Mac or PC: You’re Asking The Right Question, and There’s a Right Answer

17

Danger, excitement and the unexpected—good for travel, not so good for operating systems.

My estimable and learned friend, Mr Dustin Main, suggested that choosing between a Mac and a PC was missing the point.

As eloquent and intelligent as his argument was, I fear that we are not quite there yet. With respect to the right honourable gentleman, I would like to present the case that the choice of operating system is still very important for the connected traveller, and that there is a clearly superior choice: OS X Mountain Lion.

I grew up on Windows, started with 3.1, lived through the glorious revolution that was 95 and moved ever onwards to XP. I had always assumed that Windows was the pinnacle of graphical computing.

Then, in 2009, I switched from Windows 7 to OS X Snow Leopard and there have been few moments in my geek life that were as revelatory as that. There were no more inscrutable error messages. I plugged stuff in, no random device drivers were installed. Things actually did just work (this has slipped somewhat, I’ll get to that).

 

Stability

I want my operating system to be more reliable than the teenage Tuk Tuk driver who agreed to pick me up from my hotel at 6am, failed to show and caused me to miss my plane.

I still use Windows 7 for website testing and gaming and every time I head back in there I face all manner of error messages and warnings and device issues (it’s a bleedin’ MOUSE, dammit!)

Then there’s the updates. Good grief, the updates!

When I hit shutdown as I’m running out the door to catch a bus to Lake Titicaca, I expect my computer to actually shut down, not spend an additional 15 minutes installing the never-ending stream of cryptically-named updates to fix bugs and security holes in programs I didn’t even realise I had installed.

When I don’t want it to shut down, though…

The Dreaded Windows Update Shutdown Screen

I’m Trying to Work Here, Windows

I don’t want to battle my OS, I want to get on there, get my work done, and get back out to the party because the mojitos are free and there’s going to be limbo later.

 

Security

It’s true that Apple can no longer claim that OS X is virus-free, but viruses, trojans and worms are still a relatively minor problem for the system. Most users won’t even require anti-virus software, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

However, Apple is not slacking on the security front. Much malware gets on to a user’s computer through exploits that require some sort of user interaction, usually ending up with an install. With Mountain Lion, Apple introduced Gatekeeper which is an elegant solution to the problem. It requires developers to digitally sign their code and, if it’s not signed, the OS won’t let it run.

“Hark at thine dictatorship, Apple! Woulds’t thou keep me from mine own computer?” cry the geeks.

I consider myself a power user (if, by power user, you mean someone who fiddles under the hood until something breaks) and I would have Harked! along with them, had there not been the most elegant of solutions. Right click, and hit open.

“You Can’t Open It” turns in to “Are You Sure You Want To Open It?” Convenient for those in the know, while protecting those who aren’t.

 

Backups

If there’s only one thing that you learn from Too Many Adapters, it should be this: Back Up Your Stuff.

Thanks to Time Machine, my backups are now as regular as a traveller with Delhi Belly. Here are the steps:

  1. Plug in the drive

Trust me, you need it to be this easy when you’re on the road cause otherwise you won’t do it. Then bad things will happen and you’ll be sad.

Love me some big, bold, easy to understand switches.

Love me some big, bold, easy to understand switches.

 

Aesthetic

Developers often neglect design in favour of functionality and you end up with crah-hazy screens full of all manner of buttons and switches and lists. Apple’s strict Human Interface Guidelines and attention to detail in its own work has filtered down to Mac developers, creating a rich ecosystem of user-centric applications that place as much focus on good design as they do on the functionality.

The result? Less friction. Consistency means I have to burn less mental cycles on figuring out how the app works and the quicker I get things done, the quicker I can jump in the pool.

 

Workflows

Speaking of getting things done so I can take my clothes off, OS X is a goldmine of productivity workflows.

Maintenance

OS X is built on the same core system as most of the world’s web, Unix, allowing me to do all sorts of magical scripting to make my web life easier. I have a script that automatically makes a copy of my site’s database and files, downloads them, and installs them locally. I can then run WordPress updates and make tweaks locally to make sure nothing breaks.

Run another script, and it all gets pushed back up to the server.

Can you do this in Windows? Certainly, but it’s nowhere near as easy, the shells often miss key programs and there are tons of weird gotchas like the direction of the slashes (Unix = /, Windows = ).

Of course, if you don’t want to get down and dirty with the command line (There Be Dragons), then let other people do it for you! The App Store has encouraged an explosion of free, cheap and not-so-cheap apps that help you solve whatever precise problem you happen to have and because the apps are all reviewed and approved by Apple, they’re easy to install and you know you can trust them.

Social Media

The Twitter and Facebook integration that came with Mountain Lion mean I can fire off tweets from Notification Center without breaking my concentration or right click images and send them to Facebook direct from the Finder.

Less time at the laptop = more time at the beach. It’s the little things.

 

The Bad News

Nothing is perfect and Apple’s biggest challenge right now is network services. iCloud was marginally better than the awful MobileMe when it launched and has since improved in leaps and bounds, but it’s still a long way off what services like Dropbox or Google offer.

Yes, the Just Works crown slipped a little. I was sad, but I am hopeful. Everything about iCloud except iTunes Match has worked wonders for me, but the clandestine nature of the service can be a little unnerving—I do like to know exactly where my stuff is.

 

So, Mac or PC?

Things are changing for sure. Windows 8 features an impressive, bold new direction for Microsoft and I’m actually excited for them—competition is good for everyone—but, for the moment, I will continue to recommend Macs to travellers who want to spend less time tweaking and more time travelling.

 

 

17 Responses

  1. PigSnowball

    I think you might have missed out on some of the physical considerations with regards to the current line up. No Kensington slot on a lot of the new line up is a really big miss for travellers. I never leave my laptop out in the open kensington locked, but I certainly leave my laptop in my hotel room kensington locked for when a long upload or download is needed.

    And so many also forego the ethernet port. or if they have that, you need an expensive dongle for hdmi out.

    Then there is conspicuousness, it stands out like a very sore thumb. I feel very uncomfortable letting anyone see that we carry macbooks because they are a much juicier target for thieves, attention a traveller absolutely does not need. Its a practical consideration that you might not be able to work in a cafe just because you have a mac.

    Then what to do in case of emergency, sometimes getting hold of another Macbook in case something happens to it can be a down right pain, but PCs are everywhere.

    Not to mention none of the current line up is good at games, and occasionally I do like to get into some hardcore games, something a PC would actually be more capable at..

    As for error messages, Macs are the worst. My hdd died a few months ago and I thought it was my entire system that was fried. On boot all I would get was a grey screen. I had to backup the drive, buy a new drive, reformat before I could ascertain that it was only a hdd error. This would have been devastating in the field. This was despite the fact that I actually already had a working 2nd hdd in my mac that was bootable.

    Ever try to copy a 2+gb file to fat32 usb drive? all you get is Error -57. How is that intuitive? And the whole OS is entirely composed or error messages with only the number code provided.

    I travel with a macbook, but if I wasn’t developing for iOS devices, I find PC would be my choice. You may like osx more, but the overall package, it’s just not the right choice for most I believe.

    Reply
    • Simon

      Thanks for your comments.

      Everyone has their own priorities and obviously it’s a personal choice. I do believe for the average traveller that the Mac is a lot more user friendly for the things they’re trying to get done.

      We’ve been travelling with two Macs for 3 years and we’ve never had a problem with security but I can see why that could be a concern for some people.

      I would also argue that the current Retina MacBooks are decent gaming rigs. The 650M is a capable mobile GPU and, combined with the quad core i7, it can handle itself decently.

      I’ve been playing GTA IV on it at 1900×1600 and getting 60fps with settings on high, which is not bad for a laptop. I know that game’s a few years old, but it’s still a pretty decent stress test.

      Either way, hardcore games and hard drive failures aren’t really things that affect most travellers on a day-to-day basis, which is why I would continue to recommend it.

      I appreciate the counterpoint, though.

      Reply
      • PigSnowball

        Agreed, 650M is an OK GPU, but that’s only on the 15″, which not that many people would choose for a travel laptop…

        But I don’t believe it’s personal choice when it comes to the oblique error messages that OSX spits at you, nor is it a personal choice to be sore for options in the case of repair or replacement. Objectively, the second is a very serious consideration for travellers which was addressed by other commenters and not referenced in your post.

        Also, TimeMachine seems to only work for reformat situations. For disaster recovery, as I mentioned, it doesn’t work, the computer fails to boot from the Time Machine drive if the main HDD is fried (this was when there was another hdd available to be a target for the recovery).

        Overall, I think you’ve done an OK general PC vs Mac article, but didn’t actually look at the factors that are important to a traveller.

        1. define the criteria and justify the criteria or use cases to be tested against.
        2. evaluate

  2. Tristan

    I agree 100%. I made the jump from PC to Mac in the summer of 2011 (having used every version of Windows since 3.1) and it’s been awesome. I’ve never regretted it. I have a 13″ MacBook Air and it’s probably the best purchase I’ve ever made.

    I wanted to address a couple things the other commenter here said. He mentioned the lack of the Kensington lock thing. I have a Pacsafe Travelsafe and it’s great. Plus it can also hold my phone, my Kindle, my tablet, and whatever other things I want to keep safe.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had any error message on my Mac. My Windows machine had them constantly.

    Regarding the ethernet port, I bought the Thunderbolt to ethernet dongle thing for $20. I’ve been living and traveling through Mexico for 5 months now and haven’t used it once. I don’t think it’s an issue for the vast majority of people.

    And as far as conspicuousness goes, that’s something I was worried about, too. To offset that, I bought a solid black vinyl skin sticker thing for it: http://www.decalgirl.com/skins/119005/MacBook-Air-13in-Skin-Solid-State-Black

    It’s also nice because it helps protect it from scratches.

    Pigsnowball also said “Then what to do in case of emergency, sometimes getting hold of another Macbook in case something happens to it can be a down right pain, but PCs are everywhere.” This is a non-issue. I can’t see any situation in which I don’t have my Mac, need a computer, and wouldn’t be able to use a PC. It’s not that I can’t use a PC—it’s that I just don’t like doing it.

    Another great thing about Macs is Boot Camp. It’s super easy to install Windows for those times you do want to try or use Windows-only programs.

    Plus the hardware of my MacBook Air is just beautiful.

    The one demerit I’d give it is that because it was so expensive, I do worry about it more than I would if I had a $300 Dell from Walmart. But that’s a tradeoff worth making for all of the other benefits.

    But yeah, I love my Mac because it really does just work. I haven’t had any problems with it. I’ll never go back to a Windows machine.

    Reply
  3. Colin Burns

    Hi Simon,

    I wanted to say two things… I have been a Mac user for 10 years now and struggle to see myself ever going back, but in saying that I think the latest generation of Macbook Pros (retina display) is a massive backwards step for consumers…

    The RAM is non-upgradable (i.e. soldered on so whatever you buy at time of purchase is what you’ll have forever) and the HDD (because they are SSD’s) have limited capacity unless you are willing to really shell out some cash. The 13″ MB Pros have a maximum of 8GB of RAM, maximum!!! That sucks!!

    I’ve currently got a 13″ macbook pro where I have replaced the standard HD with a 120GB SSD and I have removed the Super Drive and and replaced with a 1TB drive for data storage (itunes library and movies/TV shows etc) so for me to replace this machine (it’s now three years old and starting to feel it’s age) means that I have to shell out almost $3500 to get a 768GB HD. It just seems a little bit of a backwards step having these machine non-upgradable.

    As for the the OS, well the is awesome :)

    Any interest in sharing your scripts for backing up and updating your websites? Mine are automated through the server but I’m not copying them down to my own machine at this point…

    Cheers,
    Colin

    Reply
    • Simon

      Hey Colin,

      Thanks for that.

      Yes, the non-upgradableness (I think that’s a word) is a downer although now I’m on an SSD I can’t ever see myself going back. I’d love to see their Fusion drives make the switch to laptops but I’m not holding my breath.

      I’ve just upped my external storage to compensate. If you get a thunderbolt or USB 3 drive then transfer speed is going to be less of an issue. USB 3′s top speed is around the same as SATA II (although obviously without SATA’s low latency, however for straight storage it’s more than adequate).

      I’ve moved from a 13″ Pro to a 15″ Retina and, to be honest, I think the 8GB is probably pitched right for 13″ market. I’m only on 8GB myself and I have yet to find myself wishing for more RAM. I’ve kept an eye on things and, even with a large Photoshop document and a HD After Effects project, it still barely breaks a sweat. Having an SSD for your swap disk seems to mitigate a lot of the problems of not enough RAM, as does the discrete GPU on the 15″ models.

      And the screen is simply magnificent. In my opinion, it’s more than worth these downsides but obviously everyone has different priorities.

      As for the scripts, at the moment they’re tailored to my setup so I’ll need to clean ‘em up and genericify them. Will throw them up on my Github when I’ve done that. Just a heads up, they do require SSH access to your server, though.

      Appreciate the input!

      Take care,

      Si

      Reply
      • Colin Burns

        Hey Simon,

        Yeah the benefit of the screen and the SSD would definitely be great… But I think I’ll try to get another year out of this machine and see if they either bring over the fusion drive or the capacity of the SSD’s increases.

        Thanks for the article… Nice to see a new balance on TMA to help silence the Android and Windows fanboys ;)

        Cheers,
        Colin

      • Simon

        Hey Colin,

        Just to let you know, the script for downloading your files and database is now available on my Github here:

        Magical WordPress Downloadifier.

        Fill in the variables to match your setup then run it from Terminal and your local box will always have the latest uploads and database entries.

        I actually use a separate RSync script for making changes to my theme as it’s source controlled. Will post that separately.

  4. Forest Parks

    I love my mac but there is a major issue when traveling. Getting the darn thing repaired for a reasonable price.

    I was in New Zealand when my mac stopped working. Or more accurately it just wouldn’t go past the grey start up screen.

    So, I get on my phone and start researching. I opened the thing up and after a few hours worked out that the likely candidate was the hard disk cable (the hard disk was fine as I managed to connect to my gf’s PC using an old dock from a portable HD.

    So, I just needed a new HD cable. From Amazon, Ebay etc I could pick one up for $10 or so. The Apple store apparently would give one for $15-$40 if they could just do it in the Genius bar.

    Problem is NZ doesn’t have an Apple Store. Amazon and Ebay could have taken 1-2 weeks for delivery. So I had to go to an Apple reseller.

    Reseller’s in NZ said it was policy for a full diagnostics to be done, Apple’s policy for them to be resellers apparently. I told them the problem and said if they could lend me a cable I could show them there and then. They said NO.

    So, long story long, it cost me $NZD 245 for the diagnostics, $NZD 70 for the part.

    Now, in many countries a PC can be fixed anywhere, parts are a dime a dozen, even if a bit crappy (can get good quality when you get home if you really need). Macs are not there yet in availability of parts and Apple doesn’t want them to be.

    Reply
    • Simon

      Ouch, that’s no good.

      It’s a shame, Apple have a really good reputation for customer service and I have always found them to be super helpful but I guess some of their authorised resellers don’t share their enthusiasm.

      It is something to be aware of, especially when travelling to remote parts of the world—if you’re out of Apple stores you might be out of luck.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  5. Andrew

    I’ve had great success at doing neither :)

    I’ve got a PC and running Ubuntu on it. I’m considering switching to Linux Mint at some stage as it seems even more user friendly.

    Benefits: value for money (PC hardware is cheaper and Linux is free!), stability, free upgrades, great community support, for most people it’ll run everything they need

    Reply
    • Simon

      I run Ubuntu in a Virtual Machine and I am seriously impressed at how far that OS has come.

      And now you can get Steam on Linux, it’s even more attractive to us that like to play a game or two now and then…

      Reply
  6. dylan

    Hey there, just a word of caution about using Time Machine for backups – once your drive runs out of space, the oldest backups are deleted to make room for newer backups. That means you can loose stuff!! I learned this the hard way when all of the sudden a bunch of my travel photos were no longer on my backup drive – they’d been wiped by Time Machine. Of course there is no warning, and there is no option to NOT delete old backups. Luckily I had my photos backed up on DVDs as well, so I didn’t loose the images.

    Since then I’ve abandoned Time Machine in favor of Carbon Copy Cloner, and use an archiving setting that does not delete files. Time Machine may be good for backing up documents and things, but DO NOT rely on it as an archiving system.

    Reply
    • Simon

      Hey Dylan,

      Yes, you’re right: Time Machine is a backup system, not an archiving system and this is a very important distinction.

      Another important point is that Time Machine will completely fill the partition it’s appointed to, so if you want to use that drive for archiving, you’ll need to partition it first.

      For example, I have a 512GB SSD on my Retina, and a 1TB My Passport. I partitioned the 1TB drive so that 660GB was set aside for Time Machine (which covers the 512GB drive) and the remaining 340GB was for long-term storage.

      Thanks for bringing that up, and the alternative recommendation.

      Si

      Reply
      • dylan

        Yes, I did not understand the difference between backup & archive at the time. I’d bought a 500GB drive to use and then hooked up Time Machine and though all was taken care of – forget about it…. Oops!

      • PigSnowball

        I have the same critique for time machine. I really want a warning before it starts loosing resilience by deleting the oldest backups. It would be more graceful if it got rid of a few of the larger intermediate backups, but certainly not the oldest and absolutely not without a warning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *