PC vs. Mac: Which Is Right for You?

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Tony Dejak / AP

When it comes to computers, most shoppers know what's important to them, do their research and choose accordingly

PC or Mac? It's the longest-running question in personal technology — along with the Mac itself, the debate turns 27 next month — and probably the most contentious one. A small but noisy percentage of computer owners consist of people who aren't content to pick a computing platform and leave it at that. Instead, they question the IQ and/or taste of anyone who makes a buying decision different from their own. Hence the classic stereotypes: the Windows user as a clueless sucker for punishment, and the Mac fan as a spendthrift fetishist. (Apple has fanned the flames with PC-bashing ads for years, and Microsoft has gotten snarky about Macs in some recent commercials.)

In the spirit of the holiday season, I'd like to propose a truce. Most folks who buy computers are neither bozos nor cultists. They're smart consumers who know what's important to them, do their research and choose accordingly. Or they refuse to take sides. (Some of the happiest households I know, including my own, contain both Windows PCs and Macs.)

Some of you already know which type of computer your next machine will be. That's fine. This column is for those of you who are still mulling over both options as you shop for a holiday PC or think about a system you'll buy next year. The single most important point of differentiation between the platforms is a simple one. Apple has a clear vision of what a personal computer should be and expresses it in a few highly refined variations. Meanwhile, the companies that make Windows PCs — and there are gazillions of 'em — offer something for everyone.

Over the past few years, Apple has ditched plastic in favor of sturdy, lightweight, stylish aluminum cases on all its models except the (relatively) lowly MacBook. All portable Macs now have sealed-in batteries: you can't swap in a spare when you run out of juice, but eliminating the compartment and door allows Apple to use a larger, longer-lasting battery without adding bulk and weight. The company, long notorious for its minimalist one-button mouse, has done away with even that one button: with current Mac laptops, you press down the entire touchpad to register a click. It also seems to be telling us that the days of hard disks and optical drives are numbered, judging from the new solid-state MacBook Airs.

Back in the day, Macs were often the first computers to incorporate next-big-thing technologies. When Apple first demonstrated wi-fi networking in 1999, it was such an exotic concept that Steve Jobs passed an iBook through a hoop to prove it was unencumbered by cables. Today, however, the company seems content to opt out of most of the rest of the industry's hottest trends. It doesn't build Blu-ray players or TV tuners or touchscreens into Macs, as many new PCs do, and only the pint-size Mac Mini has an HDMI port for easy HDTV hookups. Macs often have speedier processors than similar Windows boxes, but they're frequently tighter on RAM, hard-disk space and USB ports.

Then again, judging a computer's value primarily in terms of the size of its drive or the quantity of ports is generally a bad idea. Macs are full of features that are hard to quantify but easy to love once you've experienced them: at the same time that many PC makers were slashing costs by moving tech-support operations to distant corners of the world, for instance, Apple reduced the distance between customer and service rep to a few inches by building more than 300 Apple Stores with in-person Genius Bar help desks. It also includes the excellent iLife 2011 creativity suite, which includes tools for wrangling and editing photos, videos, music and more, with every Mac. Windows PCs that sell for way-less-than-a-Mac prices rarely include anything even remotely comparable. Even Mac's AC adapters — with damage-resistant MagSafe connectors and fold-out wings that let you neatly wind up the cord — show an attention to detail lacking in the generic bricks supplied with nearly every Windows PC.

Some Windows machines compete on Apple's turf. HP's Envy line, for instance, was clearly designed with the MacBook Pro in its crosshairs, and Dell's Adamo aims to out–MacBook Air the MacBook Air. Most PCs, however, aren't Mac-like in the least. They've got Blu-ray and HDMI and all the other features absent in Macland. They address audiences that get short shrift from Apple, such as big-business types and gamers. There are PCs for people who want a laptop that can survive a sudden tumble onto the pavement — or one that was designed by Vivienne Tam.

Most of all, many Windows PCs cater to people who aren't able (or willing) to pay Apple-like prices for a computer. (The company's least expensive desktop is the $699 Mini; its cheapest notebooks are the white MacBook and 11-in. MacBook Air, both of which start at $999.) There are certainly schlocky Windows PCs — especially those larded up with demoware, adware and other unwantedware. But there are also decent Windows choices at every price point, and while most don't aspire to be the ultimate computing machines that Apple builds, it's no more reasonable to dismiss them than it is to knock the Toyota Corolla because it isn't a BMW 3 Series.

Then there's the matter of Windows itself. The late, unlamented Windows Vista was so glitchy that it was a compelling argument in favor of buying a Mac (or sticking with the Windows XP PC you already owned). Windows 7 is a far more pleasant, less temperamental operating system than Vista. If I were required by law to use Windows 7 and only Windows 7 over the next year, I wouldn't be distraught. But if I had a choice, I'd opt for Apple's OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: though it packs fewer features, it's more consistent and less prone to mysterious misbehavior. It's also largely ignored by the virus writers and other bad guys who focus on the much bigger target that is the Windows-using majority.

In the end, market-share numbers provide a more telling picture of how Americans decide which computers to buy than all the squabbling between platform partisans. According to market research firm NPD, 79% of all computers sold at retail (Walmart excluded) in October ran Windows. Among those that sold for $1,000 and above, however, 88% were Macs. In other words, most buyers on a budget concluded that a Windows PC was their best choice; those with more money to spend usually went for a Mac.

Both decisions strike me as being entirely defensible. The Windows fans and Mac aficionados I know have different priorities, but they've got one big thing in common: when they're plunking down their own money, they're awfully good at seeing through hype and emotion and making the right decision for them.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Tuesday.