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Switching to the Mac

posted Sep 08, 2007

Scene from Mac vs. PC commercial

A scene from one of those really funny Mac vs. PC commercials. This one was about how the upgrade to Windows Vista was major surgery for the PC.

I don’t know what really made me do it. It was probably a combination of curiosity, those hilarious Mac vs. PC commercials on TV, and the fact that it was time to upgrade my home computer. I know several people, who (just like me) were long-time Windows users, and have switched to the Mac and simply love it. They said things like, “Things just work,” and “Once you go Mac, you’ll never go back.” Although these are people whose opinions I trust, I was still somewhat skeptical as I clicked the “add to cart” button on Apple’s online store.

I’m happy to report that after a few weeks of using my Mac Mini I can see what they are talking about. The Mac Mini happily joined our little home network, easily finding the file shares and printers. Moving my iTunes music from the Windows box to the Mac was a snap, and iTunes seems to run faster and smoother on the Mac compared to the PC. However, that’s not really a fair comparison since my PC is over 5 years old (hence the need to replace it).

Making the switch wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve been a Windows user for approximately forever. From way back in the day when Windows was an application that you started by typing win at the DOS command line. Fortunately there’s lots of good help available to ease the transition from Windows to the Mac, although frankly the transition was pretty painless.

Having Your Cake and Eating it Too

There are still a handful of applications that I use regularly and are only available on Windows. Jeppesen’s FliteStar is the first one that comes to mind — it’s what I use for planning our flying trips. Fortunately you can keep a version of Windows around on your Mac for just such an occasion. There are two products that let you actually run a virtual Windows PC right on your Mac: Parallels and VMware Fusion. VMware Fusion is still in beta, so I opted for Parallels 3.0 since it has a longer track record. Either product lets you run your familiar Windows applications right alongside Mac applications. You can even cut-and-paste between the two.

Of course the copy of Windows you’re running inside Parallels or VMware is still vulnerable to all those Windows viruses, spyware, and other nasty things floating around the internet. Don’t forget to install some kind of security software on the virtual Windows machine.

Price

One thing that surprised me at first is how much more expensive Macs are than PCs. You can get a bare-bones PC for around $300, but the least expensive Mac is the one I bought: the Mac Mini which starts at $599. However the bare-bones PC is going to have a very low-end processor (like an Intel Celeron) and limited memory. The latest version of the Mac Mini has the Intel Core 2 Duo processor which really screams in comparison to single-core processors (such as those on a low-end PC). After pricing out a PC with similar specs (and small form factor) to the Mac Mini, I found that the price was actually comparable. For example this Acer Aspire is pretty close on paper to the 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo Mac Mini I bought. The Acer sells for $680 and I paid $699 for a refurbished Mac Mini directly from Apple (which is $100 less than what Apple charges for a new one). The refurbished model looked brand new to me, and carries the same warranty as a new model. Buying refurbished Mac is a no-brainer in my opinion.

Scott Finnie recently wrote an article for ComputerWorld titled Mac vs. PC cost analysis: How does it all add up? His analysis shows that Macs are actually priced quite comparably to equally equipped PCs. The author says he didn’t think the Mac Mini was a bargain from a price/performance standpoint. He may be right; I didn’t do the exhaustive research he did. For me the Mac Mini made sense because I wanted to switch to a Mac, already had a nice monitor and keyboard, and I did not want a notebook computer.

I think the perception of a big price difference between Macs and PCs is because you can buy a very low-end PC that is way cheaper than any Mac. That’s simply because the lowest-end Mac (the Mac Mini) actually has pretty good components compared do the typical low-end PC.

Unix / Linux

Another reason for going to the Mac is that the Mac OS X operating system is running on top of the very reliable Unix operating systems. That’s very appealing to me as a long-time Linux user and developer. I was very happy to have the familiar set of Unix tools available, and using MacPorts makes it easy to install new Unix packages as I need them.

I’m starting to do some Ruby on Rails software development, and although Rails is pretty operating-system neutral, doing the work on a Unix-based system like OS X or Linux seems to be the best way to go. I’ll post more details about the Rails application I’m working on when it’s closer to being ready for release.

Never Go Back?

I’m still very much a Mac novice, but I’d have to agree with my friend Jon who told me, “Once you go Mac, you’ll never go back.” The next time we replace a computer at home it’s going to be a Mac, and I’m going to recommend the same to my friends and family.

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