The Practical Mac

Take the Mac Challenge

- 2002.03.19 - Tip Jar

Coke vs. Pepsi. Tastes great; less filling. Softens hands while you do the dishes (did you know you're soaking in it?).

We are a country of comparison shoppers. The marketing weasels know this. How often do you see an ad proclaiming that, "We make good widgets?" Not often. The ads are more like, "We make better widgets than Brand X."

The vast majority of these ads seek to sway our opinion toward the product being advertised. The key word here is "opinion."

What about facts? Empirical proof? Clear and convincing evidence?

I doubt one could ever "prove" that Coke tastes better than Pepsi or Dr. Pepper. Could one prove that one computer is somehow superior to another? I plan to try.

I believe it is possible to definitively show that one computer, running a certain OS, is superior to other computers running other OSes, at least within clearly defined criteria. Here's the deal.

I do almost as much work at home as I do at my day job. I do legal and financial work for several small companies and nonprofit organizations. Over the last few weeks, I have kept notes about exactly what I do computer-wise when I am home. I discovered that 98% of the tasks I perform on the computer are contained in the following categories and/or program types:

  • Word processor
  • Spreadsheet
  • Presentation program
  • Email client
  • Web browser
  • Web design, lite
  • Web design, heavy-duty
  • File upload/transfer
  • CD burning
  • Receiving faxes via eFax messenger
  • Light-duty graphics design and manipulation

The Challenge

I want to find out - under as nearly identical usage as possible - which is superior for performing my set of tasks: Windows or the Mac OS. Here is how I plan to find out. For approximately a three-month period, I will evenly distribute my work between a Windows machine and a Mac, each equipped as evenly as possible for two computers with a fundamentally different processor architecture. Here are the two computers I have tentatively selected:


  • Asus A7V motherboard
  • AMD Athlon 1 GHz Thunderbird processor
  • 256 MB of RAM
  • 20 GB Fujitsu hard drive
  • 3.5" floppy
  • DVD
  • CD-RW (internal, SCSI)
  • 3.5" floppy
  • 2 USB ports
  • ATI Rage video card


  • iMac DV+/450
  • 450 MHz G3 processor
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 40 GB Maxtor hard drive
  • DVD
  • External FireWire CD-RW
  • USB
  • FireWire


  • Windows 2000 Professional (fully patched with all "critical updates")
  • Microsoft Office 2000
  • Internet Explorer 6
  • Netscape 6
  • Outlook 2000
  • Adobe Acrobat
  • Front Page Express
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver
  • SmartFTP
  • Adaptec EZ CD Creator 5
  • Paint Shop Pro
  • Efax Messenger
  • LimeWire


  • Mac OS X 10.1.3
  • Microsoft Office v. X
  • Internet Explorer 5.1
  • Netscape 6
  • Entourage (in Office v. X)
  • Adobe Acrobat
  • Claris Home Page (Classic app)
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver (Classic app)
  • Fetch
  • Roxio Toast Titanium
  • Adobe Photoshop 7
  • Efax Messenger (Classic app)
  • LimeWire

Neither of these computers is cutting-edge, but neither of them is exactly long in the tooth either. In short, they are in that "sweet spot" somewhere in the middle where their respective OSes should be right at home and have a minimum of stability problems.

I have chosen Windows 2000 rather than XP largely due to the fact that this is the standard in most Windows-based businesses. I do not know of a single company in my area that has adopted Windows XP. Our own anecdotal evidence from testing XP suggests that Microsoft may fare better in this challenge if they are represented by Windows 2000.

I have tried to make the software as even as possible as well. My main hindrance in this effort is the fact that I have not been able to get a copy of Photoshop for Windows. Other than this, I believe they are as evenly equipped as practicable.

The Ground Rules

Exactly what am I trying to prove here? I simply want to find out which is the most stable computing environment. On which platform does one lose the least amount of production time due to computer lockups and reboots - and is the difference significant.

The test is limited to the above tasks and applications on these computers. Any "weird" or noncompliant tasks I need to perform will be done on either my Power Mac 7500 or a Windows 98 notebook I have.

You may be curious as to what the other 2% of my computing time is devoted to. The answer would be scanning. I do not have a scanner that will work on the Windows PC. I have not used Windows to scan in years. In order to eliminate this wild card, I moved the scanner to my Power Mac 7500. For the duration of this challenge, all scanning will be done there and the files transferred to the appropriate computer.

I believe it is just as important to point out what this challenge will not prove. It will not prove that there is one computer and one platform that is always the best choice for every person in every situation. Everyone's needs are different. Some software is only available for one platform. Numerous reasons exist why someone might be better off using a PC or a Mac in a particular situation, regardless of any difference in stability.

This is intended to be a comparison of two different platforms in a semi-controlled environment of general-purpose computing. Nothing more, nothing less.

I will alternate use of the computers, one week at a time. In other words, I will use the Mac exclusively for a period of one week. I will then turn it off, turn on the Windows PC, and use it exclusively for one week. Then back to the Mac. This will continue for 14 weeks. I generally leave my computer on all the time, unless I will not be using it for more than 24 hours or so. This means that it usually stays on all the time unless I go out of town or away for more than a day. I will follow the same rules here.

Some accommodation will need to be made for this computer-swapping. At the end of each seven-day period, I will transfer any files I have created or updated to the other computer. In the intervening periods, I will only turn on the "other" computer if I need to retrieve a file from it.

Since the Mac is my usual computer, and so that I can have a complete email collection when the challenge is over, I will set Outlook on the PC to leave email on the server unless it is deleted locally. By doing this all important email will continue to be available on the Mac.

I will keep a record of all lockups and reboots. I will note if any reboot is mandatory (such as in a complete lockup situation), discretionary, or somewhere in between. I will also report any abnormal program terminations, regardless of their effect on the OS. Since I obviously can't predict any and all restart situations (if I could do that, there wouldn't be much need to undertake this exercise), some of the situations will be handled on a case-by-case basis and the thoughts behind it documented.

I propose to begin this exercise in the next week or two. But before I do, I want to hear from our readers. Please email me your feedback about the test, especially if you have any suggestions for improvement.

Remember, the goal is to have the computers as evenly equipped as possible, not to stack the deck in favor of one or the other. I have access to another PC for the test: a Dell with an Intel 1.7 GHz processor, but otherwise comparably equipped to the AMD described above. My experience, once again based purely on anecdotal evidence, is that a clone with this particular Asus board and an AMD processor has fewer stability issues than a Dell, but I am open to your suggestions. Is the test period too long? Too short?

All comments are welcome and appreciated, but due to the expected volume, I may not be able to acknowledge all of them personally. But rest assured they will all be read and considered.

I will report back when the challenge is on, and I will let our readers know of any tweaks to the test criteria. Once the test is underway, I do not plan on devoting every column to coverage of the Mac Challenge. I may give periodic updates as a footnote to the column, but I do not expect to cover the issue in-depth again until the test is over.

Let me hear from you! 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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