Mac versus PC: Time to switch?

Is it time to switch to a Mac?

Back in 2006, we posed that question after a report in the New York Times suggested that Apple’s improved operating system, new line of computers and increased number of retail stores were turning more than a few heads. It’s a question people are still asking two years later as Apple is slowly taking more of the market share and Windows Vista has been met with a lack-lustre reception from consumers and businesses alike.

So are Macs worth a second look? If you’ve decided to replace your system rather than upgrade it, here are some factors to consider when weighing Macs and PCs:

What’s out there?

The story isn’t just the latest features or decreasing prices — it’s the operating systems that are fuelling the competition and controversy. Currently, the choices are:

– Apple’s Mac OS X Leopard (the latest version of OS X) which only runs on Apple’s products. It’s still relatively new so upgrades won’t be required for a while. (See the guided tour for more details).

Windows Vista has effectively replaced the more popular Windows XP. Most stores won’t sell computers loaded with the older operating system, but it’s possible to buy the software (at least until January 31, 2009) and downgrade. However, XP is quickly nearing the end of its lifecycle, meaning that support (such as security patches and updates) will be scaled back over the next year or two. Windows 7, already being touted as an improvement over Vista, won’t appear on the scene until late 2009/early 2010. (For more information, see the Vista product page).

– There are also open-source alternatives like Linux and Ubuntu which can be downloaded for free and run separately from the main operating system. It will take some research to figure out if these systems meet your needs. Both operating systems run on Macs and PCs, so they won’t necessarily help you solve the platform debate. (For more information, see the Ubuntu, and Linux websites).

There are numerous companies that produce PCs which run Windows, but they won’t take Leopard. On the flip side, some Macs can run Windows. Windows still outnumbers other operating systems, especially in the workplace.

The learning curve

Do Windows users have a hard time adapting to a Mac? Is Vista really as annoying as everyone says? There are numerous critics and a lot of clever marketing spin coming from both camps, but don’t let that discourage you from seriously considering both platforms. Any new system is going to require some getting used to, but the wide availability of online tutorials and “guided tours” takes some of the culture shock out of the process. When in doubt, talk to someone who has made the switch and get their feedback.

Your needs and wants

Determining what you need and want before you start is a smart computer shopping strategy and will help you set your budget and compare features. However, in this case what you plan to use the computer for may influence whether a PC or Mac is better suited to your needs.

For example, Macs are favoured by graphic designers, photographers, and those who work with a lot of multi-media because it’s a more stable environment. On the other hand, many developers and serious gamers swear by their PCs. Certain programs and options may only be available on one platform or the other.

However, either platform will work if you’re not a specialist and your computer use mainly involves word processing, photo editing, spreadsheets (or bookkeeping software), email and internet browsing.


Budget can be the deciding factor when it comes to any purchase, so how do prices look in the computer shape up? On Apple’s side, the Mini Mac desktop (minus monitor, keyboard and other add-ons) starts at $649. All-in-one iMac desktops range from $1299 to $2299, and the Mac Pro comes in at $2899. The latest generation of MacBook laptops start at $1399 with the Pro models ranging $2149 to $2999, and the MacBook Air going for $1999 to $2749. Macs in general are good quality machines.

When it comes to PCs, there’s a wider range of prices available thanks to the number of manufacturers. While the high end desktops and laptops are comparable in price to Macs, Apple doesn’t have the lower-end product lines that PC manufacturers offer. PC desktops (minus the monitor and accessories) can go as low as $299 on sale, and laptops can dip below $499. Quality and features will vary greatly among models.

If you’ve been watching the flyers lately, there always seem to be deals on PCs, and they’re often steeper than the average discount on a Mac. However, there are other ways to save money if you’re set on buying from Apple. For example, Apple recently launched its new line of computers this October — meaning there are some deals still to be had on the older models. It’s also worth looking at the refurbished (i.e. used) models available at the Special Deals section of the Apple Store website.


Experts note there’s still a wider selection of software available for Windows than for Macs, but this gap has narrowed considerably in recent years. Chances are the programs you’ll want to use can be found for either platform (or there’s a good alternative). If you’re moving up to Vista, you may find yourself replacing older versions of software anyway.

While it’s still possible to run older versions of applications like MS Office on Windows Vista, there are no guarantees that everything’s going to work smoothly and older software may be past any support help. It still isn’t possible to install Windows-based applications on a Mac that doesn’t run Windows, or run Mac software on a PC.

In most cases, issues like transferring files and compatibility between the two platforms is easier than you might think. (Apple advertises that its stores will do the transfer for you).

Software can be a pricey part of any computer purchase, but there are (legal) ways to save. Take a second look at open-source and free online software as an alternative. Try HTML Kit for web design, and offers a suite of software similar to, and compatible with, some of the most popular software applications around. There’s even a free online version of Quicken for managing your finances. (Just be sure to stick with reputable websites, companies and programs to avoid getting malware.)

If you’re shopping for a student (or are a student yourself) check out what special discounts and student licenses are available through the college or university before you buy retail.

Existing hardware

Will your current hardware work on your new computer? That’s a question you’ll need to ask whether you switch to a Mac or move to Vista. For example, there might not be a driver to run your old monitor or printer, or you may need an adaptor or special cable to it hook up.

Start by making a list of what you’ve got — taking note of the make and model number — including your printer, scanner, external disk or hard drives, monitor, card reader, digital camera, etc. Next, use this checklist to do a little research. It’s possible to get lost in the maze of information on the internet, especially with all of the incomplete and out of date information out there. You can save yourself some time and hassle by going into a store and talking to an expert. This may mean getting outside of that big boxed store and consulting a smaller or independent retailer who has more product expertise — especially if you’re considering a Mac.


There are many mixed messages about how vulnerable current operating systems are to damaging viruses, malware and other general nastiness that can happen to our computers. Windows seems to be a long-standing target for hackers and criminals, but new versions and new patches are supposed to enhance security. Some say that Macs have more built-in protection — but other speculate that they aren’t as resilient as they used to be, or that there’s more people targeting them now.

Which is better? It’s a question that’s still widely debated and there aren’t any definitive answers. It doesn’t help that a lot of the media hype comes from hacker contests, not research or statistics.

However, experts do agree that all mainstream operating systems are open to threats. Firewalls, anti-viral and anti-spyware software are still a must-have, and you’ll always need to take precautions like not opening suspicious attachments or giving out personal information. It’s important to not have a false sense of security regardless of what you buy.

So what’s it going to be?

Mac or PC? There’s no right or wrong answer — it’s a matter of finding what suits your needs and ultimately what you like to use. There’s no shortage of expert and non-expert opinions to be found online, but your best allies might just be your friends, family members and co-workers. People who are happy with their computers — or decidedly unhappy — are often eager to talk about them or show them off. Take them up on the offer and get to know both systems a little better.

A final word of advice: if you’re doing research online, be sure to check the date of the information you’re reading. A lot of the advice out there predates Vista and Leopard, and a lot has changed in the past couple of years.


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