A biased view of the whole Mac vs PC discussion

The Mac vs PC debate is practically as old as the youngest of the two platform. I’ve tried to take a biased look at the whole thing again.

My first machine was an IBM x286. I was 6 years old and our neighbor was working for IBM and he thought my brother and I would be interested in playing with a computer. Boy, was he right!

For practically 15 years I’ve use DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, and Windows XP.

When I started university, I got myself an Acer laptop. What a piece of junk that was. After a couple of months (in 2005) I’ve wiped it and installed the second Ubuntu version ever released1. At the university we were using Scientific Linux: Ubuntu felt like fresh air.

When I decided to move to the Netherlands in 2006, I’ve bought my first Mac. What convinced me was the iPod: it was so more intuitive than any other electronic device used up to that moment that I thought that if Macs were half that good, I was missing out.

I was right. My first Mac was an iBook G4. The battery would last 7 hours and after replacing the hard drive with an 80GB 7200rpm variant and upgrading the RAM to 1GB (IIRC) it was flying compared to the Acer.

That wasn’t the only great thing about the Mac. Everything felt as good as the iPod.

I’ve kept using Macs during my PhD, with various iMacs, Macbook Pros, Macbook Airs, and what not. When I first got into industry I had to use a Dell with Windows 7 Enterprise Edition. It was a piece of junk, commodity enterprise laptop.

Once I joined GoDataDriven I immediately got a Macbook Pro.

In the meantime, however, something happened. Microsoft was changing course, developing an open source friendly attitude and people were kind of discontent of the hit Apple software quality was taking, reportedly due to the huge success that the iPhone is.

After two year I decided to get a Dell XPS 15” for work. I wanted to challenge myself and see how far could I go using Windows (10). After two years of use, I went back to a Mac. Why?

Where the Dell shined

There are a number of area’s where the Dell shined for me. The Dell:

  • Came with an NVidia video card, a touch screen, and overall a sturdiness that makes me feel more comfortable when carrying it around. The new Macbook Pros are good, but they seem more fragile to me (it seems I’m not the only one);
  • Is considerably cheaper for similar specs2;
  • Comes with more ports than Thunderbolt 3 (it does have a single Thunderbolt 3/USB C port);
  • Has a physical ESC key. As a NeoVim user this is a big deal to me :)

On the other hand the Dell runs Windows, and this has also a number of advantages:

  • Windows management is built into the OS;
  • The OS feels really fast, everywhere;
  • I was on the beta release of the OS and it felt really stable, as in one blue screen of death in several months (which is fine for a beta OS);
  • The OS has several features that made me very productive in it, such as the fact that it remembered most used folders and placed them in the favorites; that I could easily open Explorer and more nifty things with super easy shortcuts, etc.;
  • With the inclusion of WSL you could get a full fledged Linux distribution inside Windows with minimal overhead;
  • Microsoft is actively listening to its users and releasing tons of stuff in each beta update. Contrast that to macOS, that feels mostly stagnant compared to its younger sibling iOS.

Given all the above, I could work on my laptop just fine for two years. I installed all the various Python packages, virtualenvs and whatnot (without Anaconda), Scala, Spark, Docker, and databases such as Postgres and MySQL. I even got PyCuda working with the NVidia GPU I had.

Verdict: If you want to use a Windows machine to use the above, you will be fine. Don’t drink too much Apple kool aid.

Where the Mac shines

That said: why did I come back? The single, biggest factor, is applications. I think macOS has much better frameworks to develop applications.

It is also true that third party apps usually cost more, but they give me a much better experience. In particular I love:

  • Mailmate: this is my favorite email client. It’s so good I don’t even know where to start;
  • Launchbar is an application launcher so complete you can hardly find something it can’t do. I’ve tried countless of these on Windows, but nothing comes close;
  • Vimr is a Neovim client. Again, nothing even remotely as polished on Windows;
  • Transmit is the golden reference for file transfer on macOS. The developers sweated every detail;
  • Things is a to-do app that doesn’t get in the way and it’s just so beautiful I can’t resist it :)
  • Soulver deserves so many words of praise I’d have to spend the night writing about it;
  • iTerm: you’d think it’s not so difficult to create a high quality terminal emulator. If I look at the status of Windows terminal emulator, I’d say you’re wrong.
  • Dictionary.app is so invaluable that you realize how much you miss it only when you don’t have it anymore. Microsoft: build your own Dictionary.app;
  • Preview.app is another app that Windows should copy 1:1. There’s nothing close to it on Windows (I’ve tried!)
  • iMessage and Facetime. Sorry, my wife has an iPhone :)
  • Omnigraffle: Visio alternative, with a twist: it’s a joy to use!

Besides apps there are a lot of other touches that I really enjoy about the Mac:

  • Three-finger-selection and drag. You just drag with three fingers and you can select text and move windows around. So good!
  • HiDPI on macOS is way better than what you have on Windows; it seems a joke to leave HiDPI to apps, as Windows does;
  • The trackpad is just slighty better than the Dell I had, but vastly better of the majority of PCs;
  • Battery life is still better on the Mac, although the Dell I had had a much higher res display, that used tons of energy. And colors on the Dell are better;
  • PDF support is everywhere, from screenshots to fonts, to every single thing in the OS;
  • Spell correction in n languages in basically every text field of the OS, without apps having to do anything fancy;
  • Access to accented letters using dead keys;3
  • When in an app, typing ⇧ ⌘ / opens up a dialog where you can search all menu items of an app. Not remembering a shortcut? Just type ⇧ ⌘ / and type it! Again, you don’t know how much you miss it until you don’t have it anymore.

Where the Mac falls short

Not all is good in macOS land however:

  • You can’t turn off the internal display when you connect an external laptop unless you close the lid. I can’t imagine the difficult computer science challenges that makes this still a thing;
  • No native windows management. Third party apps exist, but Windows does a much better job here;
  • The app switcher does not show a preview, and groups windows by app. I thought this wouldn’t bother me much, but after two years on Windows, it does;
  • (High) Sierra feels more unstable that the Windows beta I was running. It doesn’t feel an OS coming out of the richest company on earth.

As for work: I could install all the stuff I wanted, excluding PyCuda because, guess what, these things don’t ship with a NVidia card, no matter how much money you have.

Conclusion

Well, I already gave it away: I’m back to Mac, apps being the biggest factor, but I gained a lot of nice touches in the switch!


  1. Feeling old now. [return]
  2. Some things are worse, such as the trackpad, some are better, such as the 4K screen. [return]
  3. There are third party applications in Windows that offer the same behavior, but having it built in the OS is always more stable. [return]