Sunday 5 June 2011

Mac Vs PC an IT Guy's Perspective

Mac Vs PC an IT Guy's Perspective

Are you a Mac or are you a PC? Those commercials from Apple seem to have polarized this question and issue even more. If you believe the commercials, if you prefer Macs, you're young, hip and cool. If you prefer PCs, you're older, (middle aged), and a nerd. I recently heard a story about an IT guy wearing a Windows 7 T-shirt and someone ran up to him in the street and yelled in his face, "I'm a Mac, PCs suck." And then he took off. Apple users do seem to be a little more militant or fanatical about their preference. What I hope to do in this article is look at the argument of Mac Vs PC from an IT perspective, supporting both the hardware and users in a corporate and personal environment.

A reader might be inclined to ask what my credentials are to talk about this topic. I currently hold 30 computer certifications, a mix of Apple, Microsoft and CompTIA designations. I have 5 years corporate experience supporting environments with upwards of 10,000 computer clients and users. I also privately support some small businesses, not-for-profits and individual clients. Last fall I was asked to take over support of Macs at work and got my first MacBook Pro. I have configured and set up about a dozen MacBook Pros, Mac Pros and Mac Minis in an active directory domain environment, about another 20 for use for product testing, development and proof of concept use, and have configured another handful for personal use. I have been building PCs doing sales and service and support since the late 80's when a student at Queen's University.

I will be examining the question of Mac VS PC from a few different angles:
1. Ease of set up
2. Ease of use
3. Hardware comparisons
4. OS upgrades
5. Ease of repair
6. Hardware upgrades
7. Cost comparisons
8. An overall comparison
So join me as we embark on this quest to answer the question of Mac VS PC.

I must admit, a Mac right out of the box is easy to set up and use. There seems to be fewer issues with drivers or compatibility even to generic peripherals. On the other hand, Windows 7 seems to be very compatible, though sometimes you need to install generic drivers and update the drivers once you're installed and logged in. Ease of set up with current hardware is a pretty close call, but with a slight edge going to Mac.

Ease of use is a very tricky question to tackle. I know numerous people who have bought Macs for home use, and constantly get frustrated because they are so different from Windows. A few do everything they can to tweek the OSX environment to be as close to Windows as possible, using such add-ons as Total Finder, FUSE NTFS, and more. Others take the time to learn OSX and work back and forth between OSX and Windows. Others give up and install Bootcamp, or a virtual machine using such software packages as Parallels or VMWare Fusion to run a Windows machine on top of OSX. But to the native Mac user switching to Windows it is just as frustrating. Having run both side- by-side for the last 8 months, there are things I like and appreciate in OSX. The mouse on the MacBook Pro, and scroll functionality on it or the Magic Mouse is amazing. Getting comfortable with Command+Q to close programs, I now do this every day or so in my Windows environment. As far as ease of use, it will come down, to some extent, to personal choice, adaptability and preference. Mac wins this but at a cost - adding the add-ons or VM costs more money.

The biggest surprise I have encountered since beginning to support Macs is the hardware comparison. Macs seem to be a generation or two behind PCs. Most people I ask about this state that it is because Mac OSX is a flavour of Linux and requires fewer resources. The problem with it is that when it comes time to upgrade you have fewer options, especially since OSX does a hardware check and will not let you upgrade beyond a certain point forcing you to purchase new hardware. PCs are nice and for the most part so generic you can build whatever you want and/or need. You can spend big bucks and get cutting-edge and hold onto it for years or spend less and still have a good system or upgrade later. PC wins this round hands down.

OS upgrades for Mac users can become very frustrating. Apple seems to block older hardware that will support the OS. I know some guys who create Hackintosh media, OSX Disks that will install on any hardware, Dell, IBM … and if a retail version of OSX fails, the hardware check prevents install of the new version of OSX and won't install, then these older Macs can be upgrade with these hacked versions of the OS. The nice thing is you can do an in-place upgrade that seems to work very well when supported. This has never really worked well in a Windows environment and in fact discouraged. With that being the case, Apple wins this battle.

Ease of repair for both hardware and software is a big question. Many Mac users will say you seldom need to repair the hardware or the OS. I have encountered numerous situations where either or both have been needed.

Macs are harder to take apart and do repairs on. Both MacBook Pros and MacPros take more effort and skill to upgrade. Windows-based laptops and desktops, for the most part, are very componentized and easy to physically upgrade. And when you do want to upgrade a Mac you have to buy official support Mac hardware which always costs more than comparable PC hardware. A second problem is that Macs often require the original OS disks from purchase, in order to reset FaileVault or Master password, to reinstall the OS and more. These disks are machine and generation specific. Recently at work we had 2 MacBook Pro 17" laptops bought less than 3 months apart. One user lost his OS disk, and the disks from the other could not be used to rebuild the machine and a replacement set needed to be ordered. With either Dell or IBMs I have been able to use almost any system disk that came with a system to repair any other system; in fact I only keep one per OS and use it across models and platforms. A recent example to upgrade a MacBook pro top 8GB DDR ram was more than twice the cost of upgrading a Dell laptop to the same speed 8GB ram. Again PC takes this round.

Cost comparisons - there is really no comparison. Macs cost more - if you need to run a VM of Windows also, a lot more. You end up paying more for the Mac out of the box, pay for the VM software, pay for the licence for Windows, and pay for any applications installed on each platform. I currently have Adobe Acrobat Pro Installed on both OSX and my Windows 7 VM because some applications cannot pick up the cross platform PDF printer. Macs cost more to buy, more to support and more to upgrade.

Conclusions: I love both OSX and Windows. I am a PC but I am a PC that is learning Macs to support them. I would never pay the extra money to own one personally but enjoy learning and working on them. Macs, and to be honest, almost any Apple product to some extent, is just a status symbol. A few weeks ago I walked through a Starbucks and 90% of the computers present were Macs. I then went to the Second Cup down the street and only one computer was a Mac and about a dozen were PCs. Is there anything you can do on a Mac that you can't do on a PC? Not really, with the right hardware or software. So the decision comes down to the size of your wallet and personal preference. I like running my Mac with Windows 7 running in Unity mode via VMWare Fusion, see screen shot. I can do anything in either OS, but it was an awful lot more money to get it set up. If I had won a Mac a year ago I would have sold it and built 2 PCs. Today I would keep it. But no matter what your preference don't be obnoxious about it. Now admittedly, I did not touch upon other flavours of Linux or Unix in this piece, which here at UWaterloo might seem a little strange. We can have that discussion next time.

(Graphic by Ian Renato Cutajar.)
(First published in Imprint 2011-06-02 as 'Mac VS PC'.)

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