Thursday, August 22, 2002

Mac vs. Wintel: The Endless Debate

There's a lot of buzz around the tech community lately lately about Mac OS X, its new 10.2 version named "Jaguar," and how it compares with Windows XP.

The case for Windows
I have several Windows boxes at home, running Win98SE and Win2000 Professional. I use XP Professional extensively at work. I've used every flavor of Windows since 3.0, excepting Windows ME, because I do have some standards. :-) I live, eat and breathe Microsoft products for both work and leisure. I build Windows boxes for fun.

Windows boxes also generally like me. It's hard to explain, but I seldom see the crashiness or trashiness that Windows is excoriated for; it may be that after years of practice I know how to build 'em right, or that without thinking I avoid the land mines, or that Bill Gates takes pity on fat guys. Who knows? But Windows boxes work just dandily for me.

The case for Mac
I've also got a pretty solid Mac background. The first non-Tandy, non-Commodore computer I used outside of my home was a Mac; we had original 128K Macs at my high school. System 6, System 7, 8 and 9... I've used them all to one extent or another over the years, and by System 9 it was pretty clear MacOS was aging terribly compared to a Windows 2000 or XP (or even some aspects of 98).

Mac OS X has changed all that. I've got OS X 10.1.5 running on a 288 MB, 300 MHz Tangerine iBook at home, and it's slick as snail snot. I love it, and the poor iBook has none of the whiz-bangy features of more modern Macs: glassy casings, huge LCDs, FireWire, none of them. It makes a great word processing machine, because it (mostly) gets out of the way. And both my mom and my cat Sushi love the machine -- maybe it's the color orange or the swoopy lines.

(It's important to note that Mac hardware continues to lag behind Wintel something fierce. Intel will be shipping processors by Christmas 2002 that will execute three billion integer operations a second (3 GHz), while Mac users are only just cresting the 1 GHz barrier. There's some arguments that can be made for Apple's Motorola CPUs having some edge in power-per-operation than Intel's for some operations, but it's nothing that's going to make up a three-to-one difference in raw horsepower if you've gotta have speed.)

...But back to the debate.
As I'm wont to do, I've been looking around, and it's very telling that some of the bigger advocates of OS X are in fact Linux users. I ran a Linux partition on one of my boxes as an Open Source True Believer for something like two years, and there are two hallmarks of the stereotypical Linux user that are relevant here: they appreciate technical elegance, and they're not afraid (in fact they like) to get their hands dirty in a system's technical details. Oh, and they've had to deal with occasionally brilliant, always quirky, but inevitably cobbled-together desktop interfaces, and are largely tired of it. And they've had to put up with spit-and-baling-wire support for most non-vanilla hardware for so long that compiling beta-level device drivers into mission-critical Linux kernels is a common task for the "power" Linux user. Okay, more than two. :-)

Enter OS X, which is arguably the first operating system to feature an elegant, seamless desktop atop a complete Unix foundation. On top of that, hardware integration manages to be less painful (i.e., "just work") for most users than the Windows Way (my experiences notwithstanding), and to run circles around the Linux Way. Combine that with Apple's penchant for manufacturing Really Cool Cases (tm), and the fact that a Unix command line is always available in OS X, and you've got a combination that diehard Linux users are finding hard to ignore, despite Wintel's massive CPU-speed advantage.

My take on all this? I'm big on whiz-bang tech, so it's not unheard of for a sexy computer case to draw me, but before OS X I really didn't care for the way that Apple hid basic configuration details from me as a user. Windows provides most of that information if you're willing to learn. Mac OS X, though, allows that access as well, and manages to feel more intelligently coupled with underlying hardware than either Windows or a well-tuned Linux box can. And a Unix command line simply rocks if you know how to use it.

There's just one problem. I like to play games (it's the main purpose for my home box), and if they ever come out for the Mac most games are months in doing so. On top of that, the games I like playing usually require lots of horses under the hood, and Macs still lag PCs there.

But my iBook has been imbued with new life -- it's now a usable, reliable, beautiful word-processing machine (if you like orange, which I do); despite being three-year-old hardware, it feels like the most advanced machine in the apartment. The artist in me likes that a lot.

But you still can't build a Mac from parts. You can build the most important 85% of the experience with Windows, and perhaps a different 90% of the experience with Linux, and both options come out cheaper and allow more control and CPU oomph.


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