Does getting a Mac solve my problems as an entry level user?

I am getting a Mac, what do you think? I am getting a Mac because it does not need antivirus. I am getting a Mac because it does not get malware. I am getting a Mac because it is easier to use. I am getting a Mac because it is faster.

These are questions and statements that I hear a lot, mainly recently. With the iPod launch, Apple has been enjoying more recognition to their brand and ecosystem, then came the iPhone, and finally the iPad (the most successful Apple product yet). This is something that is undeniable, and prompted many users to consider getting an Apple computer.

When people ask me this, I actually have trouble answering without getting too technical. I worked in enough Apple’s computer to admire their engineering, and troubleshooted enough OSX problems to know it is not immune to problems. So lets clarify this a little.

Apple Mac lines (there are multiple lines, like Mac Pro, MacBook, etc) are generally well constructed, with attractive design. This is a big plus for users. They also have excellent engineering inside, where all the space is well used. Most users won’t ever open an Apple computer, and they should not. While this is good, it is also bad. As a technical person, I can’t help to really enjoy the engineering inside, however if I need to replace a part, or troubleshoot then I dread it.

To give you an example. If there is a problem with your motherboard in the Mac Pro, you will have to replace the whole logic board. At this point you are looking at close to $500 just on the board. For a regular PC this is called Motherboard, and starts in $60, and goes to $350 for a gaming quality motherboard. Since a Mac Pro will start in $2500, $500 to fix it seems reasonable. But what about the CPU? Well Mac Pro uses Xeon CPUs, these are server class CPU, and they are priced as such. 90% of users don’t need a Xeon CPU, and could have saved $500 on the CPU cost alone.

The main problem seems to be that consumers forgot what Apple’s computer were built for. Before Apple switched to Intel’s CPU, Apple’s computers were as user friendly as they are now, but their CPU system was specific enough that required that special pricing. If you were working on graphics (3D or Photoshop), the IBM’s PowerPC CPU was a truly parallel RISC processor. To put it in simpler terms, today’s CPUs are not completely truly multitasking, each core/CPU can only work on 1 instruction set at a time, however they switch the instruction set quickly, so it gives the illusion of multitasking. PowerPC’s CPUs could actually work on multiple instruction sets at the same time.

This seems technical, but here is my point. New Apple’s computers are not any better at handling graphics than a Windows based PC is. Myth #1. They used to be, but not anymore, and actually depending on the build, the Windows PC might be faster. A lot of software can now unload work to the video card instead of using the CPU, for example Photoshop CS5.5 can do that, but in Windows with a Nvidia video card. Apple’s Mac Pro use AMD video cards (which are not bad cards at all, but Adobe focused on CUDA, which is proprietary to Nvidia instead of AMD’s use of OpenCL. This again got technical, however remember that a Mac Pro might not be faster than a Windows PC configured with the same hardware.

The second Myth that I will take on is Apple’s computers are easier to use. Easier to use, this is a very personal and subjective term. If you have never used a computer, then I could say that yes, OSX (the Operative System) is easier to use for a new user, however if you had been using Windows for 10 years, it might not be. It will depend on how you use your computer. I can use Windows (from 98 to Windows 7) very well, and I know Windows XP inside out for example. So OSX is actually difficult for me to use. Common tasks are easy enough, but once I get into more advance tasks I have problems in OSX, and this is considering I know how to use Linux. What I usually try to remind users is that a computer is more than a file storage, a Word Document software and a browser, and once you go beyond that is where the differences start.

At the end of the day, Experience is very personal. If you don’t know how to use a computer at all, then a OSX device might be for you, but I don’t think that OSX is easier than Windows 7 to use.

The main thing that drives Mac computers is that the are cool. Again, this is something very personal and subjective. I can deny that they have a nice finish, and are attractive modern computers, but If I paid $2500 in a computer I would expect it to look cool. For example there are a lot of specialty computer companies like Alienware (now Dell), iByuPower, CyberPower, Falcom Northwest (some look amazing). There are companies that have custom painting, like actual paint from Red Ferrari and Yellow Lamborghini. There are companies that can custom engrave the cases, and add gold plates. If anything, Apple’s computers are too common now.

The main point to remember is that an Apple Computer uses OSX as the Operative System, and a Windows PC uses Windows 7 (soon Windows 8) Operative System. An Operative System is like an application that talks with your computer’s hardware so you can use the computer. Operative System’s now also include a lot of applications to make the brand new computer more useful. The move from Apple to start using Intel’s CPU (x64 architecture) means that OSX is more compatible with Windows applications and developers can make software that works in Windows and OSX, however software still needs to be written for OSX. Most applications are written for Windows first, and then OSX. OSX has a lot of applications available, but it remains a small fraction of Windows applications.

So, Apple’s computers are different than Windows Computers and use different programs.

This is also a valid point for viruses and malware. The reason that OSX has less malware written for it (there is still malware written for OSX) is that “hackers” write the viruses for the biggest target. 95% of the world’s computers run Windows. The same concept software companies use, would be malware writers use it as well. So, OSX does have less malware, but because the market for OSX is quite small. In this case, Linux operative system have even less risk of malware than OSX.

PRICE. This is a big issue. You will pay a premium for a Apple computer. The computer will have to be serviced at the Apple’s store as well most of the time. Do not take your computer to a friend, because it can be messed up worst. Because you will be taking the computer for repair to the Apple’s Store, you need to consider this in the price as well. You also have to consider that a lot of the problems with OSX are fixed by re-installing the operative system. Reinstalling the Operative System will of course fix any problem with Windows and Linux as well, but it seems that OSX users complain less about having their computers wiped out and brought back to “factory defaults”

This bring up the point that backing up a OSX is as important as a Windows Computer. So no difference there.

Coming back to the price point, lets look at the hardware. This is a big part of what constitutes the cost.

The iMac starts in $1200 for a 21.5” Core i5 with 4 GB of RAM. This price is actually not bad, except that a comparable Windows PC, like this Asus All in one have twice the amount of RAM and hard drive, and faster processor, bigger screen and the monitor is multi touch. I actually have 2 of these on my desk, and they are very nice computers (I paid even less than $1000).

The Mac Pro the difference is more evident. The cheapest model starts in $2500. This model is overkill for most users. You will have to really be a graphics professional to use all that power. These computers weight about 45 lbs. Sure, they are fast, but not well spec’ed for a regular user. The hardware on the Mac Pro is actually server class hardware. The Xeon line of CPU is what we use on the servers in the server room.

For example, the Xeon on the entry model Mac Pro is a Xeon W3565, priced at a little over $300. This CPU is old by now, and easily outmatched by a Intel Core i5 which is only $200. More expensive models have a higher difference, making them even less value choices.

So from the very beginning when you are selecting one of these models, they are over featured, over specified, and over priced. This is not the case for all users, but will be for most.

Lets consider  general use of a computer. It will be mainly web browsing, even email might be completely browser based (gmail, AOL, hotmail, etc), you will play some music, and pictures. Office documents, like spreadsheets and word, and watching some videos.

The only heavy part is watching videos. If the videos are local, then it needs to decode. If the video is online like YouTube, Netflix or Hulu, then it needs to download, decompress and decode. This is probably the heaviest tasks. While these services work on OSX, consider that Netflix uses Silverlight, which is a technology from Microsoft. It does work on Mac, but only supported on Safari and Firefox. Hulu uses Flash and the future of Flash in uncertain in OSX. iOS (iphone and iPad) do not support Flash for example. For local videos, like avi and mkv you will have to install the same software as in Windows (VLC), but I will still probably use a Windows PC for this (the players, and codecs are updated more often).

The main different is how people use a OSX (apple) and a Windows computer. In Windows because of the amount of programs available, it is more likely that a Windows PC will end up with a lot of unnecessary programs, while since OSX does not have so many software as available it will stay closer to the factory set. When you install too many programs in a Windows PC that is when you can start noticing the computer to slow down or unreliable. I have worked with OSX computers that had the same problem, and had software crashes. You are just less likely too install too much in the OSX

Summarizing, to compare a Apple computer, you need to compare to the same hardware in Windows, and even at that point Windows will be cheaper, also if you use the Windows and OSX PCs the same way, both will be as secure and reliable. At the end of the day, it is a personal choice, and a preference. I play video games, so I cannot use a OSX. Although OSX supports a lot of games (or a lot of games started supporting OSX) it is still a small percentage. If I had to chose, I would use Windows, otherwise Linux and finally OSX.

If you will only use the computer for general web activities a Mac might be for you. If you are ok with only using the Apple store for support then the Mac is also for you.

However, at the end of the day, regardless of the choice and preference, it is important to understand the differences between Operative system. I am not defending Windows, and OSX does have its place on specific conditions, but 90% of the people that say they need a Mac, they could have used anything. The important part, is that you are happy with your purchase, and that you do not compare a $1200 MacBook to a $500 Windows PC (I would take the Windows in that case Smile ) because they are different builds. In most cases, you as the end user would have more than enough power in the $500 computer, but you are also more likely to take better care of a computer that cost $1200.

I do not want to start a discussion on fan based OSX vs Windows as actually I consider them pretty non-based on actual facts. At the end of the day, it is a preference (which I stated at least 4 times) but a Windows PC will be cheaper, and more productive. Most OSX users could do with a tablet most of the work. And when people recommend solutions like boot camp, then it completely invalidates the use of OSX in the first place (why would you install Windows inside a OSX, instead of getting a Windows PC in the first place?), and once you get to that level I have to say “You should know better”, and if you can do that, and support both OS then probably you don’t need to read an understand my points. I had this conversation with people that love and swear by Mac software. It is great to be a fan of something, but objectively I barely hear good reasons for their fanatics.

Finally I have to disclaim that I do own a G4 Mac (dual PowerPC 800Mhz) with OSX 10.5 installed. This PC is pretty slow for todays standard, but it still works great, and works fine for web browsing. It is a 8 year old PC now. However, it is too slow for youtube, netflix or Hulu. Any $500 laptop will be faster than the PC. The days were a PC was supposed to last 5 or more years have passed. The likely useful life of a computer is 2 years, before it is too slow for new content.


PS: I was cheking some of my old magazines and CPU has an article about boutique cpmputers. Check it out here

The computers range from $4700 to $1500, and BTW the $1500 CyberPowerPC Zeus Lightning 3000 looks pretty sweet


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