Why Is Low End Mac Advocating Cheap Windows PCs?

2007 – “What’s happened to Low End Mac lately?” It’s a question I hear from readers and staff members. “What’s with the spate of pro-Windows articles? Why do you let your writers advocate for Windows?”

Changing Sensibilities

When Low End Mac was launched nearly ten years ago, Apple’s future was uncertain, the Mac OS was considerably superior to Windows 95, and Mac users held on to their hardware for a long, long time.

Ten years ago, the focus wasn’t on switching to the Mac. It was on sticking with the Mac when the future was uncertain. It was on pointing out the problems in the Windows world – viruses, instability, networking nightmares, etc. – to keep the faithful from abandoning the superior platform.

Since then, a lot of things have changed. Microsoft released Windows 98, which gave the Mac OS much better competition. Then came Windows 2000, which many consider the peak of Windows stability, and eventually Windows XP replaced them all.

Computers went from the 100-200 MHz range with PowerPC 604 or Pentium CPUs to the 2-3 GHz range with dual-core G5s (until last year) and Intel Core CPUs. Base memory went from 64 MB to 512 MB, and hard drives from less than 10 GB to 160-250 GB.

And the Mac OS improved as well. It was a tough transition from the Classic Mac OS to OS X 10.0. Version 10.1 made things a lot better, and 10.2 Jaguar was the first version to really unleash the potential of the new architecture on Apple hardware. For a lot of Mac users with older hardware, version 10.3 Panther is all they’ll ever need.

And now the Windows world has Vista, which is going to give the better Windows PCs all the eye candy Mac users are already used to. If they have “good enough” hardware. And if they buy the “right” version of Vista (where Mac users have one desktop version of OS X, Windows users have six different versions of Vista to choose from).

Mac vs. Windows

The battle is over. The victory won. And the winner is . . . Intel. Macs can now run Windows either as their native operating system (using Boot Camp) or virtualized alongside OS X (Parallels Desktop).

It’s also possible to run OS X for Intel on a good number of Windows PCs, as some of our writers already know, and Parallels is developing a version of Desktop for Windows that will allow running Mac OS X alongside Windows (and perhaps Linux as well).

Users can already choose their flavor of Windows and Linux to run alongside OS X, and that removes one obstacle to switching from Apple hardware. And when Parallels releases a version of Desktop that can run OS X alongside Windows on run-of-the-mill Windows PCs, the end times will be at hand.

The Mac Is Software

Although Macs and PCs have traditionally used different CPUs and different types of expansion slots and interfaces, that’s changed over the years. Today’s Macs may have the same Intel CPUs, WiFi chips, USB 2.0 ports, and graphics processors as Windows PCs – yet they remain Macs.

Mirror Drive Door Power Mac G4Some would say that’s because of their design. Macs have always looked different. And while that’s true, it’s just cosmetics. How attractive or ugly my Power Mac G4/1 GHz dual is doesn’t really matter when it sits out of sight.

What makes a Mac a Mac is software, especially the operating system. And that’s especially obvious today, when you can run Windows XP or Vista on Apple hardware. There’s nothing about Apple hardware that makes for a better Windows experience; it’s just as good or bad an OS as it is on any competently built PC.

It’s the Mac OS that sets us apart, for better and worse. And that’s something I hope a lot of Windows users will discover when Parallels releases a beta version of Desktop for Windows.

Windows Is ‘Good Enough’

What bothers those who have written to me – and what frustrates a lot of us as well – is that Apple doesn’t choose to compete in several markets. There is no ultralight MacBook. There is no rugged MacBook bigger than 13.3″. There is no less costly, less expandable alternative to the Mac Pro for those who need expansion slots. And there is no cheap Mac to compete with cheap Windows PCs.

For those who are comfortable with Windows (and I will never count myself among them – for me, Windows is more alien than Linux), the simple fact is that Windows is good enough for most users doing the tasks they do most of the time. Thus people upgrading from 100-500 MHz PCs running Windows 98 or Me will be absolutely blown away by today’s $300 PCs.

Truth be told, they really aren’t $300 PCs – something Andrew Fishkin mentions in his articles. By the time you add a decent keyboard ($30-50) and expand RAM sufficiently (another $100) and buy a good monitor, you’ve got a $600 system. Add a better video card, since “vampire video” has some real drawbacks, and you’ve got a $650 computer.

Mac mini, original designCompare that to buying a $600 Mac mini. Add a keyboard and mouse ($30-50 for the Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop 1000). Add an inexpensive 17″ or 19″ display ($150-200). Upgrade RAM to 1 GB ($100). And since you can’t put a “real” video card in the Mac mini, you have a $900 system.

Is a Mac Worth $250 More?

Is it worth $250 more to have OS X and the free iApps that come bundled with Macs (Mail, Safari, iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, iDVD, Address Book, iSync)? Is the Mac user experience worth 40% more than the Windows experience?

I think so. I’ve been a Mac user part-time since 1986 and have used Macs exclusively (outside of debugging website design) since 1991. I’ve been through System 6.0.x, System 7.x, as well as Mac OS 8.x, 9.x, 10.1, 10.2, 10.3, and now 10.4 Tiger. I’ve used Microsoft Word (5.1a), ClarisWorks/AppleWorks (version 1.0 to present), FileMaker Pro, Freehand, Quark XPress, Photoshop, Internet Explorer, Netscape, iCab, Safari, Mozilla, Mail, Gyaz Mail, PowerMail, Claris Emailer, Claris Home Page, BBEdit Lite, TextWrangler, iTunes, iPhoto, Address Book, and much more.

What I’ve found in all my years of Mac use is something superior to Windows 1.0, 2.0, 3.1, 95, 98, Me, and XP. (I’ve never used Win2K.) All of my Macs have been stable. And they have all worked consistently. What I learned with one version of the Mac OS I can bring forward to the next.

The Mac Advantage

We’ve been extolling the Mac Advantage since Low End Mac began in 1997. We point out that Macs are easier to network – even more true with WiFi. We stress that Macs are essentially free of malware. And we mention that Apple tends to make superior hardware (the occasional warranty extension for logic board bugs notwithstanding).

Those are Mac advantages, but the biggest Mac advantage isn’t how much time, money, and horsepower you aren’t losing to antivirus and anti-adware programs or how easy it is to connect to a WiFi network in the field. The big Mac advantage is productivity.

Both Windows and the Mac OS are windows-based graphical operating systems. The big difference is the windows. On the Microsoft side, each application has a single window where all your work resides – and when you close that window, you close the app.

On the Mac side, each file (image, word processing document, etc.) has a single window, so you may have several document windows open in Word, two or three HTML docs in Home Page, a couple of different windows in your browser, and so forth.

The brilliance of the Mac OS is that it has a document-oriented windowing system, whereas Windows has a program-oriented windowing system. On the Mac, most apps let me close all of my windows while keeping the program running, so the next time I need to edit an image or fiddle with HTML code, I don’t have to relaunch Photoshop Elements, Home Page, or TextWrangler.

That brings up one advantage Mac OS X has over the Classic Mac OS. Under the old Mac OS, when you switched between applications, the program came to the foreground along with every open window obscuring all the other windows you had open in other apps. With OS X, you can bring individual windows to the foreground in most apps (Photoshop Elements, though, does a great job of hiding anything else you may have open).

The Better OS

I don’t think we have a single writer at Low End Mac who would rather work with Windows than with a Mac. We all believe that the Mac is the superior platform and the Mac OS is superior to Windows and Linux.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize Windows as a valid and viable alternative to the Mac. For those looking for a low cost computer for basic productivity (especially with the demise of AppleWorks, one of Apple’s best apps ever), you can buy a brand new $300 Windows PC with a full warranty or a hand-me-down Mac from a few years back that may only be guaranteed “not DOA”.

I have a year-old Windows XP laptop with 512 MB of RAM, a 1.4 GHz Celeron CPU, “vampire video”, built-in WiFi, and absolutely horrible battery life (I’d guess about 45 minutes). I use it for two things – testing webpage design on Internet Explorer 6 and playing with Ubuntu Linux. The laptop set me back about $700.

I have a five-year-old Power Mac G4 with 1.75 GB of RAM, a pair of 1 GHz G4 CPUs, Radeon 9000 Pro graphics with 64 MB of dedicated memory, an old fashioned AirPort card, a USB 2.0 card, and a 250 GB hard drive. It cost me under $700 before upgrades, and I already had the AirPort card.

Mac OS X 10.4 TigerThat Power Mac is my workhorse. It replaced a 1.25 GHz 2004 eMac, and it runs OS X 10.4 Tiger beautifully. Right now I have a dozen apps open, including Claris Home Page in Classic mode, and everything is running nicely. About the only things that slow me down are working with video (which I don’t do often) and the beta version of Yahoo Mail, which is a hog.

From the standpoint of productivity, I’ll take my Power Mac over any computer running Windows. I need to be able to switch between apps instantly and work with side-by-side and overlapping windows and multiple apps all the time. I have a workflow that I’ve honed over the years that makes me very productive; I can’t afford a change that will reduce productivity. (This kept me from switching to OS X until just before 10.2 came out. I cuts both ways.)

Low End Mac

Low End Mac has not became a Windows advocacy site. Windows remains “the enemy” in that it’s the primary reason people aren’t interested in trying the Mac – and you have to know your enemy. It’s one thing to caricature your enemy in political cartoons and build up anti-whoever sentiment, but to beat the enemy, you need to know the enemy. You need intelligence. You need strategy.

Windows is no longer the kludge it once was. It’s a very sophisticated operating system that can do pretty much everything OS X can (after all, that’s where Microsoft get many of its “new” ideas). Windows users can be very productive, and new Windows computers can be a lot less costly than new Macs.

We also need to understand that you can’t just sit down a Windows user in front of the “superior” and “more intuitive” Mac OS and have them be productive. There is a learning curve, there are real differences, and there are areas where Windows is superior.

Yes, it hurts to say that, but it’s true. And truth be told, it’s not Windows itself that’s superior, but software written for Windows. Messaging software for Windows, such as Yahoo Messenger, tends to have features missing in Mac versions, such as voice chat. And Yahoo Mail on Windows with Internet Explorer is a much better email platform than it is on the Mac or on Windows with Firefox or Opera.

But overall, Apple builds the superior operating system and gives away an incredible bundle of free apps with every new Mac. We lose out to Windows on high-end gaming, Yahoo Mail, and messaging software.

The brilliance of the Intel transition is that we no longer need to make an either-or choice between Mac and Windows. We can now run both on a single computer at the same time, thanks to Parallels Desktop for Mac. If I had an Intel Mac, I could see how much better Yahoo Mail is (my girlfriend really misses it), play with voice chat in Yahoo Messenger, and have a lot more options in accounting software.

The Future

Virtualization is a sword that cuts both ways. Every new Mac is capable of running Windows. And with Parallels Desktop for Windows, a lot of Windows users are going to be able to run Mac OS X.

Microsoft will profit by selling more copies of Windows. Apple will profit by selling more copies of OS X. And users will profit by being able to use the best of both worlds on a single computer.

We believe that this will only benefit the Mac platform, so we’re not afraid of those perfectly adequate cheap Windows PCs. After all, they may soon be running OS X.

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