Moving to a Mac
February 2, 2007
By David Conabree
The author is a computer hobbyist, consumer electronics reviewer and longtime Windows user.
An Apple iMac, with the company's Front Row software displayed on the screen. (Courtesy of Apple)
In the first week of January, my main Windows PC started to peter out. Given all the software that gets loaded and deleted from that thing on a weekly basis, it's usually a once-a-year event to wipe the hard drive down and reinstall Microsoft XP to get that oh-so-fresh computing feeling going again. This time, however, I decided that I finally needed to bite the bullet and invest in a new machine.
There's been a lot of hype lately around Microsoft's new operating system, Windows Vista, which was launched to consumers Jan. 30 - but I really wanted a change. So rather than wait for Vista I went off and purchased a 20-inch iMac for about $1,700 before taxes.
Yes, this is more than I've paid for a desktop computer in years, and my wife is now officially ignoring any comments I make about her crack-like shoe fetish. So between the bill and the adjustment to Apple's OS X operating system, am I suffering from buyer's remorse?
In a word, no.
In terms of my computing history, I've been a Windows guy since back in the early Triassic period. Spending the past decade as the "computer" guy for friends, family and colleagues has taught me enough workarounds, tweaks and God-awful Band-Aid solutions to keep me employable well into my golden years. That said, I don't really enjoy all the messing around I have to do in order to work with computers.
Don't get me wrong. Windows XP has been a great OS for me most of the time. I can buy and run zillions of programs for every conceivable need on a PC, and I get a boatload of work done on it every week. My frustrations have to do with the whole "Windows experience," and the operating system is just one part of that equation, which is why I decided to get some experience with a Mac and see how the two different styles of computing compared.
Considering control issues
While Microsoft makes the Windows operating system, any Tom, Dick or Harry can make the hardware that it runs on. That means lots of selection in terms of computer hardware and add-ons, but when something goes wrong, in classic IT style, the hardware people can blame the software and the software people can blame the hardware.
Apple, on the other hand, controls both the hardware AND the operating system, thereby having a far better lock on the overall computing experience on their product. This is why the cliché "it just works" tag line for Macs actually rings quite true.
Further, virtually all the viruses and spyware out there that can create either subtle or disastrous problems on your machine aren't written for Macs. There is some truth to the much-touted claim that the Mac OS is naturally more secure than other operating systems. But the bigger factor to my mind is that there are just far fewer Macs out there, so society's always-bountiful crop of jerks and criminals isn't committing anywhere near the same sort of time to making Mac problems.
So what does that mean for you, the potential "switcher?" In my experience so far, it means that going with a Mac could save you a lot of headaches.
Intuitive design helps in setup
After three weeks with the iMac, I have to say that the overall experience is considerably more pleasant than anything I have experienced with Windows. The computer and LCD screen are all one piece, so setup basically involved plugging in the power cables, and setting up the keyboard and mouse. The built-in camera, pre-installed software and intuitive design made the get-up-and-running process a breeze.
Just about everything from iChat to iTunes is amazingly integrated and easy to use as well. Both printers, the video-capture device, scanner and all three digital cameras in my house were recognized without any issues, and the machine's built-in Wireless G WiFi adapter worked just as it should.
The 20-inch widescreen display is bright, and provides an 800:1 contrast ratio and a 170-degree viewing angle. I cannot overstate how nice that looks while watching movies on your computer, surfing two full web pages at the same time, or flying over the world in Google Earth.
As to sound, it comes from downward-firing 24-watt speakers that do a far-better-than-average job. If you want to use your iMac as a primary home entertainment system, however, I highly recommend investing in good external speakers.
Front Row serves as competition
This would probably be a good time to mention Front Row. For those of you considering a Windows Media Center Edition PC, this is the Mac competition: A click of the supplied remote opens up a simple and attractive full-screen interface to showcase and control your pictures, movies and music.
The little remote hangs onto the side of your iMac via an unseen magnet. Like many things iMac, the focus is on minimalist simplicity and the remote is no exception. It basically looks like a thinner version of the first iPod Shuffle. The software is easy to use and looks great.
This brings me to another factor that I am less proud of being so unreasonably happy with. The iMac is simply a beautifully designed machine you will actually want to show off. From the design of the computer itself, to the bright vivid screen, to the beautifully graphic software, everything about the iMac is pure eye candy. I admit that I was the first guy to complain about system resources wasted on special effects and high-resolution decorations in the past, but in the iMac, the visuals are over the top and I still can't help but like it.
There are pitfalls
OK ... enough with the love-in.
Is this machine perfect? No. The operating system may well be as stable as advertised (it has never crashed on me), but I still have various software freeze-ups every week.
The difference here in terms of the hassle for me is one of degree. Every time a freeze-up happens on the iMac, I can just close the program and reopen it quickly - no reboot involved. In Windows, I often have to reboot to get things working again.
Also, as someone largely unfamiliar with Mac OS X, I had a little learning to do, and there are some things that someone switching to Mac might find a little annoying. For example, I downloaded a piece of software for my Windows machine using the iMac, and wanted to burn the file to a CD in a format known as an ISO Image. As it turns out, Macs use a different system, so you have to use a trick with the disk utility software or buy a third-party application to get it done.
There's also the issue of the mouse. The one that comes with the iMac does some very interesting stuff, but default setting designates it as a one-button mouse - you press down anywhere on the front edge of the mouse to click on things on the screen. As a brand new Mac user I was fooled into thinking this was the only configuration, and I thought that I'd have to buy another mouse to get two buttons. In fact, under the one-piece moulded shell there are actually hidden right and left buttons built into the iMac's standard mouse. After I first posted this column, helpful Mac veterans pointed out that to use the mouse to do the good old one-handed right-click-copy/paste, for example, you can go into the "Keyboard & Mouse" menu and turn on the right button.
There is also the really annoying problem of not having Excel and Word, or at least a decent equivalent, pre-loaded on the machine. Many Windows machines come with this software preloaded, while on the iMac there is a straightforward word processor, but nothing close to the robust options available in MS Word. Amazingly, the ability to make and edit spreadsheets is entirely missing. Yes, you can buy MS Office for Mac, but that's yet another thing to buy (for about $400), and when you're nearly $2,000 out of pocket for the Mac hardware (after taxes), being able to do spreadsheets out of the box would be rather nice …
Thankfully, I found a Mac-compatible office suite based on Open Office that is free and works quite well. Still, it would be nice to have stuff like this included on a machine that is expensive, and touted as being ready to go right out of the box.
On the third-party software front, it has often been said that there are FAR fewer applications available for the Mac platform than for Windows - particularly for gaming. This is very true. However, the vast majority of the day-to-day operations I do (except for spreadsheets), such as editing pictures, importing clips from my camcorder, web browsing, video conferencing, e-mail and so on, have been covered in the pre-installed software. There is also one interesting thing to point out to Mac newcomers. If you need a specialized program that does not have a Mac equivalent, you can buy a copy of Windows XP and install it on the Mac as a separate operating system in order to run Windows-only software. The Dual Core Intel Macs have enough horsepower to run the XP operating system and Mac OS X at the same time, so the main consideration here is the cost of the Windows licence if you don't already have one.
Upgrades aren't easy
The one big drawback with the iMac is upgradeability. The all-in-one computer and monitor setup is attractive, but it is also a closed system. Unlike your standard CPU tower, there is no easy way for the average user to upgrade things like the hard drive or video card.
The exception to this is the iMac's memory, which is easily accessed and upgradeable to 3 gigabytes. But before buying, I'd recommend taking a good look at the specs to see if the rest of the machine's hardware meets your requirements for the next few years, because once you put your money down, you are stuck with most of the store-bought configuration.
The bottom line
The Cult of the Mac is one amazingly dedicated group of enthusiasts, and it's easy to see why they're so fond of these machines. The iMac is well built both in terms of design and function.
Is having an iMac really the "manna-from-heaven" for computer users that the Mac faithful say it is? Not really. It's a great computer, but in this price range, there is plenty of good stuff available from the competition too. It's easy to set up and use an iMac, but it doesn't have the upgradeability and software availability that Windows does. Mac OS X tends to be more stable than other operating systems, but it still encounters glitches from time to time. And it's not impervious to virus and hacker attacks as some would have you believe.
The main advantage Apple has, however, is that it has built a great computer that uses an operating system and hardware designed by the same company. Overall, this does make for a smoother computing experience, and from that perspective, the decision to switch from Windows to a Mac is a choice I so far do not regret.
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