The Practical Mac

Mac Challenge Results

- 2002.06.04 - Tip Jar

A little over two months ago we undertook a simple test. The purpose of this test, which we called the "Mac Challenge," was to do a direct comparison between a Wintel PC and a Mac. The test's primary focus was on stability, with secondary emphasis on performance and usability.

For 30 days, I used a Mac exclusively; for the next 30 days, my sole computer was a Dell running Windows XP. Here is a recap of the configuration of each computer:



  • Dell OptiPlex
  • 1.7 GHz Pentium 4 processor
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 20 GB hard drive
  • 3.5" floppy
  • 2 USB ports



  • iMac DV+/450
  • 256 MB RAM
  • 40 GB Maxtor hard drive (5400 rpm)
  • DVD
  • External FireWire CD-RW
  • USB
  • FireWire


  • Windows XP
  • Microsoft Office XP
  • Internet Explorer 6
  • Netscape 6
  • Outlook (in Office XP)
  • Adobe Acrobat
  • Front Page Express
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver
  • SmartFTP
  • Adaptec EZ CD Creator 5
  • Adobe Photoshop 7
  • LimeWire
  • MP3 player TBA
  • Civilization III


  • 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
  • LimeWire
  • iTunes
  • Civilization III


  1. On the Windows PC, I settled on WinAmp as the MP3 player.
  2. The computers remained on 24/7 unless I was to be away for more than 24 hours. As it turned out, this translated to the Mac being off for one weekend and the Dell for one 8-day period. I extended each test a corresponding number of days.

I logged any problems, discrepancies or abnormalities I encountered with each platform. Any problems encountered were classified into one of the following categories, in descending order of severity:

  1. Complete lockup, blue screen of death (Windows), other situations resulting in computer non-responsiveness. Crashes or problems so severe that the only way to recover was to turn off the power and turn it back on.
  2. Performance seriously compromised, reboot required to restore normal functionality. Severe crashes, but ones which allowed restarting using normal methods.
  3. Performance impaired, able to continue working in some form, but reboot advisable. Crashes, but crashes which allow some sort of continued use of the computer.
  4. Other anomalies. Misc. problems, oddities, and other things that make you say, "Huh?" Reboot not required, perhaps not even beneficial.
  5. Discretionary reboots. Usually, restarts required as a result of installing software, updates, or changing settings.

For each platform, every problem encountered is categorized, described, and listed in chronological order.


Day Description Category
Days 1-7 None

Day 8

Software update installed; reboot. 5
Days 9-26 None

Day 27

Microsoft Word "unexpectedly quit." I have autosave turned on at 5-minute intervals. Word crashed about 4 1/2 minutes after the last auto save. I simply launched Word again and everything was fine. Irritating, though. 4
Days 28-30 None

Windows PC

Day Description Category
Days 1-2 None

Day 3

Explorer crash. These are usually caused by some background process gone bad. Windows gives an error message, Explorer restarts, and many of the icons in your system tray disappear (the programs they represent are terminated). Windows Explorer (not to be confused with the Internet Explorer web browser) is roughly equivalent to the Mac OS Finder. This happened when I was away from the computer for several hours. I returned to find it in this state--I wasn't doing anything! I had left a document open in Word. Fortunately, Word was not affected by the crash and I was able to save the document. Microsoft Outlook was similarly unaffected. My experience has been that Explorer crashes will often not affect the program you are working on in the foreground. I exited the two open programs normally, rebooted, and everything returned to normal. 3
Days 4-6 None

Day 7

Netscape quit working. It would start to load a page, but would just stop. There was nothing wrong with the Internet connection, as Outlook worked normally and I could ping various Internet web sites. Exited Netscape and restarted, nothing. Tried Internet Explorer. It behaved very erratically and stopped responding as well. Now, Outlook is flaky. Something is very wrong. The whole system had become slow as molasses: I mean everything, and I mean so slow as to be unusable. I attempt to restart, but the system hangs on shutdown. I leave to run an errand--I want to give the PC the benefit of the doubt. I return an hour later and it is at the same place. The three-finger salute (Ctrl-Alt-Del) brings up nothing. I have no choice but to turn it off and back on. 1
Day 8 None
Day 9 Another Explorer crash, same fix. 3
Days 10-11 None

Day 12

Internet Explorer locks up and has to be killed with Task Manager. System slows noticeably and I decide to reboot. Normal functionality restored. 3
Day 13 None
Day 14 Explorer crash 3
Days 15-16 None

Day 17

Netscape problem again, same result. 2
Day 18 None

Day 19

Serious Outlook problems. Takes 3 minutes to load, f-o-r-e-v-e-r to check mail (only had 2 very short text messages). Exited and reloaded to no avail. After several tries, had an Explorer crash. Gave up and rebooted. 2
Day 20 None

Note: The computer was off for an 8-day period while I was on vacation. Due to this fact, Day 21 actually takes place 8 days after Day 20.

Days 21-25

None (The rest must have done the Dell some good!)

Day 26

Excel acts up and has to be killed through Task Manager. Shortly, Netscape does the same thing; Internet Explorer, ditto. I know when I'm beaten. I give up and reboot. 3
Day 27 None

Day 28

Windows Updates installed; reboot 5

Day 29

SmartFTP problem; had to kill with Task Manager. 4

Day 30

Same Internet Explorer problem as Day 12. 3


Here is a summary of the number of problems of each type experienced on each platform. Category 5 issues are not counted, as these are not the result of any system problem, but were simply logged for informational purposes:

Category   Mac   Windows
1 0 1
2 0 2
3 0 6
4 1 1
Total 1 10

As an observation, I would note that the Windows PC setup seemed less stable than my normal AMD Athlon running Windows 2000. I don't have hard evidence to prove this; it is merely my subjective observation.


Microsoft has come a long way. I vividly remember when the above totals would be considered a good week with Windows 95. MS also deserves kudos for their design of Office v. X for Mac. The fact that Word can crash, be restarted, and resume normal functionality with absolutely no implications for the rest of the system is, to me, incredible. When I experienced the Word crash, I was working on a document with some very complex tables. There is in fact a known issue in the OS X version of Word in this situation. Microsoft has addressed it in one of their patches, but I have not installed the update. Even without keeping everything patched, Microsoft's OS X programs, including Office and Internet Explorer, run almost flawlessly on the Mac. Office: Mac 2001 for the Classic Mac OS was even a cut above its Windows cousin in the stability department. Some of the programs released by Redmond over the years have been real dogs; their recent offerings for the Mac definitely do not fall into this category.

While Microsoft has come a long way, Apple has come further. I was able to keep my Mac powered on for 30 straight days, using it daily, and it never had to be restarted. Until Apple released OS X, the only other experience of this nature I ever had was when I had a Sun Solaris box on my desk a couple of years ago. Talk back to me, and let me know your take on our results.

The Practical Mac may revisit this Challenge in the future as reader feedback flows in. For now, we will let the results speak for themselves. 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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