PC vs. Mac: The Straight Scoop

Want to start a fight between computer geeks? Bring up one simple question: PC or Mac?

Windows advocates will start accusing Mac users of being members of a fancy-pants cult. Mac fans will maintain that Windows users are the undiscerning owners of hunks of generic junk. It's a pretty undignified squabble, and both Microsoft and Apple egg it on via contentious TV ads.

Me, I'm cheerfully agnostic: I recommend both Windows PCs and Macs all the time, and use them both, too. The last computer I purchased was a thin-and-light Asus laptop running Windows 7; the one before that was a 15-inch MacBook Pro. When it comes time to buy a new machine, I'll consider both options. And if your budget permits, I recommend you do the same.

The PC-or-Mac debate has been raging for more than a quarter-century, but making sense of it requires considering the situation as it stands at one moment in time. Here's my take on things as of early 2010.

Cost. Venture into the computer department of a store like Best Buy, and you'll find scads of computers priced well under $1,000 and a handful for a grand or more. The former are almost all Windows machines, and many are respectable choices. The latter, however, are nearly all from Apple -- hence the common perception that Macs are way overpriced.

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Every time I do the math, though, I come to the conclusion that the cost of Macs isn't out of whack with that of similar Windows machines. Apple isn't selling $750 notebooks for $1,500 -- its portables tend to use higher-end processors, mostly have aluminum cases rather than plastic ones, are typically thinner and lighter than garden-variety laptops and run longer on a battery charge than many of their Windows brethren. The Microsoft-powered laptops most directly comparable to Apple's MacBook Pro line, HP's Envy models, actually cost more than roughly equivalent Macs.

Another point to consider: All Macs come with Apple's excellent iLife suite, which provides tools for editing, organizing, and sharing photos, video, music, and more.  Bargain-basement PCs come with much more basic software at best.

Bottom line: You certainly don't need to splurge on a system in the Mac's price range to be a happy computer user. But with computers, as with most things in life, you generally get what you pay for.

Selection. The best thing by far about Windows PCs is the sheer unending variety of choices. They come in every size from teeny-tiny to extra-large. There are boxes with touchscreens, Blu-Ray players for high-definition movies, and TV tuners that let you watch and record cable and satellite TV. You can buy a PC that's pink, or transparent, or designed to be as close to indestructible as possible.

Apple, meanwhile, makes Macs in nine basic variants: the basic MacBook laptop, the MacBook Pro laptop in 13", 15", and 17" models, the MacBook Air ultraportable, the Mac Mini microdesktop, the iMac all-in-one desktop in 21.5" and 27" models, and the Mac Pro power desktop. And the company doesn't do Blu-Ray, TV tuners, touchscreens, and other features that are commonplace in the Windows world. In short, getting a Mac requires that you buy into one company's take on what's important.

Operating systems. From early 2007 until late 2009, Microsoft's operating system was Windows Vista. It was short on fixes for long-standing Windows annoyances, and often sluggish and crashy even when pre-installed on new PCs. It was a powerful argument in favor of buying a Mac -- especially since OS X, Apple's operating system, was (and is) a slick piece of software that stays out of your face rather than complicating your life.

In October of last year, however, Microsoft shipped Windows 7, the solid upgrade to Windows XP that Vista never was. OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard remains more consistent, and less quirky, and some PC makers muck up Windows 7 by larding it up with demoware, adware, and other irritating extras. But the gap between Apple and Microsoft's offerings is as small as it's ever been. If you're a basically content Windows XP user, you've got less reason than before to contemplate switching to a Mac when you buy a new system.

Security. The vast majority of the world's hackers spend the vast majority of their time making trouble for the vast majority of computer users. That's why almost all known viruses, trojan horses, and other malicious applications attack only Windows PCs. Including really dangerous ones that can steal your credit-card and banking information. Recent releases of Windows security suites such as Norton Internet Security are pleasanter to use than their predecessors, but they're still not exactly entertaining.

Buying a Mac doesn't let you simply opt out of worrying about computer safety, however. For one thing, Mac owners are equally vulnerable to the growing number of threats that target social networks and other online venues, not Windows-based computers. Still, 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.

Service. The best time to think about whether a computer company builds reliable machines and backs them well is before you plunk down any money, not after something goes wrong. No manufacturer ships defect-free systems or makes every customer happy: At the moment, for instance, Apple is dealing with widespread complaints about faulty iMac screens.

Even so, the company has a more consistent reliability and service record than any of its Windows-centric rivals, as shown by surveys conducted by both PC World and PCMag.com. Check out these studies for invaluable real-world data before you buy from any major company.

The best thing of all about the PC-or-Mac decision? Despite what impassioned partisans may contend, it's not a big, existential question. Whether you buy a Windows system or a Mac, you'll find that the Web is the Web, that good software (much of it free) is plentiful, and that printers, cameras and nearly all other hardware work fine. Hey, they're just computers, folks -- and the only thing that really matters is choosing one that fits your needs, taste and budget.

Harry McCracken blogs at Technologizer, his site about personal technology. He's also the former editor in chief of PC World. Follow him on Twitter as @harrymccracken.