COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

PC to Mac: Ready to make the switch?

Apple's Macintosh continues to wow the technology world with its innovative, attractively designed hardware, an efficient operating system and its powerful but easy to use applications. In spite of this, its market share languishes below 5 percent. But its fans try to make up for its low market share with an exuberance rarely seen for other products. At the recent opening of an Apple store in Tokyo, 5,000 people stood in a nearly mile-long line and waited patiently in the rain to get in.

I've been urged to switch to a Mac by friends who insist I'm way behind using a PC. I must admit I've been tempted every time my PC crashes or encounters a virus. Macs have fewer crashes and are free from viruses. Tasks that are a struggle to do with a Windows PC are often simpler to do on a Mac. For example, upgrading from an old to a new Mac requires just moving a few folders, rather than the hours needed to reinstall programs in a Windows machine.

I've been trying out a PowerBook G4, Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) top-of-the-line, 12-inch notebook retailing for $1,799 to see what's involved to go from a PC to a Mac. How easy is it to switch? Can I do what I normally do on my PC? Can I read e-mail attachments sent from a PC?

The first step was learning where to find things. The Mac has only one menu, a bar running across the top of the screen. And it changes depending upon the program window you're in. Click on the "Go" command and select from a list that includes applications, files, utilities, network, etc. Programs and documents are organized more logically than in Windows. All applications appear together with one icon for each, with the documents grouped together in another folder.

One hardware difference is that the PowerBook's trackpad has only a single button. I often use the right button for copy, past and cut, so I added a two-button mouse.

The Mac comes with many applications, iPhoto, iMovie, iSync, iTunes, iCal (calendar), Mail and more. There are no programs included to read Excel or PowerPoint files, but Word files can be read using TextEdit, much better than its Windows counterpart. Since many of the supplied applications are designed by Apple, they all employ the same attractive look and ease of use. For those wanting their calendar and contacts combined rather than in separate applications, Microsoft offers an integrated mail and calendar program called Entourage. While similar to Outlook, it falls behind the power and versatility of the new Outlook 2003. iSync is used to synchronize contacts and calendars among many devices, including PDAs and mobile phones with Bluetooth. iMovie is used to create and edit a movie from a digital video camcorder, and is better than anything available for a PC.

To set up the Mac, I connected it to my home wireless network using a wizard that took me through the process in about 5 minutes, set up my mail accounts, and began to receive e-mail. This was much easier than on a PC. Next I attempted to move my contacts and calendar from the PC to the Mac, but this became a major ordeal. Neither Entourage, iCal or Mail could import my data from Outlook. You need to buy a third-party program. If Apple is serious about encouraging PC users to switch, it needs to make this easier.

Using the Internet was essentially the same as with a PC. Apple supplies a browser called Safari that worked well and had some innovative features. It ran at about the same speed as Internet Explorer on my Sony TR2A PC running Windows XP.

Windows does not have a monopoly on confusion. Installing a printer on the Mac was baffling, as the printer driver would not install without the Mac first being attached to the printer.

Since Mac users will likely need to read file attachments sent by PC users, it's important that they appear the way they were originally created on the PC. I e-mailed a variety of Word, Excel and PowerPoint attachments from my PC to the Mac. All were recognized by Office for Mac. A comparison of Word and Excel files created on a PC and opened on a Mac were identical. But PowerPoint slides changed considerably in appearance when opened on the Mac. Slides read on a Mac often had larger, overlapping text, some that ran off the slides, and labels on the graphs that did not line up, apparently due to a mismatch of fonts.

I tried a number of peripherals and devices with the Mac and while those with available drivers worked fine, some such as the Blackberry phone and the Verizon EvDO high-speed Internet card do not offer Mac drivers and did not work. While the Mac never crashed over two weeks of constant use, a few times I got a spinning wheel -- the Mac equivalent to the PC hourglass -- that never stopped, and I needed to reboot.

Beyond these specific tests, the Mac was more enjoyable to use. More attention is paid to aesthetics and simplicity, with fewer things getting in the way of what I wanted to do. I never needed to deal with virus checking software, which pops up regularly on my PC, telling me its checking or updating. Strangely, the two compatibility problems I ran into, using Outlook files with Entourage and changes in PowerPoint files, relate to Microsoft products.

So, is it worth switching? It's very tempting, but with my using the computer for e-mail, scheduling, Internet, writing and business, I'm not yet ready to make the investment. However, for someone starting fresh, about to upgrade from an old version of Windows, or with a strong interest in imaging, music and movies, it's a great choice.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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