Should I get an Apple or a Windows PC?

poindexter discusses what array of things to consider when deciding between an Apple or Windows computer

We get this one a lot. Like, a lot a lot, and there’s no easy answer. Sure, Apple, Hewlett Packard, and Dell, to name a few, all make computers. They have processors, RAM, non-volatile storage (hard drives), a case, a keyboard… you know. Computer stuff. But the similarities end the moment we stop drawing broad comparisons about the underlying machine stuff. Windows PCs vary significantly by manufacturer; Apple computers vary less, but offer less choice. A mid-range Dell purchased today will function and feel different from an economy class Toshiba; both will feel very different from any Apple Macbook or iMac. An entry level Macbook Pro will look and feel very different from their flagship products. Yet all machines will, if purchased now, be running Windows 10 and OS X El Capitan. Price matters. Hardware matters. Operating system matters. And, ultimately, how each personal computer feels matters most. We’ll touch on each, in order.

Apple v Windows on Price

Apple computers are well made, easy to use, and high value status symbols. They’ve come a long way in the last ten years – by currying favor among software developers, Apple computers now offer substantial variety in programs and compatible hardware (printers, for instance). Critics argue that, for the price, they’re under-powered and limited. Apologists rebuff by showing how Apple computers are bloat-free, reliable, and secure. Neither argument is truly decisive for most buyers. Bloat can be removed, hardware can be upgraded (sometimes), and security depends on many factors.

Windows PCs are, by and large, cheaper because they have been subsidized. Most OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like Hewlett Packard, Dell, and Toshiba, receive payments from software vendors to bundle their products with each new computer. A new, out of the box Dell will come jam packed with “extras” like McAfee or Norton Internet Security, Wild Tangent games, various sundry update and diagnostic software, and more. Hopefully, goes the thinking, this software adds to the value of the bundle, while reducing its overall price. Unfortunately, as Poindexter points out, this software is mostly unnecessary and sometimes detrimental to the performance and security of your Windows PC. So, while Windows PCs are cheaper overall, there’s a bit of work to do before we consider it desktop ready.

Apple products, on the other hand, come bloat free. An iMac today is loaded with only Apple’s own software, as well as a full complement of language and driver packs. No Wild Tangent games, no fear mongering anti-virus. After a brief configuration, an Apple computer is ready to go in minutes. Sure, there will be updates, but they’re infrequent and less invasive than any version of Windows, including Windows 10. This lack of bloat, however, contributes to the difference in cost.

Windows PC manufacturers, as a hugely complex ecosystem, are under different and varied pressures that influence product price, whereas Apple’s situation is much simpler: what it costs to make and, moreso, what will people pay. Apple is in a market unto itself with less direct competition. Competition in the Windows market has motivated some questionable practices, like software bloat and the inclusion of malware.

In short, if you’re on a budget of less than $1,000, Windows is your only option. If your budget is $1,200 – $3000, investigate both options.

Apple v Windows on Hardware

Drawing useful comparisons along hardware lines is more complicated than just technical specs. A computer is greater than the sum of its parts. Trivially, all computers have the same core components (processor, storage, memory, a box to put it all in…) – how well those components come together to run their operating system is both objectively measurable and highly subjective, varying by taste and habit. Yes, the hardware included in Apple computers is not usually cutting edge. No, Apple doesn’t actually make any of its own hardware; neither does Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, or Dell. All computers are a hodge-podge of contributors – usually Samsung, Phillips, Intel, AMD, and nVidia. OEMs might design certain portions of the computer, such as the motherboard, but individual components, like the processor, are always designed out of house (e.g. Intel or AMD). Apple designs its own motherboards to suit the shapeliness of their computer; so, too, for Lenovo, Dell, and the like. These designs then get farmed out to manufacturing colonies like Foxconn and assembled overseas or state-side, depending on manufacturer. Apple products are assembled in the United States.

Since computer manufacturers are all drawing from the same well, why the alleged performance differences between Windows and Apple devices? First, Apple skews toward better performing parts, swelling their sticker price. New Apple Macbooks and iMacs include faster storage (SSD, flash), memory, and precision track pads with multi-gesture support. For cheaper, you can find similar offerings among Windows PCs, but there is substantial variation in price and hardware packages among Windows PCs.

Apple controls every aspect of their product, from the hardware’s design, to the basic software. With no mutations to tolerate, Apple’s operating system, OS X, is designed only for specific hardware setups. OS X is not a one size fits all, the way Windows has always needed to be; this yields a lean and well optimized computer system. Although Apple hardware might not stack up against the raw computing power of a Windows PC, overall performance feels great, all things being equal.

This restrictiveness, however, is off-putting to PC enthusiasts. One doesn’t simply build an Apple computer the way we might a Windows PC. Likewise, Apple computers are becoming more difficult to upgrade and modify with each generation. A well designed Windows computer can tolerate upgrades well into the future, permitting repairs and improvements impossible in their Apple counterparts. This is not true of all Windows PCs, mind you. Over the years, Apple’s popularity has influenced many Windows OEM design choices, notably Dell and Lenovo. Thinner, lighter, zippier, aluminum clad designs are popular among Windows manufacturers. But, as with Apple, these design choices come with the same side effects: crummy repair and upgrade options.

A Windows PC at the same price point as an Apple product will, without fail, have superior hardware. Objective tests, like PC Mark, will testify to the computer’s potential. This doesn’t guarantee a satisfying experience, however. The experience of using a computer is how well the user jives with their machine. This, this is what matters most, but is also the hardest to predict. Do you like Apple’s OS X or do you prefer Windows 10? The operating system is what you’ll be working with, day in, day out, and where your decision needs to start. OS X is guaranteed to work well on any new Apple computer. Windows will work well on most, but some extra setup is needed (see above).

Apple v Windows on Operating System

An operating system done well is the perfect marriage of hardware, programming, and user interface. In a way, both Microsoft and Apple shine here, but for different reasons. Windows is still the preferred package for enterprise environments; Apple the favorite among designers, musicians, and artists. Windows offers considerable scalability, suitable for small and large companies alike, not to mention individual users and families. OS X is better for individuals, families, and small businesses. Although much improved in recent years, OS X still lags behind a bit in terms of software offerings. Yes, it has some gems specific to the platform, but Windows is still the champ here. For most folks, both OS X and Windows offer the same essential programs or suitable substitutes for every need.

If I spent time highlighting different feature sets for each OS, this article would be outmoded in weeks. Sure, Windows 10 has Cortana, but OS X has better multi-gesture support… etc etc. No, there is a central, distinguishing characteristic to Apple and MS operating systems: variability. Apple’s OS X is a remarkably consistent experience in performance and feature set. Sure, Apple has added and removed features from OS X over the years, but the core stuff hasn’t changed. A singing virtue of OS X is performance and reliability across platforms. Unlike baseline Apple apologists, I don’t believe OS X “just works” – on the contrary, I see it break a lot. That said, when it does work, it works well, and in much the same way it did ten years ago. When I install OS X on an Apple computer, be it a Macbook or iMac, I can be confident that all default hardware will work right away. I know exactly what to expect from the computer once it boots: everything will work and it will work well.

Compared to a Windows computer, this process is rarely so simple. Admittedly, Microsoft has improved since the Windows Vista debacle and now provides better hardware and driver support, but the sheer variety of different hardware configurations available from vendors like Dell and Hewlett Packard makes compatibility a tall task. As time passes, compatibility issues loom larger, eventually eclipsing upgrade possibilities. Software issues create more work for the end user, who now has to hunt down obscure drivers for their now obsolete sound or graphics card. Windows’ driver support has to be rebuilt with every installation. For PC enthusiasts, this is all part of the fun; for regular PC users, this can be frustrating. Windows 10 does streamline this process us much as possible, but the outcome is mixed.

The user experience of an Apple product is going to be more consistent, with fewer headaches. Apple makes a quality product that is a joy to use, but power users might find OS X limiting. In general, OS X works better than Windows, but only by limiting user choice. Windows can provide a similar experience at a lower price point, but the road is longer and bumpier. Power users will find Windows more welcoming, especially for high-power desktop computers with multiple monitors.

The Sum Up: What to Buy

So what should you buy?

If you want higher quality craftsmanship and a user interface that is predictable and consistent, go with Apple if your budget ($1200+) allows it. Be aware that some (most) Apple products have no approved upgrade paths – what you buy is what you get and there’s no simple, safe, or sanctioned way to add fresh internal hardware to the mix. Your product, well cared for, will last for many years, but the march of progress will eventually make it obsolete. In my opinion, Apple’s mobile products (Macbook Pro, Macbook Air, and Macbook) are wonderful, reliable, and very well made. Their personal computers (iMac, Mac Pro) haven’t convinced me yet. The small form factor and brilliant screens are compelling, but both configurations exist in the PC space. The poor (null) upgrade options are a strong argument against every Apple product, but can be tolerated from their mobile lineup. Not their desktop computers.

Yes to Macbook Pro, no to iMac.

If your budget is less than $1200, investigate Windows PC options. The PC market is diverse, so take your time and be sure to research each computer that interests you. Every manufacturer makes the occasional lemon and the tech community is quick to identify product issues. Never trust Best Buy reviews. Be clear on what upgrade options are available, if any, and how the existing hardware supports your computing needs. Never by Alienware, the Dell performance line. For the best price to performance ratio, consider building a custom PC – if you’re nervous, Poindexter can build one for you. No matter which PC you purchase, be it a laptop, desktop, or All-In-One, take steps to debloat your product afterwards. Although it delays gratification slightly, we recommend doing a clean install to clear out all manufacturer muck. This will guarantee the best possible Windows experience, even though it requires more work.

Yes to desktop computers and custom PCs, but do your research. Laptops are hit or miss.

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