Why do I use a Mac?

A friend was discussing buying a MacBook on Facebook recently and the ensuing discussion, while more civil than many, prompted this post. Why I have a MacBook, the non-comprehensive, footnote version:

Is it because they are expensive and trendy?

While it's possible to buy a Windows PC with the same components for less, broadly speaking, this is not a fair comparison. If you're going to make this kind of statement you need to consider a few other things:

  • Included software (including OS) and future upgrades to that software,
  • Included services and integration,
  • Construction ethics and materials,
  • Form factor, portability, and purpose,
  • Aesthetic and ergonomic quality,
  • Upgrade or replacement costs and aftermarket value.

When you really compare like for like in terms of hardware, it's hard to find a comparison to a MacBook (Air or Pro) or iMac that doesn't contend favourably on price with comparable laptops, ultrabooks or all-in-ones. The Mac even has the advantage that it retains its value after years of use, something that PCs do not.

Don't you like to play computer games, though?

I absolutely do; Macs have gotten pretty great for gaming and have built-in social gaming functionality. Steam has a growing library of AAA gaming titles and there's a huge selection on the App Store too. My current favourite time-sink, The Elder Scrolls Online, had a Mac client from the day it launched as does World of Warcraft. This is an area in which Macs have had to play catch up with PCs for sure, but they're catching up really fast.

PCs and Macs are better for different things, aren't they? Don't PCs do more?

This has never really been true at all; though they do some things differently on a technical level both Macs and PCs are eminently capable. A computer is limited only by its software. Macs and Windows PCs differ in approach and software design philosophy often, but so do Windows PCs and Linux PCs. This is going to come down to a matter of personal taste in a lot of cases but I've found the user-centric, integrated, and focused philosophy of Mac apps to be an enhancement to productivity as well as simply more pleasant to use.

So isn't a Mac just a glorified PC?

From a technical standpoint PCs and Macs, or just about any other computer, have never really been very different. In reality your smartphone isn't even very different. Different processors use different instruction sets and require software to be written accordingly. Almost every computer you have ever used, whatever size and shape, has been based largely on Von Neumann architecture. The software and specific hardware may vary somewhat but the principles are the same.

Macs are not really for technical people, though, are they?

I built my first PC sometime before I was 13 and continued to build them into my 20s; most of them high-end gaming machines. I'm a professional software developer, with 10 years of experience in the industry. I write code for a living. Frankly anyone who makes a statement that in some way PCs are for more technical users is plain old wrong at best, or intentionally trying to belittle Mac users at worst. One of the reasons I love my Mac is that I don't get bogged down by needless technical distractions and can spend my time focusing on what I'm trying to do. That might be watching a video, or it might be building software: the same stuff you might use a Windows PC for.

I've spent my share of hours troubleshooting and fixing hardware and software issues with computers over the last couple of decades. Believe me when I say that being able to take it to an Apple Store and being handed back a working machine can be pretty wonderful by comparison. I actually enjoyed being my own IT support at one time but these days I relish in being able to focus on the things I want to do now. I do enough bug fixing at work!

It's harder to repair your own Mac, isn't it?

Yes. Aside from the occasional minor software bug I wouldn't try to fix an issue with my Mac. It's easier to hand the computer over to a Genius at the Apple Store and pick up a fixed machine a few days later. This experience has always been exemplary, and I've never failed to be impressed by the efforts that they've made on my behalf. I've heard of people having less stellar experience with Apple's support, but I can only recount my own. Similarly, I couldn't upgrade individual components (you can with some components on some Macs, it varies) but I will be able to sell my Mac for a good proportion of its original value and buy a replacement, which is actually pretty competitive in terms of cost over time.

So why would you recommend a Mac?

  • Text rendering. It sounds like a dumb, minor, thing but when you spend so much time starting at a screen and reading the text on it the quality of rendering really matters. The antialiasing on a Mac is simply superior, the characters are sharper and smoother. Even before considering a retina screen it's simply easier and more pleasant to read on a Mac. This was one of the first things that struck me when I got my first Mac, and it's still something I'm reminded of when I read this blog on a Windows PC.
  • Integration, even before iCloud introduced real-time over-the-air syncing between OS X and iOS devices the way that apps integrated was notable on the Mac. That I could get images from whatever app into email or an IM conversation and resize it without having to handle the file; it's something that is part of Mac software philosophy that is only slowly making it over to Windows.
  • Hardware quality: thin and light, highly portable machines made of glass and aluminium instead of plastic. The attention to detail is greater, and there are few sacrifices to economy. Nothing is done because it's cheaper on a Mac, and that's become something that I appreciate, and am generally willing to pay a little more to have. Having used a retina screen and a glass multitouch trackpad on the most powerful machine I've ever owned that's also the thinnest, I appreciate the advantages of custom components even where they add a little to the cost.
  • The App Store has brought down the cost of software while making it more accessible and convenient. It's not the only way to get your hands on Mac software, and there's a lot of Mac software that can't meet the requirements of the App Store, but in terms of security and convenience it's hard to fault.
  • iMessage. My text conversations happen simultaneously on my phone and my computer. I can send files and high quality media. iMessage is freaking awesome, if potentially a little distracting.
  • I love the aesthetic qualities of Apple industrial design. Not everyone does, but to dismiss something because it's pretty is short sighted. Form and function are intrinsically linked: as function improves so should the form that serves and enables it. When one is sacrificed for the sake of the other you end up with something that is either unfit for purpose or difficult to use; either is a tragedy for a computer.

Ultimately, you're going to be spending a lot of money on a box full of silicon, but one that you will use to facilitate so much of your life and so often that to choose something that doesn't make you happy is a disservice to yourself. We all have constraints on our resources, and in some cases that will restrict your options, but you should still consider carefully what you want, and don't undervalue what you like against what you need. Both matter.