Tangled Webs

   The Jihad, the OS, and the Consumer
Issue 4.2
Feb 3, 1999

Twist My Arm

Despite frequent requests, I've been putting off writing this article for over a year because of the acerbic reactions generated by any discussion of the topic. But today I'm going to throw caution to the wind and publicly discuss how to select a personal computer, in particular one's first personal computer.

Most people make this decision by asking their computer-using friends. The problem with this approach is that individuals with real experience on more than one platform are rare, and users unfailingly recommend the only platform they understand. Windows users recommend PCs and denigrate Macs. Macintosh users pontificate on the superiority of MacOS. These convictions are often held with religious fervor.

I consider myself to be platform-agnostic. I use Macs, Windows and UNIX daily and have been using both Macs and PCs for about 15 years. In fact, this article was written using both my Macintosh desktop and my IBM laptop. Both are great machines with their own strengths and weaknesses.

I long ago swore-off participating in the interminable Mac vs. Windows crusades because most participants, like religious zealots everywhere, have unshakable faith in their own convictions and no desire to understand or consider those of others. This medium however, affords me the opportunity to reach people before they have been converted. Perhaps it will do some good. [ This article was originally published in my newspaper column. Most readers of the electronic version have already been converted one way or the other. -TR ]

This article will focus on Windows and Macintosh not because they are the only or necessarily the best operating systems available, but because one or the other will be the best choice for almost all first-time computer buyers.

The good news is that, if like most people, you want a computer to do things like write letters, send email, surf the web, and manage your finances, you can't go wrong. Both Macs and PCs are excellent for these tasks, and I can't say that one is better on this basis alone. Nor can I say that in general one platform is more powerful than the other. More specific criteria need to form the basis for your decision.

One word of warning; I strongly recommend against making purchasing decisions based on small price differences. This applies not only to comparing Macs and PCs, but to comparing different brands or models of the same platform. Profit margins are thin and all companies have access to the same technology, so reducing price means cutting corners or using cheaper components that are more likely to fail. You probably don't need -- or want -- to be on the cutting edge, but a spending a little extra to get a quality computer will pay off quickly.

Who Should Buy a PC

If your purpose in buying a computer is to learn about computers themselves, or if you want to learn to program and perhaps someday join the glamorous and exciting world of software development, you will be much happier with a Intel-based Windows machine. You will even be able to configure it to run one of several different flavors of UNIX as well as Windows, and if you really want to learn about computers, this is the way to go.

Computer game aficionados will also be much happier with a PC. Almost all of the popular games are released for Windows weeks or even months before they are released for the Macintosh. Many of the less-popular games are never released for the Macintosh as all. There is certainly no shortage of games titles for the Macintosh, but the variety available for Windows is astounding.

The final type of person who should definitely buy PCs are those who will regularly run specialty software that only works under Windows. It's worth noting that Macs can run Windows software in emulation mode, but if you are going to be using a particular package quite a bit, it makes sense to run it on the platform for which it was designed.

Who Should Get a Mac

Despite my fondness for both platforms, when friends and acquaintances ask my advice on purchases, I usually recommend a Macintosh. This is not because the Mac is necessarily a "better" system. Rather, it is the result of enlightened self-interest. You see, those asking me for purchase advice today will be asking me for installation, support and configuration advice for months to come.

Macs are much simpler to set up and use than are Windows machines, and the iMac has made this even more so. In the past six months, I've known three people with no computer experience who have purchased iMacs. With no assistance, all of them had their computers up and running in less than 15 minutes. After less than 30 minutes, two of them had sent their first email -- to thank me for my advice. If your primary concern is ease of use and stability, you will be much happier with a Macintosh.

Those who need to compute in two or more human-languages will also most likely be be better off with a Mac. My business requires that I issue invoices, send and receive email and write letters in both Japanese and English, but I prefer that the operating system itself be in English. There are software packages that give Windows limited bilingual capabilities with some languages, but I consider them far too cumbersome and limited for practical use. The Mac's handling of multiple languages is comprehensive and nearly seamless.

Parting Words

This brief article is hardly a definitive guide to purchasing a computer, but I hope it gives first-time buyers a solid starting point. If readers take away nothing else, I hope they now understanding that most people are only familiar with one platform and as such, have no basis for giving advice.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with asking friends for advice. If fact, if you have a friend who is an expert on one platform and who is willing to spend the time to help you set up your new computer and show you how to use it to its fullest, your best option may well be to purchase whatever computer he or she recommends.

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© Copyright 1999, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the Feb 3, 1999 edition of The Japan Times.
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