The great Windows, Mac and Ubuntu shoot-out

Snow white's appleWhat about Apple’s Mac?

My hands are too big for most netbook keyboards, but I have a need for a small, easily portable laptop so recently, on a whim, I bought a 13″ Apple Macbook. I was instantly bitten by the well-documented Mac bug. Not to be confused with the Windows virus.

Disclosure of interest: I really liked my Mac.

The hardware

Apple’s hardware is outstanding. The components are designed and built to an exceptionally high standard. The Mac laptop case isn’t plastic; it’s carved out of a solid chunk of aluminium. The engineering is beautiful on all Apple products. Little things stand out, like the absolute ease of changing or swapping hard drives in a G5 or a Mac Pro, and the automatic fan speed control. Everything just works and it works beautifully.

Apple-designed components like mice and keyboards are works of art and a joy to use. I don’t like touchpads. When it’s practicable, I prefer to use a mouse when working with laptops. The touchpad on the MacBook has changed all that. It is fabulous. It’s huge, it’s sensitive, and it has easy-to-use features like no-brainer two finger scrolling. It’s almost as easy to use as a mouse – in some ways, easier.

I’m impressed with the Apple keyboard and the Mighty Mouse.

The software

Just like the hardware: smooth as silk, sleek, visually elegant. Because the same company that designed the hardware designed the software, everything meshes seamlessly.

The operating system, OS X Snow Leopard, is much cheaper than Windows.  The pricing is very reasonable.

The downside

After a couple of months using the Mac I was less enamoured of Linux and almost cured of my chronic Microsoft addiction.

Almost.

There’s the not-so-small matter of the Apple hardware tax. Apple hardware is expensive. Very expensive. Never mind the carved aluminium cases, you might be excused for expecting 24-carat gold.

They’re over-priced in the USA, but here in New Zealand, and in many other countries, it’s even worse. A new Mac Pro desktop would set me back a minimum of US$3500. That is ridiculous. To match the moderately high specs of my Ubuntu/Windows box I’d need to shell out more like US$6000!

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I build my own PCs, and can put together an equivalent Windows machine with a very nice aluminium Lian-Li case and good quality components for less than a third of that price, including the over-priced Windows operating system. For me, despite being smitten by my MacBook, the price of a new Mac Pro is a deal-breaker. I have no wish to spend my declining years scouring eBay for 2nd hand Mac Pros.Gold plated Mac

Apple and the less price-conscious Mac supporters waffle on about paying for quality. That may be justifiable to a degree, but some Apple-supplied components─memory, DVD drives and hard drives for instance─are sourced from outside manufacturers and are staggeringly expensive regardless of quality.  Like many others, I’m not willing to play their game. Much as I’d like to, I can’t afford to.

There are also a few irritants which won’t go away. Some examples:

  • Resizing windows is finicky in Macs, you can only do it from the bottom right corner.  It’s not an inherent limitation of the operating system: Adobe’s CS4 suite programs on the Mac can be resized from all edges and corners. It’s seems to be an inexplicable Apple policy. (Update: with OS X Lion Apple have fixed this–not before time.)
  • There are no hard drive activity indicator lights. If you’ve never had one, a drive light may scratch an itch you don’t have and you may not be bothered, but I often need to know if there’s disc activity going on, Apple drives are near silent, and this lack is a nuisance.
  • You can’t easily list folders before files in Finder by default.
  • The much-lauded OS X Dock is a bit of an eyesore – Windows 7’s taskbar has it beaten in looks and functionality.
  • OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and later versions are incompatible with pre-Intel Macs. So if your machine is pre-2007 you’re stuck with 10.5 plain old Leopard.

The downside of the Mac hadn’t deterred me completely but it made a big dent in my enthusiasm.

The killer blow for me and the Mac

In late October 2009 Apple released a new line of iMacs. The machine I’d bought 3 weeks before for an over-priced NZ$3500 is now worth about half that. I understand that this situation is often unavoidable when new products are introduced, but in this case Apple, at least here in New Zealand, cynically fleeced their customers and their retailers by not reducing prices substantially many months previously.

I am indignant. I am beyond indignant. So don’t expect an unbiased conclusion to this exercise.

I am really seriously displeased with Apple.

OK, what about Linux? On the next page we’ll check it out.