Every time anyone finds out I use computers for music, photography and video, they assume I can fix their ageing Dell PC, simply by telling me what error message is always popping up when they’re trying to surf for smut.
In fact many of you reading this, by showing even the slightest outward signs of being computer literate, have – I am sure – heard all of the usual lines from friends, neighbours and family, on what is wrong this week with the ubiquitous machine sitting on 90% of the world’s home office desktops.
They range from the sublime, “When it was new it didn’t do it, but now I have to wait 10 minutes for it to start”, to the ridiculous claims, which only people who, to be fair, don’t really know what they’re talking about could possibly allow themselves to come out with; like “Every time I use Firefox I get a virus”, or “I need to use Windows because it came with my Internet cable box thingy”.
I have, literally, heard them all – to the point that for the most part I’ve actually stopped trying to help people who come to me with these problems, because there’s only so many times you can say, “Buy a Mac”, only to be completely ignored and a few weeks later have the same person with a different problem, coming back for more of the same advice – which they clearly just don’t heed.
I have had my share of successful switcher stories, however, and one in particular stands out more than others. Mark, a friend of mine who runs a “male vocal harmony group” (boy band with backing tracks), has a PA system rig, which also houses all the controllers for the lights and the power amplifiers for the speakers. Somewhere amidst the web of neatly cable-tied wires and leads, is a trusty Mac Mini running OS X Tiger, which he uses to trigger all the MIDI and audio which effectively runs the entire gig.
A few years ago now, he was having strife with the Windows based system he had been using and my simple advice of “Buy a Mac”, chimed with him to such a degree of success, he has now ditched Windows entirely on all of his home and business machines.
Going all Mac in the creative industry isn’t as much of a chore as it might be in, say, accounting and finance. I wouldn’t know where to start giving someone who works in banking, advice on non-Windows reliant systems which calculate taxes and wage slips, for example, across a large workforce – but aside from that (and simply because I’ve never seen such a system not be Windows based) Mac is streets ahead of anything Windows can muster.
All too often, unfortunately, when it comes to explaining the many compelling reasons to ditch Windows altogether, people are seduced at the last minute, by seemingly seductive deals at the local stack-’em-high PC retailer. That “free” scanner and printer and a years free subscription to a photo printing service or a legal MP3 downloading site, which in reality you’ll simply never use, all add up to the vast majority of sales which customers who originally entered the store intending to ask about Mac, end up being distracted by.
Know what you want.
Buying a PC is easy. Pick any random box from any random manufacturer, hand over your money, go home, set it up and wait 6 months for the warrantee to run out, before repeating the whole process again.
Buying a Mac, however, is a bit more of a challenge. You’ll be immediately put on your guard by the nice salesperson, who will ask all the usual questions they have been told to ask, which are designed to steer you towards the system their company makes the most money on and which they stand to make the most from in sales commission.
Of course, if at all possible, this can be avoided by going to an Apple retail store, but since they’re not as common in the UK as they are in the US, we’ll assume you are buying from a bricks and mortar store; most likely PC World or any one of the Dixon’s group owned electrical stores, found on every out of town retail park from Glasgow to Gwynedd.
Buying on-line is just as strewn with sales tactics, designed to steer you away from Mac – so always shop at Apple.com – even though the prices on the surface appear to be higher than many of the third party resellers tout on their flashy web sites. The reality of these lower prices is that they are selling older systems – and since you’re paying a premium for the Apple brand in any case, you want to be sure you’re getting the most up-to-date system, covered by all the benefits from a warrantee point of view which come with buying direct from Apple.
In that context, I’ll mention here why, unlike just about any other area of major (over £500) purchases, taking out an extended warrantee is a good idea, when it comes to Mac computers. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, that the extra £150 for Apple Care which I spent on my iMac, is the best £150 I’ve ever spent. Why? Because when something went wrong with my old machine, Apple gave me a brand new machine. No questions asked, simple as that.
The fault in my case wasn’t anything to do with the machine itself. A repair tech from a third party company came round to replace the hard drive (even though I don’t think there was anything wrong with the old one) and accidentally damaged the screen when he was taking the case apart. So Apple, with just two or three phone calls to head office, replaced the entire unit with the latest model, AND I still have another year and half left on my original warrantee.
What’s the best Mac for me?
In 99.9% of cases, where someone wants to simply ditch the home office PC for a machine that will actually work, instead of need baby-sitting every five minutes, my advice would be to buy the entry level iMac.
Most people look at the £799 price tag and say, “what am I getting for that which I couldn’t get for half as much from a Windows PC?”
Apart from the vastly superior balanced system performance, which comes from having all components in the machine, designed to be used together, the biggest selling point for Mac is the operating system itself and the applications, known as the iLife suite, which come out of the box, fully working with every new Machine.
A big highlight of the iLife suite is iMovie. Plug your video camera into your Mac, click around in the easy to read application window and, without having to know anything at all about what you’re doing, you can edit together slick, properly compressed home movies and one-click upload them to YouTube or your own web site.
You don’t even need an existing video camera to get started on your epic video blog, because all new Macs apart from the Mac Mini have built in web cam (called an iSight) and a high dynamic range microphone – both of which are accessible as a recording device from within all of the applications in the iLife suite.
GarageBand: Music creation software anyone can use. If you’re a budding DJ and you want to drag and drop MP3s of your favourite music into a new remix, or if you’re a song writer who needs some easy to use but extremely powerful arrangement and composition tools, GarageBand is everything people previously had to learn how to use Cubase or Logic to do, all in one application you can get very professional results from in less than a few hours.
A feature of GarageBand which I use every day, is the built-in library of studio loops and samples – because setting up a ‘jam’ between yourself and the computer is a great way to practise playing over chord progressions in a variety of different musical styles; such as Latin, rock, blues and the many permutations of jazz standard arrangements, which you can one-click customise GarageBand to play while you work on your chops in any key, any tempo.
iPhoto: Anyone who’s ever had to fumble through gigabytes of pictures, just to find that one shot taken at a party will know how frustrating it can be to do this using Windows Explorer. iPhoto, on the other hand, automatically dates and categorises your entire library and instantly makes your collection available to all the other applications in the iLife suite – so you can browse your photos from inside iMovie, for example, without having to open iPhoto first.
Front Row: All new Macs ship with a remote control unit which can browse your Movies, Music, Photos and DVD folders in a slick full screen application. Many people buy the Mac Mini machine, for example, simply to use as a media centre in their home theatre set-up.
Again, it’s worth underlining, none of these features are optional extras; they’re all default with every new machine. Bear that in mind and, purely using Front Row as a comparison, go have a quick look around at the prices many of the Windows PC retailers are asking for a Media Centre capable of hooking into your TV set, out of the box, with no extra costs associated with getting the right cables, or the right software to control the unit once it’s actually installed (not including Windows built-in media centre software because it just doesn’t work).
All new Macs have 802.11n wireless networking built in. So if you already have a router all you should need to do, to connect to the internet once you’ve taken your new Mac out of the box and plugged it in, is to select the wireless router from the “Do you want to use this wireless base station” windows which pops up and the job, as they say, is a good ‘un.
You should also find it just as easy to connect to your Bluetooth phone, since all new Macs have Bluetooth built in too. There’s also a full complement of USB, Firewire 800 and Ethernet around the back of all machines, with the exception of the ultra-portable Macbook Air.
Again, let’s stop and look at the hidden extras you’re charged by the Windows PC resellers for a full complement of connections and interfaces.
Overall user experience.
When Bill Gates and Steve Jobs sat down for a conversation interview at the D conference, hosted by the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, the Microsoft founder wasn’t over exaggerating when he said that the thing he admired the most about Jobs was his sense of style. It’s that style which governs the Mac experience. Friends of mine who I’ve converted to Mac, immediately notice the sheer elegance of being able to do the simplest of things, exactly the way you would intuitively want to do them.
Compare the loops you have to jump through to install or remove an application under Windows, to the simple act of moving an icon from one place to another under Mac OS X. This simplicity belies some super clever software under the hood and all of it based around the rock solid reliability of UNIX.
You will never again have to open esoteric registry editors, just to remove something you didn’t want installing on your system in the first place. The Mac OS X system control panel, shock horror, actually controls the system – unlike Windows, where many of the underlying system settings you need to edit to really get anything done, are hidden away behind 6 or seven mouse clicks; right click on that, choose properties on that, click ‘Apply’ on this and then, you guessed it, restart. Repeat ad nauseam.
Gaming and productivity.
Read my lips. All the major gaming titles for Windows are also available for Mac. Microsoft wrote the XBox system software on Mac, because back when it was being developed, Microsoft chose to base the system around the PPC microprocessor from IBM which at the time was the chip used in all Apple machines.
Apple now use the Intel microprocessor, which makes it extremely easy for software developers to bring Mac versions of their applications to market at the same time as Windows.
As part of the bail-out package, which Apple drew up in the late 1990s when Steve Jobs came back to the company, Microsoft agreed to develop Office on the Mac before Windows. Simply put, to this day, Microsoft Office is a Mac application which also happens to be available for Windows. So if you’re worried about sharing documents written on a PC, worry no more.
“I’ve just bought a printer and there are no Mac drivers on the CD ROM”
Walk into any print shop or commercial press and see if you can spot the PC. There might be an old Windows 98 thing in the corner, which the stuck in her ways secretary refuses to let go of, but without exception printing is the domain of the Mac.
Indeed there would be no such thing as desktop printing were it not for the original Mac, back in 1984. Increasingly, however, printer manufacturers are bringing cheep printers to market, which are cheep for a number of reasons – the biggest being that they make their money back on ink and by removing all of the system software from the device itself, and seeding it to the operating system, which is invariably Windows based.
Happily Mac can bypass this Windows bias at the cheeper end of the printer market by falling back on a number of generic printer drivers which are built into the Mac OS X operating system itself. I have yet to come across a printer which Mac couldn’t use without having to install any third party software.
As a rule of thumb, if in doubt, plug it in and try it anyway. Chances are Mac will “just work”. All manner of USB devices available in retail stores around the world, very rarely have a “Works with Mac OS” sticker on them, but the simple fact is, I’ve never come across any device, from video cameras to wireless routers, which don’t work with zero configuration on Mac OS X.