When we wrote about the basics of buying a new PC, we only covered Windows-based computers. There is, of course, another hugely popular computer that merits a mention - the Apple Macintosh, or Mac.
On the whole, much of the advice we gave about buying a Windows PC also applies to Macs. You can only buy models with Intel processors and the range of options may be narrower, but the same performance considerations apply — as do the ones about memory, graphics and storage. But are some more important questions to ask before you make a decision.
Is a Mac for me?
Let’s quash one myth straight away. The old notion of Macs being better for creative types and Windows PCs being more suited to business is a dead one.
Macs may once have been more suited to creative pursuits, but that was back when Windows were something only glaziers had to worry about.
These days, the Mac is essentially identical to a Windows PC when it comes to functionality, since they’re built from the same parts — they even use the same Intel processors. With a few minor exceptions, the same software is available for both and so there’s little reason for leaning one way or the other just because someone says so.
The biggest difference between Macs and PCs, or course, is that only Apple makes the former, while anyone can make the latter — you can even build one yourself from parts.
But with no competition to drive prices down, Macs are more expensive than Windows PCs with equivalent specifications from well-known brands — though that does depend on the model.
For example, the cheapest Mac Mini with a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 dual-core processor, 4GB memory and a 500GB hard drive costs from £365. The Acer Aspire XC-705 (the closest compact Windows PC we could find) with Intel Core i5 quad-core processor, 6GB memory and 2TB hard drive costs £370 — but has a better all-round specification.
The price difference is more pronounced with laptops. The cheapest 13-in MacBook Air with 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 dual-core processor, 4GB memory and 128GB SSD, for example, costs £849 (or £720 from Amazon). The Lenovo ThinkPad M30-70 with essentially the same specification costs £580, but it has nowhere near the same all-day battery life.
The other most striking difference between a Mac and a PC is their appearance. PC manufacturers pay much more attention to the design of their products than they used to, but it’s fair to say that very few are anywhere near as well-designed — or as well made — as a Mac.
This makes zero difference to performance, of course, but the all-aluminium MacBook Air is incredibly durable, for example, and Macs have never been known for breaking in ways that suggested corner cutting in the factory.
In fact Apple often makes a big deal in its ads about how carefully its products are designed and manufactured. That doesn’t mean PC manufacturers don’t take the same degree of care, but attention to detail has long been associated with Apple products, probably because it doesn’t need to follow the same ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ approach as PC makers.
Whether or not this is worth paying more for is a personal choice, of course, but it’s worth thinking about when spending money you night have to use — and look at — all day, every day.
Unfortunately, the price for the design desirability of most Macs is that they’re difficult to upgrade — and, in some cases, impossible.
In its quest for sleeker profiles and lower weights, Macs are increasingly difficult to open up, some models use proprietary parts that can’t easily be replaced, and now even components like memory are soldered into place, rather than plugged into sockets.
This is arguably the price that has to be paid for groundbreaking design, but it does mean that Macs are slowly transforming from user-upgradeable computers with extendible lifespans into sealed appliances like a smartphone.
If you’ve never upgraded a computer in your life, or can afford to buy a Mac with a high enough specification to last a few years, then this isn’t likely to be an issue — else you might be better off with a Windows PC.
Ease of use
Price and build quality count for nothing if a computer isn’t easy to use, and that’s another area where Macs supposedly have a serious edge.
In reality, the gap between Windows and the Apple OS X operating system has narrowed considerably over recent years and it’s now difficult to seriously claim that Macs are easier use than Windows. OS X has more consistent user interface conventions than Windows (particularly Windows 8) and that can make it less confusing to computer novices, but it gets just as complicated as Windows once you scratch the surface.
The other important difference when it comes to operating systems, of course, is that Windows will only run Windows applications and OS X will only run OS X applications. So if there’s a specific application you need that’s only available on one or the other, that will influence your purchase — but bear one more thing in mind.
Since Macs use Intel processors, they too can run Windows, whether as an alternative to OS X, or as just another OS X application using software like VirtualBox. It’s also possible to run OS X on a PC, but not easily — or legally. So a Mac is still the only straightforward choice if you want to run Mac and Windows applications (which includes games, by the way).
Another ‘fact’ that Mac fans often trot out is that Macs are more secure than Windows PCs. This is at least partially true.
First, Apple gives OS X away and so Mac users are far more likely to upgrade to the most recent — and most secure — version of the operating system, rather than linger with an old favourite from a decade ago.
Figures vary according to source, but GoSquared puts the latest OS X 10.10 Yosemite as being installed on around 60% of Macs, with the previous version, 10.9 Mavericks, in second place at around 25%. Conversely, NetMarketShare pegs the five-year old Windows 7 and the 14-year old Windows XP as the two most popular versions of Windows.
Even so, as a proportion of PC operating systems, Windows still dominates. Various versions are installed on 93.6% of all PCs, compared to just 5.4% for OS X. And that’s where the problem lies. It’s not that Windows is less secure than OS X, it’s that it’s a far bigger target for hackers and criminals — Macs still aren’t popular enough to be worth the effort.
Macs and Windows PCs engender strong feelings in their respective users, and we expect to see plenty of arguments both for and against each computer in the comments. If you’ve used both, let us know which you prefer — and why - in the Comments section below.