Joe Wilcox picks up on a comment that I made on his post about Windows 7 and its relationship to the Mac:
“As you know, Joe, I’m a Mac to Linux switcher (with over 20 years Mac use under my belt). But I’m also a tinkerer who’s curious about OS’s, so I’ve been running Windows 7 as my main system for a month or two. Count me amongst the impressed. Microsoft has actually applied some real serious effort to the user interface design, taken some of Apple’s ideas, and made them better. That it’s much, much faster than Vista is a bonus.
Mac fans should take a serious look at 7—not because it will persuade them to switch, but because it’s the first serious competition from Microsoft in quite some time.”
Joe’s timing is impeccable, as in a couple of weeks I’ll be switching my main computer back to Ubuntu from Windows 7. But the reason isn’t exasperation with Windows 7, and it’s not one that should give Mac fans hoping that the new Microsoft OS will be a failure any kind of comfort.
The reason that I’m switching back to Ubuntu is simple: I’m in favour of open systems, open formats, and open source software in general. These are all the reasons that I switched from the Mac in the first place (find out more about that decision here). Long term, Ubuntu is the right choice for me.
Having used Windows 7 for a couple of months, I’ve dug deep enough into it to talk about its pros and cons with some authority, which was the aim of installing it in the first place.
And there’s another reason I can safely go back to Ubuntu on my main machine. To see how well it runs on low-power laptops, I installed it on my Advent 4211, a rebadged version of the MSI Wind U100 netbook. This means I still have a Windows 7 machine to play with.
If anything, I’m even more impressed with how Windows 7 performs on the netbook than on my larger, much more powerful Dell. Subjectively, performance is actually noticeably better than Windows XP, and the OS itself is more powerful, easier to use, and more secure.
So while I’m going to be going back to Ubuntu (on the release of Ubuntu 9.04 on 24th April), this doesn’t represent any kind of dissatisfaction with how Windows 7 has performed. Were it not for seeking to avoid closed systems where I can, I’d be more than happy to stick with Windows 7.
Mac OS X or Windows 7?
Suppose, though, that we took Ubuntu out of the equation. Would Windows 7 be enough, on its own, to have got me to switch away from the Mac?
This is a very tough question to answer, but if all other things were equal, the answer is probably “no”. Windows 7 brings Microsoft’s OS up to the level of OS X in terms of usability. In some areas (the behaviour of the task bar, for example) I think it’s ahead of OS X, while in others (networking, which is vastly improved but a bit more painful than the Mac) it still lags behind.
If all other things were equal, my advice to Mac users who are happy with the hardware they can get from Apple would be that there’s no compelling reason to switch to Windows, even with all the improvements in 7. But for for Windows users, my advice would be similar: Windows 7 is good enough to effectively remove some of the practical reasons to switch to the Mac.
But there are a couple of other considerations which mean that all things are not quite equal. One pushes the result towards the Mac; the other, towards Windows.
The “Mac tax”
There’s probably more controversy over whether Macs are more expensive than Windows-based PCs than any other part of the debate over which one is a better choice. Microsoft has, of course, recently been beating Apple over the head about price, something that’s had Mac fans in a lather and Windows promoters cheering from the sidelines.
As I’ve written before on several occasions, the truth is that the pricing differential is complex. Apple tends to price its machines at launch so they are close to equivalently specified Windows PCs – and, occasionally, actually cheaper.
However, Apple’s prices also tend to remain static over the whole lifespan of a model. In the Windows world, that doesn’t happen: machines are discounted or upgraded quickly, sometimes within weeks of being launched.
This means that within a couple of months of launching, Apple’s machines are no longer price competitive with equivalently-specified Windows PCs. And, when a model is close to the point of being updated by Apple, it is usually significantly underpowered compared to computers you could buy for the same price running Windows. That’s why the best time to buy a new Mac is usually just after launch, if getting the most bang for your buck is important to you.
Microsoft’s current ads, though, highlight another “value” issue, and one which I have direct experience of. The number of Mac models is limited (rightly, in my view), which can easily lead to customers paying for features that they simply don’t need – and if you don’t need a feature, it doesn’t represent any kind of value.
In my case, I needed a 15in screen and plenty of power – but not as much power as the twin-graphics equipped MacBook Pro delivers. I could have chosen a MacBook, but 13in screen is too small for me. For my needs, paying £1,600 for a MacBook Pro when I could buy exactly the hardware configuration I wanted from Dell for £899 would have made no sense. Although the MacBook Pro offers a good specification for its price, it would have been poor value for me given my needs.
Calling this a “Mac tax” is a bit disingenuous. It’s an inevitable consequence of having a relatively limited range of models. But being able to get exactly the hardware that meets your needs is a key advantage of Windows, and it’s not something that Apple can get around at present.
The elephant in the room: security and safety
If choice is a major plus point for Microsoft, then safety remains one of the key strengths of the Mac, at least for now.
Windows Vista made massive strides forward in terms of writing a more secure operating system. In fact, by most objective measures, Windows Vista (and thus 7) is a more secure operating system than the current version of OS X.
But – and it’s a massive “but” – Windows remains a less safe computing environment, and that’s not something that’s going to change in the near future. All operating systems have security flaws, and whether those flaws are discovered and exploited depends on the number of skilled people attempting to exploit them. As the biggest computing platform around, Windows remains the biggest target for malware writers.
And there is very little that Microsoft can do about this. It has already adopted software development processes which should minimise the number of future security holes in the system (something that Apple has yet to do). It patches serious holes promptly, and has bolted on a permissions and user notification system which matches OS X.
But no software is perfect, and the biggest, most profitable target will always attract the biggest share of attempts to crack it. Thus, for the foreseeable future, Windows will remain the malware writer’s target of choice – and so be the least-safe computing environment.
Anyone who tells you with absolute certainty which operating system is “the best” without knowing your individual needs is probably going to be wrong – and I include myself in this. The right choice for you may be Linux, or it may be Mac, or it may be Windows. Choosing is a complex dance between hardware needs, price, aesthetic preferences, application requirements, technical competence, and even “what my friends use”.
I think the best piece of advice that I can give, though, is this: if you are considering switching platform, don’t expect “the other side” to be the land of milk and honey forever. Every computing platform has its pros and cons, and once the honeymoon period is over, you’ll run into them.