparently a common (and expensive) problem with their laptops. Drove me to the Mac that Christina mentioned — wonderful machine — but I thought that the $325 I paid for my little netbook from acer was worth it as a computer that gets carried around every day and never runs anything that fancy. You seem to do alot more than I do with yours, though.

    The key question, however, is how do you find the time to buy, let alone listen to, 380GBs of music?

  7. Reg Says:

    Apple products come at a premium but the hardware is top notch, as is the operating system. If you want a quality assured UNIX that just works with guest networks, printers, extra monitors, USB drives, etc., Mac OS X is it. The price premium somehow is worth it AFTER one has one. I haven’t seen anyone buy an iPod and afterward buy a cheaper brand for their next music player. Similarly, how many Mac owners do you know who say their next computer will be something different? Still, Windows 7 is very good. But for photo and video management/editing you’re not going to find anything for free that will come close to iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD. Also, I know you’d really enjoy having the OED available as a tool-tip in every application!

  8. Adam Hincks Says:

    I like Ubuntu (though actually, I use Kubuntu, which is the variant that comes with KDE instead of GNOME).

    Wireless can sometimes be an issue, though it can usually be sorted out via a Google search. Ubuntu on my most recent laptop, a Lenovo T400, worked perfectly after installation. There are websites that document how well the various distros install on various computers (e.g., http://linux-laptop.net/).

    That being said, Windows is not really a bad OS. A dual boot is what I do.

  9. Matthew Says:

    I converted to Mac when my XP machine died. There was no way that I was going to move to Vista. Best decision I ever made.

    We’ve got an iMac as our main computer, a Mac Mini hooked up to our TV and stereo as our entertainment centre, and a 13″ MacBook Pro as my work/school machine. I’ve managed to get a Mac Mini at work and I’ve convinced my wife and a good number of her colleagues at her work to switch to 13″ or 15″ MacBook Pros. I’m still dining out on that. You have never seen such an ecstatic group of arts professors.

    Macs just work. There are no hassles. The underlying system is essentially Linux, so you can do tons of things at the command line if you’re familiar with it. And if you really need a Windows application, you can run it in a window with VMWare Fusion or dual boot if really want to geek out.

    It’s all upside from my perspective. Apple users like me aren’t smug, they’re just happy.

    Oh, and check out my case (if that’s not too smug):
    http://www.etsy.com/transaction/26208319

  10. KathyB Says:

    I have sat on both sides of this fence.

    Macs are vastly superior when it comes to not crashing, not getting viruses, user-friendlyness, and anything involving graphic design.

    On the other hand, PC’s tend to be more compatible with the rest of the world, especially when it comes to sharing files and getting anything off the internet. Despite the Mac claims of compatibility, I always found I had trouble with a good percentage of files sent from a windows based application.

    As for the cable issue, by the time you hook up your internet, scanner, wireless router (if you get one), speakers, and printer, you will find yourself with a spaghetti dinner’s worth of cables no matter which you choose.

  11. cburrell Says:

    That’s the beauty of the iMac, Kathy: the speakers and internet connection are built in, so no cables for those. The wireless router and back-up drive are in a separate room. The only thing I’d have to hook up at the desk would be the printer (and my iPod). Nice and neat.

    I’m a little surprised to hear you say that compatibility with the Windows world can be a problem. Others to whom I have spoken on that point said they haven’t had problems. It is a concern.

    Thanks for your comments, Matthew. That case is very…distinctive. I thought a Mac was standard issue for arts professors?

    Adam, the fact that one has to look up which flavour of Linux will work properly on a particular piece of hardware is part of the reason why Linux scares me off as a primary OS. Basically I like *nix operating systems, but I don’t like hassles.

    What’s this about the OED?

    • Matthew Says:

      Macs are standard issue for computer science professors. Arts professors use whatever their geek friends tell them too. Which is why they were so happy when they got their Macs. They’d been making do with PCs for years because they thought changing to Mac would be too difficult.

      I haven’t heard of anyone having compatibility issues between Mac and PC in years. Everything is pretty much standardized or you can get the Microsoft software for Mac that breaks the standards in exactly the same way the PC version does.

  12. cburrell Says:

    Heh. That’s a good one.

    I expect that most of the compatibility bugs have been ironed out with Macs. It is my intention, whatever decision I make on the PC/Mac question, to install OpenOffice rather than MS Office, which means I’ll be dealing with a can of incompatibility worms all my own. It’s the price I pay for being cheap thrifty.

    Another slight concern with Mac is that I’d like to set up folder sharing on our home network between Windows 7 machines and the (hypothetical) Mac machine. I am almost certain that it will work.

    Your outline of Mac demographics surprises me! Most of the really hardcore computer geeks I’ve talked to about this have turned up their noses at the Mac. After all, one can build one’s own computer by buying the parts separately, and at much less cost. I’d have thought that artsy folks, like Steve Jobs, would be more inclined to the Mac on account of its sleek design and user friendliness.

    Oh, wait. Jobs is a computer geek, isn’t he? It’s that turtleneck throws me off.

  13. Reg Says:

    Regarding Apple Dictionary, it comes with the New Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, and other goodies. In any application you can press Control-Command-d to lookup the definition of whatever word your mouse cursor is hovering over. You can add other free dictionaries too.

    http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2496

    http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/easily-expanding-apple-dictionary-%E2%80%93-mac-only/

    Regarding folder sharing, our house does lots of folder sharing in any direction between the Macs, Windows (including 7), and game consoles. With authentication and without, I haven’t had any issues.

    For compatibility, I haven’t had any issues opening files but I just plain prefer some Windows programs over their Mac counterparts (e.g.: Visio) so I start up a Windows virtual machine to run my favorites.

    • Christina A. Says:

      Thanks Reg, I now know about the dictionary app on my Mac that I was previously totally unaware of.

      That’s the thing, Craig, this machine does so many neat things that you just don’t expect!

      I’m telling you, iPhoto rocked my world!

      FEEEEEEEL the peer pressure, brother!

  14. Quin Says:

    I’ve used desktop PCs at work and helped my Dad with his PCs for years, while going through three Mac laptops of my own over the last 12 years. Here’s smug for you: I frankly don’t know why people bother with PCs anymore. Whatever you save in the initial outlay you will quickly pay in time spent reinstalling software, running any number of antivirus programs … whatever.

    Yes, you will pay a little more. Although I saved almost 40% by buying a refurbished MacBook Pro, and I haven’t had a single problem with it. I’m not crazy about all the Apple products (don’t care for the iPhone, let alone the iTouch or the iPad) and the marketing is simply juvenile, but when it comes to making a well designed computer and an entirely dependable operating system, I don’t think you can do better than a Mac.

  15. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for the advice, Quin. I actually haven’t seen any of the Apple marketing — yet another of the blessings of not having a TV — but I know that Apple products are supposed to confer some sort of elite status on the owner. You’re not the first to say that that you’ve left the world of PCs for good.

    Anyway, I have finally made a decision vis-a-vis this computer question, and perhaps in the next day or two I’ll make a public service announcement to that effect. You heard it here first.


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