Sunday, February 12, 2006

OK, I Like Shopping

I'm thinking about a new computer and so am doing a little shopping. Maybe this is something that some people dread--my wife would hate this task above almost any other--but I seem hard-wired to obsess about these things (toys and gadgetry) and I rather enjoy picking my way through the thicket to a (hopefully) happy destination.

I spend a hell of a lot of time with this machine. In addition to the blogging (which all of you know can be quite time-consuming), I've kept a journal for years. Plus there is the email thing, which is heavy or light from week to week, the occasional movie to watch, plus several hours per day minimum of iTunes usage. So this is pretty easily the best couple grand I've spent.

I'm an Apple person, this Powerbook being my sixth or seventh Apple / Mac. I have some experience with PCs, both having done some work with them a few years back, and getting to use my wife's school computer regularly. I'm also my mother-in-law's unofficial problem-solver with her PC. It's just a tool, I know, a means to an end. But computer platform loyalty seems to have a life of its own; it's a topic which some people, anyway, seem to approach with a kind of religious, evangelical zeal. I suppose this comes from our having to master a fairly complex set of skills as computer users, skills which differ slightly from platform to platform. So we get to know a particular skill set, and that becomes our home base. Apples have traditionally been easier to use, and, for a person who has mastered the minutiae of Windows (or especially DOS!), the idea of someone not wanting to tackle the beast must seem like wanting into the fraternity but being unwilling to undergo the hazing. And those of us who have this world opened to us without the hazing are understandably rather vehement in our conviction that the hazing is silly and unnecessary.

I'm far from an expert on anything, PC or Mac, and I suppose I have the natural predisposition for the Apple in that I have no inherent desire to learn anything about the machine: in an ideal world, I would simply turn it on and it would intuitively do whatever I wanted. This is presently impossible, but the closer we get to this the better, in my mind. I got my first nudge in this direction from a good friend of mine who makes his living at a major university, being directly responsible for several hundred personal computers and a couple big mainframe servers of several platforms. He knows all the systems intimately and works with them daily for his living, and he comes down pretty unequivocally in favor of the Apple. I have no special software demands (though there are far fewer conflicts, he assures me, than most people believe) and they tend to have very nice machinery quite apart from platform and software considerations. So my own enthusiasm is not quite at the religious level we see, but I have a happy history with Apples and a predisposition to favor them now.

And quite apart from this discussion, I feel we all are very much served by having a choice in this matter. I'm convinced that Apple has played a really major role in shaping the development of the personal computer, and continues to do so; and I'm likewise convinced that for all the good things that Bill Gates has brought to so many of us, his motivation, and the world that would come into being without Apple's pressures, are things that we might do well to look at with a modicum of skepticism.

The latest Apple machines, recently released, are using--of all things!--Intel processors. Now if I were one of those zealots, this would surely rankle. What's next? The ability to run Windows on your Apple if you want? Lutherans asking back into the Catholic fold? Dan Quayle for Vice President? The converse--the ability to run Apple's OS on PC hardware--might actually be an interesting prospect. While I have been really happy with all my Apple hardware, it's really the OS that has earned my loyalty; plus, there's clearly some very good PC hardware--IBM, HP, Dell, etc.. But there's no way they're opening that door. Other than this processor change, they appear to have subjected the rest to a general freshening and detail tweak. Given my happiness with this Powerbook, I can't fault that thinking.

Anyway, people's thoughts on hardware and platforms are welcome. It's always interesting to hear what people are using and why and whether they'd continue or go off in a new direction.


Kate said...

Finally something to take the place of the great Chevy vs. Ford debate of my father's generation. Me, I just ask that they work.

wunelle said...

It is kind of a Ford / Chevy thing, isn't it? Funny, but I've always felt contempt for brand loyalty as a concept (though I am partisan to, say, Japanese cars and electronics, for example); but I've convinced myself that it may be justified here!

Suddenly out in Southern California. Blessed heat!

Way overdue to sleep, tho.

Anonymous said...

It does look like the Ford/Chevy thing, but the Ford/Chevy thing is much more analogous to a Dell/HP sort of battle. Like Dells and HPs, Fords and Chevys are essentially the same, but made by different manufacturers. Macs are a whole different breed.

The good news is that they will still be a whole different breed, even as they share the same processor with Windows PCs.

The big difference between Macs and everything else has always been in the operating system, and that difference will still remain (some of the Mac's benefit has also been due to the fact that Apple also makes the hardware that runs its OS, but that will not change).

Although this seems like a huge change for the Mac platform, it is going to be unnoticable by most folks using Macs. In fact, Apple has made this sort or major processor change once before in the Mac line. The first Macs all ran on a Motorola processor (the MC68000 line). After a while Motorola introduced a whole new processor that was quite different from the 68000, and much faster - the PowerPC. When Macs started using the PowerPC chip instead of the 68000 they still ran the same OS and software, but all code had to be recompiled for the new processor, or run through a run-time translator that would convert the old code into the new code. Translating code this way takes some computing power, and so software that was compiled 'native' to the new processor was necessary to get the full performance benefit. For the most part it was a very simple and seamless transition (except for a little bit of extra work on the part of software producers). I expect very much the same thing this time.

The PowerPC is a very good processor, but Motorola (and especially their fabrication partner IBM) has not made good progress making it faster and also has had very little luck in making it run cooler. Apple could see that the PowerPC was just not going to be competitive with Intel processors any longer, especially in laptops.

In short, what made Macs superior to Windows PCs in the past was not their CPU, but their operating system and tightly coupled hardware, and that advantage will still be there when Macs use the same CPU as Windows PCs.

I am even a bit hopeful that this CPU change may help make it easier for folks to decide to go the Mac route. The day will soon come when a version of Windows will run on the Mac hardware, and then folks who might not be sure about getting a Mac can be confident that if they change their mind they can just install Windows on their Mac (not that I would recommend doing so).

All that having been said (and that was quite a lot, sorry), I am not sure I would want to be the first kid on the block with a new Intel Mac. As smoothly as I expect things to go, there are likely to be a few minor bumps, and it is generally not a good idea to be first in line for any major innovation. A laptop can be a pretty big purchase, and you'd hate to end up wishing that you'd waited for version 1.1 (which is likely to be coming pretty soon).

I'll let you know how I like the ones that I am buying with my employer's money.

Esbee said...

My husband swears by UNIX. I haven't the foggiest, so I'm giving you what he says.

BrianAlt said...

The only problem with the latest Powerbooks is that they need a new operating system and new programs to work with it. Apparently most of the old programs work pretty well in emulation, but the new ones work great! So of course you're going to want the new programs with the new Powerbook.

There is more and more convergance going on. With the Internet these things matter less and less. File formats are easily brought from Mac to PC and PC to Mac. The main difference is that there are less programmers working on the Mac, so there are less choices. Then again there are more enthusiasts by percentage in the Mac community. So stuff that does come out is usually pretty damn good.

I'm in the PC world, I was in the Mac world until around 1991. Then I started needing PCs for work, so I switched over. Never operated as well, but always well enough. I'd love for Macs to become more mainstream. I'd switch back in a second.

Joshua said...

Well, you CAN actually run the Mac OS on a PC and vice versa. OUr HS and college had these dual boot machines so that the mac users amongst us would not be left out, and the pc users amongst us would not have to look at the childlike cases of the mac world (seriously, if I wanted my pc to match my shoes...)

Anyway, there is more to this debate than processors and OS. The architecture of the two systems is what really sets them apart. Mac has learned how to make slower, crappier proccesors run programs faster and more effeciently. That's what makes this chip switch so much more exciting than the last (in house) switch. They will now be using processors on par with PCs, and they will be using much better programming and architecture to run them.

Of course, for most consumers, this won't makea difference. Because Mac can't mass produce (the way Dell, HP, or even Emachines can) they have never had a low cost system. That means they are already turned off to about 90% of the market, who just wants something on their desktop that costs about as much as the desk.

But it means tech weanies like me (and my fiancee) will be looking into perhaps making our first mac purchase ever.

Just so long as we can get a mouse that right clicks.

Heather B. said...

Am I the only person in the world who knows nothing about the PC vs. MAC debate?

Kate said...

You are not alone.

wunelle said...

esbizzle--Unix. I've heard others rave about this, tho I get the impression that it's still not user-friendly in a mass-market kind of way. My computer guru buddy (who may or may not be the anonymous commenter above! ;-) may have something to say on the matter.

brianalt--It is kind of a downer having to get new software, at least of the stuff I'd want to run at the top speed. But for me, really, it doesn't amount to much (compared to what others may have to buy) since I really don't do anything out of the mainstream with my computer--surf, email, word process, iTunes, photo stuff. So this changeover would be less painful for me than some.

Joshua, you got it all wrong! I bought these silver shoes to match my Powerbook; Apple had nothing to do with it!

And if I'm not mistaken, you can hook up a two-button mouse to a Mac right now and it will perform at least some of the same functions. I think.

Heather & Kate--you just stick around here and you'll learn all sorts of stuff ;-)

But if you're impatient, I'll boil it down for you:

Buy a Mac, they're better. There.

(ba-DUM Crash! thankyouverymuch! I'm here all week!)

Anonymous said...

I don't think I can be a guru - I don't have a pony-tail. I do spend my days taking care of a large stable of computers in most popular flavors, so I am often confused for a guru.

One of the really slick things about the Mac and OS X is that OS X really is a variety of Unix. Unix is great because it has been around for a long time and lots of folks have hacked on it from all directions, so it works very well and is solid as can be. OS X has taken Unix and added what it has always lacked - ease of use. The Mac OS interface on top of Unix makes for a great combo - a solid foundation with a friendly face that anyone can use.

The other benefit that Unix brings to the Mac world is a ton more software developers. Software that is built for Unix systems is usually distributed in a variety of packages for the whole array of Unix systems (Unix systems are all related and similar, but software is not interchangable between them) and now the Mac is usually included as one of those packages.

For most folks the need for new software shouldn't be too big a deal. Much of what is generally needed is included with the Mac and is already available in a version for the Intel CPUs. For the extras that are commonly used (things like MS Office and so on) the extra speed of the Intel CPU will allow the current non-Intel versions to run at a speed comparable to their current speed, and when it is time to upgrade to new versions they ought to be available in Universal versions for PPC and Intel.

Wunelle put it best, though - "Buy a Mac"