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Mac and Windows: Different but Equally Productive

- 2007.01.05 -Tip Jar

In my previous installment, Switching Back to Windows after 3 Yearswith Mac OS X, I wrote about some of the reasons for myfrequent switches between Mac and PC. Now, I would like to go intoa bit more detail about the systems themselves and what attractedor repelled me at the time.

1985: First Mac Exposure

1993 was my first Mac purchase, but not my first Mac exposure,which was back in 1985. I was working as a summer temp at HughesAircraft Company doing light clerical work and helping them enterdata into spreadsheets. Being 1985, that meant green text on blackscreens in some version of DOS and using either VisiCalc or Lotus 123 (I honestly don'tremember which).

Off in a corner they had a Macintosh 128K that nobody used, and Iplayed with it a few times on my lunch break.

That first impression lasted eight years, including itsnegatives.

What impressed me was the GUI, of course, which was far easierto deal with than any command line and its required syntax couldever be. Where the Mac failed, for me at least, was in its singlefloppy and lack of a hard drive, which meant that to doanything required the constant swapping of floppy disks, asthe Mac's minuscule 128 KB of RAM were insufficient for the OS andan application at the same time.

I loved the concept, but I couldn't imagine getting real workdone with the constant demands to switch disks.

1993: Going Mac

Needless to say, a Mac was not something that I thought aboutactually buying until it was time to move overseas, and even then Ionly looked at the PowerBook because of the design issues of 1993laptop PCs.

Laptop PCs in 1993 came in many shapes and sizes, just as theydo today. My brother had a nice Compaq that was less than 2" thick,had a color screen, and weighed about 7 lb. This was fairlyrepresentative of the market, and it cost a then-reasonable$1,800.

I would have simply bought the exact same model in monochrome at$1,200 - except that I saw a PowerBook commercial and noticed thebuilt-in trackball.

After playing with a real PowerBook at an Apple dealer, I washooked. With its 80 MB hard drive, I didn't have to deal with theconstant disk swaps of the old Mac 128K, and with its built-intrackball and broad palm rest, it was a far more elegant packagethan anything on the PC side at any price.

PowerBook 145bI spent $1,500 of myvery measly finances to buy the absolute cheapest PowerBookavailable, the 145b.

Despite its limitations, I fell in love with that machine.System 7.1 was worlds better than Windows 3.1, and even after thearrival of Windows 95 I still felt more advanced using System7.5.1. I stayed with the Mac for both my laptop (I eventually movedto a PowerBook 5300c) and desktop(Power Mac 7200/75) and kept my old386 PC, which was still fast enough using Windows 3.1 and thenWindows 95.

1998: Back to Windows

What forced my next switch was my landing a government job. Iworked as a Special Agent for the Immigration and NaturalizationService (INS) starting in 1997, and by early 1998 I had foundmyself traveling quite frequently and doing a lot of work in thefield.

My PowerBooks were struggling to keep up with the work I wasdoing, which often required multipart forms and reports generatedusing mail merge functions in MS Word and an Access database inWindows - which only sort-of worked when imported into FileMakerPro. [Editor's note: Microsoft has never made a version of Accessfor Macs.]

In addition to Access, I wanted the ability to watch DVD movieson long flights and in lonely hotel rooms when I traveled, so a newlaptop was in order.

My first thought was to buy another PowerBook and use SoftWindows to deal with Access, which was necessary only onceor twice per month.

The problem was the DVD issue. Yes, 1998 PowerBooks played DVDsbeautifully, but only on the high-end WallStreet model that was well out of myprice range. I had seen passive matrix screens and always foundthem quite poor, and on a machine for DVD movies, passive matrixwas a deal-breaker for me.

With my absolute budget limit of $2,000, I simply couldn't havea DVD movie capable PowerBook. $1,600 bought me a generic laptop PCrunning Windows 98 that included a DVD-ROM drive and an activematrix screen.

Windows 98 crashed constantly, enough that I finally upgraded itto Windows NT 4, which was rock-solid reliable, althoughinconvenient and difficult to configure. I still had my DVD movieplayback and Access database (a miserable program, even today).While not as elegant and pleasant to use as my PowerBook (I stillhad the 145B, but I had sold the 5300c), it got the job done andgenerally didn't draw any attention to itself.

1999: Windows 2000

Windows 2000 came out in late 1999 and was a revelation. Windows2000 was faster and even more stable than Windows NT, and itbrought plug-and-play functionality that really worked (in earlierversions of Windows, it only worked sometimes). It was so good thatmany business PCs still use it, with Windows XP and even WindowsVista offering little improvement in core functionality.

In short, Windows 2000 was perhaps the first modern desktop OSsuitable for mainstream users. Macintosh System 7.5, OS 8, andOS 9, while far more feature-rich and elegant, couldn't comeclose to the stability of Windows 2000.

As I upgraded to newer and more powerful laptops (the Power Mac G4 remained my desktop computer),I eventually was upgraded to Windows XP, as it came preinstalled onthe hardware. In the early years of XP I downgraded and keptrunning Windows 2000 for stability and compatibility reasons, butby late 2002 XP was finally mature and stable and the utilityprograms had caught up with the OS change. (The same problems faceMacs with each OS release as essential utilities like DiskWarriorusually break until an updated version comes out.)

2003: Viruses and Other Malware

Late 2003 was a very bad time to be a Windows user: Melissa, I Love U, and mypersonal favorite, A32.Swenn. These are all pieces of malware thatwere the scourge of Windows users.

I was infected with a number of viruses in late 2003 despiteusing Norton Antivirus and the Windows Firewall. The up to 300A32.Swenn-infected emails (the one that looks like a MicrosoftService Pack), at 146K each, slowed my email to a crawl,overloading my account limits and seriously ruining my day.

I don't think I was ever infected by A32.Swenn, as I liketo think I was smart enough to never open one of those attachments,but somebody with my name in their address book sure was.

Back to the Mac

12" PowerBook G4While itdid nothing to ease the flow into my inbox, I became so paranoidabout malware that I went right to the Apple Store and bought a new1 GHz 12" PowerBook.

I used that 12" PowerBook for about 18 months, and then sold itfor almost what I'd paid and bought thefaster 1.5 GHz version of the exact same computer. That says alot, as I love playing with technology and always want to trysomething new. Buying an essentially identical computer was a veryboring thing for me to do, but I was really that pleased with thetechnology and design.

Four hour battery life, small size, fairly light weight, andsomething I'd never had before in a laptop, excellent sound fromthe built-in speakers that made DVD movies a treat when Itraveled.

MacBookIn2006, I upgraded to a black MacBook and notwithstanding the earlyshutdown and extreme heat issues that plagued the three MacBooks Iwent through (see MacBook Pleases,but Two Weeks for Repair Is Excessive and MacBook Repair Saga: Botched and BotchedAgain, but Third Time's the Charm), I still look at the 12"PowerBook as a better machine.

2005: Back to Windows

After three years of OS X bliss, I'm back to using Windows on myprimary computer, a Toshiba Portegé M400 Tablet PC. It'snowhere near as elegant as an Apple portable, with a cheaper lookand feel to the case. It's lacking sophisticated touches likeslot-loading drives and a third speaker.

It's also bulky by comparison, despite sharing the 12" screensize, actually being about as much thicker, deeper and wider than a12" iBook, as the iBook waslarger than the svelte and sexy PowerBook. Only in weight is theToshiba competitive, coming in at 4.5 lb., or just a hair lighterthan the PowerBook's 4.6 lb. and the iBook's 4.9 lb.

Other than size, the Portegé is very similar inspecification to the MacBook and PowerBook laptops that I hadbefore. Its 12" screen, despite its built-in Wacom digitizer, isfar brighter and has better color and contrast than the PowerBookscreen, actually looking just about as nice as the MacBook'sgorgeous glossy panel. The Portegé's screen is semi-glossyand shares the same glare issues as the MacBook, but both areoutstanding in use.

The keyboard is very good, sound is better than the MacBook's(but not as good as the PowerBook's), and at five hours real world,it gets better battery life than either.

Finally, its 1.66 GHz Core Duo processor and GMA 950 integratedgraphics make it almost a MacBook clone in power, except for theslightly slower processor speed that is partly negated by a faster7200 rpm hard drive.

Hooked on Tablets

None of that stuff mattered at all in my decision to replace theunreliable (pre firmware-patch) MacBook with the Windows-onlyPortegé, especially as I was enjoying the versatility ofBoot Camp and thus could run Windows whenever I wanted to on theMacBook. No, what got me was the Tablet PC features after a brieftrial with an older model (see Tablet Computing Can ImproveProductivity).

Okay, so there is the hardware, how about the software?

Quite simply, while many Mac fans are quick to point out howinferior the Windows UI is and just as many Windows users willpoint out how inferior the OS X UI is, the truth is that bothgroups are right - and both groups are wrong.

Here are a few examples.

Different Copy Schemes

I'm not the first and won't be the last to mention that Windowsand OS X handle file management differently. Imagine this simplescenario: You have a folder called "Work" where you keep your workdocuments. If you plan on working at another computer or sharingthe files within, you might copy them to a flash drive, usuallycopying the entire folder if you want to work on more than a fewdocuments within. When you get back home, how do you move thedocuments back to your hard drive?

Imagine that while working in that folder you deleted a bunch ofdocuments that you no longer want, created new ones, and modifiedexisting ones. You may even have simplified the organization ofsubfolders during an hour at the airport when you were bored andhad finished all of your movies.

So when you get back home and update your primary computer, howyou do so is very different depending on whether you're using a Macor a Windows PC.

On a Mac, if you copy the "Work" folder from your flash driveand paste it back onto your Mac, it will replace your old"Work" folder with the new one. On a Windows PC, it willupdate your old "Work" folder with new or newer documentsfrom your flash drive.

There are plusses and minuses to both approaches.

In Windows, if you had changed the subfolders, you would end upwith duplicates, and worse, multiple versions of the same file,making it easy to work with old data by mistake. In OS X, you maydelete important documents that are not in the new folder when youreplace the old one.

Which is better? It depends on how you work and what you areused to.

To a Mac user, the Windows approach will lead to annoyingduplicates, while to a Mac user, Windows will lead to messy foldersand multiple, often outdated file versions. Using the platform youknow, however, will result in simple, predictable behavior and notso much as a second thought about what the file system is reallydoing when you copy and paste that folder at the end of yourtrip.

Shared Folders

There are examples of functions that take half as many clicks toaccomplish on a Mac as on a PC, but there are likewise examples inthe other direction. I would much rather share files and printersfrom a Mac than a PC, for instance, but it's much easier to attachto someone else's shared folder from a PC than a Mac.

Yes, navigating to a share is about the same on each, but unlikeOS 9, which had persistent shares, in OS X you need toremap your shares each time you log onto the network (this can beautomated). In Windows, once you map a share, it's yours until youdon't want it anymore.

Which is better? It depends on what you're doing and your depthof knowledge on that particular platform.

I'm a platform geek and love moving between Mac and Windows. Iam equally proficient with each and am generally equally productiveregardless of what type of computer is in front of me at a givenmoment. Yes, finding and opening a document or application differsbetween Mac and Windows, but once open, the differences areminor.

Working with a Word document makes very little difference inplatform, with most keyboard shortcuts essentially the same andthings organized in a similar way. The eye-candy is different, butthe underlying structure and function are the same. The sameapplies to Photoshop, Acrobat (which you might not need on a Mac),and many other cross-platform applications.

Mixing Platforms

One thing I won't deny, however, is that mixing platforms ismore difficult that standardizing on a single system. While Macsand PCs can communicate and share with each other, they do so indifferent ways, with different procedures and differentlimitations. Windows clients can play nice on an OS X network,and OS X clients can play nice on a Windows domain, but bothwill definitely be second-class citizens on those networks, lackingmany of the automation and other features that single-platformusers enjoy.

In the end, what it all really comes down to is familiarity.Macs are probably easier for a new user, but how many new users areout there? I was a new user in 1981, and every child is a new userat some point, but the fact is that today most computer buyers areupgrading from an older computer, not buying their first. In thatcontext, familiarity really does matter.


In conclusion, I'll highlight another major shift in theindustry, that from WordPerfect to Word as the dominant wordprocessing application.

I remember using Word for Windows 2.0 back around 1990, and ithad an option to duplicate WordPerfect menus and commands.Microsoft did that because it recognized that most people who didword processing did so in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, so to get thosepeople to switch to Word for Windows required making the switch aseasy as possible.

If you want existing users to give up a tool for a better one,that better one either has to be so easy to use that no thought isrequired to make the switch or it should allow users to do whatthey always did and get the same result while adding the newfunctionality on top of that.

Many Windows or Mac commands can be used in the other platformwithout more than a simple control/command key swap, but otherthings are so fundamentally different that it takes a bit ofinvestigation to figure out. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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