If you were to wade into the middle of any large technology conference and shout out "Macs are whack" or "Apple rules, Microsoft stinks," you could start a riot. The conflict between Apple supporters and Windows fans has raged on college campuses, social networks and Internet message boards. It's a discussion that invites flame wars. Put on your fireproof britches, we're going to wade right into it.
Before we throw caution to the wind, we need to establish some definitions. In this article, we're comparing Apple computers running Mac OS X -- no hackintoshes to be found here -- and computers running the Windows operating system. While the term PC stands for personal computer and could apply to Macs, Windows machines and computers running other operating systems alike, we're using it in the common vernacular as shorthand for a Windows machine.
Given the passion often displayed by owners of both brands, you may be surprised to learn what a small share of the global computer market Apple actually controls. While the sales of iPhones, iPods and iPads provide a strong boost to Apple's overall earnings, Macs account for less than 5 percent of computers worldwide [source: Cyran and Gu]. However, the Mac boasts an impressive growth rate: Shipments increased 27.7 percent in the first quarter of 2011 over the same period in 2010, even as overall computer shipments dropped 1.2 percent [source: Elmer-DeWitt].
So, which is better -- Mac or PC? Click through our list of 10 differences between Macs and PCs and decide for yourself.
If you grew up in the 1980s, the concept of design might seem like a superficial and unimportant aspect of a computer. But design is a big differentiator between Macs and PCs. For the better part of three decades, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs focused on the outward appearance of his company's products with an enthusiasm unmatched by his competitors. The unique designs that resulted from this obsession have given Mac products the "hip" image that they enjoy today.
This unconventional focus on design began with the very first Macintosh, introduced in 1984. Like many of the computers in Apple's current line, its CPU and monitor were housed in a single unit, reducing the number of cables necessary for operation and creating a sleeker profile. Perhaps Jobs's and Apple designer Jonathan Ive's most significant success was the iMac, introduced in 1998. With its translucent, candy-colored shell, this model reversed Apple's flagging fortunes and represented the start of its rise to present-day popularity. Today, some PC manufacturers are attempting to create more design-oriented models, but none have achieved the popular acclaim commanded by Mac products.
On the flip side, PCs don't come from a single manufacturer. There are hundreds of different designs of PCs on the market, ranging from the utilitarian design of most business PCs to the space-age aesthetics of Alienware's gaming PC line of computers. You might find some designs more compelling than Apple's approach, but there's no single vision guiding aesthetic choices when it comes to the design of the PC. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- if you don't like one design, you can look to a different manufacturer to consider other options. If you don't like Apple's design, you're out of luck if you absolutely have to own a Mac.
One of the most frequently cited differences between Macs and PCs is price. Few Mac products sell for less than $1,000, while there are dozens of PC models that fall within that price range. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that Macs are more expensive than PCs with similar specifications. Rather, in general, Apple has chosen to build its Mac line around higher-end computers with better -- and more costly -- components.
The problem with comparing prices between Macs and PCs is that the computers are rarely comparable. Even if you did find two computers with the same processor speed, RAM, hard drive capacity, graphics, memory, number of USB ports, and so on, each of them would be preinstalled with vastly different software packages. The user may have to purchase additional software for whatever computer he or she chooses, like a virus program for a PC or Microsoft Office for a Mac. The bottom line is this: The relative value of a Mac or PC really depends on the consumer's needs.
If you just need a computer to perform basic functions like Web surfing or word processing, it might be hard to justify buying a Mac. There are plenty of PC choices out there that are less expensive. And this is where Linux fans can chime in -- even someone unfamiliar with the Linux operating system can buy a cheap computer, install a simple Linux distribution and access basic computer functions.
The technical specifications offered by Macs and PCs can be very similar or very different, depending on which brand and line you're comparing. While they both have similar internal parts (processors, RAM, hard drives, video cards), the speed and capacity of these components vary. Macs will generally outperform low-end PCs, because the Apple product lines typically boast more expensive and better-quality parts. Comparing Macs with higher-end PCs is a little more difficult. Generally, though, Macs have faster processors than their Windows counterparts but tend to skimp slightly when it comes to RAM, hard disk space and USB ports.
The kinds of connections and optical drives found on Macs and PCs also differ in certain ways. Macs offer a pretty standard selection of such features, including a SuperDrive (reads and writes CDs and DVDs), audio in and audio out, USB, FireWire (data transfer), Thunderbolt (video output), Ethernet, and a magnetized power port. PCs offer comparable features, plus a few more, like Blu-ray players, TV tuners, touch screens and HDMI ports.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between a Mac and a PC is the number of configurations available for each brand. Currently, Apple offers just five computer lines: the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, the Mac mini, the iMac and the Mac Pro. Even if each configuration of these models is counted individually, as of this writing Apple only offers a total of 18 unique computers. This limited selection is not a sign of weakness, but a part of the company's "less is more" approach to marketing.
PCs, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Consumer Reports reviews 11 distinct brands of Windows-based computers, including Acer, Asus, Compaq, Dell, eMachines, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, each offering numerous configurations of desktop and laptop models. Many consumers see this large selection as a benefit because they're more likely to find a computer that meets their exact needs.
When it comes to third-party retail stores, Apple is more selective than the PC manufacturers about where it will sell its products. The California company's flagship retail outlet is the Apple Store, which first opened its doors in 2001 at the Tysons Corner Mall in McLean, Va. Since then, Apple has opened more than 300 additional stores in 43 states and 11 countries [source: [source: Apple]. Because these outlets are generally built only in large population centers, Apple has entered into several on-again off-again agreements with electronics chains like Best Buy, CompUSA, Computer City, Fry's Electronics, Micro Center, Office Max and Sears to reach a broader customer base. Still, Macs aren't available at many of the stores that sell PCs -- namely the world's largest retailer, Walmart. Of course, you can order Macs and Windows machines from stores on the Internet, as well.
Microsoft has a very different strategy. The company doesn't make hardware -- it licenses its Windows operating system to other companies. Most of those companies push their products into as many stores as they can. So while you might not see an Apple computer in your local computer shop, you'll see dozens of Windows PCs.
The operating system has been a long-standing difference between Mac and PC; currently, Mac computers are preinstalled with OS X Lion, while PCs come with Microsoft Windows 7. Between 2007 and 2009, when Windows Vista was Microsoft's operating system, OS X was widely regarded as the better of the two software packages. Vista was sluggish, prone to crashing and plagued by pop-up dialogue boxes. However, Microsoft has made significant improvements in the stability and performance of Windows 7, making the current choice more a matter of personal preference in terms of functionality and layout.
A significant development in this debate occurred in 2006, when Apple announced the release of its Boot Camp software, which allows users to install Windows on their Intel-based Macs. Today, there are many programs that facilitate the installation of Windows on a Mac, including Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion and VirtualBox. In contrast, you aren't supposed to install Mac OS X on any Windows PC. Getting Mac OS X to work on a non-Apple computer is tricky -- we call such machines hackintoshes. They tend to be unstable, and selling them is bound to get you into trouble with Apple.
Apple has worked very hard to craft a fun and hip image for its line of Mac computers, while simultaneously portraying PCs as dull and nerdy. This strategy played out most famously in Apple's recent advertising campaign featuring "Mac," played by the younger, hoodie-wearing Justin Long and "PC," played by the older, bespectacled John Hodgman. But is there actually any truth to these stereotypes?
In April 2011, the Internet was abuzz with the results of a survey on this very topic, conducted by Hunch, a Web site that makes recommendations based on user preferences. It asked users to identify themselves as a Mac or PC person, and then questioned them about a number of self-identifying factors. The results were comically stereotypical. Among the findings were that Mac users were more likely to be liberal, eat hummus and read The New York Times. PC users, on the other hand, were more conservative, had a better grasp on mathematical concepts, and, unlike their Mac counterparts, would rather ride a Harley than a Vespa [source: [source: Hunch]. While these results are certainly interesting, they can't be taken too seriously -- Hunch made these conclusions based on an admittedly unscientific survey.
One thing that both Mac and Windows PC fans have in common is passion for the brands themselves. Get a diverse group of computer users together and introduce the subject of Macs versus PCs and watch the sparks fly! Mac users will bring up concepts like security, usability and design. PC owners will counter with price, software compatibility and choice. It can get really ugly really fast (but it's fun to watch).
One of the most important reasons Mac hasn't captured a larger share of the computer market is the lack of software written for its operating system. This insufficiency is most obvious in business computing, where most applications were standardized on Windows PCs years ago. Even if a business did determine that Mac offered a better product, it would take a tremendous amount of time and money to make the switch. Mac has made some inroads by collaborating with Microsoft on the popular Office Suite, but the shortage of specialized business software remains a concern for many companies.
It's not just work that is hindered by Mac's limited software selection -- it's also play. Most computer gamers gravitate toward the PC, thanks to the wide selection of recreational software offered for Windows systems. Mac has slowly expanded its offerings to include popular games like Civilization, Duke Nukem, Starcraft and World of Warcraft, but it still lags behind the PC in selection. A search on the online gaming platform Steam reveals about 180 games for Mac and more than 1,300 for PC [source: Steam].
Another big difference between Mac and PC is the level of security you can expect from viruses and other unwanted intrusions. Because the vast majority of the world's computers run Microsoft Windows, most attacks focus on PCs. Malware like Trojans, which trick users into installing them by pretending to be something desirable, like antivirus programs, and botnets, which quietly enlist computers into an army of zombie machines designed to distribute spam or advertise fraud, are now common threats to PCs, but rarely harm Macs.
This doesn't mean that Mac users should completely ignore security. Recently, a Trojan known variously as Mac Protector, Mac Defender and MacGuard has been showing up on Apple machines. A window claiming to be the "Apple Security Center" pops up and indicates that it has found viruses on the computer. It then prompts the user to download Mac Protector, a cleverly disguised piece of software intended to steal your credit card information. As Macs become more popular and begin to claim a larger market share, these threats will inevitably increase. However, as one observer puts it, "a Mac owner who runs no security software is vastly less likely to be the victim of a successful attack than a Windows user who's protected up to his eyeballs" [source: McCracken].
Probably the most striking difference between Macs and PCs is in customer satisfaction. In the most recent surveys conducted by both PCWorld and PCMag, readers chose Apple computers over every single brand of PC available. Macs scored high marks in categories like reliability, service experience and even phone hold time. The only category in which Mac scored low was percentage of laptops needing repairs. It didn't seem to matter, though, as Mac also topped the category, "likelihood of recommending."
These high rankings are probably due in part to the way that Apple provides service. At a time when many PC manufacturers have shipped their service centers overseas, Mac users can get face-to-face assistance from a technician at the Genius Bar help desk located in any Apple Store.
It also helps that Apple has a centralized identity. If you have a problem with a Mac computer, whether it's the hardware or the operating system, you can go to the Genius Bar. But what happens if your PC is on the fritz? You might have to speak to two or more companies just to identify the underlying problem.
In the end, the choice of PC or Mac depends upon you more than anything else. Declaring that one is better than the other is like saying oranges are better than -- well, you know.
When can we line up at our local Apple Store for our hydrogen-powered iPhones? Or is Apple even building a hydrogen-powered computer? Find out.
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