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Mac or PC? You've seen the ads, how do you choose for business?

Practical issues

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Comment I was asked if I, as a Mac user, would recommend one to a business user who is buying a personal machine for business use. I am the proud owner of an iconic Mac PowerBook G4, an eye-catching brushed metal effort that I purchased back in 2004. I have never owned a Mac desktop, being strictly Intel/Microsoft, but I travel enough using the Mac as a main machine to attempt some type of comparison.

It's an interesting challenge to try and tease apart the lifestyle elements of the computer from the practical business issues, especially for a primary business machine, and I know there's a lot of passion on both sides. This is my personal view.

Today, of course, there's a fairly straightforward option available if money is no object, because Apple has migrated to Intel processors. You can run either the BootCamp public beta, the Apple utility that allows you to dual boot a system with OSX and Windows XP; or a virtualisation product like Parallels which supports a range of operating systems, including OSX, Vista and "older" operating systems like XP, 2000, NT and DOS. You'll obviously have to put up with the extra software license cost and either the moderate performance hit of the virtualisation solution, or the tedium of rebooting the system with BootCamp.

I ran a pricing exercise between a Dell laptop and the latest MacBook, both with the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and as far as it's possible to tell they cost roughly the same for an equivalent load of software. There's really no comparison between the free iLife products that you get with a new Mac and the random mix of crippled and evaluation software that ships with the average PC. These "cool" programs coupled with the excellent design and the Intel-powered performance are some of the key attractions of a Mac to someone spending their own money.

So what are the practical differences?

There are some quirky issues, like the fact that I miss the right mouse click on the built in mouse pad, but it is available with any USB mouse. The keyboard is different, making some key combinations harder to achieve, but you do get the F9 key that shows you every open window laid out on the desktop.

The two biggest differences are the availability of peripherals and range of software choice. If you want to add anything to a Mac, like a TV card, or other peripheral, it can be hard to find one in your local PC World that supports Macs. As more machines are sold, and with the switch to Intel processors, this may change, but for now it's a real consideration.

The second is the sheer availability of software for a PC. Whatever you want to do, you're liable to be able to find a range of products to choose from for the PC, but in many categories you will be restricted to a choice of one for the Mac, and you may well have a job finding a place to buy it. The strict control that Apple exercises over the OSX environment has benefits in that products tend to work very intuitively, but some would argue that this straightjacket reduces the choice of software. My experience has been that I have spent close to zero time while on the road trying to fix compatibility and technical issues with my Mac, whereas it can be a regular issue with my desktop PC.

I use Outlook as my main work dashboard. All the functionality is pretty much there in Entourage, the Mac Office equivalent program, although migrating a mailbox between a PC and a MAC is very difficult, unless you have an exchange server, which is able to move folders between the two. It's interesting that with all the talk of open file formats for office, the .PST folders of the PIM program remain a closed world, even to Microsoft's own developers working on the MAC platform.

For the other Office for MAC applications, I don't experience any compatibility issues exchanging files up to Office 2003, however it's not possible to open the new output from Office 2007 because there is no compatibility pack for the Mac version of office. I had a bit of a hunt around and there's one coming this year but the Mac office team had to wait until the PC Office folks Released To Manufacturing (RTM) before starting work, which really sums up Microsoft's approach to supporting the Mac as a secondary platform - committed, but with no sense of urgency.

Microsoft's free compatibility pack is a laudable step forward from the bad old days when a new release of office meant a new binary file format that forced a mass upgrade, but in the Mac's case, no such upgrade is currently possible, so users must either run Windows and Office on their Mac to work with these files, or wait until the release of the free compatibility pack for Mac Office, slated for later this year.

As always, Mac versus PC is not a simple choice, having the iconic machines and wonderful lifestyle software is going to necessitate some compromises on functionality and performance, and for business use, the extra costs of a Windows XP license and office is going to be a necessity for any purchase for at least the next six months because of the compatibility issues with Office 2007, and although the Apple/Microsoft deal has been renewed for another five years, leapfrogging compatibility issues may be a continual headache.

Copyright © 2007, IT-Analysis.com

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