Mac vs. Windows: The Showdown

Last week, a classmate got into a heated argument with a professor about why Mac OS X (now macOS) is superior to Microsoft Windows. This isn’t the first (or last) time anybody involved with CIS or IT will hear this argument, as it’s almost a weekly argument. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while now, and I feel it is a perfect time to write.

I feel the first thing is to answer the question: none is better than the other. It is like the age-old argument of “Chevy vs. Ford”, where the answer is subjective. Both have their strengths and weaknesses that set them apart. However, both are very much similar (especially today, after Apple adopted Intel processors in their equipment.)

Basic History

Operating systems have been around since the hey-days of digital computers, with the first “widespread” operating system being developed by General Motors in 1956 for the IBM 704 – a computer that predates transistorized computers. For today’s standards, that operating system was extremely archaic. In 1964, IBM developed their own operating system – OS/360 – for the IBM System/360 mainframe. Throughout the 1970s, operating systems came more prevalent. Microcomputer Mania in 1977 brought into existance many competing hardware companies who had their own operating systems. (Apple with the Apple II, Commodore with the PET, and various others.)

Mac OS

During the 1970s and early 1980s, a large percentage of computers were stuck to using command-line interfaces. You’d have to memorize commands and formats, which was seen as the biggest pain in learning how to operate a computer. However, Xerox set out to change that with their ALTO computer, which was located at the Xerox PARC laboratory in Palo Alto, California.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer in 1976, got to see the ALTO computer and its capability. He saw the future in graphical computing, by replacing the outdated and difficult-to-use command-line interface with a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI.)

Throughout the early 1980s, a team at Apple worked on designing a computer and a GUI-based operating system. The first example, released in 1983, was the Apple LISA. (The computer was named after Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, although he tried to deny it by giving the computer the acronym Local Integrated System Architecture.) The LISA failed, as it was “ahead of its time” and was too expensive for everybody but the largest of corporations.

However, the second attempt was released on January 24, 1984. The Apple Macintosh was marketed using one of the first successful Super Bowl commercials, the 1984 ad directed by Ridley Scott.

The attempt was much more successful than the LISA, but still wasn’t 100% successful. The Macintosh was seen as a “toy” more than a tool, and many claimed that it was under-powered and lacked enough memory. It, too, was expensive. To make matters worse, Microsoft released the Microsoft Windows “operating environment” just one year later, in 1985.

Microsoft Windows & MS-DOS

Microsoft Windows “started” in 1981. IBM approached a young Bill Gates, and his company Micro-Soft, to develop an operating system for the Personal Computer (PC). The result was MS-DOS (MicroSoft-Disk Operating System), a basic command line-based operating system that was much easier to use than running the computer in BASIC.

MS-DOS (and IBM’s own licensed version, PC-DOS) took off. The IBM-clone market fueled the expansion for MS-DOS, although the market at the time was filled with competitors like the Apple II and Commodore machines.

In 1985, the market grew in Microsoft’s favor. In addition to the rocketing IBM-clone market, IBM had various models. (By this time, IBM made the PC, PC-XT, PC-AT, and PCjr.) The Apple Macintosh placed the GUI into the hands of most average computer users, which left Microsoft with a slight issue.

However, Microsoft had a plan. Windows was released in 1985, and – unlike Macintosh – ran on top of MS-DOS. (Thus, Microsoft considered it an “operating environment” versus an “operating system.”) Therefore, you could install a GUI on your IBM PC-XT or PC-AT, as long as it was graphically compatible.

At first, Microsoft Windows wasn’t doing so hot. In 1987, IBM co-produced OS/2 (Operating System/2) for the PS/2 (Personal System/2.) The PS/2 – the successor to the PC line – was largely successful in businesses and ran mostly MS-DOS and PC-DOS, instead of running Windows. Eventually, OS/2 “damaged” the market share of Windows.

In 1990, Microsoft and IBM cut ties on OS/2 and PC-DOS. IBM continued to maintain the operating system, which would become successful on POS and kiosk machines, like ATMs. By this time, Windows was starting to mature.

By 1994, Windows became a popular operating system and started to catch up to Apple’s Macintosh operating system. The Macintosh operating system had become extremely popular with fields like architecture and CAD, as it was seen easier to use and cheaper to maintain than the Windows and OS/2 alternatives.

However, in 1995, the tides started to turn. Apple was starting to hurt, and Windows released Windows 95. Windows 95 revolutionized the GUI for Windows users in much the same fashion that System 7 revolutionized Mac OS for Macintosh users. Things that we see today in Windows, like the beloved Start menu and the task bar, trace their roots back to Windows 95.

By 1997, Apple was hurting. In addition to the Macintosh loosing a large percentage of market share to Windows, Apple experimented and failed with consumer electronics with the Newton and digital cameras. (A decade later, Apple would attempt this same path and would change the world.) The situation got so bad that many were jumping from the Apple ship to Microsoft, and business analysts claimed that Apple’s days were numbered.

The 90s weren’t so kind to Microsoft or IBM, either. Microsoft faced difficult legal matters with the Department of Justice, who accused Microsoft with creating a monopoly on internet browsers. IBM almost went under like Apple, but pulled through.

In 1998, Steve Jobs returned to Apple and would introduce the iMac G3. Things went back to normal for Apple, who would continue to see growth through the writing of this article. In the late 2000s, Apple would experiment with consumer electronics and changed the world with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. The Macintosh is as prevalent as ever, with MacBooks and iMacs being a common sight, and macOS growing in its capabilities.

However, both companies saw success following the 90s. Microsoft Windows would maintain their high market share, and would release Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, and now Windows 10. Microsoft would enter the world of hardware with their Surface tablets. IBM left the PC business in 2005, selling their personal computing lines (and later server lines) to the Chinese manufacturer Lenovo. The IBM ThinkPad was extremely successful with business users due to its high reliability and durable construction, and Lenovo continued that tradition. (This post is being written  on a Lenovo ThinkPad T420.)

So… let’s compare them.

Now that we know the (lengthy) history behind both operating systems and their parents, we can now compare them.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was clear. Apple’s Macintosh was a much superior GUI to Microsoft’s Windows. Early versions of Windows – up until Windows 95 – still required knowledge of MS-DOS (or PC-DOS). Macintosh never required that knowledge, as everything truly was GUI and there was no underlying command line interface. Thanks to the superior graphics capabilities, the Mac was preferred by graphic designers, architects, engineers, CAD professionals, and more.

However, when the graphics capabilities of Windows (and DOS) based machines caught up to the Macintosh, and prices of Windows computers (primarily PC-clones) began to fall, many jumped ships. This developed a giant problem for Apple in the early 1990s that would nearly destroy them later that decade.

Today, however, the difference isn’t as clear. Many claim that there is a huge difference, while others claim there are no difference at all. I’ve used both, so I’ll give my own personal opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of both.

Hardware

Today’s hardware is different from the hardware of decades past. Much like the automotive industry, the personal computing industry has diversified from the “I want something that will turn on as soon as I get it out of the box” customer to the modders and the stock people.

Not all Macs are perfect in hardware. My MacMini, a late-2014 model, has had problems in-and-out despite minimal use, and has become extremely slow (despite, once again, minimal use.) For a $600 computer that has been used minimally (mainly stored), that’s unacceptable. (But that’s another story for another time, although it does relate to this topic.)

Macs and the lack of Hardware Customization

Macs new hardware sucks, to be honest. My father uses an early-2014 MacBook Air, and I used a MacMini for a while. Both were aluminum uni-body designs, and were made after Apple decided to make their computers non-upgradable. Planned obsolescence, anyone?

For basic user, like my father who uses his computer to surf the web and read emails, this isn’t a problem. But for someone like me, that was going to be a serious problem.

With a Mac, there’s only a tiny sliver of products that you can actually buy. Only computers from Apple can run Mac OS X, unless you modify a PC into a Hackintosh. This is the opposite for PC; you can run Windows on pretty much any machine as long as it meets the minimum requirements (you can even run Windows on a Mac using Boot Camp.)

Software Integration

  1. GRAPHIC DESIGN – TIE. Most people claim that the Macintosh, to this day, will beat any Windows machine in graphics capabilities. I found that in actual graphic design, this is a tie. Photoshop works the same in both Mac and Windows, and neither is better than the other. The nice thing about the Mac is that there are cheaper graphic design programs (sorry… applications) out there that are just as good. Pixelmator, for instance, is a great Mac app that is one of the best “non-Photoshop graphic manipulation programs” on the market. (However, Photoshop is the “de-facto standard” for designers, and is still superior to other programs.)
  2. DESKTOP PUBLISHING – Windows. In my personal experience, desktop publishing is much easier to get into on a Windows machine – at least for the usual (low-demand) user. For professionals who do desktop publishing on a day-to-day basis, and therefore will have the need to warrant buying more expensive programs like Adobe’s InDesign, this would be a tie since InDesign (and many competitors) are cross-platform.For an average Joe, Windows has the availability of the easy-to-use Microsoft Publisher. While Publisher won’t produce award-winning publications, it is easy to use, cheap, and gets the job done. In fact, with the right knowledge in Publisher (that shares many of the same components and layout as other Office programs like Word and PowerPoint), you can create some fairly decent publications. Even better, Publisher has some advanced publication options “built-in” that make it easier to package it for a printer.
  3. OFFICE TASKS – TIE. The most common stereotype for Windows since it’s DOS days has been that it’s an “office operating system.” Everything in Windows, like in DOS, was black-and-white for some business executive, whereas the Mac world is colorful and filled with rainbows.Both, however, can have a good place in the office. Newer Macs have an office productivity suite, iWorks, built right in to the operating system. Windows does not, but Microsoft Office is a favorite (Office is cross-platform, minus Access and Publisher). Microsoft Office, OpenOffice (LibreOffice), and many other options are cross-platform with some limitations.
  4. VIDEO EDITING/AUDIO EDITING: Mac. The Mac platform is used by many for video editing purposes, which it is good at considering built-in programs like iMovie and (if you want to pay a little) Final Cut Pro. iMovie can be used by anyone, and Final Cut Pro offers more advanced tools that produce a better program.If you don’t have a Mac, video editing isn’t off limits. Since I personally rarely do any video editing, I try to stick with free offerings that do the job. If you’re wanting to not spend any money on a PC getting video editing software, but want something “that works”, I’ve had great success with VSDC Free Video Editor. It’s not perfect, and requires some getting used to, but it does a decent job for most basic applications.If you’re doing video editing on a day-to-day basis or are a professional, there are some really great video editors out there for PCs that are on almost any budget level. These go from the entry-level but fairly decent CyberLink editing suites all the way up to Adobe Premier and even AVID solutions. PC Magazine has a list of top editing programs for this year.For obvious reasons, Windows Movie Maker wasn’t included. Sadly, if you did not know, Microsoft placed WMM on the chopping block during the Windows 10 introduction.
  5. BUILT-IN WEB BROWSERS: Mac. Safari has always been superior to Internet Explorer. While Microsoft is giving IE a literal overhaul (renaming it Edge to try to get rid of the negative reputation of IE that dates back over a decade), the latest versions are still problematic. Safari, on the other hand, is fairly reliable and is much more user-friendly.

The User Interface

Both operating systems have seen their user interfaces modernized over the last couple years, with Windows offering support with Cortana and a streamlined “Ribbon” interface, and macOS following by adding Siri and also revamping the interface design entirely.

The interface design of macOS is great. I enjoy the translucent panes, but wish it was more uniform across programs. It looks better (IMHO) than they boring brushed-aluminum (and finally dull grey) panes that was used throughout most of the life of Mac OS X.

However, the interface of Windows isn’t horrible. After ironing out difficulties found with Windows 8 (i.e. not all computers have touch-screens), the “Metro UI” when combined with the “classic” start menu worked out well. The Start Menu is drastically different from previous versions of Windows (95-7), but it’s still fairly decent and the Metro Tiles allow quick access to your most frequently used programs in just a couple clicks, instead of scrolling through the Start menu or trying to locate the desktop icon.

The Operating System Itself

Now for the elephant in the room… the operating system itself. Apple is changing up a lot of the standard things in macOS that has remained the same since versions of the Classic Mac OS, such as System 7. These include the “HFS II” filing system, which is being replaced with a newer, “more efficient” filing system. There is also a lot of ground-up code overhauls in the new versions of Mac OS.

Windows has remained mostly the same, although the appearances have changed over the years.

Apple’s Business Practices

It has been a well known fact that Apple’s business practices are not only lucrative for them, but cuts out the consumer. Both Macs that I’ve owned were welded shut, and the RAM and storage drive were both soldered right onto the logic board. In my personal opinion, this is wrong. While Apple fans and Apple themselves argue that this is to “promote compatibility” by not allowing consumers to use third-party parts (which can increase machine reliability), it has done them more harm than good. Some die-hard Mac fans are hanging on for dear life, while others see the writing on the wall and switch ships.

Macs are naturally not expensive. A low-end Mac will cost you $1000, whereas an equivalent PC will cost you about $500 new. The nice thing about the PC is that it will not become obsolete in two years as you can easily upgrade the RAM and hard drive.

Take my ThinkPad T420 for instance. It’s a six-year old machine (introduced in 2011) that originally shipped with 4GB of RAM and a tiny 140GB hard drive. Both of those were easily upgraded. The RAM was upgraded to 8GB in just five minutes, and the hard drive was upgraded from 140GB to 500GB in just thirty minutes. The ThinkPad came with a Intel Core i5 @ 2.5 GHz, and a plethora of USB and other ports. It had an internal DVD-burner combo. The battery could be replaced in 1 minute. I purchased my ThinkPad for less than $200 from an off-lease program, but spent an additional $60 upgrading parts.

The MacBook Air? Welded shut, so the RAM, hard drive (or SSD), and battery are all non-replaceable.  As for specs, my early-2013 MacBook Air has an Intel Core i5 clocked in at 1.4GHz, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Two USB ports, a power port, headphone port, and a Thunderbolt port round out ports, and there is no optical drive. The point? You could easily argue that my ThinkPad is just as well-rounded in features as it, is more powerful despite being somewhat older, and cheaper (although, the T420 has an unfair advantage in the fact that it was purchased used.) The MacBook can’t be upgraded (well, technically you could upgrade it, but you’d void the warranty, probably have to cut into the aluminum chassis [ruining the value], drag out the solder gun, and replace it the hard way. And you’d probably turn it on to hear a beeping followed by an electronic voice shouting “SELF DESTRUCT IN 3… 2… 1…” followed by a bright flash as the machine is reduced to a pile of ashes and melted aluminum.) So, when the MacBook becomes officially “obsolete”, there is no upgrading it.

This is where Apple’s plan makes them more money, and is a good marketing strategy for companies who are out to make $$$, but don’t care about the consumer. It’s called planned obsolescence. If the MacBook can’t be upgraded, then you have to junk it and go back to the Apple Store to repeat the process. And you continue to make Cupertino rich.

Most PC manufacturers don’t follow this approach. Some do on their lower-end machines, but at least Dell and Lenovo (the “big two”) maintain a large level of user service-friendliness in their products. I believe that even HP does.

A Summary for a LONG Post…

Since I’ve been planning on writing this article for over a year, I’ve accumulated a lot of things to say. But I feel that now is a good time to post it, as I’ve been hearing the argument come around again.

Before I start my “short’n’sweet” summary, I must remind everyone that these are my personal opinions. Many Mac fans get rubbed the wrong way when people poke fun or “talk bad” about their beloved Macs. Same with PC fanatics. Everyone has their own personal favorite, and I respect that.

Now to condense this monstrosity into 300 words… or preferably… less.

Macs started the GUI revolution, but Microsoft followed with Windows. Today, Macs are loosing ground to Windows in many areas, but there are some – like video editing – that they maintain their value in. Both are fairly equal, as far as software. In hardware, Macs are filled with problems such as planned obsolescence and overpriced for what they are. But most Macs work right out of the box, which is good for entry-level computer users or users who wish to have a computer that just works. But for advanced things, or things you’d use in an office or business world – or programming – the PC has a clear advantage on.

This article, by the way, took three days to complete. Thanks for reading, and please write a comment with your feedback. Just remember to keep the criticism constructive, and be nice.

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