January 07, 2005

Call for Computer Advice

So it's tax time again, and Hublet and I have attempted to swing it so that this year we'll get enough of a refund to fund a new home computer.

Of course, nothing is ever simple in the land of computer choice, and particularly now that I have been sucked into the Cult Of Pod. But here's the thing:

I need to decide whether a laptop or a desktop is better for me--I'm leaning toward laptop for space and convenience, and I don't really game on the PC much anymore, but...eh. Plus, I'm now torn between Mac and PC. And here's where it gets a bit annoying, because it seems nigh impossible to get objective comparisons. I mean, the newbie perception of Mac-ville is "Scary Cult People--eeeek!" and I don't know that I need a lot of bells and whistles, or the ability to sync every electronic device in the world with my computer.

Anyone on either side know of some good FACTUAL comparisons of laptops, without proselytizing on either side? Recs welcome. I am a simple girl, with simple needs.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 7, 2005 08:17 AM

I'm hopelessly biased, but here's a nice price comparison (tables include desktops and laptops, story dated 8/26/04) story which makes the "connection to electronic devices" point: http://www.linuxinsider.com/story/36120.html

If you really DON'T intend to use it for anything other than blogging and email, a cheap windows desktop with vigorous virus/adware/etc. control would be fine.

Even for blogging, though, the tools on the Mac are fabuloso - Ranchero's MarsEdit makes me happy ever time I post (http://ranchero.com/).

Me, I'd think about buying used or refurbished (and remember the academic discount! I always get my Macs cheaper through the campus purchasing order).

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at January 7, 2005 09:55 AM

I'm using Windows 95 on a 1996 PC (133 MHz, 32mb ram) and am very happy with it. When it breaks, I'll look into what's out there.

This constitutes advice, indirectly.

Whatever it is will be better and cheaper next year.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at January 7, 2005 12:04 PM

No; but I do know that a WinTel (Windows OS, Intel processor) will be cheaper to purchase and easier to upgrade. Whichever way you go, Mac to WinTel or WinTel to Mac you'll face a learning curve. (The one exception to this is if you know linux OS-X has it at it's core.) Um, Macs clearly have some innovation and (if you like that sort of thing) aesthetics going for them, but if you join the Microsoft clone army you will always have a friend nearby (in the form of a product for your platform).

Posted by: Joel at January 7, 2005 12:09 PM

I love Macs and grew up with, but PCs are cheaper and the programs are cheaper and more readily available. When I got married to a PC-user, I made the switch and have been living with PCs ever since. From an economic standpoint, I'd go PC.

Whatever you choose, don't let your son puke on your laptop. Speaking from experience, they don't work so well after that.

Posted by: Jordana at January 7, 2005 12:59 PM

And if you join the Microsoft clone army you'll need those friends to help sort out all the problems you're gonna have! (Nyuk, nyuk) And if group membership is important to you there's no one more willing to help a fellow Mac user than other "Scary Cult People".

Seriously, the key to me being a home Mac owner is that I spend ZERO time worrying about viruses and such. I used to be the editor for an electrical engineering technical journal and my e-mail address was in literally thousands of machines worldwide. I constantly was getting virus laden e-mail from other people's infected PCs and had not one problem in three years. The computer was connected via DSL on a 24/7 basis (without a firewall!) and I never had any other kind of attack succeed either. This was with the "out of the box" computer - I did nothing special and was completely protected.

I'm forced to use a Dell at work and corporate expends A LOT of effort trying to keep us "uninfected and secure". Windows XP is a lot better than the earlier versions (it hardly ever "hangs" as compared to Windows 98 which was crap) but still seems to have more problems than my home Mac computer.

I'm a world-class geek and the reason that I'm willing to pay extra for a Mac (and you will pay extra) is that I don't have to spend time dinking around with it to get it to work, mainly because it's all integrated by one manufacturer rather than being an assemblage from several. It's a natural outcome that it's going to work more smoothly (but not perfectly - what computer does?). IMHO you can buy a cheaper PC and spend more time keeping it running or a more expensive Mac and spend less time keeping it running (based on my home/work experience). I guess it all depends on whether your time is more constrained than your money. Also Apple doesn't have the annoying OS registration scheme that is required for Windows XP.

One of our sales guys had been a PC laptop owner and traded for a PowerBook. A direct quote from him is that is was the first laptop he had that "worked as advertized". I took that to be a pretty strong endorsement because this guy complains about everything.

I bought an 1 GHz G4 iBook for my nontechnical wife at Christmas a year ago and it's worked great for her. You could probably get a used one on EBay for a discount now.

I must politely disagree with the statement that "programs are cheaper and more readily available" for PCs. The big kicker is Microsoft Office which is available on both platforms and is cross-compatible. A document made on a Mac works on a PC and vice versa. I'm in a position to know because in that technical editor job I swapped documents back and forth with other people all the time. I will agree that many games are released earlier for PCs and in that regard Mac owners are second class citizens. You are saying that you don't care about that.

One key to your decision is to decide what programs you want to run. If there is a PC-only program that is a "must have" then you should buy a PC. However, many "PC-only" programs have Mac functional equivalents which work as well or better so check carefully.

Any Mac you buy will have, preloaded and "free" (that is to say that it's added into the single purchase price) the following sofware:

1) "Safari" (web browser) which is far superior to MS Explorer (which hasn't been upgraded in forever and is particularly insecure). I can't offer a comparison to Netscape Navigator or Firefox which are both free and offered on both platforms.

2) "Mail" which is a e-mail program that works just fine and has plenty of features. In particular it has a junk mail filter that tends to snag about 90% of the crap and more importantly doesn't label "real" mail as "junk".

3) "Address Book" which keeps all your contacts and is integrated with Mail so that all your postal addresses are stored in the same place as all your e-mail addresses. That is to say that there is a single location for both so that they can be kept up to date much more easily.

4) "iCal" which is a calendar scheduling program with all the expected features.

5) "iSync" which can download your Address book and iCal information into your iPod turning it into a PDA-lite type device as well as a music player. iSync also works with most "real" PDAs and cell phones.

6) "iTunes" you know about.

7) "iPhoto", "iMovie", "iDVD", "DVD Player" and a bunch of other very valuable stuff that it sounds like you might not use immediately but once you try it you may find yourself using it constantly. I spent Christmas putting my old VHS tapes on DVDs using iMovie and iDVD. The built-in audio input (check - not all Macs have them these days) and an included sound utility allowed me to put a lot of my old and out-of-print vinyl music on my iPod.

8) "Appleworks" which has word processing (i.e. like MS Word), spreadsheet (Excel), drawing and presentation (Powerpoint) programs. These are perfect for routine work that doesn't require the power of MS Word, Excel, etc. (c.f. aforementioned wife who uses them quite happily).

I cannot overemphasize the advantage of having all this stuff integrated with the hardware by a single manufacturer. It all works and plays together right out of the box and far quicker than an assemblage that you might have to put together on your own. From what you describe as your needs it sounds like an out of the box Mac will meet them all. It may be that an out of the box PC will too - you'll have to decide.

Finally I'm in Raleigh (YMCA corner room, of course, snif, snif) so if you want, I'd be happy to discuss it with outside of blog comments or meet you next time you swing through town. I'm leaving an e-mail to an address that is automatically thrown away but just add your own comment that you want to hear from me further and I'm e-mail you on the side with a real address and/or phone.

p.s. There's an Apple store at Southpoint Mall in Durham just off I-40. Dell put up one of their mall Kiosks nearby so it might be worth a trip to do side-by-side comparison.

Posted by: "Barney Fife" at January 7, 2005 02:25 PM

If you have already been using PC, then I would certainly stick with that. It's far, far cheaper. If you have the scratch for a PowerBook (or even an iBook based on what you list as your needs), then by all means. I think you've mentioned you're on dialup, so you don't have quite as much to fear from naughty things. Plus, if you've managed to keep your current PC relatively clean, I don't see you turning into a gibbering idiot just because you got a new box. PCs are nowhere near as flaky as they used to be, though they are less secure.

I guess my advice comes down to: If you're already PC and haven't routinely been owned, I'd stick with that just because the cost is so much less.

And, since we have to give our creds here, I'm not a Winders-head either as I run Linux as my primary desktop at home. I also happen to have a PowerBook and do love it, but I got it mostly for the unixy core.

Posted by: fad at January 7, 2005 02:53 PM

I got a small (4 lb) Averatec 3200 last spring for $950. It's quite well behaved, comes with Windows XP (which is also fairly well behaved--it hasn't crashed once), 40 G memory, CD burner/DVD player, wireless and wired network card built in. The same model is down to $750 at Staples, now. The only downside is that the processor uses up the battery an hour faster than other laptops (that's why Averatecs sell for less than $1,000).

If my computer hasn't crashed once, is fast on the internet, and I'm only barely considered a competent user, I'd call that a good computer. And, with how much smaller it is than other laptops I've looked at, it's also cute. :)

My husband, who put together his own system when he owned a small computer store and employed a technician, says it's more powerful than his model; the only thing it doesn't have is a graphics card suitable for gaming.

Posted by: holly at January 7, 2005 03:27 PM

I use standard PC stuff at work and an eMac at home. Everything that "Barney" mentions is true! All of those features that he names are great. All of them. It is simple to use and other programs (i.e. MS Office) are available. One of our Mac friends came right over, excited as all get-out that we got a Mac, and hooked us up with the MS Office suite and some other cool stuff, as well as giving me a quick education on all the other way cool Mac-isms. I have been plagued with bugs and glitches on every regular PC I've owned (even the one that has been relagated to the other room and is now my husband's STILL crashes almost daily). I have had no such problems with the Mac. My 2 cents.

Posted by: Christine at January 7, 2005 03:55 PM

Joel: You essentially can't upgrade a laptop anyway (except ram and HD, and there's no difference between an x86 Windows machine and an Apple in those regards). (Yes, some of them still have CardBus slots. No, in practice that really doesn't make any difference for any sort of important upgrade, in my experience. Any new laptop will come with 54mbit wireless and Bluetooth anyway.)

Crossplatform comparison is a tricky business, and unless you're a Power User, it's unlikely to matter too much anyway.

I can report, however, that I'm still pretty happy with my old 600MHz iBook; if nothing else, Apple usually builds things very well, though there have been some dramatic failures in that regard in the past (PB5300, anyone?).

From your indications of what you need, I can't see that either a Mac or a PC has any inherent giant advantages, especially since you're not gaming significantly. If you like the iPod and iTunes, however, I'd have to suggest getting the Mac, simply so you can see what an OS that all works like that is like. I find it very pleasing, personally.

(Full disclosure: Long time user of PCs, Macs, and Others, and perfectly happy with OSX _and_ XP Pro.)

Posted by: Sigivald at January 7, 2005 04:00 PM

I have an eMac as you know. Learning which letters to capitalize is a challenge, but once you overcome (or ignore) that, the Mac world is a bright, pretty, clean, and fun one. The freedom from virus-worry, as many have said here, is huge. I have yet to use IMovie (iMovie, actually) and I don't understand Safari very much, and Appleworks kind of sucks (maybe you should buy Word for Mac if you want to sync up with your office), but for the most part, I love being part of the cult.

Posted by: Belle at January 7, 2005 04:17 PM

Jeez, that's a mighty lot of comments. I've always found cnet.com's reviews to be informative.

Having been both a Mac person (once) and a PC person (now), here's my take: if you're bright (and you are) you can figure out how to do anything on a PC. Apple's software (including OSX) is designed to not overload you with too many options, which means limited access under the hood. I like Windows (and linux) because I'm the kind of guy who likes to screw his computer up and then fix it. If you don't plan to spend much time tinkering, consider buying a Mac since they have real designers on staff making a very pretty product.

Next time, why don't you try a post inviting folks to help you decide whether to be a Democrat or a Republican? Less inflammatory.

Posted by: Lance McCord at January 7, 2005 04:32 PM

I should also add that you're welcome to use my consumerreports.org account. They typically offer reliability and customer satisfaction numbers that can be helpful when making a major purchase. Drop me a line if you'd like the login/password.

Posted by: Lance McCord at January 7, 2005 04:34 PM

PCs are cheaper. But I use a Mac.

Reason is that I'm a musician, and back when I first started computer-ing, Macs were the only way to go. Then I discovered the aesthetics of the Mac, and every time I have to use a PC I whine a little.

Yeah, it's a cult, but a fun one. I can usually find a mac nerd to work on my machine for the price of a sixpack of beer. :)

No crashes, no viruses (virii?). Easy to use (my senior citizen mom has one). And they're cute, too. :)

If you are an iTunes/iPod fan, might as well go with a Mac.

The iMac laptops are good, sturdy machines.

The only problem I've had is that there are a few software programs that aren't made for Mac, including FrontPage and Publisher. I run these using Virtual PC on my Mac, but it's a pain. Also, it took some doing to sync my Palm, but it's possible.

Posted by: terminaldegree at January 7, 2005 05:15 PM

I'm a PC user from way back (DOS 1.0) and also a software developer, and about two years ago I replaced my windows laptop with a Mac PowerBook. I've never looked back. The neatest thing: you close the lid, and the computer goes to sleep. Quickly. You open the lid, and the computer wakes up. Quickly. And everything just works.

We got the kids an eMac for Christmas. I took it out of the box, plugged it in, and inside of five minutes was printing a webpage on our printer over our wireless network--and I'm not really a Mac guru.

Every so often I have to use my wife's laptop--a Gateway 2000 running Win XP that was purchased within a month of my PowerBook. It goes to sleep when you close the lid; and it takes at least a minute (sometimes much longer) to wake up when you open the lid.

Posted by: Will Duquette at January 7, 2005 08:11 PM

Speaking as a computer obsessive, I would say strongly consider a laptop with wireless networking. Since I got my laptop, I spend time with my husband without giving up internet access. When I see something funny in a blog or an article, I can read it to him. I get either a chuckle or a look that says "you are such a geek" (he is a luddite and proud of it). It has made my life more social without giving up my TV watching. Plus I can drag it along camping, in my backpack to class (I'm a 48 yr old grad student in engineering), and to visit my Dad at the nursing home to show him pictures from the digital camera.

Anytime I help someone identify their options in computing, I ask them to decide what is essential, and what is nice to have. And to echo an earlier post, how much time you want to spend dinking with your hardware/software. I have built desktop PCs from components, installed BSD, Linux and Windows on a variety of PC boxen, and don't mind a bit of dinking. All that being said, I own a Mac for the real work I need to do. My machine is an iBook G4, bottom of the line (list $999) and it came with everything I needed out of the box. I added Office-Mac, because I work with a professor who who hasn't learned how to "save as RTF". Then I found a whole boatload of freeware utilities that I can't find for Windows (at work-that's what they give me), but make my work faster for all the projects I do. And contrary to the fellow who said you couldn't get under the hood on a Mac like you can on Linux, you can. BSD-*nix command-line everything under the hood. The same Apache webserver/php/perl as is on the server my hosting company uses. From any application, print to PDF--no extra effort or expense. Excellent battery life3-4 hours under heavy load. Brilliant screen. Won't run MathCad or Minitab-so I found substitutes--which have more power than I need. I use Camino (a Mozilla/Gecko variant)-faster than Safari and only chokes on web sites that insist on coding to IE. Sorry to sound like a cultist, but I have tried the alternative, and I prefer my Mac. Of course, I also drive a Saturn, and think that the primary motivator for buying a product should be how well it does the job you need it to do, not price as a primary driver. Others may disagree, but I have too many other fun projects to do, to expend the extra effort I have experienced with Windows, even in a corporate IT environment with people paid to babysit the systems. And, as the truthful users will tell you, there are vexing problems with any computer, there have been very few that I have not been able to find an answer to with a Google search. Just my $0.02.

Posted by: Jane O'Dell at January 7, 2005 08:39 PM

I've had a laptop and a desktop for many years. I deal with all sorts of models and can speak with at least a little bit of experience and hopefully some objectivity.

Laptops are nice to have if you take trips or like to work from coffee shops.

If you get one that can replace a desktop, you're not talking about a lightweight, teency model. Unless you're a kid with perfect eyes, the tiny screens just aren't useable for more than minutes at a time. Getting a suitably sized laptop for full time use means girth. I wouldn't want to lug one of those around as a matter of course.

You've also got to consider that if this is your primary machine, it has ALL of your stuff on it. Do you really want to drop your satchel and ruin everything?

I'd only get a laptop if I lived in a dorm or as a second machine.

*Laptops also cost more for equal functionality(usually) than desktops.
*Repair is more expensive and often replacement is more likely.
*Upgrading a pc saves money in the long run.

Still, if the coffee shop thing appeals, go for a tiny laptop... just keep your old desktop. Laptops are an ergo nightmare.

I only have two problems with iBooks. The white on white model becomes permanently dirty very quickly. The keyboard feels 'squishy' to me. On the plus side, The hardware is good and the software bundle is great.

Having supported fleets (as in hundreds) of laptops, I can tell you that Dell laptops stink. (Their desktops are okay.) They fall apart easily. We bought Dell to replace Toshiba. We've recommisioned the elderly Toshibas to replace the Dells as they die.

We've got some gigantic IBM Thinkpad laptops as well. I've borrowed one from the general assignment pool for several months. It is HEAVY, but can work as a desktop replacement. The nicest thing about the Thinkpad is the heat disbursement. Most laptops are like heating pads. When using any other laptop on my lap, I've needed a book to insulate my legs. The IBM has a unique fan housing that keeps this from being a problem. But I wouldn't keep this whopper on my lap if a desk was available.

Also, being on dialup (are you?) only reduces your risk a bit. We've got folks who dialed up their (WINDOWS) laptops and got a virus within seconds. Yikes. Having a PC really is only for those who know enough to keep themselves protected. If you go PC, please post so I (and others) can give you the lowdown on how to minimize your risks.

That said, I've got Windows and RedHat Linux at home because the hardware was cheaper and it is what I use at work. Previously a PC bigot, I really like MAC since OSX came out. It provides Apple's ease of use philisophy without compromising the ability to be a unix power user.

The short version for home users:

OSX vs. Windows: OSX if you don't want to think about how it actually works.

Laptop vs. Desktop: Desktop if you aren't going to have both.

Either way, have a good backup routine!

Posted by: JJ at January 8, 2005 12:50 PM

I've used both over the last 20 years and I'd go laptop and PC unless you have some need for high end graphics work. The laptop is more flexible and they are capable enough for any other computer work. PC to save some money and have some choice in features for the machine. Sony, Toshiba, Dell and IBM all have good offerings. One last thought - if you go PC get the maching with Windows 2000 instead of XP (you indicated you don't game). It's significantly more stable and better behaved. XP is not allowed in my household on any of the 4 machines currently in use and my son who has to use it at college has had no end of trouble with it.

Posted by: John Fisher at January 9, 2005 08:11 AM

I think you know where I stand on this issue, friend. I use both because I can't choose my computer at work, and both operating systems are better than they used to be. If you're serious about considering a Mac, I will try to answer your questions in a non-scary, non-cult-like way, and will personally escort you and Hublet to the Durham store to kick some tires, and then I promise not to be offended if you decide to stick with PCs. If you do go Mac, you can consider me your personal amateur tech support.

Why so eager? I think in part because many of us Mac folk hear many complaints from friends and family about their computers, and, after a time anyway, have learned to bite our tongues because we're simply not believed if we say "I've never had that problem." Macs aren't devoid of problems, mind you, but if people we care about are open to the possibility of switching, then we probably do become a little manic because receptive audiences still seem rare.

It is true that if you're bright you can figure out how to do most things on a PC, but the question remains, is that how you want to use your brightness?

Finally, to answer your question, here is a source that is not non-biased, but in this thread you'll find many links to sources that are:


Posted by: Brad K. at January 9, 2005 09:52 AM

I am a Mac woman. My husband grew up on a PC. My children are Bi. They prefer to use a Mac, but the school world is hopelessly PC in more ways than one. There is not one thing that I can not do on my Mac that can be done on a PC. It is so easy to switch---we made our corporate computer weenie switch and it was so much fun!! (shhh, don't listen to all the PC garble...it really isn't brain surgery)

Posted by: Marie at January 9, 2005 07:43 PM

Lots of folks have great suggestions, and very persuasive arguments for why you should go one way or another.

But you need to find what works for YOU.

So see about LEASING whichever you find most interesting. Try it out for a while, live and love with it, and see how you do. Then try another.

As both a Mac and PC user, who works on both desktop and uses a laptop, I can honestly say that I could give pros and cons for any possible situation.

Best word of advice I can offer: backup, backup, BACKUP. Whatever you do.

Posted by: Claire at January 10, 2005 02:38 PM

Okay, I have to admit I was too excited by the point of your post to note the specifics of what feedback you wanted. (You know how nuts we Mac users are.) Anyway, here are some links that may prove useful.

Here's a pdf (sorry!) that focuses on cost and singles out laptops:


Here's a wired article describing DealMac.com (and provides some good buying tips), where you can save some dough if you go the Mac way:


One last comment about laptops. It is worth the extra $$$ to go wireless. It will tranform your relationship to computing, and that's not an overstatement.

Posted by: Brad K. at January 10, 2005 03:30 PM

Computer Science person here, with desktop Mac and laptop PC. I prefer the Mac. There are some benefits to the PC's ubiquity, but that's about it. OS X is wonderful and I really value not having to do any more maintenance on my home machine than I want to. The laptop's not bad, meaning it serves its purpose, but, running XP, it's slower than even my previous desktop machine (a mid-range, 300 Mhz machine that's 8 years old). It can seem like the PC just has a huge software advantage, but after a few years you've figured out where to look. I can list the programs for PC that I don't have an equivalent for on the Mac on one hand. And... does not having a nice online D&D client really matter?

In any case, if price is the key factor, I'd go for the PC. If not, I'd go for the Mac.

Posted by: . at January 11, 2005 12:46 AM

Forgot to mention: www.openoffice.org

Posted by: . at January 11, 2005 12:47 AM