Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Both of these operating systems are great and I don't want to argue which is better, but I'm willing to discuss how computers operate and some of the differences.

PC vs. Mac. I've been led to understand that a computer is nothing more or less than a glorified switch in which each individual switch is either on or off. Much work can be done with this glorified switch. How then do PCs and Macs differ? What is it that they do differently? Is there anything inherently better about what one does versus what the other does?

In this excerpt from Answercast #14, I talk about the billions of switches that it takes to run those computers sitting on our desks and look at how these differ in Macs and PCs.

PC or Mac: Which is better?

I'm not going to touch the "inherently better" question with a ten-foot pole: because that gets into (sometimes) fairly fanatically religious arguments.

They are both good computers. I have both; I've used both.

It really comes down (in my opinion) to personal taste:

  • How you use your computer
  • What you're going to use the computer for
  • What kind of tools are available on either of those computers that you intend to use

Programming ones and zeros

Calling it a "glorified switch" is (I think) doing it a gross disservice.

A switch is a one or zero. If you had, I don't know... several billion switches, that would be a bit more accurate as to what the computer actually is. But understand: even that may be understating the number of switches actually involved.

The switch analogy comes from the fact that computers deal with ones and zeroes and nothing more than ones and zeroes. That's the definition of digital data.

Everything - your photos, your music, your data, your operating system, your programs, your everything - is all simply a matter of ones and zeroes arranged in a particular way. That's why the 'switch' analogy keeps coming up: because a switch is a one or a zero.

The reason I say, "billions of switches," is because every piece of data on your computer is essentially a one or a zero.

Your hard disk may have three hundred gigabytes; three hundred billion! You may have terabytes: trillions of these bits! Actually, trillions of bytes, which you then multiply by eight. So, if you've got a one-terabyte disk, you have eight trillion bits of ones and zeroes on that disk.

Mac and PC differences

So what's the real difference? There are two things that come to mind.

  • One is the hardware.

While they are both (now) based on the same family of CPUs and CPU processors, Apple's Macintosh has fundamentally always been what I would call 'a closed system.'

You can't go out and get add-on cards from random stores or random manufacturers for Apple products. You won't find home-built or kit-built Apple Macintoshes. They are not supported from Apple; they're not provided by Apple. Apple actually retains extremely tight control on the hardware that's available not only in the Mac, but for use with the Mac.

That's unlike the PC. The PC is (I hesitate to call it "open," because it's not really open in the open source sense), but it's an open standard that any hardware manufacturer can go out and create hardware for.

If I go and buy a PC from Dell, I can get add-in cards from anywhere. I can replace motherboards and home-build PCs. I can get RAM from half a dozen different vendors. I can get disk drives and CD drives and all sorts of different things from different places.

Apple has more control

So fundamentally, what you're trading off there (by the way) is that because Apple hardware is so tightly controlled, it tends to be more stable. You have fewer combinations. You have fewer scenarios that can go wrong. And you have fewer manufacturers and (typically) slightly-better-than-average quality.

PC has more variety

On the PC-side, you've got really good manufacturers and you've got really poor manufacturers. There's some bad stuff out there for PCs. That's why you end up with this wide range of hardware that's available - and a wide range of quality. That's why you typically need to be careful when you're picking out new hardware to install in your PC or for that matter, in buying a new PC itself.

A PC can come from half a dozen different manufacturers: a Mac you're only going to get from Apple.

So, on the hardware side, there's a lot more variety on the PCs than there is on the Mac.

  • Two - user interface

When it comes to the software that's actually driving all of those switches, those ones and zeroes, fundamentally they don't have to be different. There's nothing in the hardware that prevents Macs from running Windows (and in fact, there are ways to make that happen.)

There's nothing fundamental on a PC that would prevent it from running Apple's OSX (and in fact, there are some hacks to make that happen.)

The difference is in the way you interact with the computer.

The user interface for Windows and the user interface for Windows programs tends to work a certain way. The user interface for Macs and the user interface for Macintosh programs tend to work in a different way, a slightly different way.

They are similar, but they're different.

People find a lot of value in the difference. In other words, a lot of people will feel more strongly that the Mac way of doing things is much better than the PC way of doing things and vice versa.

There is so much more hardware available for PCs and quite often, there's a lot more software that's available for PCs. It's starting to become a little bit more equal, but nonetheless, the difference is there.

Quite often, people will choose one over the other because there is specific software that they want to run that only runs on one of the two classes of machines. For example, my next computer may very well be a Mac because I intend to run Final Cut Pro (the video-editing software), because it has some features that I'm looking to take advantage of.

Software is essentially software...

At a very high level, at a very high, conceptual level, yes, they're the same:

  • They're both running X86 processors
  • They're both dealing with the same kind of data (all stored as ones and zeroes)

But the devil, as they say, is in the details and how you do things.

In Macs, the software is written to do things in a certain way. In PCs, certain software is written to do things in other ways. Like I said, people feel strongly often about the difference between the two. Personally, I don't really have that strong religious feeling.

They are different; it's just a matter of getting used to the different user interfaces and the different pieces of software available on one platform or the other. I use them both; I use them both regularly and in fact, I also use Linux!

What about Linux?

Linux perhaps could be considered a third alternative (but there too is an example of software that runs most commonly and most freely on PCs.)

Even though Linux is a completely different software, it uses a completely different interface. Linux can run on PCs much more easily and often more frequently than you'll ever find it on a Macintosh-based platform.

Which is better: PC or Mac?

So, that's kind of a vague answer but, yes, like I said: at the bits level, they are conceptually pushing bits. It's how they do it that differs fairly dramatically.

Article C5287 - May 3, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

May 4, 2012 9:59 AM

The biggest fundamental difference to me is the considerable difference in price.

Wayne in Indy
May 4, 2012 11:15 AM

Very good article, and I agree with everything you said. And as for the "better" question, early on (in the DOS and early Windows days) Mac did have the upper hand, not so much today (except in the graphics world). Most large corporations had their own internal war's during the late 1980's and early 1990's. Windows won, because of the openness and general software availability. I feel that Apple shot themselves in the foot by being so closed. As you said, they wanted (still do) complete control of the hardware and software (thus profits). I believe they could have owned 80% of the market today, had they not been so greedy. That boat has sailed...

May 4, 2012 12:35 PM

I am not an experienced computer operator, only 4 years, and have only had Mac,old ones. My comment is that i have loved them and have a lot of respect. They seem less cluttered than PC and take less steps to achieve an action.I started on a 10 year old machine and have progressed to a 7 year old eMac. I think is quite amazing. I have had only 2nd hand machines with no problems at all. They would have been more expensive new than PC but paid back their value over and over. I am now a bit restricted being on a PowerPC and to go beyond 10.5 i will need Intel but that won't be necessary for awhile. I do now have an older PC laptop so that i can learn more about Windows but i wouldn't go away from mac. Biggest problem has been finding any one to help me

May 4, 2012 2:22 PM

I am a computer engineer and have always loved being able to delve into the inner workings of a computer. PCs allow me to do that at very little or no cost. Not so with Macs. The price one pays in both time and money to explore programming venues is much greater with Apple than it is with Microsoft products.

May 6, 2012 1:35 AM

Methinks the choice of a Mac or a PC is what you want to do. My take, a PC running Windows is more versitile because there are literally thousands of apps.
I used a friends Mac way back when and decided I liked a PC better because of this. I haven't used a Mac in ages so I might not know of what I speak, but there's my dimes worth.

September 1, 2012 8:47 AM

I think Linux offers a much more viable offering than even a very few years ago. Vast improvements in "user friendly" operation and installation have come to light.

And, Linux can even run on Intel or PowerPC based computer. I'm making some significant $$$ setting folks up with "dual boot" systems, that allow the option of booting their computer up in either Windows/Mac or Linux. That way they can try and get familiar with Linux, while preserving their ability to use what they're familiar with.

With today's poor economy for many folks, getting more use out of their hardware and not paying for software that can be as good, or often better, than what is produced for the PC or Mac, is a very tempting idea.

Perhaps an idea whose time has come....

Many Thanks for your very fine articles!!

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