I guess I lied about not blogging while on vacation… but layovers and long flights need to be good for something, right?
A few weeks ago I had, and wrote about a major hard drive meltdown on my Dell Precision Workstation PC in the midst of several imminent deadlines. This incident forced me to run out to the local Apple store and buy a Mac Pro. Having used a PC almost exclusively since the days of the 286 Tandy, I was a little apprehensive about switching to a Mac. Not because I did not believe they were good computers, but just because the PC was something I had invested a lot of time, money and learning into. That’s one thing about PC’s, they are a little like hot rod cars… it’s fun to tinker under the hood with them, even though the tinkering can lead to it not running right for a while. I took some pride in the fact that I could replace interior hardware, set up home wireless networks and troubleshoot hardware and software issues with minimal technical support calls to Dell. My short experience with a Mac was back in the very early Power Mac days, when I got one specifically for a single client with whom I was illustrating and designing educational comic book format booklets with anti-smoking, anti-drug and similar themes. I liked it fine, but it wasn’t any better than the PC in so far as what I wanted and needed to do with it, other than it’s compatibility with that specific client. I had a few problems with that Mac, and ended up selling it later when the work from that client dried up.
I’ve been doing published digital art for a lot of clients for years on the PC. I never had any real problems and no compatibility issues. Over the years the difference between programs on the two platforms became less and less noticeable until they were virtually the same. Adobe products are identical, with only keyboard shortcuts a little different, and dialogue boxes that relate to the OS itself (like saving and printing). MAD uses Macs and they never had a clue I was on a PC until I told them. Graphics files are graphics files… as long as you are working with pixels there is basically no difference in a Mac image and a PC image. My Dell Workstation was a 3.0 GHz Pentium 4 with 2 GB ram and a high end nVidia 256 MB graphics card. It had lots of other bells and whistles, but the bottom line it that is handled even big images easily and I could do digital illustrations for anybody without a problem. I had thousands of dollars invested in software. I knew the PC. Why change?
I first started thinking about it due to the infamous “iPod effect”. The fallout from Apple’s most brilliant and innovative product since it’s first personal computer cannot be overstated. This little music box created it’s own market, and provided a (relatively) cheap way for a planet dominated by PC users to be introduced to Apple’s self contained and beautifully designed world. Suddenly millions of people who had no desire or reason to buy an Apple product owned and iPod, were looking forward to the next generation of them and started visiting the Apple website and going into Apple retail stores, seeing the sleek and elegant computers on display. Those same millions began thinking about Macs when considering their next computer. I was one of those. I really liked the look of the OS, it’s dock, animations and just plain better design. Still, what was that but eye candy? When it came down to it, my PC performed the functions I needed it to on both the art and business side of things, and thanks to LOTS of third party software, I could even make it look exactly like I was running OSX Tiger. Check out this link and this link if you are a PC user suffering from Mac OS envy. Between my Apple Cinema Display and these ‘skinning’ programs, visitors to the studio thought I was using a Mac. More fun tinkering under the hood. The Flyakyte freeware in the first link is a one-stop instant OSX desktop skin for Windows.
For years many of my colleagues in the art world tried to convince me to switch to a Mac. There was no real compelling reason, however. I had no problem recognizing that the design of the Mac was better than the PC, and that OSX was by far a prettier and more elegant OS than Windows. That is a nice thing, but not very hard to do when you did as Apple and refuse to license your technology to outside hardware manufacturers, and had such a stranglehold on the software code that only a handful of applications were made for your platform compared to the PC. That “Betamax” thinking was both the boon and bane of the Mac, and has been discussed so throughly on the internet I won’t go further with it here. Suffice it to say that Apple’s look, feel and design were much better than an un-pimped Windows machine. My issue was with functionality, and in that there was no reason to change. All I needed to do on a computer I could do well on my PC. Why in the world would I want to change? Still, the aesthetics of the Mac keep appealing to the artist in me, and that was getting harder to ignore.
When my Sony laptop screen died about a year ago, I decided here was a chance to try out a Mac and see what the fuss was all about. My Vaio laptop was a Best Buy toy that I had mainly for travel, doing business related e-mailing and paperwork on it and maybe watching a DVD on a flight. It had nowhere near the horsepower I would need to do digital color work while on the road. The color of a laptop’s active-matrix LCD screen also worried me because it would not be close to print color and I eyeball all my color work on screen, being used to the shifts on my Cintiq enough to compensate. Several times I wished I had a portable computer with that kind of muscle so I could take color work with me if needed, and an Apple G4 Powerbook with an upgrade of RAM should do the job. I got the laptop and sadly got a bit of a lemon. Right out of the box, the Airport wifi did not work properly and when I took it on vacation to Hawaii just a few weeks later I discovered unless I was right next to a broadcasting access point I did not get enough signal to connect. Also, I discovered Apple’s vaunted colorsync features did not extend to a laptops LCD screen, and I had the same color shift issues I would with a PC. The machine seemed slow to me as well, at least compared to my almost two year old PC desktop. The “R” key also doesn’t work unless I hit it just right and hard enough. Applecare’s tech people refused to believe the Airport problem was hardware related, even though I was sitting right next to a PC user happily browsing away with a full wifi signal as I talked with them and my Powerbook had zero signal. They treated me like some idiot who obviously couldn’t set networking properly. Worse, when they couldn’t solve the problem, they just wrote it off as a bad wifi signal and asked if they could help me with something else. Applecare needs a little work. Eventually the Mac Genius at my local Apple store agreed something was wrong, and sent it off to Apple. To their credit, it was returned with a part replaced in 2 days, and now the Airport works great. The “R” key still sticks.
Despite the minor hardware defects, I liked the Mac itself. The OS was just as petty as I expected it to be. The differences between Windows and Mac were not so broad as to be hard to get used to. The tasks one needed to do on a computer were all there, they just got done a little differently on the two platofrms. Two things stuck me right away as cons to owning a Mac, however. One of which I was aware of and one I was not. The first was a much more limited selection of software for the Mac. Apple aficionados might say “how many software DVD players or Fax programs do you need?”. My answer would be “one, but one that does what I want it to do”. One example of this that stuck me hard was the Mac’s built in DVD player. I think I’ve complained about this before in this space, but it’s a classic example of what a shortcoming it is to have limited software choices. Apple decided somewhere along the line that it was a violation of copyright to allow someone to take a screen capture from a DVD, so it did not allow this feature in it’s player. Worse, it also made it impossible to work around this by doing a simple screen capture or grab of the entire desktop with a paused DVD on the screen. If you try that in OSX 10.4, you get a black box where the DVD window is. Now, in my line of work, taking screen captures from DVDs is a must for reference puposes… and there isn’t a court in the country that wouldn’t recognize my use of such images as “fair use” and not copyright infringement. On a PC, this would simply mean I would go get a DVD player that would allow screen captures. I found there really isn’t any other DVD player for the Mac. Eventually I found the shareware program “VLC”, which has a clunky but usable “snapshot” feature. Even later somebody got smart and created a ‘plug in’ type program for DVD player called DVD Capture. It is also not ideal and somewhat clunky, but it works. For a while there it looked like I would not be able to do DVD captures at all. On my PC I had a terrific program called WinDVD, that had a screen capture feature that worked like iPhoto, with a sidebar of thumbnails that allowed me to quickly look at the picture and discard if it wasn’t what I wanted, build a little photo library and save it all with one click to wherever I wanted. No such thing on the Mac, just two awkward workarounds.
The other thing I did not expect: the limitations with website based programs. I quickly discovered that this is still a PC world, and website developers write interactive programs for Internet Explorer first and everything else second. I’m talking about on-line banking, website CMS systems, web-based payroll, etc. Too many of them rely on Active X controls or other Microsoft technology. This is not Apple’s fault, just as the lack of software choices is not… unless you site that long go choice that led to Microsoft and the PC’s imperfect but overwhelming dominance of the computing world. Safari is okay with many sites, but would not work with my website’s CMS system, nor my Wachovia business banking site or my ADP payroll web based interface. Thankfully, Mozilla’s Firefox can do the job on the first two, although not without some annoying issues. With ADP, I am out of luck. It’s I.E. or nothing. Big problem, especially if I am on the road and need to do payroll. This week, for example, I’ll be going over to a friend’s place in Orlando early Tuesday to borrow their PC to do payroll, while my Powerbook sits cold and unused back at the condo. Microsoft might have been smart when they stopped developing IE for the Mac, that is a real problem for those that need IE, especially web designs that need to test their site designs on the world’s most overwhelmingly dominant browser. Apple addressed that nicely by switching to Intel chips, allowing Macs to run Windows when needed.
A few weeks ago when my hard drive failed, the Mac or PC choice was made for me. I had two jobs with deadlines only two days and change away, and the soonest I could get a replacement PC with enough juice to do the work would be two days from Dell. That would blow both deadlines, and the total income from both jobs would pay for a new computer. I went to the Apple Store and got a Mac Pro with 4 GB ram, 2 Dual Core Intel 3 GHz processors and the ATI Radeon X1900 XT 512 MB video card. I’ve already documented the early issues I had with the computer, so I won’t rehash them here. The few other issues I have seem to be all related to outside factors. My Cinema Display sometimes has the bizarre “dancing green pixels” issue that is well documented on Apple forums. It’s annoying, especially since Apple seems to be ignoring what is obviously a fairly common problem with no official explanation or workaround. A quick restart solves the problem, but it recurs regularly… usually after I wake the computer up from sleep. The other issue was with an Apple external modem, which I need to use for faxing. It would not work, but that turned out to be an issue with my DSL phone line. According to my provider, an analog phone can be used on the DSL line at the same time the broadband is being use without a problem, but they are wrong. There is noise on the line that, while not something you can hear with a normal phone, it screws up fax modems royally. One radio Shack DSL line filter and $12.00 later all is well. Right now the Mac Pro is working perfectly with no issues.
PC or MAC: The Verdict
So, is the Mac better than the PC? I’ve worked with my Mac Pro for a few weeks now, my Powerbook for about a year and a PC for 16 years, and I think I am qualified to compare the two objectively. The answer is, yes. A Mac is better than a PC. The elegance and prettier look aside, the OS is easier to use, system preferences are easier to configure and it’s software is a breeze to install and configure. What gave the PC it’s overwhelming market share is also it’s weakness… compatibility. I always stuck to big name software and hardware, thinking that by doing so I would avoid most of the software conflicts that plague PC users, but I found that while that policy helped, there were still conflicts. Anti-virus software alone was as big headache. Even with careful installations and maintenance, Norton Anti-Virus was unstable and would lock up my system with it’s ccapp.exe background program at least every few days. No such problems (so far) on the Mac. Hardware is about the same on both machines. Plug and Play only works consistently on true Apple products, and even then it takes some tinkering to get things working sometimes. I had to call Applecare and dig deep into the Printer Setup Utility to get my firewire Epson printer working. My scanner works, even though it is listed as “unknown device” in System Profiler. The Mac isn’t perfect, but it’s more user friendly and consistent than the PC.
After using the Mac and then going back to the PC (I replaced the bad drive, reinstalled Windows and reset the system so I could sell it) I could compare the two side by side. One thing I noticed right away: the Mac Pro is much quieter. This may be more a function of the new Duo Core processors, which I understand use only 4 small fans because of far less energy consumption and therefore heat generation, than it is of any design difference. Nonetheless, it is virtually silent compared to the whirring space heater that was my Dell. Booting up the computer also takes a fraction of the time. I haven’t done a stop watch comparison, but I would estimate in takes my Mac Pro around 30 seconds from the time I press the power button to the time I am using it. It might be almost 4 times that for the PC. That might not seem like much, but it means I can turn off the computer at night and reboot in the morning without sitting there staring at the screen waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Another thing I noticed is that system windows open faster on the Mac. They are open almost instantly, whereas with the PC they take a few seconds. That also might not seem like much, but when you open countless windows per day it adds up. Using OSX compared to Windows XP, the interface is much more elegant and slick, that’s for certain. Windows works well doing what it needs to do, as does OSX. The Mac just does it prettier. Overall I give the Mac higher marks for most things and equal for most of the rest.
Also, the old PC argument that Macs are much more expensive isn’t really true anymore. With the exception of people who build computers themselves from scratch (and who really does that??) similarly configured Macs are no more expensive than their PC counterparts. In fact, if I was to order a similarly configured Dell 690 Workstation to compare to my Mac Pro, the Dell would actually cost more.
That’s not to say the PC doesn’t do some things better than the Mac. Bill Gaines and crew did have some good ideas. The best of them is the right-click context sensitive menus in Windows. The PC’s two button mouse allowed both a left and right click button, and Windows took advantage by creating the “right click menu”. Basically you right-click any item on the desktop and a pop up menu appears with choices related to whatever you clicked on. This is incredibly convenient, and is a huge time saver as those pop up menus seem to always have choices you want to use. It eliminates lot’s of going up to the menu bar and selecting choices from the drop down menus. Apple knew a good thing when they saw it, and incorporated both the left-right click mouse (Mighty Mouse) and the right click menus in OSX. Just go to your mouse preferences and enable right click on the right front area of your apple mouse. Start right clicking on everything and you’ll wonder how you got along without it. Windows menu bar was also a smart addition to the OS. Unlike the Mac’s menu bar, which becomes the active program’s menu bar, it is more of an OS center. Each open application and window has a small button on it, enabling easy switching to any app or window, and an easy way to see what you have open. Mac’s method of a single menu bar and application switching via command-tab was awkward in comparison. Once again, Apple addresses this with their “dock” feature in OSX 10. Not quite as easy to use but it is still very effective and also doubles as a quick launcher. One thing that drives me crazy with the Mac is the fact that one miss-click outside your document window tosses you off the program and back to the desktop/finder menu. Windows actually creates a separate window and desktop background, with it’s own menu bar, for each open application. Maximizing the application makes the entire desktop that app’s background. You can drag applications between multiple monitors, with their menu bars in the appropriate monitor. That makes a lot more sense than the Mac’s single menu bar that changes based on the active application, and is stuck on the main monitor. I have to swap the menu bar to my Cintiq using the “arrangement” option in the Display dialogue in System Preferences. Then I have to go into the Cintiq preferences and switch it from monitor two to monitor one. Lot’s of extra steps there.
Still, when it all is said and done, I do prefer the Mac. I doubt I’d have changed from the PC without the emergency situation I had, and I am still in doubt if it would have been worth it money wise considering the software I had to buy and some of the workarounds I’ve had to deal with, especially with the web browser problems. My advice to PC users who do graphics work is that, if you have the inclination and don’t mind the expense and time switching platforms will entail, then you would do well to switch and would be glad you did in the end. I am thinking about selling my Powerbook and trading up to a Mac Book pro, with which I could run either boot camp or Parallels and Windows, thereby enabling me to utilize Internet Explorer for the few websites that refuse to allow anything but IE to use their interfaces. If that works as well as advertised, that would solve the PC compatibility issues, both at home and on the road.
So, looks like I am a Mac convert… although I will never understand Mac-heads and their often fierce belief the are smarter and hipper than PC users, and that somehow they believe Apple and Steve Jobs are personal compatriots in a war against the greedy Microsoft nation. I’ve got news for them, the Mac is just a computer, Steve Jobs isn’t your friend and Apple wants your money as badly as Microsoft does. There is nothing wrong with that, free enterprise is a wonderful thing and it’s what makes we consumers get better products at better prices. Just don’t mistake it for something it’s not.
That said, I still love my Mac. I don’t want to marry it or anything, though.
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929 New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550
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