News Commentary. Microsoft’s “Laptop Hunters” commercials have generated lots of Mac vs. Windows PC debate. Surely there can’t be enough, so I’d like to generate even more. Quite unexpectedly, I’m a PC. I don’t buy new computers very often, and for a long time I slightly favored Macs over Windows PCs. So no one perhaps is more surprised than me that my now four-month old laptop is a Sony and not an Apple. I found my decision process to be similar to Lauren and Giampaolo, the protagonists of the first two Microsoft “Laptop Hunters” commercials. Microsoft got something right about the buying process, something many people on the Mac side of the debate are overlooking. GOT A TIP OR RUMOR? Mac defenders have glommed on to pricing as the primary criteria behind both ads, $1,000 for the first and $1,500 for the other. But both Lauren and Giampaolo clearly state other criteria beyond price. My budget was higher. I was willing to spend as much as $2,000 on a new laptop, which largely eliminated the price premium typically associated with Macs as an eliminating factor. My choice came down to priorities that the Sony laptop met that no Mac in the price range could meet. The Sony wasn’t an easy purchase. I had to shop around before unexpectedly finding the right configuration within my budget. Unlike Lauren and Giampaolo, operating system played into my decision-making process. Microsoft’s commercials quite purposely don’t mention Windows. How can they? Mac enthusiasts, reviewers, analysts and pretty much anybody else who has ever used Mac OS X Leopard and Windows Vista would wag fingers of accusation. Vista is vastly inferior to Leopard and predecessor Tiger. There, I said it. Mac vs. PC: Going Both Ways Before writing one more word, I want to preface about operating systems. I’m not a religious computer user, meaning Mac OS and Windows are just tools to me. I don’t religiously defend either platform. I’m neither Mac fanatic or Windows fanboy. I always use both operating systems, but still must choose one over the other as primary. I’ve flopped between platforms for more than a decade. In December 1998, I bought a Bondi Blue iMac on a whim, from the now defunct CompUSA in Rockville, Md. The computer was cute, but the operating system got me more. Mac OS X 8.5 solved most of the problems I had with Windows 98 (crashes, performance) and Windows NT 4 (app and driver compatibility). I stayed with Mac OS until Microsoft released Windows 2000 in February 2000. I switched back and forth between Mac OS and Windows until Apple released Mac OS X 10.0 in March 2001. What a disaster. Apple launched Mac OS X with no optical drive support, among other problems, and with few native applications. I dumped the Mac within weeks, running Windows XP beta instead. The day before Microsoft launched Windows XP, in October 2001, I gave the Macintosh another try. A month earlier, Apple released Mac OS X 10.1, and it looked good. Over the next three years, I regularly switched between Mac OS X and Windows every couple of months. Major reason: Work. I covered Apple and Microsoft and needed to be familiar with both platforms. But by 2005, I found myself using the Mac with increased regularity. Apple’s operating system had easily surpassed Windows, for stability, usability and performance—and there were plenty of Mac applications. But in early 2006, I made the first of several attempts to run several Windows Vista betas full time. I didn’t find Vista be even remotely usable in production until the release candidate issued later that year. I wasn’t as sour on Windows Vista as so many of its critics. Vista isn’t a bad operating system, it just has some idiosyncrasies. In May 2007, I abandoned the Mac for Windows, which lasted perhaps six weeks. I switched between the two operating systems as primary every month or so thereafter. But during my off-work time, I almost exclusively used a Mac. All that changed in January 2009, when I bought my first Windows computer in years. Except for a few weeks hiatus to test iLife `09, I’ve been using Windows as my primary operating system. Windows 7 is the reason. I don’t write about everything I learn about Microsoft on this blog. Through unnamed sources (and not from Microsoft) I got enough early information about Windows 7 to expect it to be the Vista that should have shipped in December 2006. If not for this expectation, formed in December 2008, I might well have settled for less hardware features and bought a MacBook or MacBook Pro. Apple should worry about many potential Windows-to-Mac switchers coming to similar conclusion: Windows 7 is the better Vista. Buying by Compromise What I find missing in the Mac vs. PC debate generated by the “Laptop Hunters” commercials: Compromise. Buyers with limited budgets must make compromises and they rarely get exactly what they want. The ads do show this kind of decision process, even if briefly. My laptop buying would follow a series of perceived and some actual compromises to get as much of what I wanted within a given budget. My computer shopping started the week after Christmas. I would buy the computer that best met my hardware criteria, whether Mac or Windows PC. What I wanted: a small but powerful portable with 13.3-inch display and weighing less than 3.5 pounds (1.6kg), but 4.5 pounds could be acceptable; 3GB-4GB RAM, 256MB dedicated graphics; 320GB hard drive (250GB OK); LED display; 1600-by-1200 or 1050 resolution; and attractive body. What I considered outside the criteria: $1,599 MacBook or $1,999 MacBook Pro. Both computers appealed for their features, design and performance, and I could run Windows 7, too. But I couldn’t get beyond the Pro’s heft, and the screen resolution wasn’t enough on either. I sidelined but didn’t eliminate the Macs during my early shopping process. I quickly narrowed the decision down to MacBook Air and the Sony VAIO VGN-Z590 and just as quickly eliminated the Air. I had tested the computer, which I found to be underpowered. Slow performance and hard drive size (80GB), along with 1280-by-800 resolution, took Air out of the running. I wanted the VAIO, and it was a purchase being made on faith that Windows 7 would meet my expectations for performance, stability and usability. But I was ready to take the MacBook, if I couldn’t find the right Z590 configuration within my budget. The 4.5-pound MacBook, while heavier than my desired weight, had an appealing configuration: 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1066MHz front-side bus), 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with 1280-by-800 resolution, 2GB DDR3 memory (expandable to 4GB), 256MB nVidia GeForce 9400M (DDR3) graphics, 250GB SATA hard drive (5,400 rpm), double-layer DVD burner, 802.11n wireless, backlit keyboard, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, two USB ports, one Mini DisplayPort and Mac OS X 10.5. For $1,699, $100 more than the MacBook, the entry-level Z590 model tempted. But I would have to settle for 2GB of RAM, 128MB dedicated graphics and screen resolution of 1366 x 768. The Z590 model I really wanted sold, with 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (with 6MB L2 cache), 256MB graphics and 1600-by-900 resolution, for about $2,800—way out of my budget. I either would settle for less VAIO or spend less to get the MacBook. Then a friend found a reseller I’d never heard of, PCNation, which had just about what I wanted for $1,899: Sony VAIO VGN-Z590, with 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 13.1-inch LED backlit display with 1600-by-900 resolution, 256MB nVidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics, 3GB of DDR3 memory, 320GB hard drive, DVD burner, fingerprint reader, Wi-Fi and Sprint 3G modem. The processor cache was only 3MB but I would get 1066MHz front-side bus, which wasn’t a feature on the lower-cost Z590. Screen resolution wasn’t at the top of my criteria list when I started shopping, but it later came to be. All other considerations pivoted on the one feature. I considered the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which has 1400 x 900 resolution. It was close enough to what I wanted but not near enough to justify a larger and heavier laptop. If my friend hadn’t found the $1,899 Z590, I probably would have gone for the MacBook, running Mac OS X and Window 7 dual-boot. The $1,699 Z590’s 1366-by768 resolution wasn’t enough more than the MacBook’s 1280-by-800 resolution to make up for the VAIO’s lesser graphics memory and slower system memory and front-side bus than the Apple laptop. During this stage of the decision process, I reconsidered MacBook Air, for $1,799. The newer model has same graphics as the MacBook, but the 80GB hard drive and 1.6GHz processor put me off. The $1,899 Z590 changed everything. Within my criteria: Display resolution, system memory and hard drive size—all better than the MacBook. Equal to the MacBook: Graphics memory, processor speed, L2 cache size, front-side bus speed, memory speed and LED-backlit rather than LCD capability. Difference: Windows 7 Both “Laptop Hunters” commercials stirred debate in part because the Windows PC buyers paid less than what they could have for comparable Macs. I spent more to get a Windows laptop than I would have for a good-enough Mac notebook. Other criteria mattered more than price. Microsoft’s commercials take Windows out of the decision-making process. As I explained earlier, almost certainly on purpose. Windows 7 took the operating system out of my decision-making process, because I expected it to be much better than Vista and as good as if not better than Mac OS X. I probably wouldn’t have shopped for a Windows laptop, if not for Seven. Four months later, I am more than satisfied with both decisions: Buying the VAIO laptop and taking a chance on Windows 7. The Seven public beta is speedy and functional. Sure, there are some glitches but nothing more than what should be expected from beta code. I haven’t had this much fun using a computer since when I carted home that iMac more than a decade ago. I’m more productive, too. That’s with beta software. I can only expect better from the release candidate and final code. Microsoft’s “Laptop Hunters” commercials are paving the way for Windows 7. The time will come when Microsoft talks about Windows as part of the buying process—perhaps the biggest reason for choosing a PC. Apple has lapped up after Windows Vista for years, long before it released. Windows 7 won’t as easily give up sales to Macintosh. In February I wrote about year-over-year U.S. retail PC gains against massive Mac sale declines: “The Windows Empire Strikes Back.” Times are changing. I love the Mac, but I must make her my mistress and take Windows 7 as the new bride. No one is more surprised than me. I’m a PC, and I just can’t believe it.
by Joe Wilcox