Ten years ago, if you were a Windows user, the idea of switching to a Macintosh might not have seemed enticing. An abundance of new Windows software was arriving on store shelves, while the selection available to Mac users seemed to be falling behind, often relegated to a back corner of the same store.
Today the calculation is different. Apple Computer, through a series of transitions, has reinvented itself. With a new operating system, its own chain of retail stores, the iPod and now a new line of computers that run on Intel processors, this new and more mainstream Apple is catching the attention of Windows users, and many are curious about switching.
But is switching a good idea? The answer, as always, depends on the needs and preferences of the user. Appleâ€™s move to Intel processors has made it easier to run Windows on Intel-based Macs, and thus any software a switcher may want to continue using. But even with that ability, there are pluses and minuses to consider.
The center of the Macintosh experience is Appleâ€™s operating system, Mac OS X. With Unix at its foundation, Mac OS X is more stable, secure and open than previous Mac platforms, and the current version, called Tiger, offers features not included in Windows. More than 12,000 software applications have been developed to run on the Mac OS X platform since it was introduced in 2001, according to Apple, including popular programs like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, the Firefox Web browser and many from Apple.
But the world of Mac software is still smaller than what is available in the Windows world. A Windows user curious about switching needs to take an inventory of applications and determine what options are available in the Mac world to accomplish the same. Mac software is likely to be available for most mainstream applications; some may be included on a new Mac and others may require a separate purchase.
Other important applications, especially in categories like business software and games, may run only on Windows. This is where the new Intel-based Macs can make a difference: because they use the same hardware architecture as Windows-based PCâ€™s, called x86, the experience of running Windows on a Mac is much improved.
Two methods for running Windows on the new Macs have moved to the forefront, and both run considerably faster than Virtual PC, the leading option under the old Mac architecture. The first, a new program called Parallels Desktop for Mac ($80; www.parallels.com), enables you to run Windows and Mac OS X Tiger simultaneously. For example, you can run Windows software like Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook in a window that can be minimized just like other Mac programs. Data can be copied between the platforms, you can share files and folders between them and you can choose to run Windows in a full-screen mode.
Parallels can run Windows versions as old as Windows 3.1 and through the current editions of XP. You will need to provide your own Windows installation software. A drawback of Parallels is that it does not support 3-D-accelerated graphics, which means some higher-end 3-D games and other programs run slowly or not well. Other factors to consider are a speed reduction of 5 to 15 percent compared with running Windows natively on Intel-based computers, the company says, and the fact that not all peripheral devices are compatible.
The other option for running Windows on the new Macs is made possible by Boot Camp (www.apple.com/bootcamp), a free utility from Apple now available in beta testing. (Apple announced this week that Boot Camp would be part of its next operating-system release, called Leopard, scheduled for next spring.) Unlike Parallels, which runs Windows within Mac OS X, Boot Camp creates a partition on the computerâ€™s hard disk and installs Windows to it. When the computer starts up, you can choose to run either Windows or Mac OS X.
Benefits of Boot Camp include running Windows at full speed; it runs natively on the Mac, as it would on a conventional Windows-based PC, fully using the processor and graphics abilities, and providing compatibility with hardware peripherals and devices designed for PCâ€™s.
A drawback of Boot Camp, though, is that you must shut down one operating system before using the other. This means you cannot run Windows and Mac applications simultaneously. Another drawback is that it can run only two versions of Windows: Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2, which costs $200, or Windows XP Professional With Service Pack 2, which is $300.
Security is another aspect of Macs that has Windows users curious. In Windows, antivirus and antispyware programs have become essential for defending against a variety of threats. So far, the Mac OS X operating system has not been infiltrated by viruses, and it remains free from the type of spyware threats that spread in the wild and go after Windows users, according to Symantec, maker of Norton Antivirus.
But when Windows is run on Intel-based Macs, for example through Boot Camp or Parallels, it is vulnerable to the same virus and spyware threats that can affect conventional Windows-based PCâ€™s.
The physical designs of Appleâ€™s desktop and notebook computers are often innovative. The iMac, for example, is a space-saving desktop unit with an all-in-one enclosure that conceals the computerâ€™s components behind the monitor. And the MacBook, a new notebook with a glossy screen, includes a new keyboard layout. This week, the company introduced the Mac Pro, a line of desktops replacing the Power Mac, completing its transition to Intel chips.
But while Appleâ€™s selection covers much ground, it is less diverse than what is available from companies like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sony and Lenovo. For example, Apple does not offer ultraportable notebooks, a tablet design or as wide a choice in processor types and speeds. And when it comes to pricing, Apple no longer offers notebooks in the sub-$1,000 range, or desktop units in the sub-$500 range, as do other makers.
Consideration should also be given to the compatibility of any devices like printers, external hard drives and cellphones that may be connected to a computer. In some instances, only Windows may be supported.
The Switching Experience
I spoke with a number of Windows users who had recently switched to Macs. Their reasons varied, but their experiences had some notable similarities. In many cases, since they had mastered Windows long ago, learning the Mac interface, essentially from scratch, took more time than expected. Also, many switchers retained strong links to the Windows world, often through computers at their workplace or older units at home.
Danielle Wang, 26, of Austin, Tex., bought her first Mac six weeks ago. She took the advice of a friend and decided to buy a MacBook to replace her Windows-based laptop, a Sony Vaio, which she said had been stolen.
Early in the transition, Ms. Wang said, it took time to get used to the Mac interface; the menus, the location of buttons and other items were different. â€œIt was difficult,â€ she said. â€œThe first three days, I was constantly thinking about returning it.â€
Ms. Wang uses the MacBook mainly for applications like e-mail, Web browsing, digital music, games and instant messaging; so far, she has not encountered problems finding Mac software, and she still maintains access to Windows-based computers for other programs she prefers to use at home.
In comparing the MacBook and the Vaio, she said the graphics were clearer on the Sony.
â€œThe Sony Vaio is more lively,â€ she said. But she prefers the look and design of the MacBook.
Over all, Ms. Wang is glad she switched. She likes the Mac interface and says she is likely to remain a Mac owner for the foreseeable future. â€œIt was the right decision,â€ she said. â€œI really love my Mac right now.â€