The ultimate showdown

By Sean Carroll | February 20, 2006 7:50 pm

Things have been far too busy recently for me to do any substantive posting. But I have noticed that our discussions of topics such as race and gender and interpretations of quantum mechanics are far too genteel and rational for my tastes. (Seriously, why is it that people just cannot resist the temptation to argue with people who say outrageous things, even if they know perfectly well that those people are absolutely immune to reason?)

So I’d like to broach a more controversial topic. I’m thinking of buying a new laptop. Tell me: Mac or PC? I’ve used both quite a bit, so I’m not a fundamentalist either way. The Macs are of course Linux FreeBSD-based, which is useful if you’re a scientist. And there’s the fight-the-evil-empire business. But one cannot deny that there is useful software that isn’t available for Macs. And the variety of laptop hardware is much more diverse in the PC world, including attractively thin ultralights. So — reasonable cost-benefit analyses on either side? Your thoughts are welcome.

And play nice.

  • Moshe

    The interpretation of QM discussion was not too bad I thought, maybe memeory fails me.

    I am infatuated with the convertible/tablet PC I have, and they do not have macintosh version, look at

    I have M200, they seem to have a new model out. There are a few extremely cool things you can do with the tablet, and since it is convertible you don’t lose the laptop option, the M200 is a decent enough laptop, it is pretty light and fast.

    (incidentally, sorry I will miss your talk)

  • Clifford

    Mac. Come on. There’s just no contest.

    Anything you can’t do on a mac really isn’t worth doing.

    It’s that simple.


  • Arun

    It really depends on what you want to do with your laptop.
    E.g., if you want to write and compile code, then the Mac comes
    with a free development environment. If you want to play games, go with the PC.

    Then, what software do you already have that you want to keep?
    That may determine what suits you.

    In any case, Apple is in the middle of a IBM PowerPC to Intel Processor transition; so be sure to buy the Intel Processor laptop if you should go with the Mac. Only a higher-end set of models have been announced so far.

    My personal machines have all been Macs, since 1994.


  • Clifford

    Less glibly, I’d say that on balance a mac is a better all around machine.. and will last you a lot longer, will be way more stable, etc. If you want an ultra-light machine above all else, then don’t get a mac, but if you want a machine that will aloow you to do a huge range of things very easily and transparently, and maybe is a little bit heavier, then a 12 inch powerbook is the way to go…. 15 inch if you want the best compromise between weight, power, and versatilty.

    I’ve done it all…both sides of the aisle: I had the cute ultralight Toshiba models, that everyone was ooing and aahing at…. they’re fine, but after a year windows machines just seem to get cluttered and slow down and don’t work as well as when they were new…the software is just badly written……Also, once mac changed their operating system to a Unix core, and at the same time once you can run all the annoying Microsoft office software on a mac (people still don’t realise this), there is really nothing else tying you to a windows platform. My mac works as well as it did the day I first started it up a while ago now…..maybe even better, as I discover the wonderful things I can do “under the hood” using unix.

    I could go on….. but I won’t, you’ll be happy to hear.



  • Elliot


    I would say MAC no question. EXCEPT for the following piece of evidence. I noticed in previous threads that you may have some interest in poker. If you are looking to play on-line, you should be aware that the number of on-line poker sites you can play on a Mac (native not using virtual PC) is very limited.

    I have been using computers since the punch card days. MAC by far is the best technology choice.

    Hope that helps,


  • Quibbler

    Cliff got there before me:

    Mac. Come on. There’s just no contest.

    Anything you can’t do on a mac really isn’t worth doing.

    It’s that simple

    Yup. Macs are also much more stable, plus the Mac version of PlainTex is wayyyyyyyy better than all that silly mucking about with TeXshop. So there.


  • Clifford

    And for people who own Macs who don’t know….. Fink! Fink! Fink! Fink!

    Google to find out. All your favourite wonderful Unix applications run and install seamlessly on macs becasue of the Fink project (we have our very own Dave Morrison to thank for part of that……)

    Oh…. and you like giving nice presentations, I recall. Once you’ve used Keynote (in conjunction with say Equation Service – there, I’ve given away all my secrets now), you’ll forever henceforth get annoyed (as I do) when anyone ever calls your computer presentation a “powerpoint” presentation.

    Oh, I could go on… but I’d better stop…..(again).


  • Kieran

    But one cannot deny that there is useful software that isn’t available for Macs.

    Well, what exactly? I mean, the question is not “useful software in general” but is there some piece of software you must use or really want to use, or a file format you must be able to access, that is not available for or supported by the Mac? Scientists often have the easiest time switching because their files and data are in easily transportable formats (like LaTeX).

    If not, that just leaves the hardware form-factor. Personally, I think the tradeoff between ultralight + Windows OS vs MacBook + OS X leans heavily toward the latter, because OS X is just so much better designed on every dimension than Windows.

    I use Macs exclusively now, but used Windows on a Dell for ~ 8 years and Linux on a variety of platforms for another 5. Given my work needs, I wouldn’t go back to either alternative.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Wait a few months for the Intel iBooks.

    I should mention, though, that the Mac UNIX is based on BSD, not on Linux.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Oh yeah, and vi kicks emacs’s ass.

  • JD

    I can’t believe I actually get to be the first one to point out that Macs run Darwin, a FreeBSD derivative, rather than Linux. Whatever, they’re all pinko-commie-anti-market Open Source, right? <ducks and runs>


  • JD

    Okay, second one to point that out. I type too slowly, clearly.


  • Clifford

    LEt me be annoying: Actually JD you are third…. although I was being too subtle…. I said unix in my remarks above…hoping that it would gently point Sean to correct his typo (I think he knows it is not Linux).



  • Clifford

    Hmmmm I’ve re-read my comments…way too subtle on the Unix/Linux correction, he’d nbever have seen it since Linux is a flavour of Unix. So I withdraw gracefully. You were second, JD.



  • Sean

    Turbo Texas Hold ’em is not available for Macs. Just as an example. (The tablet features and ultralights are examples of hardware differences.)

    I presume the Linux vs. BSD distinction is something that lies close to the expert’s heart, but wouldn’t affect my ability to use software I currently use on my Linux desktop?

    I already use Open Office, so PowerPoint is not an issue.

    Here is my problem with taking anything away from these debates: I don’t know what phrases like “better designed” are really supposed to mean. Crashes less often? More efficient use of disk space? Nicer user interface? Batteries last longer? Laptops weigh less? Programs run faster? More likely to smoothly talk to an LCD projector? And are these judgments subjective, based on data, or…?

  • AndyS

    Why not suck it up, support the open source community, and get a local computer geek to put a GNU/Linux laptop together for you? Requiments: a used laptop (help out the growing recycling problem created by computers and save some money) and access to the Internet to grab the lastest version of, say, Debian GNU/Linux (created and maintained by 1500+ people around the world — the only Linux distro to do that). provides the office suite, GIMP and InkScape for bitmapped and vector graphics, Firefox for a web browser, jEdit for plain text editing (with plugins for Tex, XML, HTML) and thousands of other robust applications from the open source community which strongly supports scientists.

    Cost? $500. 300 for the used laptop from, say, eBay but probably just as easily had from someone on your campus who just bought a new one and $200 in pizza and soda for the computer geek to fine tune it to your specs.

  • Kieran

    > Turbo Texas Hold ’em is not available for Macs.

    Sure, I’m not going to argue with you about this: if you need to run this program, you need to run it. I don’t know if equivalent poker software is available.

    > I don’t know what phrases like “better designed”
    > are really supposed to mean.

    Roughly speaking, all of the things you mentioned — though I can’t speak to ‘laptops weigh less’ and batteries. Better designed under the hood means the OS is more secure, less prone by design to failure, to internal problems, to external viruses/spyware, etc. Better designed on the surface means easier to use, better integration of applications, more consistency in use. Better physical design, too: they don’t just look better, they’re very well thought out. Also, the culture of Mac software development is, I think, also stronger — I mean third-party applications are also likely to be better than you’d expect, thanks to the knock-on effects of having a good platform.

    As I say, if Poker is make or break, then you’ll be getting a PC. Pity.

  • Clifford

    Crashes less often? Y

    More efficient use of disk space? Y

    Nicer user interface? Y (but nicer is subjective)

    Batteries last longer? Depends

    Laptops weigh less? See above….generally N

    Programs run faster? Depends upon the program…often, yes.

    More likely to smoothly talk to an LCD projector? About the same on both sides.

    On point one for example, I go for several months at a time sometimes without shutting down or restarting my computer..running any number of applications, etc. Do that for a week or two with windows and you’ll get a crash, or stuff will start doing weird things….


  • anon

    Macs are wonderful, and my 12″ Powerbook serves me far better than previous PC laptops I have had. However, I will add a couple of caveats. It’s a rather slow machine compared to some laptops you can get now. There is no equivalent 12″ Mac laptop with the Intel chips yet, and I would be slightly wary of getting the first-generation of the Intel Macs. The 12″ Powerbook is very light and portable, but there are even lighter PCs. Either a PC running Linux or a Mac will be fine for any Unix-y stuff you want to do. Mac OS X is much more polished than any Linux environment I’ve ever worked in (and I do like Linux; I’m using it right now). So to some extent you can’t go wrong. If there were 12″ Intel Mac laptops available right now and people seemed happy with them, I would recommend it without question. As it is, if you want a very light laptop right away, I don’t know what to recommend….

  • Moshe

    Alright, I will try to be brief, but here are some cool things you can only do with a tablet: write your notes (the most intuitive way, with a pen on a flat surface), save them as PDF files and email them to your friends, or post them on the net if they are your class notes…add your scribblings to papers you read (in PDF format) and then cut and paste them to your notes…

    Also- hyperlink your notes, minimize part of the page and restore it (very useful for intermediate steps in calculations), right click on a formula in your notes and generate a plot of it…then when you are done use your notes (hiding the parts you don’t need, adding pictures and other file formats) for your presentation.

    I really should get some commission here…

  • anotheranon

    Asking if you should get a PC or a Mac is kind of like asking if you should get a car or a Ford. A Mac is still a subset of computer types, one that happens to have a proprietary approach to hardware and software.

    Nothing beats the ease of fixing any PC versus a Mac. DVD burner dies? Just pick one up from the nearest store, open up the box, and voila. Macs are a lot more difficult to fix and they cost more. Also, last but not least, because of the testing required for Macs, their hardware is usually about 6 months behind the curve, so if you care about speed or the last innovation, it won’t come from a Mac.

    If you aren’t into computers, go with a Mac, because they are easy to use. If you are into computers, especially to the point of being a geek or having special computer needs, get a PC.

    I would tell a computer literate scientist who is competent and interested in computers to get a PC. I would tell Aunt Jane who is still mired in the email and mouse stage to get a Mac. Or my friend the graphic designer who wants a solid computer that does all the art and graphics stuff.

    I think they cater to very different segments of the user population.

  • Clifford


    I disagree with that, on the “if you’re into computers” aspect. At least at the software level. You can do a lot more “under the hood” more readily with a Mac than you can a PC. As for hardware, and geting easily fixed on the high street…. is it really that much of an issue if they simply don’t break that often and the service is really excellent? And you can plug and play a lot of standard components (external drives DVD burners, etc) off the shelf with a Mac just as you can a PC.


  • Ponderer of Things

    Correct answer is PC.

  • Kieran

    I have to say anotheranon is brushing right up against the trolling border here… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Nothing beats the ease of fixing any PC versus a Mac. DVD burner dies? Just pick one up from the nearest store, open up the box, and voila.

    Seeing as we’re talking about laptops here, I’m not sure this comparison is relevant, setting aside the question of whether it’s true.

    and they cost more.

    You can buy a Wintel machine that’s cheaper than any Mac, sure. What is much harder is to buy cheaper is one that has the same hardware features than an equivalent Mac. I’ll grant that it’s typically easier to pick and choose amongst PCs for exactly which subset of hardware components you want.

    hardware is usually about 6 months behind the curve, so if you care about speed or the last innovation

    I was going to bite my tongue on this one, but I can’t: would you rather your hardware be 6 months behind the curve or your operating system 6 years behind?

    If you aren’t into computers, go with a Mac, because they are easy to use. If you are into computers, especially to the point of being a geek or having special computer needs, get a PC.

    I would tell a computer literate scientist who is competent and interested in computers to get a PC. I would tell Aunt Jane who is still mired in the email and mouse stage to get a Mac.

    This is an absolutely false dichotomy. Computer literate scientists, software engineers, people with special computer needs, and what have you are happy to choose Macs. The OS runs on top of a version of BSD Unix and comes with a full set of software development tools for Heaven’s sake! The fact that “Aunt Jane” doesn’t have to know about any of that stuff if she doesn’t want or need to is a virtue of the high-quality design, not some kind of liability. Macs make it easier to be productive whether or not you care about computers as such.

    Again, for someone like Sean the choice will boil down to stuff like favorite can’t-do-without applications like the poker game, or an absolute preference for an ultralight or tablet format. Those considerations are perfectly reasonable. But anotheranon’s arguments are off-point or just wrong, I think.

  • Samantha

    Since I went Mac (2 years ago now), I stopped hating computers.

  • mbecker

    you are wrong about which company is the evil empire…

    apple is the wolf in sheeps clothing…they are about proprietary hardware and locking you into a certain path that insures their profit margin…despite his black jeans and no tie steve jobs is the unbelievably brilliant capitalist/businessman… (just as ipod/itunes are cool until you realize that you pay more for the same music and only have one place from which to buy it…)…

    pick the pc…everything you need and more choices…
    does apple “think different” because to me it sounds like all the apple people think the same…

  • Aaron Bergman

    I presume the Linux vs. BSD distinction is something that lies close to the expert’s heart, but wouldn’t affect my ability to use software I currently use on my Linux desktop?

    Pretty much, yeah. OS X comes with an X-windows server. As Clifford mentioned, ‘fink’ is your friend for installing UNIX software. You can check the list of packages here to see if what you need is available.

    The current rumors are that new Mac laptops should be out before the summer. If you can hold out ’till May, I’d wait and see what new stuff is available.

  • Asher

    I owned Windows-Linux dual-boot laptops for my first three years of college. This September, I sucked it up and bought a 12″ Powerbook and I’ve never been happier. Here’s why:

    –I find OSX to be far more intuitive and stable than Windows, as well as being able to interface with my work Linux boxes far better, without having to shut down and reboot. Plus, it’s just prettier.

    –TeXShop is a fantastic gui for LaTeX. I don’t know how I lived without it.

    –I get a fairly optimal (for my purposes) combination of lightweight, cpu power, and battery life.

    –The hardware feels far more solid and long-lasting than either my Dell (VERY disappointing) or my ThinkPad (IBM).

    –Stuff just works. I plug it in, it works. I download it, it works. This was not my experience with my previous machines, and WOW!

    –Did I mention how pretty everything is? There is a far higher level of attention to design than my previous machines in hardware, software, everything. Things are where I feel they should be, lines and graphics are clean, and that little thing has made my computing experience far happier.

    In the end, though, you have to evaluate what your needs are. Mine are for a laptop that is light, durable, and with long battery life (I routinely get 4.5-5 hours), interfaces well with my work machines, can do small home programming projects, and is large enough to serve as my primary machine (full-size keyboard a must). My powerbook is perfect for that. Your milage may vary.

    (Also, if you want to get a mac, wait a bit and see how the powerpc->intel shift works out.)

  • D. Rad

    I’ve had the occasional crash on my mac, but I’ve only had to reset my machine once since I bought it in 2002!

    Wait until the Intel powerbooks are on more solid ground, and then jump in (I would say wait until late Spring after the first system has been hammered by users and the bugs corrected, my only crash was the first week I used the machine.)

    Those of us with data to deal with (OK, um, more like simulations) are waiting for idl to be ported to native, but I think Mathematica will be running on Intel very very soon.

    As for longevity, the Mac laptop I bought in 1999 is still going strong; after she and I parted, she went to a friend and they’re going to law school together. That computer has more degrees than you Sean! [four so far.] The machines, unless you get one of the bum models from the mid 1990s, just keep going and going and going.

  • Ponderer of Things

    If you get Mac, be prepared to encounter more problems giving talks (requiring special cables etc.)., not being able to use a large fraction of software that is widely available otherwise. Macs are good for either inexperienced users with limited choice of applications, or for unix gurus. I am one of those unix gurus (essentially a sysadmin for our research group), but prefer to use truly dedicated unix for unix applications, and windows for windows.

    Most Mac people praising Unix angle of Mac do not ever use unix part of it – or even know how. At least that was my experience installing unix applications for Mac users. Just last week I was helping out a friend who always underscores how great unix part of Mac is – and it turns out he doesn’t even have root permission, or knows a password.

    I am not sure why people complain about stability – Windows XP is as stable as anything else. However, if I have to sit through another presentaiton where Mac user is apologizing for the way powerpoint presentaiton is projected using a Mac, or spending the first 10 minutes of his talk trying to figure out why his Mac doesn’t project anything.

    Bottom line – if you rely on unix applicaitons, I would look into unix machine, or dual unix/windows. But going with Mac, you will miss out on a lot of great applications that simply do not exist for Macs. If you are savvy enough to write all of the code for missing application yourself under unix – go for it! If you are absolutely sure you will not need anything except most standard applications, you can survive with a Mac. But if you get PC, you could greatly enhance your options and never have to apologize for incompatibility of “quicktime” embedded figures in MS-Word or powerpoint or any other annoyances that I get to hear so many times…

  • Clifford

    mbecker: — They are both evil empires…. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!

    And yes, we do all think the same: “This computer is just so grrrreeeeeeeeat!!!” – every time you use it, for years after you bought it too!



  • D. Rad

    Sorry, not 2002, I guess it would be closer to 2004? I jumped into the OS X line about a year after they went live. The 15″ model, at least mine, has handled the knocks very well; I think Apple has been back on the good design track since the late 90s (probably with the Powerbook G3.)

  • Clifford

    Ponderer:- Those are mostly out of date myths. I run the colloquium here and see macs and pc come and try to talk to the projectors all the time…. I help the speakers conenct their equipment. There is never a problem with either. Power point looks lousy on macs because…powerpoint is lousy. Keynote is better (and can run all your old power point stuff on it and convert it).

    Many of those people who talk about the Unix aspects of Macs do know what they are talking about. Several of us in this thread use the unix core a lot…… that was the real dealmaker for me…. being able to have the best of the pc world and the best of the unix world on one machine, and *in addition* have all the great mac stuff too. No other machine lets you seamlessly connect three formerly different worlds so easily. That remarkable flexibility beats any other feature for me.


  • Travis

    Perhaps this question was already addressed earlier and I missed it (my reading of the previous posts was a little quick and dirty) but if you got a PC would you be running windows at all or just Linux/BSD etc? I agree that Macs are really great, and now that OS is based on BSD, that is especially true, but I think some (some, not all) of the posts have been more of a Mac vs. Windows debate rather than a Mac vs. PC debate.

    I have a PC and it certainly hasn’t seen windows in a very long time.

  • Kieran

    Most Mac people praising Unix angle of Mac do not ever use unix part of it – or even know how.

    Well, I’ll see your anecdote with an anecdote. I use unix apps all the time on my Mac, as do several of my students. No trouble compiling or installing them. Far less hassle, in fact, than I had when I used Linux.

    I am not sure why people complain about stability – Windows XP is as stable as anything else.

    It’s certainly improved a lot. You can’t say the same for security, though.

    However, if I have to sit through another presentaiton where Mac user is apologizing for the way powerpoint presentaiton is projected using a Mac, or spending the first 10 minutes of his talk trying to figure out why his Mac doesn’t project anything.

    This hasn’t been my experience at all. Powerpoint and keynote work just fine, and I’ve seen far more flameouts on Windows — we had someone in last year whose talk crashed out because, it turned out, their relatively new laptop was so infested with malware that it would freeze up every 10-20 minutes.

    But going with Mac, you will miss out on a lot of great applications that simply do not exist for Macs.

    Again, I don’t see many examples of specific “great applications”, but even if there are dozens it’s not really relevant if Sean’s never going to use them. Should he care if the best Pork Futures Analysis package is only available for Windows?

  • Clifford

    Travis: Imagine…. you can get the best of all three (Mac Windowsy-things, Unix)…simultaneously. That’s what a Mac offers. Sweet.

    Ok. I am really going to shut up now. Really. Since 2003 I’ve been a bit of a born-again Christian on this issue. Sorry ๐Ÿ˜‰


  • Travis

    Clifford: I understand and appreciate that. I guess I did not want to weigh in on the actual argument of PC vs. Mac, but more point out that PC’s don’t have to be equated with windows.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Just last week I was helping out a friend who always underscores how great unix part of Mac is – and it turns out he doesn’t even have root permission, or knows a password.

    That because you don’t want root permissions. Unless you absolutely need to, it’s a good idea to not even enable the root account. You can do pretty much anything you need with sudo. You set a password when you log in and you have to enter it whenever you update system software, so I find it hard to believe that your friend didn’t know one.

    As for cables, all the Mac laptops come with adaptors that give a VGA out, exactly the same as the PC Laptops. Judging by the experience of people giving talks here, the PC people generally seem to have the most trouble figuring out how to get things to display on the external monitor. I’ve never seen cables be an issue on either platform.

    Now, if you’ve just brought the file along and are trying to present it on someone else’s computer, that’s just stupid.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Weird — this thread isn’t showing up in my RSS feed. I wonder why….

  • anon

    It’s simply not true that it’s hard to give talks on a Mac; I do it fairly often. I also have to agree that TeXShop is fantastic. Easily beats anything else I’ve ever tried.

    I don’t buy the “Most Mac people praising Unix angle of Mac do not ever use unix part of it – or even know how.” I was a Linux user for years before I ever got a Mac. I use all sorts of Unix apps on the Mac, including a lot of physics software (HEP simulation packages). Almost everything works completely smoothly. Occasionally I have to make minor changes to a Makefile (but that happens in Linux too with about the same frequency).

  • Mike Procario

    The virus/spyware problem is the greatest problem with PC’s today. I manage my own Windows and Linux boxes as well as my family’s Windows PCs. I have never gotten infected, but my daughters do get viruses periodically. I have been able to clean up most of them with regular antivirus scans. I had a friend get a real nasty spyware infection, and it took me about 5 hours to clean up the mess. While I see that a real Mac virus has been seen in the wold lately, it clearly is much worse in Windows.

    I do not think inherent stability of Windows XP when not infected is any worse than a Mac. I have had very few blue screens with XP. They are far rarer than they were in Windows 98.

    The upfront cost of a Mac is the biggest issue that I see. I tend to buy one notch up from the bottom price range. My last laptop was $800 with 512 MB and a big widescreen display. It is heavy, but I can use teh exercise.

    The software that I miss from Windows the most when I am in Linux is iTunes and Picasa. Obviously iTunes is available for a Mac. I haven’t played with iPhoto, so I have no idea if I would like it as much as Picasa.

    I liust after the MacBook Pro but is is 2.2x more expensive than the last two laptops I have bought.

  • Sean

    Very useful so far, thanks. It still seems to be a close call to me, given that there would be some transition cost if I were to switch from my present Windows system.

    Is there some emulator for the Mac that just runs any Windows software I like?

    And, D. Rad, I have precisely as many degrees as your computer (B.A., B.S., A.M., Ph.D.). But probably not as much memory, and I guarantee that I crash more often.

  • Kieran

    My mac increases my productivity so much that I can spend all my time in blog threads advocating for Apple. Astonishing.

  • agm

    I call BS on more efficient use of space. More powerful, yes, more efficient, no. It’s fairly well known that you’re talking about a min of 1GB ram and 1GB swap file, else the vaunted stability advantage is lost. A well-maintained XP system can last effectively with only 200 MB of swap, crunching lots of data in programs in cygwin shell, though generally one will see the same arg for 1GB of each in both Linux systems and XP systems, but 200 MB of swap will simply crash OS X, on all systems capable of running it (google this, it’s well known behavior). For Vista, the updated MS OS to be released this year, it’s a safe bet you want at least that. If you’ve got a big enough hard drive and enough RAM, it generally doesn’t matter, so this is not a good way of comparing the possibilities.

    fink has exactly the same problem as cygwin — if you need a version newer than the one currently available, you’re stuck. And OS X is based on NeXtStep’s redo of BSD, so it bears a relationship to Sys V (what most people are referring to commercially distributed variants of Unix) more like that of Linux and Unix. Again, this is not a good way of comparing XP and OS X.

    What I recommend is to see what programs you use regularly, what sort of tools are available/you would like available (just in case) for your work.
    Decide on what hardware is necessary and what would merely be nice to have. Think about which accessories you’d like (carrying case, extra power cord, lock, warranty (I consider accidental damage a must, but I’m rough on my stuff), etc). Are you required to keep grades/other official data in a program only available for one platform? These sorts of considerations alone will seriously cut down on the work involved in picking something you’ll be happy with, and they should always be the first thing someone replies with when a person asks, “What should I get?”

    I’ll run down a few of the ups and downs, for everyone involved. This list is far from exhaustive.

    A few ups:
    *Linux — easiest integration with a true Unix system (mainframe, cluster, etc). Best community support for an OS. Native X support is really handy, and if your hardware is common, the drivers will be there and work as advertised. This is my OS of choice, but not what I do most of my work in, for reasons to be discussed below. Has ipod compatible players.

    *Windows — range of hardware and software available. Office (just because you’re using OpenOffice or this or that doesn’t mean that your collaborator is, and you cannott mix and match, Office will not play with non-Office). If you need serious horsepower today, you want Wintel. If you want support from the company who built the laptop, it’s Windows or OS X. Has itunes. Common file format support (again, people rarely discuss collaboration when picking the hardware that will be running their software, and that’s a shame. If you need MS file formats to exchange files with others, Windows is a better choice.). XP doesn’t have a nervous breakdown if you remove something before unmounting it, whereas the other two very easily could.

    *OS X — it’s also a variant of Unix and is widely considered to be the best UI short of what is claimed by BeOS zealots (we’ll have to see what KDE 4 and Win Vista add in). Has itunes. Once native pdf format was an advantage, but PrimoPDF and the other windows programs have removed this difference. Things “just work” most of the time. Best handling of going to sleep on one network and waking up on another, including wireless.

    A few downs:
    *Linux — posting to a board for support for every damn little things, and hunting for that one particular device driver. Wireless hell if you pick a laptop with the wrong chipset. It’s very easy to get confused as to what to change where because Unix is arcane. And to top it all off, device driver hell and support forums where people are sick of being excoriated for the billionth time that this or that thing doesn’t work or isn’t supported under Linux by the company that makes it.

    *Windows — security in default settings (XP is no elss secure than the other two, if you’ve spent the time to fix the truly bad default settings, but few do this because of the time it takes). Many people hate on the GUI relative to OS X. Weird default settings can drive you insane if you don’t go into the deal knowing that you are responsible for putting a computer into the order you like, because MS and 3rd-party developers cannot know everyone’s needs and this cannot customize it for you.

    *OS X — smaller range of programs, dark incantations prompted by how badly the Mac version of Office can behave, having to learn a new environment can slow down productivity as easily as it can increase productivity (not an issue if you’re used to it already, but I’m thinking in general). Brushed metal everything. Nobody told you you’d need a ginormous swap file or double the default RAM installed. Do NOT expect files to move seamlessly between OS X and non-OS X. Seriously, don’t, it’s not Sys V. OS X will trash a flash drive if you accidentally remove it before unmounting.

  • Max

    get a pc and put linux on it ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But seriously there is no reason not to get a mac, unless you plan on playing games on it.

  • Samantha

    Sean (#42),

    Yes there is: it is called “Virtual PC for Mac”. I have no experience usng it, but you supposedly can use it run any windows based application on a Mac.

  • Aaron Bergman

    It’s fairly well known that you’re talking about a min of 1GB ram and 1GB swap file, else the vaunted stability advantage is lost.

    So, I’m just imagining that this computer only has 512MB in it?’

    (This is fun. It brings back memories of csma….)

  • agm

    Re: moving Unix programs to OS X. Nope, you cannot guarantee that it will be easy. Porting code may or may not be, it depends. It could be as simple as a different gcc version (you pretty much can’t ever use binaries compiled with gcc 4.+ with something compiled with earlier versions, because you can’t guarantee that the compiler changes didn’t introduce an incompatability, something apparently well known in the Linux world). Whether you can adapt or get along or find something even better than what you were previously using, that’s a different issue.

    Re: presenataions, both OS X and Windows can have problems with projectors, but that’s may or may not be a good way to judge, as it could be that the projector manufacturer cut corners on firmware or something else, so that problems crop up in the interfacing, not the opearting system.

    Re: using Unix underpinnings. Apple explicitly set out to make it so that you never ever had to deal with a command line if you didn’t want to. That is irrelevant to how good the rendition of Unix is. I think that for the most part Apple’s version of X is good enough, though it occassionally didn’t act quite the way I expected when I used to work on a TiBook my boss had given me.

    Re: both. Slot-loading DVD drives are evil. Period. They break faster. Either system can be rock-solid stable, either can be crap — by the time a year has elapsed, either OS needs maintenance. If you aren’t maintaining or getting someone to do the maintenance, you’re hosed, and it’s your fault, not Apple’s of MS’s. Within the first year, I’d say that OS X gives the better experience short of gaming needs.

  • todd.

    There’s really nothing better than a ThinkPad running Linux. They’re very well built, and almost every meaningful type of software which exists for Windows or Mac exists for Linux. In fact, I find myself running ports and clones of Linux or crossplatform software (GIMP, Firefox, bittorrent, ghostview, emacs, cygwin, etc) on the Windows machine that I am forced to use at work.

    Also, several people I know who own Toshiba laptops have had no end of hardware issues, and have had some trouble getting these issues resolved by the manufacturer in a timely manner.

  • agm

    @Aaron B:
    I had never heard of this until the day I got a heated ranting at from the postdoc charged with maintaining one of our servers. If you don’t have enough ram, the system pages a lot, making it way slower. Mainly I was thinking about the facts that memory has become cheap enough that there’s no excuse short of losing your grant/stipend for not having it because it will improve the computing experience that much. Also, I was thinking heavily of the swap file size and emphasized because of how critical that issue is.

  • agm

    Also, Virtual PC is like vmware. It’s an emulator, so you’re taking a performance hit. If your machine is well-equipped (to borrow the car manufacturers’ term), you’ll probably not care too much, or you might still be slowed down intolerably. Again, I emphasize, it depends on an individual’s needs, not what zealots of any stripe pronounce in emulation of the Oracle.

  • todd.

    Linux รขโ‚ฌ” posting to a board for support for every damn little things, and hunting for that one particular device driver.

    This really isn’t as big a problem as it used to be. I’ve been running Linux for almost six years, on a variety of completely random Frankenstein boxes, none of the hardware within which was ever selected for compatibility with Linux, and I’ve never had a driver problem. Display drivers, sound drivers, cameras, ipods, wireless cards, on board wireless, dvd drives and burners, tv capture cards, laptops, desktops. No problems.

  • Richard

    I have lots of experience with Windows XP and with OS X on a Powerbook, and find that OS X is much less fatiguing to use than XP, and that’s important for anyone spending lots of time on computers. And I’m very happy using TeXShop in conjunction with BBEdit as an external editor, using an Applescript from the editor that saves the file and tells TeXShop to typeset it. The company that makes BBEdit also makes a free product called TextWrangler which is BBEdit minus special HTML features. And these editors can be configured to color syntax LaTeX in such a way that $ … $ strings are a single color: now all those errors caused by forgotten closing $ are almost a thing of the past because their absence is obvious.

  • Arun

    If you want a Windows laptop that feels as elegant as Macintosh, I’m only aware of the Sony Viao line, and that is expensive too.

    With Apple going to Intel hardware, instead of staying with the much-smaller volume Motorola/IBM PowerPC market, the days of Macs being behind the hardware curve will be over.

    (Actually, if you care about elegance even in the invisible innards of your computer, then you’ll be sorry that Apple is giving up on PowerPC).

    I have to use Windows machines at work; Windows while workable is clunky.

  • Sean

    For what it’s worth, according to Sitemeter, about 55% of CV readers are using some variety of Windows, 37% are using Mac, and 8% Linux. At the moment, anyway.

  • Ryan Scranton

    Just FYI, Sean, I’ve got TTH running on my 15″ PowerBook via Virtual PC with no problems. There’s something in the emulation that seems to run the CPU pretty constantly, so it’s not a good way to kill time during a flight (well, not a long flight), but other than that, it’s fine.

  • Sean

    Ryan, that’s the most useful piece of information yet. I suspect it’s TTH itself that is running the CPU constantly; that seems to happen on my Windows machine.

  • Arun
  • agm

    I started dual booting when I bought a laptop last year (FC4 on Acer Aspire blah blah blah). It is very much still alive and well, even Knoppix has a large board. I suspect you’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of hardware supported under Linux by the companies making your gear (hats off, I wish I could say the same — Acer’s implementation of ACPI is broken, and it uses SBS, which I haven’t gotten around to compiling in the support for). What’s your distro(s) of choice?

  • Anne

    Forget Virtual PC. The new Intel-based Mac laptops will be able to dual boot OS X and Windows. Score!

    I’ve been a Windows/Linux/Unix user since I learned to type my name, but I’m going to get one of the new Mactels (or Macbooks, if you want to be all boring with the name) when they come out. I’ve heard very few negative things about the switcharoo from PowerPC to Intel (I’ve been looking, as I’m wary of “first generation” bugs). By most accounts, Apple seems to have done a bang-up job making sure things work seamlessly. My dad is a software engineer working on new versions of programs for Macs, and is impressed so far.

    Obviously this is secondary to the actual functionality of the machine, but seriously: in an aesthetics contest, I’ve seen very few PC notebooks that beat the Powerbook/Mactel look.

  • todd.

    I don’t really mean to imply that the boards aren’t alive, or useful. But then, so are the ones where you find out what your Windows XP BSOD error codes mean. My favorite trip to those boards was when Windows installed an “updated” driver for my ATI chip, which reintroduced a bug I had already worked around months before.

    My distributions have been RH’s 7-9, then FC’s 1-4. Also, gentoo, from time to time. And I try to keep a copy of Knoppix around, mostly for fixing busted Windows installations.

    In all honesty, I should say that there is one thing I want that has not worked out of the box: portrait mode, which my lovely monitor supports, but which my display driver (the FC4 “nv” nvidia driver; I have yet to try to official “nvidia” nvidia driver) does not seem to want to do.

  • Jacques Distler

    Now would be a good time to buy one of those Intel-based MacBooks. Apple say you ought to even be able to run Windows in a dual-boot installation. (Not clear to me why you’d want to do that; maybe I just don’t understand.)

    Personally, I’m not looking forward to the inevitable switch to a new processor architecture.

    For the past 5 years, and 3 hardware upgrades:

    Golem II (a PowerMac G4) → Golem III (a dual-processor G5)
    Hard drive upgrade on 12″ iBook G3
    12″ iBook G3 → 14″ iBook G4

    I’ve been able to get by mounting the new machine in Firewire Disk-mode, wiping the hard drive clean, and cloning the old hard drive onto the new one.

    When I reboot, every file is just where I left it, all my applications are intact (I think I had to re-enter my Mathematica password, but that’s about it). Actually having to manually transfer files, reinstall software, … Yuck.

    Of course, here I am advocating that you jump Operating Systems as well. I guess all I can say is that it’s worth it …

  • Garrett

    NeXTStep! Urr, I mean… Mac!
    Macs have been great ever since NeXT bought Apple for a negative amount of money. And with the Intel Macs you’ll be able to slum it and run windoze software if you must.

  • agm

    FYI, everyone thinking about Win Mac dual booting. We don’t know any such thing yet, it depends on the EFI implementation in Vista and exactly what Apple has done/will do under the hood to differentiate itself from everybody else using the same hardware ::cough::Dell::cough::. I would like to triple boot (or more, now that Solaris is being open sourced and BeOS is around, but I digress), but it ain’t happening this year. Patience…

    And I understand firewire is on the way out, at least for this and maybe the next revision, so it depends on if Apple can do a USB target disk mode.

    (Geez, I’m starting to sound like a summary of Ars…)

  • agm

    And since this thread started with a purpose, Sean, what will this lappy be used for (which programs, what sort of computing)? Until we know that, we’re all talking out of our nether regions when we offer advice. So far it looks like only one commenter has offered advice I would consider useful (and tweren’t mine).

  • Jacques Distler

    Is Firewire really on the way out? I’ve read those rumours, too. But I’m not sure I believe them.

    Though there’s no FW 800, both the Intel iMacs and the MacBook have FW 400. Since the whole iLife thang is centered around being able to plug your digital video camera (among other things) into your Mac, phasing out FW doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    That there isn’t (I gather) a FW 800 chipset for the Intel motherboards is another matter. Most digital video cameras are FW 400 anyway. And, clearly, there is a FW 400 chipset.

    (Also, while it’s true that the iMacs and MacBooks have built-in iSight cameras, eventually, there will be Intel-based PowerMacs and Minis, and you’re going to want to be able to plug an external iSight camera into them. USB2 is less-than-ideal for real-time digital video.)

  • Burrow

    Macs are a lot more difficult to fix and they cost more.

    I readily disagree. I mailed them my laptop on Thursday and recieved it back this morning (Mon) working wonderfully (my primary RAM port died.) I love the service that you get from Apple. They’re very helpful and I have never been disappointed in the service I recieve. They really want you to be happy with their product. I am a Mac customer for life. (1 year warranty that you can extend to 3 years)

    Go MacBook. I went Mac earlier this year and I am never going back. I’ve never loved a computer before, it’s strange.

  • agm

    If the reports are to be believed (and the Ars fora among others are ever full of naysayers and contrarians), then firewire-based target disk mode has not been removed. Score one for the policy of maintaining that I am not infallible!

    However, some reports contradict that, e.g., the continuing rumors of the death of firewire on Apple and final comment in this thread. Basically, at this point, we don’t know for sure for sure, but Apple is saying it’ll still be there.

  • agm

    Also, target disk mode is good, but so is simply buying a cross-over cable and improvising a LAN by sharing hard drives (not a patch cable, which is what you use to connect to an existing LAN — they look the same, so be careful). This, however, does not address the camcorder issue brought up.

    Just a quick and handy tip. It also works for sharing between XP and OS X boxen =).

  • Simon


    at least with ppc macs, you don’t even need a crossover cable – the hardware is clever enough to internally switch the wires so it works with a patch cable.

  • Ponderer of Things

    after reading so many mac testimonials I will be less skeptical of Macs in the future. Clearly the type of computer work, software needs and collaborative aspects are quite important issues to consider before making a purchase.

    Through my limited anecdotal experience, Macs don’t quite live up to the hype. They ARE prettier and it is nice to have unix platform. Stability is overrated – days of clunky Windows systems and blue screens are long gone.

    As someone who has ready access to numerous remote unix servers, I do not suffer too much from not having unix prompt on my laptop.

    Collaborative angle, combined with software availability, and compatibility with other hardware are the deciding factors in favor of PC for me. My former advisor is a Mac person and I wish I had a dollar for every Word or Powerpoint file he would send that included “Quicktime compression” error instead of a figure or a plot. This would naturally result in a flurry of emails with the “can you see it now?” question, attempting yet another way to make things readable.

    Clifford – in many places people figure out the problems with connecting Macs to the projectors, but I have seen too many mishaps to convince me that if I got a Mac, at some point this type of problem would happen to me too.

    Several examples – we are having a collaboration meeting with ~10 people, someone decided to show us some recent data they collected – using a Mac. Someone else says – why don’t you project it (we are in a conference-type room). Of course he needs a special Mac adapter cable for projector which he doesn’t have. So he goes someplace to get the cable. He comes back 10 min later, tries to set it up. To cut a long story short, after another 10 min of fiddling with settings someone got out their IBM Windows XP laptop, and within 30 seconds his data was projected on the screen (using USB key to transfer the data). The same guy had once a problem giving a colloquium using his Mac (I had to lend him my PC laptop) – so perhaps it says about his ineptitude of using Macs – but he had that computer for over a year now and if it takes that long to figure out how to give talks…

    My advisor who was a Mac person had troubles many times with some of his tables or figures not showing up properly during presentations. Something about the contrast. This happened embarrassingly too many times, using different projectors. At the same time other people didn’t seem to have problems.

    Maybe if the entire world switched over to Macs these problems of incompatibility would go away. But the problems of inherent vulnerabilities and viruses and complaints about Macs from inexperienced users would skyrocket if Macs were 90% of the market. I do not believe engineers writing Windows software are inherently less smart than those writing Mac – there’s certain amount of problems that come with being the most popular platform.

    If our entire collaboration used Macs we wouldn’t worry about converting Canvas-generated pictures to Corel Draw, and search for unix hexbin or binhex converters. And you could say the problem with presentations is not the Macs but Windows-friendly projectors and evil Powerpoint. But it doesn’t mean the problems will go away. And I don’t want to deal with these problems – including minor but irritating things like having to unmount CD drive “properly” instead of just pushing the button.

    Software choice could be a serious issue to some of us too. I happen to use plenty of specific data analysis software (crystallography for example), about 80% of which is simply not available for Macs. Almost all of it is either unix or PC, and a lot of it is shareware from some time ago and will not be written for Mac, as it’s very low-key almost amateur type hobby projects. Hopefully someone some day will write something better, but within the narrow specialty and not that much market, one would have to wait a long time for it to happen.
    So using a PC laptop works fine for me – I can run unix software on one of my servers remotely, or use my PC to run PC software. Switching to Mac would mean saying goodbye to majority of very useful analysis gizmos.

    Another thing people fail to mention is the lost efficiency due to having to learn how to do some even basic things on Mac vs. Windows. I am one of those people who has to play with settings all the time, and moving to another platform is sort of like moving into another town – you need some “settling” time.

    Maybe this Mac-Windows war means a better product in the end, but for collaborative users like myself it’s a sheer nightmare. I’d much rather live in the world where everyone else fights it out, but my entire collaboration uses the same platform – be it Mac, Windows or Unix. As long as we are all self-consistent.

  • Lubos Motl

    Apples will become faster and more efficient once this company fully switches to Intel processors which may very well happen soon.

    Apples are nice. They are symbols of anti-capitalist people because of a reason that is not clear to me, many people think that Steve Jobs is less capitalist than Bill Gates. My admiration for both…

    PCs are more compatible with the leading file formats and in most aspects, you have much more software and support for them. Better internet browsers, better media players, better and more numerous games, among other examples.

    There are exceptions to this rule. Presentations with LaTeX are probably easier and nice with Keynote at Apple than with PowerPoint.

    Summary: a politically unbiased person who still wants to do all kinds of things with a computer should choose PC.

  • steve

    In our small high-tech company I was the only person using OS X a few years ago. The others were impressed that I was not having the level of issues they were with their machines — all computers have issues, but the scale and frequency of mine were less.

    Over the space of 18 months all of them switched to Macs … most were running Windows (XP or 2000) and Linux with a few running just Linux or Windows. Everyone is very happy – some to the point of being evangelists.

    When I look at some of my Summer students, I think many are happier with Linux/Windows — they enjoy the games on Windows and mucking around with the kernel on Linux. At this point I really prefer just getting things done and am happy to have moved into a somewhat more efficient world.

    If you do get a laptop or tablet of any kind, I recommend an extended warranty – the bounces of travel lead to much higher failure rates than desktops. Consumer Reports claims that, in any year of their life, nearly 20% of laptops require repair.

    The hardware choice, of course, is much more limited. I’m not a fan of superlight laptops as they tend to be flimsy (my brother-in-law went through 3 replacement Sony Vaios in a year before giving up and moving to a more rugged Sony). Some people love tablets, but I find that I can type much faster than I can write and the process of entering sketches into a tablet is problematic ( I’m an amateur artist and use a high end wacom tablet for sketching — this is much better than any windows tablet, but is a poor substitute for a good pencil and paper).

    have fun with your search!

  • http://http WL

    Windows: like Ford or Volkswagen – sorta works, but is no fun to use. Clumsy and dull; just right for the masses. Occasionally problematic, but you get spare parts everywhere.

    Mac: that’s the Mercedes. You step in and go from point A to point B in the most efficient and comfortable manner.

    Linux: a sand buggy. You can change the color of your steering wheel every day! There are also kits available to completely rebuild the engine on your own. The new models even have 4 doors now!

  • Jacques Distler

    firewire-based target disk mode has not been removed.

    That was the most likely thing to go, since it needs to be supported by the BIOS, and is not just a matter of having a FW chipset for the motherboard. It’s great that it works!

    Also, target disk mode is good, but so is simply buying a cross-over cable and improvising a LAN by sharing hard drives

    Not for what I do, which is wipe the internal hard drive clean and clone the hard drive from the other machine onto it. (My neighbour, who works for Apple’s Support division turns white as a sheet and starts to splutter when I explain that’s how I do hardware upgrades.)

    But, for most ordinary people, mounting the hard drive as a shared volume over the network would be sufficient.

  • Asher

    Oh, and in one of those “it just works” things in OSX, you can IM in LaTeX, in either iChat or Adium. All under the hood, using a nice program called EquationService. Another little tool that make my life better. Especially when problem sets are due the next day. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    (For fairness’ sake, you can do the same using gaim-latex on Linux/BSD machines, but it has a habit of not working for no apparent reason. No one I know has gotten it to work with gaim for Windows.)

  • Kieran


    Apples are nice. They are symbols of anti-capitalist people because of a reason that is not clear to me, many people think that Steve Jobs is less capitalist than Bill Gates. My admiration for both… Summary: a politically unbiased person who still wants to do all kinds of things with a computer should choose PC.

    I’m impressed: it’s takes considerable skill to do this sort of thing.

  • a cornellian

    i second the thinkpad/linux combination. I have one (an old t23 running fc4) and am quite happy with it.

  • Peter Woit


    If you have a Windows machine now and want to buy a laptop soon, I’d suggest sticking with Windows for now, the overriding consideration being that you’re better off not getting involved in the ugliness that will surround Apple’s move to Intel. Anybody buying a Mac right now has the problematic choice of
    1. buy a PowerPC based machine, likely to be obsoleted earlier than it should be as new versions of software only run on Intel hardware.
    2. buy an Intel based machine, likely to have all sorts of problems as the new OS is shaken down, most of your software running slowly in some sort of emulation mode.

    In general, Macs make more sense for some people, Windows for others, with some of the relevant factors:

    Advantage Mac:

    Machines are attractive, software user interface is sometimes better than Windows.
    Very few worms/viruses/adware to worry about (this advantage is huge, but could change in the future)
    iTunes is quite good, especially if you have an iPod and don’t mind Steve Jobs controlling your music collection.
    It’s a unix box, unix software you know and love is either there or can be made to work. If you like fiddling around with low level software, unix is the way to go.
    When your colleagues start evangelizing about how wonderful Macs are, you can join in the conversation.
    Lubos is in favor of PCs.

    Advantage PC:

    PC hardware of a given sped is much cheaper than Apple’s. This is a big deal for most people.

    Good lightweight PC laptops are available, much lighter than anything Apple sells. If you are carrying the thing around a lot this really matters.

    PC hardware is more reliable in general, Dell hardware especially is extremely reliable, and I’ve rarely seen problems with it. Most people I know with Mac laptops have had hardware problems at one point or another. Mac repairs (or having to throw out the machine and buy a new one) are significantly more expensive than PC repairs. If you buy a Mac, you should probably buy the extended warranty, making it even more expensive. If you buy a Dell, much less necessary.

    Much better games.

    If you like playing with hardware, lots of computer gadgets work with PCs but not Macs. A much wider range of cheap electronic toys to play with.

    Jacques is in favor of Macs.

  • antti rasinen

    For me, the benefit of using a Mac is the way things just work. Whether I’m working or just browsing around, using the computer feels right. I’m happy to use my Mac.

    In contrast, using Windows or Linux hardly ever elicits such a feeling. They feel different; there is less attention to detail or more things you should worry about. Macs get the balance right.

    Using Windows feels like work. Using Mac is like a vacation.

  • Jacques Distler

    Just about everything you’d want (including Mathematica) already runs natively on Intel Macs.

    Existing Mac users will probably have a bunch of legacy software that either doesn’t run under Rosetta (e.g., Classic Applications, Kernel extensions, …) or runs slowly. New users will never notice.

  • Scott H.

    Hey Sean —

    I recently switched from using linux on an IBM thinkpad to a Mac. (You may recall that when I gave the Chicago colloquium a year or so ago, I was going to borrow your laptop after mine was snowed upon, temporarily shorting something and making it go haywire.)

    Why did I switch? Basically, keeping linux sufficiently up to date so that my local sysadmins stopped bugging me got to be more of a pain in the ass than I needed. When I was younger, I had a lot of fun hacking kernels and screwing around with relatively low level crap. I just don’t have the time anymore, and I got sick of things almost but not quite working perfectly.

    I’ve found the mac transition to be *almost* painless. The biggest pain for me came from OpenOffice: When I got my mac, the openoffice port version was not as up-to-date as the linux version. I liked OpenOffice 2.0 a lot, and had converted all of my talks to the 2.0 presentation format; having to backport to 1.3 (or whatever it was) really sucked. I used powerpoint for a few talks in the meantime, which wasn’t bad; just different enough from what I’d grown accustomed to to make me grumble. However, it now looks like 2.0 is available for OSX 10.4, so this point may be moot. (The pundits keep telling me I should just start using Keynote; I’m far too lazy to stop using a package I already know well.)

    Aside from the OpenOffice pains, I’ve been very happy with it. (I’m going to test the newer version tonight, and will let you know how it flies.) It’s particularly nice to be able to read Word and Excel documents that administrators send me; OpenOffice (even in late versions) often never quite did that perfectly. The powerbook is a little heavier than my thinkpad (I got the 12 inch version), but not dramatically so. If you can find a workaround for the Texas Hold’em problem you’ll probably be happy with it.



  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Well there’s a no-brainer: PCs suck and are evil.
    Mac works, looks cool and everyone else has one.

    For the last 3-4 years you’ve been able to tell very easily who just got a new grant based on whether they had a latest model Mac.
    Last NASA panel I was on they had also bowed to peer pressure and half the secure laptops we were given were Macs. There was a very unseemly scramble at the door as people dove for the still available Macs, those who lingered over coffee cursed long and heartily when they came in and saw the gleaming new PC laptops waiting for them.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    PS: check Consumer Reports

    and, a friend of mine got bored at a workshop once and histogramed the “time for someone to setup a laptop on the projector” distribution. Clear three-peaked function: a narrow peak butted up against 0-1 minute for Macs, a narrowish peak to the right for linux laptops, and a broad distribution peaking to the right of both the other distribution with a very long tail (formally stretching to infinite time) for the PC laptops.

  • Elliot


    I would ask you to consider a single question. How many people who made the transition from PC to MAC regret the decision and then went back and got another PC a the next purchase cycle?

    I think you’ll find it is very few.


  • BWare

    Poki’s Poker Academy runs on Macs. I don’t know how that compares to Wilson’s Turbo Texas Hold’em. FullTilt Poker just released a native client for the Mac also. So there are your poker needs.

    I’ve become a Mac bigot. I have to use PCs and Suns at work because they’re the only thing certain things run on (National Instruments), but I log into them through my Mac. The PC under my desk doesn’t even have a screen or keyboard connected.

    The next replacement for my Linux box (mailserver, webserver) is going to be a Intel-based Mac Mini. FWIW, I once wrote a book on Linux and OSS. I’m kinda done with that now, I’d rather get work done than try to configure the XF86config file ever again.


  • anon

    Lubos wrote:

    Apples will become faster and more efficient once this company fully switches to Intel processors which may very well happen soon.

    Hey, does that count as a prediction?

  • Richard E.

    Some random thoughts, from someone coming late to the party.

    Firstly, I think the problems surrounding the move to Intel will be relatively minor, and will mostly center around hardware integration. The only software for which I have seen persistent reports of problems are high end video and photo editing packages. I may be missing some, but standard productivity packages such as Word and Powerpoint “just work” under emulation.

    Personally, I would be interested to hear how Mathematica does; I have little patience for Wolfram’s business ethics or (cough) science, but I have been using Mathematica for so long I am stuck with it, as it would be a huge wrench to change to anything else.

    Looking at Sean’s oeuvre, I am guessing that I do more heavy duty computing than he does, and for me simple access to a Unix command line is vital — a lot of the serious computing I do is on Linux based clusters, and I can develop code sitting on a plane and then run it when I plug in at the hotel (I can do that on Windows machines under Cygwin, but it is not as transparent), or sit in Aspen and ssh to the command line on my office G5 and run code there from my laptop.

    Linux on a laptop is a valid alternative, and while it is getting better, if Linux is going to have hardware specific trouble it tends to show up most painfully on laptops, rather than desktops. Some of this can be solved by choosing one’s laptop carefully, or making friends with a geek :-)

    My gut impression from sitting at conferences (or giving talks at them and looking back at a disconcertingly large sea of open laptops) is that the fraction of Apples in our community is steadily rising, and since we are all clear-eyed individualists who don’t care what other people think there must be a good reason for that…

    In general security on a Mac is better — there are going to be more Mac viruses, but it is an inherently more secure architecture than windows, and I suspect it will be hardened further in the future.

    But for me the biggest reason to use a Mac is that “it just works” — the hardware is on the expensive side (but not excessively so, if you are comparing to name brand PC makers) but a couple of hundred bucks is nothing compared to the cost in time and productivity from having a sub-optimal computer (whatever brand/OS that might be).

    The one reason *not* to use to a mac would be if there was some piece of software that was only available on another platform and you couldn’t do without it. So ask yourself if such a thing exists, and if the answer is no, go and buy yourself a nice shiny new Intel MacBook ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Rien

    Many wise things have already been said. I have just one thing to add against the Mac: one button mouse!! (OK, I know there are 3-button ones nowadays… but not by default!)

    Then I would like to recommend this little essay by Neal Stephenson. I want a Hole Hawg.

  • PhilipJ

    A few people have mentioned Mathematica as a source of fear, but there is already a universal binary out that works with both PPC and Intel macs.

    With that said, let me toss my hat in the mac ring as well. Less time spent futzing with the computer and more time spent doing work. And they’re gosh darn pretty, too.

  • belovedone

    A last 5c: I am a software developer with a product that has to run on all three. So I carry both a PC and a PB with me at all times. I turn on my PC _only_ when forced to because of a platform-specific bug I have to fix. I have been through both Dell and Gateway laptops. Dell (top of the line Inspiron): three main cases, two LCD’s, two keyboards, two CD drives (floppy still not working but extended warranty now expired). The only bright spot was that their in-home warranty for $300 was no questions full replacement, so I had no extra waits or expenses. Gateway: two cases so far. They have a poor battery contact design, and the case flexes, with the result that an incautious tap on the rear right hand side will shut the machine down dead. It also mysteriously wakes itself up from hibernate. If in the case on my way to/from work it will then overheat. So I have to reboot every time I use it.

    OS. well, maybe no blue screen any more. I hate MS wizard approach to configuring things, I hate their idea of what configuration things are related, I hate having to figure out how to re-enable my wireless interface, I hate .. you get the picture. MS taught me my own variation on Murphy: that which can be configured must be configured. The defaults for just about everything are w0rng.

    Both are top of the line machines. Dell sales did not tell me 256M was only enough to boot Windoze, not enough to actually do any work with it. And after sales RAM was horrendously expensive.

    My PowerBook 15″ is, in contrast, pure joy to use. I reboot it once a month just because. It knows how to go to sleep and wake up anywhere – with or without second monitor, wired or wireless or both – and takes very little time doing it. It is very clear how to control the external monitor mode for projection from a menu bar icon. It runs Office if you have to. Every outlet gives you an extra 1G RAM for free. Superdrive will burn DVDs. Beautiful, rugged, non-flexing case design. Extra wide LCD is better for watching movies than my TV, if I am the only audience. Usable built-in speakers. Fink for Linux tools. Comes with Perl, Python, PHP, MySQL, Apache, sendmail, gcc (all versions), Xcode IDE, X, emacs, vi, pico, etc etc etc. I run a Wiki on it for capturing notes and other useful documentation. BBEdit is exemplar for how to do text editing for programmers, and as noted above the TextWrangler version is free and only missing the HTML stuff.

    I also do music stuff. On Windows I had to set 100msec buffering times. On OSX I set 2msecs. That makes the difference for real-time or not. OSX knows how to let an application be a virtual MIDI source, a trivial function call. Windows does not – to be a virtual source requires you delve into the mystery innards of Windows Device Drivers that have to load as services..

    I expect that vmware will shortly have a version for the mactel machines. I use vmware on my PC to give me Linux and 2003 Server test bubbles. I only wish I had it on my mac, but the PPC translation makies it unusably slow for disk intensive stuff.

    So have fun.

  • belovedone

    PS: I know vmware is not available for PPC. I used to run Virtual PC (now owned by MS), and that is where my speed comment comes from. I’m waiting for mactels to shake down. Then moving up. I hear the new books are 4 times faster than the latest PPC books. But on 1 month waiting list.

  • Arun

    (via – a stringy reason to prefer the Mac.

    Sorry, not those type of strings.

  • Arun
  • Pingback: Who Got Feynman’s Office? | Cosmic Variance()


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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