War of the Worlds

Mac & PCThe Crusades were chicken feed when it comes to evangelical followings. Now a 25-year-old battle, Drew Turney thinks the Mac vs PC debate has changed enough to warrant another visit…

Windows is the most easy to use and intuitive operating system available to designers today.

That statement probably made your blood boil or at least raised a smile. But is it as incorrect as it used to be? Mac vs PC is as old as desktop publishing and has been subject to everything from in-depth analysis to vitriol bordering on religious extremism.

But things have changed. In the days of Mac OS system 7 and Windows 95 the distinction was easy. The Mac was intuitive, the PC clunky and clumsy, a system only a nerd could love (in the words of many websites), still finding its feet after a decade of disparate and highly technical software tripping over each other.

In this age of affordable personal computing we have previously unimagined computing power and both systems are mature and robust (if you ignore the upgrade and driver niggles that have plagued Vista). Not only that, the things we have to do with computers have changed dramatically, and both systems have their strengths.

Desktop is going to keep this as free of cult-inspired mania as possible. Sure, we’re biased — you’re reading a magazine for designers and these words were written and arranged on Macs, so we feel the attraction of the devoted and the cult of cool. Let’s see if we get a different result after breaking the argument down into the most important aspects of modern computing.

Familiarity breeds content

You’re a PC or a Mac user, seldom both. As such, you’re almost certain to champion the OS you know, and such subjectivity is redundant. However, technically the Mac is a more enclosed environment. There’s more certainty that if you’re comfortable in the Mac OS, tasks will be more intuitive.

The Windows PC is more like a house party, letting anyone in even though they’re not that familiar and giving us a new learning curve with every new task.

Yes, the GUI on a Mac might be prettier (subjective territory again) but it simply offers better environmental stability.

The price is right

It used to be simple. PCs simply were cheaper off the shelf than comparably specced Macs. Mind you, it was never actually that simple — plenty of studies claimed the total cost of ongoing ownership was cheaper on a Mac, despite paying much more for a Motorola-based product than PC users were paying for similar Intel-based systems.

Since Apple famously dumped Motorola to put Intel chips under the hoods of all late model Macs, the up-front price of a Mac has fallen again. With the ongoing software and maintenance costs of each platform mostly unchanged, the Mac is an even better proposition.

If symptoms persist…

The old chestnut about viruses trotted out by Mac users since time immemorial still stands. It’s hard to get accurate numbers of the number of virii in circulation, and they exist for Windows XP, Vista and OSX. For that matter there are viruses for Linux and Symbian (a popular smartphone OS) too, but it’s a question of proportion.

So it’s indeed still the case there are tens of thousands of virii for Windows and only a handful for Mac OSX, but PC users’ common counter-claim is also true — the more popular the Mac gets, the more threats there’ll be. As it stands, the Mac is the obvious choice when it comes to security, but don’t be too lax.

Soft Landing

Another old Windows defence — lack of Mac software — is as silly as it’s ever been. No, not every utility and accessory ever written is available on Mac, but the higher quality control of the Mac development environment is the appeal and you’re less likely to install rubbish.

And the applications we use every day have been available on both platforms for a long time, ensuring a file saved under one system is usable on another in most cases.

The eye of the beholder

Windows 95’s soulless, Tetris-inspired coloured blocks had none of the Mac’s ‘X’ factor. To dangerously skirt subjectivity once more, nobody denied the Mac was better looking. In fact, that was the primary criticism from PC users — computer were specialist technical tools with no regard for aesthetics.

Apple worked hard to bring quality graphics to screens, and when subsequent versions of the Mac system used your monitor’s range to present the best picture, Windows limped along with bitty, 256 colour graphics.

A lot of the criticism about Vista has been concern with beauty over usability, but graphics processing has grown exponentially. With powerful graphics cards and smart graphics software now standard across the board, not to mention display technology evolving as fast as processors, Mac OSX and Vista are all-but indistinguishable when it comes to picture quality.

Power and the passion

Which is more powerful, the Mac or the PC? Nowadays, it’s a completely irrelevant argument. A MacBook Air with a 1.6Ghz chip isn’t going to be as powerful as a Dell Precision workstation with a 3.20GHz Quad Core Intel Xeon chip, and an 8 Core ‘Clovertown’ Mac will blow a $1,000 corner-shop computer supplier’s PC away.

Now we’re in the mobile age things have changed again since the 486 PC and Apple Quadra age (between 15-100Mhz processors and about 4Mb of RAM) and raw speed is not the best gauge for a system. Put a 1.73GHz laptop against a 2GHz desktop and you’ll sometimes be hard pressed to see the difference. The desktop is faster in pure terms, but vendors have become much smarter about how they put hot, electricity-hungry components together, and fast no longer equals best performance.

Expect the field to fragment more in the future, and like everything, the ‘fastest’ is a never-ending race where the leader changes with every quarterly earnings announcement.

The Network is the Computer

Network a Mac to a Mac and a PC to a PC and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. Try to get one talking to the other and you’ll know true suffering. Try to get Vista, XP and Mac OSX talking on the same network and you’ll no longer fear hell.

The innate problem is the ‘should just work’ defence, which you’ll hear from both camps/tech support staff when they convince you their system is easy, it’s that other one that makes it difficult.

Yes, the Mac is graphically easier (as usual), but just clicking on connected devices won’t always ‘just work’. Likewise, Windows employs such a tangled web of user permissions, options, settings and fixes. No marks for either platform in this area, look for a tool like (Network Magic) instead.

The original and best

Everyone knows Apple’s first out of the gate with new technology, Microsoft left to catch up. They did it with the graphic user interface, screen image standards, widgets, non-linear digital video editing and the iPod …right?

Think again. Apple realised early the GUI was more user friendly than typing at a DOS-style command prompt, so they bought the nascent technology from Xerox, who saw no value in it. They launched neither the digital editing (Google ‘Editdroid’) nor compact MP3 player crazes. Apple merely has a good eye for what people will like and what they’ll like about it.

So while Microsoft has spent recent history stumbling over itself trying to catch up to and outdo Apple (the Zune player, anyone?), Apple has invented very little, merely repackaging it with great design for mass consumption.

The calm in the storm

The service pack 2 issue of Windows XP is regarded as the sweet spot of Windows reliability. The Blue Screen of Death and use of Control+Alt+Delete are longstanding pop culture fixtures, but unexpected restarts only occurred a few times in the average month under normal circumstances.

For all the criticism of Vista, it’s far more stable and issues have been mostly restricted to three areas. First is the inevitable process of running XP applications in an environment built from the ground up for security (yes, including the endless prompts when you have User Account Controls turned on). Second is the lag in device drivers, and third is old hardware — Vista is very power hungry and anything less than 2Gb of Ram won’t do it justice, causing the endless waits many have complained about just to empty the trash or move files.

Mac OS was never perfect either, the familiar bomb window showing up once or twice a month. Apple abandoned the kernels of previous operating systems long before Vista and gave us a much more robust environment by basing OSX on Unix. Crashes were still rare and they isolated the offending application rather than making you restart the whole system.

Disturbingly, things have gone downhill since the late 2007 release of Leopard (10.5). Desktop has experienced more application crashes and freezes than ever, and we’re going to go out on a limb to say the PC has finally drawn even.

Print and pre-press

Finding and collecting fonts and images used to be a messy, slapdash affair on Mac and nearly impossible on PC. Design relied to a certain extent on knowing where files were, and maybe it’s just us because we learnt on a Mac, but finding what you needed in a Windows system is like navigating a labyrinthine hedge maze signposted in a foreign language.

Nowadays, pre-press and production is done in your software. The major applications behave the same way on both platforms in checking your work, preparing it for output and collecting the necessary files — a practice virtually obsolete anyway since the advent of the PDF as a standard pre-press format.

Which brings us to on-screen picture quality. The first Mac monitors might have been better than those of a PC, but nowadays we chop and change monitors (and monitor technology like LCD vs CRT) so often you just can’t trust colour any more. Any designer worth his or her salt should rely on colour profiles and invest more time in proofing at the bureau rather than the desktop stage.

Web Design

Oh, the purgatory of moving from a print to a web design environment. Some unenlightened studio or production manager would put you on a PC because ‘that’s what web users use’. It might have been partly true once, but it’s even less so now. Don’t tell the publishers of Opera and Netscape, but you can program websites with just a few PC browsers in mind today — Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 (IE 6 and Safari if you’re really keen).

With the rise of standards-compliant design, your design will work if (or when) it comes time to repurpose the site for mobile device, TV or the myriad other displays they keep telling us websites will appear on.

Standards also let you make very quick changes across a whole site. You only need a PC handy to test once you make and upload the change on a Mac, and with more than one computer in plenty of homes as well as offices now, moving between the two to keep an eye on your web design is completely feasible.

The Verdict

Testing which platform is easier to use is a lot like the famous experiment of Schroedinger’s Cat; our experience of the experiment determines the outcome. If Desktop had been using a PC all these years we might consider them easier to use, but anecdotal evidence suggests newcomers find Macs easier to get around because friendlier and less ‘computer-y’.

So we’re going to call it for the Mac for a variety of reasons, but with a caveat. With Vista, Windows is trying harder than ever to be a user-friendly OS, and Apple has seriously dropped the ball with Leopard. It offers no substantial improvements, some are a step back (Stacks), some are good ideas poorly executed (Time Machine), and it makes Apple look more like the ‘We Can Do No Wrong’ multinational we used to see Windows as with each passing month. And all the while, Windows is slowly closing the gap…

Ironically, the group to which that may matter the least is Apple itself. Their first consumer-friendly foray into the home PC was the 1998 iMac, and it signalled Apple’s focus away from a niche professional fringe. They’ve spent the ten years since slowly getting out of the computer business and turning themselves into a digital lifestyle brand on the back of products like the iPod and GarageBand, so it might be up to another platform to take up the mantle of designer’s best friend.

Hello, Linux?

PCs in Hallowed Ground

Once upon a time, the idea of a PC in a design studio was as ridiculous as that of a cow in a crockery shop. But stranger things have happened, and as Sydney digital agency Autumn:01 has found, Windows is not always akin to an alien infestation.

The bulk of Automun:01’s work is digital and clients have included ABC TV, AMP, Channel [V], EMI Music Australia, Foxtel and Toshiba. As senior account manager Kate Kendall says, the company is happy in a Windows-only world. “There’s no denying Macs look cool,” she agrees, “But we’re comfortable with our trusty PCs.”

Making sure there’s a Mac on hand to test for compatibility, Kendall reports that Autumn:01 stays close to clients and their system of choice, particularly when most major tools are available for both platforms. “Many business applications only run on PC’s,” she says. “We’re a digitally focussed agency developing technical applications, so we’re definitely at an advantage using PCs over Macs. Most of our clients work on PC’s so it makes sense to develop on a platform they’re familiar with. Plus, considering the same design applications exist on PCs as Macs it’s a win-win situation.”