My Turn

Sorry, Bill, but My PCs Work

Chris March - 2001.12.10

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Bill Gates started COMDEX the other day by saying, "PCs don't work as well as they should" and "we will fix that - over the next ten years." Well, one can only surmise that the PCs he was talking about are PCs that run Windows.

I have several "PCs" that run almost flawlessly.

The Macintosh

My Macintosh has worked very well for the past twelve years. Let me say that again for all the PC people out there: I have been absolutely satisfied with how my Macintosh PC has run for the past twelve years. In fact, so much so, that I love my Mac. It allows me to do what I want, not what some megalo-software company wants me to be able to do.

My Mac crashes about twice a month (if I load and run Microsoft applications, the frequency rises to approximately twice per week. I tested this by uninstalling and reinstalling MS Office several times, and the evidence is conclusive) and that is much less frequently than my buddies PCs running Windows. They crash once a day, minimum, whether PowerPointing or Word processing.

What do I do with my Mac so that it crashes so little, you may be wondering? Am I treating it with kid gloves? You be the judge. I run 3D modeling and rendering apps on my Mac- sometimes as long as four days straight processing time, depending on complexity. I also design websites, make iMovies, play MP3 files (over my stereo - the Mac has had built-in high-quality sound since the late eighties), write CDs in Mac or Windows format, and with the Macs ability to read and write DOS/Windows formatted disks, along with Virtual PC, I can both Run Windows/DOS programs and read/write Windows disks. I have had up to four monitors connected to my 1996 vintage PowerTower Mac clone and up to six on a 1990 vintage Mac IIfx - with no problems whatsoever.

The system also works logically, something foreign to Windows programmers. (Don't start me on the ease-of-use. It is not as close as Windows users think.) I have never suffered one day of downtime due to a virus or worm over the last twelve years. I do not need to memorize a bunch (hundreds) of file extensions, so that the operating system knows how to open a file - the Mac has built-in intelligence which takes care of that. (Not getting forced to upgrade my OS every time I want a cool new feature is a benefit, too, but I won't touch that one.)

I can copy files, programs, folders, etc. to any drive I want, before or after installation, and the Macintosh intelligence takes care of keeping track of where things are, and warns me before copying if there is not enough room on the target drive. (On a Windows system, it will copy the parts that fit to a new drive, and leave what doesn't where it was. No intelligence.)

After several years of Macintosh (and MS/DR DOS, and then Windows in various jobs) I wanted to see the real power behind the Internet, so I began experimenting with various flavors of Unix.

Linux

Around 1997, I bought a copy of RedHat Linux, and a Pentium Pro MMX server to run it on. The install procedure was terrible, and the first install took me two weeks to complete. This was no fault of the software; it was my own ignorance in partition tables and other such things that the newest installers (slick, GUI-based install utilities are now the norm for popular Linux distributions) take care of automatically. My Linux box has taught me many things, including giving me a chance to compile my own programs. The freedom of installing software that is "free" after years of expensive "lock down the features" application programs is truly revolutionary - and you can't understand it until you do it.

There are also some home-brew programs available for Linux that are not available elsewhere, or were developed on Linux and are considered best-of-breed there. One example is nmap. This is a program to tell you what server is on the other end of your Internet connection, even if measures have been taken to try to obfuscate the server OS. Sometimes it just gives a guess; other times it is locked down solid that it is "server y from company x."

More recently I have been experimenting with open office, gnome, and shell scripting, as well as network protocols like NFS and DNS.

Linux has been remarkably stable throughout all of this. I have had maybe 8 system crashes since I began running Linux - and most of those were my fault for "mucking about as root" when I should not have been. The breadth and quality of the "free" applications are for the most part excellent and provide as wide a choice as any OS - more if you want to run a Windows environment with WINE or win4lin. (I run VirtualPC on the Macintosh, so I have had little experience with Windows on Linux.) Feeling the power of Unix, but being somewhat constrained by "generic" hardware, I made the next logical leap for myself, which was Unix on Unix hardware.

Sun Solaris

For over two years now, I have been using Solaris on Sparc Hardware. I started with 2.6 and recently moved to 8 (2.8 in the 2.6 nomenclature) on a SPARCstation from 1993. It runs at 40 MHz, and it is plenty fast enough to run the newest and best Solaris OS, and browse the Web as an experimental station. (I would recommend a $999 Sun Blade 100 to anyone looking to enter this market today.) I cannot stress enough the quality feel of Sun hardware - components are top notch, and there are many benefits that come about as a result of this. For instance, the ethernet port is not an add-on (and there is support built-in to the OS for exactly that interface, not a generic type of driver experience). [As an aside here, I must say that I experienced something that no other OS has shown me - the Sparc runs generally faster with the later Solaris 8, than it did with 2.6. Yes, the larger, more recent offering is better on the old hardware I have. Try that with any other OS.]

In two years of trying, I have yet to completely crash the Solaris OS. I have opened up lots of applications, Web browser windows, terminals, accessed the system remotely, etc., mucked around as root - no problems here (maybe I was just lucky) - the Solaris OS on Sparc hardware seems to be as bulletproof as Lexan. Most applications are expensive, but excellent, and there are more and more ports from Linux, bringing free software to the platform "the Internet runs on" so you can choose expensive software with great 800# support or "free" with help-mail support from the community.

In short, Solaris has grown on me. It is the most stable OS I run (or have run) personally, and there are plenty of applications available, no matter what version you run. Another point worth mentioning is the scalability: A program running on my sparc10 is exactly the same program that would run on an E450 server ($20,000+). Thus, if I started a Web-based endeavor which gained steam quickly, I could buy new hardware, but keep all my software, and just move it to the proper places on the new system. (In practice, this is somewhat harder to do than it sounds, but any competent Solaris administrator should be able to cope successfully.) Clustering is pretty well advanced on Solaris, but expensive (Trend? Best of breed usually is).

Is it worth it? If you need mission-critical clustering with topnotch support, yes. If you can do it yourself, then Linux (again, using community support) would be the way to go, as their clustering is strong, if not up to the industrial strength of Solaris. (This is up for debate; proponents of either could make strong arguments in different areas.) [Note: My clustering experience is limited. Your mileage may vary.]

Recently, Sun released StarOffice 6.0, which my Sparc, unfortunately, does not have enough RAM to run (I could upgrade, but my next move will be to a faster Sun box, so I am waiting on that).

Why is this important? Formatting. Most formatting (including footnotes and bibliography) is retained with the StarOffice 6.0 program, and the files created are absolutely MS Office compatible. StarOffice is also free and can be run over the network. If you have a large Sun server, your employees can run StarOffice over the network instead of locally, which is much more reliable (and much cheaper than equipping a desktop user with a PC for $1,000 and MS Office for $450 each).

Conclusion

To summarize, if you need a computer built for consumers, one that things just work on, get yourself a Macintosh. If you want to be working on fixing your computer (or paying to have it fixed), get a PC running Windows. (Remember, even Bill Gates says they don't work.)

If your needs run to experimentation on a stable Unix system that is cheap, just buy a Linux distribution (RedHat, SuSe, Mandrake; Connectiva if you are Spanish speaking, etc.) for $3.95 from "cheapbytes.com" and resurrect that old Pentium II 266 that won't work at all with Windows anymore - it is fine for Linux (64 MB RAM, please). On the other hand, if you are looking to understand the platform the Internet runs on and the hardware that runs that OS, get a Solaris on Sparc machine.

Contrary to Bill Gates's comments, all of these non-Windows computers run very acceptably. One can only assume that when Bill said PCs don't work well, he was talking about PCs with Windows.

I have had excellent PCs for over ten years. I just don't see the problem with PCs - only with Windows operating systems.

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