The Practical Mac

Readers Weigh in on the Mac Challenge

- 2002.06.18 - Tip Jar

The last two Practical Mac articles (Mac Challenge Results and Mac Challenge Follow Up) detailing the results of The Mac Challenge, have produced an unprecedented response from our readers. I have received over 100 emails on this subject. The responses run the gamut from users sharing their own PC vs. Mac experiences to suggestions for making the platforms more stable.

There is one glaring omission from all of the email I have received, however. Not one single response questioned the results. Not a single reader tried to tell me that my experience with Windows XP or Mac OS X was atypical. In fact, a great many responses essentially said, "Me, too."

Now, it's time to open up the ol' mailbag!

John Cate offered some affirmation of my observation that Windows 2000 seemed to be more stable than XP:

Having used both XP and 2000, I can tell you that Windows 2000 is more stable than Windows XP. It wasn't your imagination. I run an Athlon 1.4 GHz at 1.52 on Windows 2000, and it is almost, I say almost, as stable as the most recent Mac OS X. Windows XP, with all that extra eye candy on it, is less stable.

Is Windows really less stable than OS X, or was my experience a fluke? Let's see what you had to say:

Wil Nelson:

My experiences are very similar. In the last 5 days my two Macs running OS X have not had a restart or any problems save one forced quit and an immediate relaunch of the [offending] program. On the other hand, my Wintel 1.6 gig/256 megs/40 gig HD/CD-RW is restarted at least 3 times per day. According to the documentation, this occurs due to "system faults." I have had a few hangs using Windows help. Some of the programs I am trying out seem to be less than optimized for Windows XP Professional and produce error messages, hangs, and general non-responsiveness, in that clicking on a "task" item results in no action on the computer's part. Windows XP also does not seem to be able to handle successive and rapid mouse clicks like OS X can, which results in system slowdown. Also, the things make lots of noise with all the fans, etc.

George Gunderson:

The only time I've used Windows in the past 5 years was for a C++ programming class I took in college. I had more problems with the 1-2 hours a day I spent on the PCs than my 6-10 hours a day on my Macs.

Alvin offers this observation of both OS X as well OS 9:

Apple is the best; even OS 9.2.2 is very durable. You don't have to reinstall it every time a major crash happens, compared to Windows 98 SE.

Martin Sorensen:

At home, I am running OS X and only reboot on system updates and if I go on holiday. I have had one kernel panic since September [a 9-month time period].

Ian Foster:

I have been running my Pismo (G3, FireWire) for over 6 months, only rebooting for major software updates. It sleeps or works, is never off, and is running 10.1.x.

David Jackson offers this enlightening story:

I do support for 300+ Windows 2000 boxes at work and 14 servers. The servers are all either NT4 and in the process of heading to 2K or already there with 2000 Server installed. I had a user on Wednesday of this week ask me about a problem he was having in Windows. In Windows it's very easy to "right-click" a file and then use the context menu "send to" copy the file to a floppy, mail it to a friend, or do almost anything else you can imagine if you can put a shortcut into your "send to" folder. It's a neat little time saver, I admit, though I've never used it much. This user though had grown to depend on it and was coming unglued because he had done "something" to Windows, and now those shortcuts were no longer working.

Honestly, I don't know what he did. I don't even think he did anything. It's just one of those things Windows does from time to time. Anyway, his idea after I had sat there banging away at the problem for a while was to suggest we "reinstall Windows on top of itself."

I know this guy pretty well, and we get along okay, so I told him (without fear of angering him), "No, that's a stupid idea." And it is a stupid idea, except that I was talking about the "on top of itself" part and not the whole idea.

The thing is, having to reinstall your entire OS to fix a small little annoyance is what's stupid, but all of us Windows users are so conditioned to the idea that it seems perfectly reasonable at this point. The only thing I knew that he didn't (despite my MCSE, which makes my salary slightly bigger but me no more or less effective) was that when Windows goes bad, save none of it. Kill it all. Only way to be sure.

Every Windows user knows the he or she is going to have to reinstall after x number of rounds with "Mr. Reset." The funny thing is that Windows' immense popularity sprung initially from the simple fact that it was available preinstalled on IBM compatible computers in a time when most computers arrived from their manufacturer with little more than a low level format and some OS disks.

"Good luck, you're on your own!" was the order of the day. People buying early Windows machines though didn't have to do this. Their machine booted up to Windows right out of the box (for what that was worth), and they got to bypass the messy details of installing the OS. In trade, they bought into an OS that would have them reinstalling for the rest of their days. See what they got for being lazy?

Another observation from David Jackson:

The one thing that really stuns me is how OS X comes back stable even after a trip to the reset button. I always seemed to be able to watch my Windows installation grow worse over time as the crashes and restarts added up. OS X seems unfazed by it. Outside of gaming, I have yet to see anything crash that didn't come right back without a problem, and I've yet to see anything go down that made OS X so much as blink.

Ian Foster offers a most plausible explanation for the "stability gap" between Windows and the Mac OS:

I think that you can achieve a level of stability with Windows, but it takes a lot of tweaking. With the Mac, stability is there from day one, and some tweaking just makes things better. Microsoft insists on intertwining/tangling all their programs with the OS in order to support their illegal monopoly position - this is what may be causing a lot of the instability. Apple has made a brilliant OS with X - when you add the programs, they aren't intertwined with the OS. Eventually the desire for total control proves to be insane, unstable and unworkable.

For the record, I agree with Ian's assessment. A system registry!?! DLLs overwriting one another with every new program installed (thus breaking already-installed programs)? No thanks.

Wil Nelson also offers the following thoughts on usability:

XP is much less intuitive than OS X or even OS 9, and some OS X functions are much simpler to implement, such as networking.

David Jackson has also hit on an area of OS X that could use some improvement:

If I have any single type of application that can send me to the reset button, it's got to be a Carbon version of a game . . . I have spent years gaming on the Windows platform, and there were some rough spots there as well, but I suspect strongly that the problems I've had with gaming under OS X are completely related to the porting of those games to OS X. I'm positive that this is a situation that will clear itself up in time when more games are written from the start with OS X in mind . . . I believe that if you were conducting you comparison with a stronger bent towards gaming, you would have almost a dead tie, but that if you did the same comparison a year or so from now using only games written specifically for OS X on the Mac side, your results would be as good or better.

For now, games are still a weak spot, but this time it's not the OS that's at fault. It's the games.

John Moylan struck a similar chord:

It's a good thing that you did not do raw speed comparisons of graphics apps, as they tend to be MMX optimized on x86, while most are just stupid brain-dead ports to the Mac with little/no AltiVec optimizations.

The lone lockup I have had with OS X in well over a year of use came while playing a Carbon game. In the last few weeks, I have noticed several ads looking for Mac OS X programmers. Prior to this, I don't recall seeing an ad for a Mac programmer in years. Hopefully this is a good sign that the quality (and quantity) of applications available for OS X will continue to grow. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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