Yes, we’re wading into these waters this week: The classic PC or Mac debate that spawned countless, hilarious ads from Apple and John Hodgman a decade-plus ago. (I’m sure Microsoft would beg to disagree with Apple’s interpretation, but I think the entire would would agree the Zune should have never been a thing.)
This week’s question for Lifehacker’s Tech 911 advice column comes from a reader who is trying to decide between the two heavyweights for her next big computer purchase. Adding a small twist to the decision is that she’s looking to buy this computer for school—something I’m surprised isn’t happening already, but I suppose everyone starts when they start. As Kimiko writes:
“Which one’s better for college: PC or Mac? Many say PC because most universities use PC-compatible software that’s cheaper to license, whereas Mac is often not compatible or open-sourced. Thank you for your input.”
First, let’s talk terms. A Mac is a PC too—that’s short for “Personal Computer,” of course. I believe the nomenclature we should be using for this conversation is Windows vs. Mac, but even that’s a bit deceptive. A Mac can run the Windows operating system, after all; a regular ol’ non-Apple laptop that runs Windows can’t run macOS though. At least, it can’t without a number of hackintosh headaches, but I won’t get into that right now.
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So, my initial reaction to your question is that if you know you’re going to need a computer that can handle both Mac and Windows apps, you’re going to need to go with something from Apple. Full stop. It’s the easiest way to ensure compatibility with, well, everything, and setting up Boot Camp to run Windows on your Mac—while occasionally fussy—isn’t very difficult to do. Switching between the two operating systems is as easy as holding down a button while your Mac boots.
The issue with a Mac, however, is that you’re going to pay the Apple Tax. Even with an educational discount—please do not skip the educational discount if you’re a student, educator, or parent looking to pick up Apple gear for yourself or your kid—you’re still looking at a pricey laptop. A Windows-only, non-Apple laptop that runs just as fast will undoubtedly cost you less. It won’t look as good, sure, but you’ll save cash on a similarly speedy system. You just won’t be able to run macOS.
Keep in mind, too, that Apple MacBooks—and I assume you’re looking for a laptop, not a Mac desktop—are going to be more expensive to upgrade when you’re speccing them out. Unfortunately, Apple isn’t as forgiving about DIY upgrades with its laptops as it is its desktops.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to upgrade your non-Apple laptop yourself, should the need arise. And there’s also no guarantee that buying a souped-up Windows-only laptop won’t cost you a pretty penny, either. Generally speaking, though, you can find great Windows-only laptops—ultrabooks, budget laptops, gaming laptops, et cetera—that allow you to upgrade them later with a better or bigger hard drive and more memory. And if this is something you’re looking to use for the next four years, those are great options to have.
I’m not sure I have a great answer for your software-related question. It’s been some time since I’ve walked the halls of academia—as a student or employee—but I do recall there being fairly generous discounts and/or free access to software for both macOS and Windows. What I recommend doing is checking out what your university IT department (or whoever) offers right now. If all the software you need is only available for, say, Windows, that might impact your purchasing decision a bit. If the critical software for your major only works on a Mac, there you go.
There’s also the tech-support angle, though. To be blunt, Apple’s tech support options are generally much better, quicker, and easier to deal with than most other computer manufacturers. I mean, you can’t just walk down to the Toshiba store—once the pandemic ends, of course—and get help with your system or authorize a longer repair process right there.
With other laptop manufacturers, you’re going to have to make phone calls, walk through tech support, and ship the system back yourself (ideally after you wait for said manufacturer to send you a box and label for the RMA), et cetera. And don’t get me started about the nightmares of troubleshooting a Windows system, and all the crapware laptop manufacturers like to dump on their devices, and…
If you’re already bought into Apple’s ecosystem—you’re a proud iPhone owner, for example—then a MacBook is a no-brainer for all the useful synchronization options you’ll be able to take advantage of. I’m not saying you should sit there in class and text with your friends using Mac’s Messages app, but you won’t get that kind of support on a Windows-only system. Similarly, if you’re an Android user, the Your Phone app in Windows 10 might become your new best friend. It’s a bit more annoying to live a dual-platform life with Android and macOS.
We’re also forgetting the third invitee to the dinner party: Google and Chrome OS. If you can even get a Chromebook right now (they’re in short supply), that could be a viable option if you simply need a laptop that can handle the basics: notes, email, documents, spreadsheets, and so on. If there’s any special software you’ll need—such as the Adobe suite, special engineering software, or some heavy-duty audio-editing app—you’re out of luck. But if you need something light and cheap that you use for your studies, a Chromebook could be a decent alternative.
For what it’s worth, I have both a MacBook and a Windows laptop, and I use them interchangeably. That doesn’t help your decision, I bet, but I would really have no issue sticking with one or the other for the long-term. In fact, I’ve done that—taken the MacBook on longer vacations, or grabbed the Windows laptop when I knew I was going somewhere I wanted to game.
That speaks to the best advice I can probably give you right now: Figure out the primary things you’ll need to do with your next laptop, figure out which platform best supports them, and go with that. At their core, Windows-only laptops are just as good as MacBooks; it all depends on you much more than the hardware.
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