July 1, 2007

Mac vs. PC Flamewar Thread

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 1, 2007 10:19 PM

Friday night my laptop abruptly died. ("I don't remember turning it off... uh oh.") Luckily the hard drive is undamaged so I was able to recover the data (and I had a sorta-recent backup). Thus, it's not a disaster, but I do want to replace it. I'm finding myself very indecisive at the moment, so any advice is welcome.

In descending order of priority, the new computer will primarily be used for:

  1. Thesis writing: text processing in LaTeX and vector graphics manipulation for figures.
  2. Data processing, likely in Mathematica.
  3. Photo editing
  4. Blogging

(That's for the next six months, after that it may or may not get pressed into a whole new set of tasks depending on what sort of job I end up taking.)

The old computer was a Dell Latitude D600.

Here are some options (mainly driven by what I can get at a discount through UCB):

Apple Macbook Pro
Pro: Visually appealing, OS X seems nifty (but I haven't used it enough to know for sure), Apple still the lesser evil as far as business practices.
Con: Expensive, all my current software is for Windows.

Dell Latitude
Pro: Familiar, customizable.
Con: My previous Latitude had three motherboard failures, for a lifetime of about 15 months, which does not give me confidence in their reliability. (The extended warranty was terrific, but I wish I didn't have to use it so much.)

Dell Inspiron
Pro: Inexpensive, can get Ubuntu preinstalled (but will probably want a Windows partition as well).
Con: Reliability concerns as with the Latitude.

Lenovo Thinkpad
Pro: Good reputation.
Con: Visually unappealing.

I'm leaning towards the Macbook Pro, but since I can't get one instantly (they're backordered). I have a few days to think about it. What other factors should I be considering? What other options have I overlooked?

Tags: Technology
Comments

Hmmm... I'm totally biased in favor of the MacBook Pro option here, so I'm just going to cast a vote for that and leave it to people who follow this stuff in far more detail than I do to give more useful comments.

I guess one thing I can say: In terms of at least some of the work software, take a look at what Berkeley has a site license for. There should be a good bit of stuff that you can get for free as a result of that (at least as long as you're at Berkeley).

As far as I can tell, all 4 of your main things above should be fine with any of the choices.

Posted by: Mason | July 2, 2007 12:49 AM

Hoo, boy, so much to say.

Short version is to buy the MBP. In the laptop arena, Apple has little genuine (only perceived) competition.

Aesthetics: The Dells are ass-ugly. The old Lenovo looks, or at least the old IBM ThinkPads, weren't pretty, but were very functional and not at all ugly. The Apple laptops look really good. The only laptop designs that I've ever approved of visually are several generations of ThinkPads and all of the Apple offerings since the first TiBook. Dells have a lot of stylized molded plastic that's flimsy and makes is just look like it's trying to look nice. Apple's approach is to make it so elegant and simple that there's no room for it to be ugly (not too different from the old ThinkPads).

Reliability: My MBP is first gen, and it's still been great. One of the fans started to grind, getting it taken care of was a breeze, and I only had to be w/o my baby for the better part of a day. My Dell arrived with some parts broken, and a lot more that were eager to jump on the bandwagon as soon as they got the chance. It's not even worth getting repaired at this point -- it's just trash (albeit very expensive trash, it's an XPS). I don't know as much about the Lenovos, but they have a good reputation (as you've pointed out). Apple is a clear winner on reliability and service, period. (Or, in this case, comma, period, period. Or, comma, comma, period, comma...)

Power management... a big deal with laptops. The MBP (and the MB too, I think), is actually a step down for Apple -- going from perfectly flawless to really damn good. There exists a combination of going in/out of sleep and attaching/detaching a DVI monitor and attaching/detaching an external kb/mouse that, in certain combinations, can cause the power management to get stuck. I do this every day (my laptop docks as my desktop at work), and it's still rarely an issue. The battery lasts a respectable time (~2hrs with load, ~4hrs w/o), and the battery indicator is accurate. My Dell could last 90 min w/o load (okay, it was an XPS, that doesn't count), it's monitor typically overestimated by a lot, and it couldn't sleep/powersave to save its (battery)life. Even if it could sleep, it didn't save that much power.

You can get more power from a Dell for the same price, but I don't think it's worth it. Comfort, for example, is a really high-value aspect of a laptop, and, well, you can probably guess my opinion on that front as well.

OS shouldn't be a big deal -- the whole BootCamp thing works great. There is one thing that doesn't work, and that is something you should be aware of. The way Apple remaps some of the pins from the DVI connector for the TV-out is unique to them, and the Windows driver doesn't support it. That means no TV-out for Windows. You can get around this if you stack Parallels + BootCamp, but that might be excessive. Otherwise, it runs Windows (XP w/ SP2 minimum) great, and will even rock as a gaming machine for older games, and even squeak buy with a lot of the new stuff.

Using OS X did take me a while to get used to, but I love it. It's more stable than Windows -- it has the same potential for stability as a good, solid Linux distro (but I tend to push buttons until something breaks... you know me.) My average uptime on my laptop is probably about 3 weeks, I do shut it down if I think it's not going to be used for more than a day or so.

The only computer I've genuinely cried over was when I shattered the LCD on my first PowerBook (a G4 TiBook, *sigh*). You will spend a while learning the ins and outs of a new operating system/desktop, but once you're in, it's very comfortable. I do so little gaming now that I almost never boot into Windows, though I do occasionally run my BootCamp partition under Parallels with Convergence enabled (sexy, if a bit weird when you drag windows) to run some Windows-only software. Between my MBP and my home desktop (Ubuntu), it keeps getting more and more unpleasant to use a Windows machine...

Admittedly, software is less of an issue for me, since we have site licenses of most of the stuff I use (Maple, MATLAB, MS Office) for both. That being said, using Parallels &&/|| BootCamp to keep using your Windows software is a perfectly viable option. Don't think Parallels will run games for you, though -- though it does finally have DirectX support, it's a bit flaky, and probably can't handle anything Doom 3 or newer. Oh oh, also there may be a SNAFU re: them borrowing some code from Wine to implement their DirectX support... but I digress! (Conclusion, though, is that they don't deserve your $$$ if it turns out they play not-nice.)

Hope that was helpful... I heartily recommend the MBP. If there's any other info you could use, ask.

Posted by: Lemming | July 2, 2007 1:00 AM

By the way, that's one minor hardware issue, with an easy resolution, over the course of... 10 months of ownership? My iBook I've had for almost 3 years, never sent it in, though I did order a replacement keyboard (my own damn fault). My PowerBook I think I had for somewhere in 2-3 years, and sent it in once when the sound card stopped working. I also ordered a replacement keyboard for it.

Come to think of it, every laptop I've ever owned, except for the MBP (so, 4/5), I've busted the kb at least once. Digital (lawl) hammers of death!

Posted by: Lemming | July 2, 2007 1:14 AM

As I promised I'd never ever get into a mack vs peecee argument ever again, I just thought I'd mention some of the mac tools I use for doing the first of your requirements. I generally get figures in postscript format from whatever program I'm using, which the built in Preview.app handles and converts to EPDF nicely. For LaTeX stuff, some people swear by TeXshop, but I prefer the aquamacs emacs flavour, with its neat inline previewing via AMSTeX. For bibliographies, I'm really fond of BibDesk, which is essentially iTunes for papers. OmniGraffle (commercial software, sometimes bundled with new macs, sometimes not) is very useful for making everything from small figures to full-size posters and well worth the money. Grapher.app is another bundled freebie, and is very possibly totally useless but it exports LaTeX and you can easily spend three hours playing with it.

There's also a world of useful open sores utilities available with relatively little fuss using the MacPorts (nee Darwinports) project - but I've got to say that a lot of the open source applications, rather than small utilities, aren't ready for prime time yet although ymmv. Er, in my opinion. Before I get flamed by inkscape/gimp/octave fanboys. But I suppose it is nice to know there's a freebie alternative to commercial juggernauts, if you have lots of free time and don't have a deadline. ;)

Posted by: Narrenschiff | July 2, 2007 4:32 AM

One PC manufacturer that you haven't mentioned in Toshiba. Every laptop I've had for the last several years has been a Toshiba, and we've had zero problems with them. I'm still using the Toshiba I bought from Costco in 2003, and I can't really say I've treated it gently. Wait - it isn't perfect: the rubber feet have fallen off. And my battery life is getting to the point where it totally sucks, but what do you expect from a 4 year old computer.

My wife has been using a little Toshiba Portege that my Mom handed down to her, and I think that one is even older and still going strong. The next laptop I get is probably going to be another Toshiba, but I'll admit I don't consider Apple to be an option because, well, most games are for Windows.

Posted by: Chris L-S | July 2, 2007 6:55 AM

I second what Chris says. Having owned laptops for 13 years not my 2 toshibas were very well designed and built.

As for other brand:
*apple - can say why just never cared for them.

*IBM - Sharon and I both have IBMs work. They are highly functional can't complain. IBM like toshiba think fo the little useablity item that might otherwise piss you off.

*Dell - I also have a dell from work i just dont like it as much as my old ibm. Also i owned a persally in college. the mouse button fell off.

*HP - build a decent cheap laptop. Nothing great but i got my hp for 500 bucks and it still running afgter 3 years (though really bad battery live)

Posted by: shellock | July 2, 2007 7:57 AM

I'm going to be in the same boat soon. I've been using PCs dual-booting Windows and Linux for a decade. Do Mac applications support more than one mouse button? If not, that would keep me from switching back to Apple.

Posted by: Luke | July 2, 2007 8:03 AM

Macs have supported more than one mouse button for at least as long as I can remember; more than one decade. The reason for the one-button mouse is so that developers don't hide obscure software functions in the context-menu only.

Why not a Macbook, if the Macbook Pro is too expensive? It might be slower on the graphics end, but it is quite a bit less expensive and lighter than the Pro.

Posted by: such.ire | July 2, 2007 8:19 AM

Berkeley doesn't do site licenses like say Caltech did site licenses. But...tsw will get you the wonking huge student discounts if you don't just want to use your old software under Windows.

Adobe, incidentally, grants you permission ot continue to use any student versions after you graduate--and will allow you to upgrade to the full version for the cost of the upgrade--rather than asking you to buy a full new version. (That was poorly expressed, but the upshot is that if you want CS3 or one of the component bits, check it out before you graduate.

Finally, if you go with the MBP, get the extended AppleCare. Worth every penny.

Posted by: Wren | July 2, 2007 9:17 AM

A few additions, just things other people have mentioned.

Re: Toshiba. My first laptop was a Toshiba, and it was great for it's time, not to mention dependable -- it still runs. Biggest hardware problem is that it has a first-gen CardBus slot, which could go wonky under very specific circumstances. Otherwise, stable as hell, and not too ugly (high praise from me for a laptop). Unfortunately, it's too old for me to feel like it's relevant (just under 10 years old).

MB/MBP as a Windows option: If you're just looking for a Windows laptop, the Apple offerings are still reasonable -- I think they're much better built than the competition, though it will cost you a premium, and not having TV-out is occasionally a pain on a laptop (since most have that feature these days).

Right-click: Mac OSes have supported it for a long time, as Wren mentioned. In fact, it will always work just as you expect from Windows, whether you're using J. Random Proggy or the Finder. Jobs is adamant about keeping a single-button alternative (or, from his view, right-click being the alternative), but it behaves exactly as you'd like it to.

Something funny about Apple's new trackpads, that most people don't know about. They bought out TouchStream's old IP (the the ones who built the old "no moving parts" keyboards with fancy two-hand gesture recognition, if you ever saw those). Roughly epsilon of this tech is incorporated into the newer laptops, but to extraordinary effect. They're more responsive and easier to use, and "tap to click" actually works, no spurious clicks or any of that crap. In addition, you have to enable it, but features like "two finger scroll" and "two finger secondary click" make it the best trackpad on a laptop today. Using well-implemented tap to click makes a trackpad feel a lot more like a mouse -- you're using the same fingers without moving your hand, as opposed to shifting to reach, or clicking with the thumb. Both mouse buttons with less hand strain than anything but the best of mice... not a feature that should go unnoticed, but it often does.

Oh, and I agree w/ Wren re: AppleCare, but I'd generalize it to whatever laptop you buy. With all the travelling, they take a beating, and the occasional damage is almost unavoidable.

Oh, and a lot of people get an insta-stiffy the first time someone accidentally turns the light off on them, and the keyboard suddenly lights up for them. It's neat.

Posted by: Lemming | July 2, 2007 11:09 AM

I recently made the same decision, my old sony linux laptop was on the deathbed and I needed a platform for a) programming and b) thesis writing. After a bit of comparison (a raw windows laptop wouldn't work, as I need a decent unix-like OS to do any useful programming), went with a MacBook Pro. For programming it has been great, I haven't done a lot of thesis writing yet, but the LaTeX stuff i've done has been really really easy once I got texshop and fink installed correctly, even better than what I was using before. (I can drop latex code into a program, get a scaleable figure which I can drop right into keynote, and it just works and looks nice!)

As far as expenditures on software, the only things I've purchased are illustrator and keynote. I could use xfig or similar free software to do vector graphics figures, but after trying illustrator, it was worth the hefty price tag. The only other big ticket item I see on your list is the mathematica/matlab type thing. Depending on what you have already, you may be able to use the same license for running it on a different platform, but I don't know.

Anyways... my recommendation is the MacBook Pro, I certainly don't regret my purchase of one.

Posted by: Zifnab | July 2, 2007 2:26 PM

I should add re: photo editing. No matter what platform you get, you can get the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) for that platform. There's linux source, a version (GIMP.app) for OSX which is what I'm using, and a downloadable executable for windows. It works pretty well, with a few differences from say Photoshop, but it's also free. :)

Posted by: Zifnab | July 2, 2007 2:32 PM

Thanks, this is really helpful! In general it sounds like a ringing endorsement for the MBP so I'm definitely leaning that way now. The Mac software recommendations are also really helpful since I don't really know what's out there.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 2, 2007 6:03 PM

Jonathan and I recently purchased an IMac and have been quite pleased with how well it functions. We also have an older version of the MBP (a powerbook), which has had a pretty long and happy life for a laptop. Moreover, Apple customer service is better than most, and if you're planning to do anything with sound/music (my main reason for wanting a mac...), it is definitely the best choice by far. Good luck with the decision :-)

Posted by: willowlaughter | July 2, 2007 10:45 PM

I'll third the extended warranty comment... very important point.

Posted by: Mason | July 2, 2007 11:51 PM

I find GIMP almost totally unusable; note that the CS3 Photoshop Professional (or Premium, something with a "P") plays nicely with matlab, directly, elminating a lot of tedious stuff I'd had to deal with.

Keynote, on the other hand, had me sold in a heartbeat. I believe a new Mac will have it installed, although that might be a trial version.
I've never been able to get into Pages.

The joy of AppleCare is that unlike my friends with Dell/Sony/whatever extended warranties, in 4+ years of dealing with AppleCare, I have never had a bad experience...one transaction probably took longer than it needed to but that was a complicated situation. Plus, you can hang out at the Genius Bar, if you're into such things.

Posted by: Wren | July 3, 2007 3:18 AM

Filed away for possible future use as a title for a sci-fi thriller- "Shootout at the Genius Bar."

Posted by: JSpur | July 3, 2007 4:38 AM

I have an old 20 pound Dell back home you can use in the meantime.

Posted by: Josh | July 3, 2007 12:02 PM

Wren: people seem to either like GIMP or find it totally unusable, so I'm not surprised. :) I'm curious, what interfacing w/matlab does CS3 Photoshop do? I don't normally need to manipulate stuff out of matlab so I'm curious what you use it for. (Plus, it may give me an excuse to save up money to buy photoshop :)

At least for mine, a trial version of Keynote was installed, and it was fairly inexpensive to buy the full version, very worth it. I was also able to try trial versions for several adobe products, like Illustrator, etc, to see if I wanted to buy those.

Posted by: Zifnab | July 3, 2007 1:39 PM

I find GIMP to be basically unusable, though I haven't tried the Mac version. (I do have it just in case.)

The only versions of keynote that come with Macs are trial ones (unless things were changed recently).

Not that it actually means much, but the name "Genius Bar" is really obnoxious. When I go to the Apple Store in Pasadena, how long I've had to wait there (even with prior appointments, as they tend to run late) has varied a lot. I just bring something to do or take advantage of the wireless in the store.

Posted by: Mason | July 3, 2007 6:24 PM

Mason: give the Gimp.app version a try, it's much more standardized in form. It's still not a vector graphics program (nor is it supposed to be), but for other stuff I think it's getting much more usable.

Posted by: Zifnab | July 3, 2007 10:19 PM

Joe, I haven't played with it much at the moment, but the Photoshop toolbox for MATLAB included in my shiny new copy says:

This toolbox creates
an easy to use workflow for scientist and researchers using MATLAB and Photoshop in
combination. This is a set of MATLAB m files that expand MATLAB functions and allow
MATLAB users to call Photoshop commands directly from the MATLAB command prompt. This
enables the ability to get and set pixel values directly in MATLAB and then view in either
MATLAB or Photoshop.

There are some examples of how to apply this to animations out there on the web--for me, it eliminates some truly tedious processing steps for figures.

Posted by: Wren | July 4, 2007 2:11 AM

In the past I've used GIMP for photo editing and Illustrator for vector graphics. I'll probably just get the CS3 package (since I'll definitely want Illustrator) and therefore also have Photoshop.

Other commercial software:

Mathematica is a necessity; fortunately I can get Mathematica 6 on any platform at the upgrade price (my current license is for Windows Mathematica 5).

Office suites: I have MS Office but mostly just use Powerpoint. The high praise for Keynote here suggests I might switch to iWork. I do need to occasionally open/edit .doc and .ppt files from other people (notably my advisor); is this reasonably functional in Apple's software?

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 4, 2007 5:28 PM

Keynote handles ppt reasonably well. I don't know about complex effects.

For .doc, I use NeoOffice, which is slow. Might be better now that I've finally upped the RAM.

Posted by: Wren | July 5, 2007 2:47 AM

Not sure about iWork's .doc compatibility, .ppt has worked fine for me in keynote. I installed open office for working with .doc's as well as spreadsheet/database type needs.

Wren: thanks for the info, it sounds like that could be pretty useful so I'll look into that.

Posted by: Zifnab | July 5, 2007 3:20 AM

Fwiw, I just use OfficeXP through Parallels. Microsoft and Apple both make really half-hearted attempts (at best) when porting their key apps to other OSes. I don't use it much, mind you, but when I do have to use Office (PPT usually), I just use the Windows version.

Posted by: Lemming | July 5, 2007 10:44 AM
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