130 – Mac versus Windows

Fourteen months ago I switched from Windows to Mac, a beautiful MacBook Pro. Overall, it was a mistake, so much so that I’ve decided that it is worth bearing the cost of making the switch back to Windows.

I knew that most Mac users adore their machine, and I fully expected to do so as well. I knew that there would be a learning phase and some areas of difference that would initially be uncomfortable, but which I would eventually adapt to. I expected the software to be at least as good as the Windows versions. I expected the operating systems and programs to be more intuitive. I expected it to be more reliable, and to have a high degree of consistency between programs. All this and more seemed to be promised by what I read on the net and in Mac-oriented magazines.

However, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. What were the negatives of making the switch?

First there was the learning cost. I knew this would be large, and it was – very large. As a reasonably proficient Windows XP user, one forgets just how much one knows. As a Mac user I immediately felt totally lost and incompetent, and this lasted for a long time. Of course this is not totally the Mac’s fault (it is partly, see below) but I expected it to be outweighed by the benefits, which it wasn’t.

Secondly, I was really very surprised to find that the Mac was not nearly as intuitive as I expected it would be. In Windows, I could pretty well always find what I was looking for eventually, but on the Mac things seem to be poorly described and in really odd places. I spent longer looking, and sometimes even had to just give up looking for commands or switches, which I rarely had to do in Windows.

Third was the Mac’s terrible deficiency in keyboard shortcuts. This was probably the biggest single problem for me. Without this I might just have put up with the rest, but this made it impossible to really enjoy the machine. By far the most efficient way to use computers is to use keyboard shortcuts for most things. On a Mac, you just can’t do this in any practical sense. You have to use a mouse. For example, there is no equivalent to Alt-O Alt-P (for fOrmat Paragraph). You cannot get into the menus any way other than by mouse. I reckon this has reduced my efficiency at navigating through software by 50%.

Even worse than that, where there are keyboard shortcuts for navigating around, they are highly inconsistent between different bits of software. I expected Mac to be the paragon of consistency, but actually Windows is much, much more consistent. For example here are some differences in the behaviour of arrow commands between Mail, Word and Excel. (Note that Macs use Option in place of Alt, and have two extra keys, Function and Command):

Key strokeMail (editing message)WordExcel (editing cell content)
Fn-leftMove view to beginning of emailMove cursor to beginning of lineMove cursor to beginning of line
Ctrl-leftMove cursor one character leftNothingMove cursor one word left
Optn-leftMove cursor one word leftMove cursor one word leftMove cursor one word left
Cmd-leftMove cursor to beginning of lineMove cursor one word leftNothing
Fn-upMove view one page upMove cursor one page upn.a.
Ctrl-upMove cursor one line upMove cursor one page upn.a.
Optn-upMove cursor to start of previous lineMove cursor one page upn.a.
Cmd-upMove cursor to beginning of emailMove cursor one page upn.a.

For example, the command Ctrl-left in Windows universally means move one word left. On my Mac, it can mean move one character left (in Mail), move one word left (in Excel) or do nothing (in Word). This is absolutely ridiculous and unforgivable. It means that you just can’t use these commands. The stupidity of this is absolutely staggering.

Next, the Mac versions of Microsoft Office are not straight conversions of the Windows versions. They are completely rewritten by different programmers. Even though the version I use is called Office 2004 for Mac, it is nearer to the 1997 Windows version of Office than to the 2003 version. There were some really great changes in the Windows version between 1997 and 2003, but they are just not present on the Mac, even though it was released later. The specifics that worry me are the handling of styles in Word and the handling of animations in PowerPoint.

Another major annoyance is incompatibilities in the files produced by Macs. I work a lot with other people, and they have to be able to read my files. Mac Word files are almost always readable in Windows, Excel files sometimes have problems, and PowerPoint files are a disaster. I NEVER use Mac PowerPoint. I fire up Windows and run that version. (The Mac can at least run Windows within the Mac operating system, which is impressive, but what is the point of having a Mac if you have to fire up Windows every time you want to create a PowerPoint file or share an Excel file with a colleague?)

A big problem for me was introduced when I upgraded my Mac operating system to the latest version late last year. A whole bundle of new bugs were introduced. Most of these have been fixed in updates since then, but one shocker is still a problem eight months later: every time I try to print out a file in Word, the whole program crashes and has to be restarted. I’ve discovered a work-around (printing through Preview) but this is clumsy and annoying, and if I forget, the thing crashes!

I had hoped that some of the problems might be solved by upgrading to the 2008 Mac version of Office, which is based on the 2007 Windows version. However, incredibly, the Mac programmers at Microsoft decided not to implement Visual Basic for Applications in this version of Excel. More stupidity. What were they thinking of? It means that I simply cannot upgrade, as VBA is essential to my work. Microsoft copped heaps of abuse for this, and has since announced that it will add VBA to the next major upgrade of Excel for Mac, but that’s not due for another three or four years!! Hopeless.

Finally, there is the issue of support in the workplace. My Faculty at the University or Western Australia has just declared that it will not support Macs, and I don’t blame them one bit. That’s the end for me. I’m looking at PCs. How did I persist for so long? How come other people love them so much? It’s a mystery.

To be fair I should mention those aspects that I found to better on my Mac than in Windows. The outstanding advantage is in backing up. You can very easily back up your entire hard drive onto an external drive, and you can actually boot off that external drive. It’s amazing. If the hard drive on a Mac ever died, all you’d do is put in a new one, boot from the external drive, back up from the external drive to the Mac, and you’d have an IDENTICAL computer to the one you had before the crash. There is also another form of backing up, where you can roll back to any past version of any file, which is neat, but that doesn’t include the ability to produce a bootable copy, which is too good to go past. Another advantage is very easy program installation, but beyond that I have trouble thinking of advantages that would justify making the switch. I guess one could also say that the Mac is very beautiful. It is, and the look of the operating system is very beautiful. This doesn’t count for much.

I am now running Windows on my Mac for most things, in preparation for buying a new PC. As soon as I started using Windows again as my main platform, it felt like a blessed relief. It’s not that I didn’t give the Mac a fair trial (14 months should be enough) and I did develop a reasonable proficiency in that time, but I’ve reached the conclusion that, overall, Windows XP is just better. How I’ll feel about Vista remains to be seen, but it seems a risk worth taking.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

p.s. 15 Feb 2009. It took me quite a while to get a new Windows laptop (due in part to my fruitless attempt to resist an absolutely appalling policy at my University that limited my choice to an HP) but I’ve now done it. For the last couple of months of relying on the Mac, it got even with me for the above column by the keyboard and mouse pad ceasing to work. The conversion back to Windows has been time consuming, but well worth it. The only thing about the Mac that I’m missing is the better backing up. The advantages of Windows are numerous. Vista is fine. I’ve stuck with Office 2003, rather than 2007, as the latter seems to require a lot of additional learning cost for no benefit that I can see. Users also complain about how slow 2007 is.

 The article generated quite a bit of correspondence, and also lots of comments from people that I met. Some people who had been considering changing to Mac thanked me for saving them. The general flavour of comments from Mac users was along the lines that I’m a jerk who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that the things I was worried about don’t really matter, and that there are other advantages I hadn’t acknowledged. Whether I’m a jerk is for others to judge, I suppose. The suggestion that my concerns don’t really matter is ludicrous. Word crashes every time I try to print! Don’t worry about it – it’s not important. Every program has a completely different set of short cuts! So what? Just use the mouse. But that slows me down by about 50%. Don’t worry about it – it’s not important. The Mac versions of Office are highly inferior! Get over it. I can’t share my PowerPoint files with colleagues who are helping me to work on them! That doesn’t bother me, so why should it bother you? Because I made about 50 PowerPoint presentations last year, most of them in collaboration with colleagues. Tough.

 What nobody did was refute any of the criticisms I presented. How could you? They’re just factual. The main additional benefit of Macs that some claimed was greater natural resistance to viruses. But I’ve always found that virus checkers work fine. I’m so, so glad to be out of Mac world.