What Makes a Mac, a Mac???

by David Czepanski Feb 21, 2006

It used to be that you could rattle off any number of differences between a Mac and Windows PC, but now the differences are dwindling. Taken to its extreme, it may be that there will be no differences between them. So now, when a die-hard PC user waxes lyrical about the virtues of XP, or a complete newbie asks, “What’s the big difference between them?” how do you respond? What is the Mac difference?

First, let’s have a look at what used to be said:

1.  Macs have a RISC processor that is superior to CISC.

PowerPC chips have been inside Apple computers since the mid-90’s, right up until the Intel switch this year. The chips are different and rather than go into a huge technical rant, it is enough to say that the Mac faithful were assured that RISC chips performed better than CISC chips, ran cooler, um, looked cooler and generally had fewer things to think about than the other chip.
This was shown time and again in demos where a (PPC) Mac with a much slower processor would whip the latest offering from the other guys using a Photoshop rendering as a benchmark. That’s no longer the case; RISC chips are being phased out - the Intel Macs have already started to roll off the production line. The relationship between the PowerPC chip and the Mac is soon to be no more.

(Side note: so were we lied to all those years ago about how great the PPC chip was? Should the change have happened sooner?? That is another story…)

So is it the end of the line for the PPC chip?

For Macs, it seems so, but Macs aren’t the only PPC devices. Have a guess what the latest Xbox and Playstation have inside them. It seems that the two biggest manufacturers of game consoles knew just where to turn when they needed a powerful chip. Hint: it wasn’t AMD or Intel. PPC chips are great for embedded systems such as car computers and the like so there’s a strong future for them for some time yet - just not with Apple.

The PPC chip may have been what made a Mac, a Mac - but not now.

2. Macs have a one button mouse.

A constant area of contention since the first Mac was produced… the mouse has only one button.

Steve Jobs loved the GUI and mouse idea that he saw at Xerox and that mouse had three buttons.

It’s meant to be easier to use a one button mouse than a multi-button mouse. The argument is that while there is no “right click” there is also no “wrong click”.

Jeff Raskin was largely behind having one button, not two.

I had observed that people (including myself) at PARC often made wrong-button errors in using the mouse, which was part of my impetus for doing better.

Most Mac drivers know that the control button on the keyboard offers similar functionality to the right click button. Control click = right click. I had to show one of my kids the two button difference on a Linux box the other day, but she grasped the concept and went right back to Neopets.

The Mac has supported two button mice for sometime and of course the mighty mouse makes it the default choice now. If you’re a stickler, you can make it behave like a one button mouse if you really want to.

The one button Mac mouse was right for its time but I think that most people will acknowledge that that time has past. One button made things easier - no doubt, but that was when we thought that digital watches were complex and $150.00 calculators were pretty damn cool.

So, it’s not the one button mouse.

3. Macs have superior hardware design.

Another difference put forward is that Mac hardware is designed better.

This is more difficult to measure; it’s not very scientific to say that the Mac’s design “feels” better than a Dell.

This doesn’t make it any less true, however.

It’s the same sort of thing with house design; simply by changing the direction a door swings open or the location of a light switch can change the “usability” of a house. It’s the small things that make a big difference.

The thought that has been put into the design of the Mac is something that you only appreciate when you use them. On portable Macs, a battery charge light to show how much battery power is left makes a huge difference to everyday use. So does the orientation and location of the ethernet jack; ditto for the optical drive.

Macs are attractive to look at; most of them are stunning (Flower Power and Dalmatian iMacs aside) and that’s mainly due to the culture that was developed at Apple in the early days by Jobs and Co.

Have a look at what happened to the design once Steve had been ousted from Apple and again, when he returned. In his absence, the Macs became clones of the PCs at the time; boring, functional beige boxes. PCs are not generally described as attractive. Subjectivity aside, most of them are downright ugly.

Some of the best advice I heard about purchasing a digital camera was to go down to the store and pick it up and hold it. Picking up the real thing can, should, and does change what you think about a product. The same is true for the Mac. I have used PC hardware and of course I use Macs and with my bias showing in plain view - Macs win hands down.

4. Macs have a better operating system

Yet another Mac difference that has been put forward in the past is that the Mac OS is a better operating system.

Better? Better than what? For what?? Again it’s a subjective comment and I am sure we could go on at length about the pros and cons of the Mac OS compared to other offerings. We wouldn’t be the first to do so and won’t be the last.

Here’s my take. I met the Mac circa System 7 and haven’t looked back since.

There needed to be a radical change to the Mac OS because it couldn’t really have moved any further forward; most of us didn’t know it at the time, but the classic OS was spent. The point is that a massive change to the Mac OS, indeed, a complete rewrite has already taken place. I think that most Mac users would say that they are better off with OS X.

The other day, I decided to subject myself to a twisted experiment whereby I force myself to use Windows XP, just to see what it’s like for at least a month. I purchased an Acer Aspire 3000 right before Christmas and loaded Linux onto it the second it came out of the box. It’s for testing and general thrashing. Since then I have reloaded XP onto it, and Yes, AppleMatters readers, this article is the fruit of that sick experiment, as it was written on that machine.

I must say that it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be, but give me OS X any day. When I have payed my penance, I will be putting Linux back on this machine; or perhaps OS X? It’s a combination of these last two points, better hardware design and OS that make the final point the clincher.

5. Macs are renowned for their ease of use.

I’m certain that the real thing that makes a Mac, a Mac is that the company that makes the hardware, also makes the software that runs on it.
That’s why we have the ease of use that we do.

Of course, this year you’ll be seeing more hacks of PCs running OS X and vice versa, but don’t expect XP to be any better on Apple hardware than on anything else. Certainly don’t think that you can throw the Intel version of OS X on a PC and have a Mac experience.

The boys at Micro$oft don’t know what hardware XP will run on - how could they?? There are more motherboards, graphics cards, hard drives, mice, keyboards, printers, scanners, controllers, USB devices - the list is endless - than you can shake a stick at.

In an ideal world, ALL of these devices have to work with ALL the others AND XP with NO conflicts.

You have got to be kidding.

Even if XP had no bugs in it - and I will pause here so you can think that through - the other hardware and software vendors are not working alongside one another to ensure a pleasant user experience. At times, I wonder if the other guys are even on the same planet.

That’s where Apple has a distinct advantage. No, I’m not suggesting that programmers at Apple are demi-gods who compile bug-free code; they have flaws and so do the things that they invent. But, what sets them apart is this - the guys that write OS X (and the apps that come bundled with the Mac) know exactly what hardware it’s going to run on. That’s why the iApps work nicely with each other. Move your pictures from iPhoto into iMovie, your songs from iTunes into iPhoto; it works far more often than it doesn’t because both the hardware and software guys are on the same page.

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  • As complexity increases, the value of integration gets greater. I can use videoconferencing on a PC if I have enough technical support but it just works on a Mac. That is one of many examples I could cite.

    I have been working in computer software since 1972 and on the PC since it first shipped. Last year, I switched to the Mac because it works without all the hassle associated with keeping a Windows PC running well.

    Wireless works. Printing works. Everything works because it is designed as a single integrated product. I am not worried about drivers, DLLs and a whole bunch of bugs and security leaks.

    I have to say that the whole experience has been a pleasure.

    MenloPark had this to say on Feb 22, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Well said, MenloPark. You hit the nail on the head.

    David Czepanski had this to say on Feb 22, 2006 Posts: 25
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