Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Do Desktop or Laptop Platforms Really Matter any More?

The Mac versus PC battle is legendary.

But at the risk of pissing off both sides, I’ll claim that it’s also becoming largely irrelevant.

My laptop is a MacBook Pro with Retina display, and purchasing it led me to think about platform wars, religion, choices, taste, and what’s really changed over the years.

The reason why I bought a Mac might not be the reason you think.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

It’s about the software.

I’ve been planning on purchasing a new Mac for a while. The announcement of the new MacBook Pro models that are lighter, faster, and have Apple’s “Retina” display technology simply made my decision easier.

But why a Mac?

Fairly simple, actually: there’s a software package that I want to run called Final Cut Pro. It’s available only on Macs.

I bought a Mac so I could do a better job editing video.

As a side effect, I might well do more with it – editing audio, recording Answercasts, writing – we’ll see how it shakes out. It’s very possible that on my next trip, I’ll take only my Mac.

What may be more important about my decision is what did not drive it.

I’m not some kind of “Mac convert”, for example. This isn’t my first Mac – I’ve had one for several years and use it regularly1. I also regularly use systems running Linux, and, of course, Windows.

I’ll continue to use all three – and whatever else pops up in the coming years.

Software proliferation

My personal reason for picking a Mac is actually something of a counter example to one of the reasons why I think platform choice is largely becoming irrelevant.

There’s good software to do just about anything you want on just about any platform, especially if all you really care about is the basics.

In many cases, it’s the exact same good software. On my Mac, I’ll be running Thunderbird, Chrome, Dropbox, Truecrypt, and a plethora of other applications that I already run on my PC – versions are available for both platforms.

Arm WrestleIn many cases, there are perfectly acceptable equivalents – just the other day, I found a Mac-equivalent for the keyboard macro software that I use on my PCs.

And yes, there’s good video-editing software for the PC as well; I’m just looking to use a feature I’ve found only in FinalCut Pro.

For basic computer use, there’s actually very little to point you to one platform over another. Email, web browsing, creating document, and media management can all be done, and done well, on any of the three primary platform choices.

That ubiquitous cloud

Perhaps the largest new contributing factor to the increased irrelevancy of platform choice is the cloud.

Anything you do on the web can pretty much be done from any computer. Use Hotmail or Gmail? What operating system you use doesn’t matter in the least. Facebook? Twitter? The same. Using online collaboration tools like Google Docs (now Google Drive)? Share photos on Flickr, Picasa, or elsewhere online? Once again, those online services are all designed to be completely platform

Use what you like, be it PC, Mac, or Linux. Or even Android or iOS, as much of what we do “in the cloud” these days is spurred on by the incredible growth of mobile devices.

Back it all up, of course, in some way that makes sense for whatever system you do use, but use whatever system you like to access the cloud.

Security is important, but a red herring

For many years, the platform arguments all centered on security and the relative quality merits of each platform’s software.

That argument is losing its relevancy.

As many Mac owners have come to realize in recent months, their systems are not immune to malware, and they’re arguably less prepared to handle it when it happens.

Malware itself is moving to components which are more platform agnostic. Phishing attempts and email hacks don’t care what platform you’re running – in fact, in many cases, whatever your computer is running might not even be involved.

Without a doubt Windows remains the largest target for malware, but regardless of the reasons for that, it also has a very mature ecosystem of anti-malware tools, technology, and related assistance.

All three of the major platforms are also constantly being updated. Windows, Mac OS, and most Linux distributions are all constant recipients of software updates – typically security-related.

The fact that it frequently is a good thing, in my opinion. It means that vendors are responsive in resolving issues that crop up. We can argue timing on specific issues, or transparency of exactly what is being updated and why, but the fact remains that all three platforms have the infrastructure in place to resolve issues and distribute updates quickly.

Taste and personal preference

In my opinion, the single largest factor in deciding what platform to operate these days is comfort, familiarity, and personal preference.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other factors at play – like perhaps a game or software package available on only one platform, or a piece of hardware that you need to use that is itself platform-specific either in terms of hardware or software – but the largest contributing factor boils down to what you like and feel the most comfortable with.

A friend recently told me that he absolutely couldn’t stand many of the ways that MacOS does certain things in its user interface. A long-time Windows user, he’s off to try a Linux distribution.

But those kind of gut reactions are really nothing new, and not even limited to cross-platform comparisons – many users of Windows XP feel exactly the same way about Windows 7 – and are grumbling about changes in Windows 8.

Personal taste matters. In fact, it may matter more now that it ever has, if only because we’re living in a world of technology options that frequently lets us actually choose what system we’d rather work with.

To many people, the MacOS interface feels supremely intuitive. Clearly, to others, it doesn’t.

Company standards

There is, of course, one fly in the ointment for many people that I’ll simply call “company standards”. Even if you’re a one-person operation, quite often you need to have all your computers be of the same operating system; this clearly leverages investments not only in knowledge, but in software, hardware, ease of interoperability, and more.

If you show up to work at a business that has standardized on Windows, then your ability to choose something else might be seriously limited.

So it goes.

Flexibility helps

With so many options available, one thing that it can pay to do is remain flexible.

If a Windows or Linux or a Mac might do, then remaining flexible and willing to operate in any environment means you have greater choice.

Be it saving money by using free and open source software only, or going for the latest and sexiest machine released by your favorite computer manufacturer, or buying a machine because you want to run a specific software package – the more flexible you are about how you’re willing to interact with your computer, the more options you’ll have available to you.

A computer is nothing more than a tool – a tool that you can master.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

Footnotes & references

1: Coincidentally, the first computer I ever owned was an Apple ][.

Macs and malware – See how Apple has changed its marketing message – Naked Security blog, Sophos

22 comments on “Do Desktop or Laptop Platforms Really Matter any More?”

  1. Great article Leo. You amaze me with your ability to communicate a completely neutral stance, even in the midst of comparing “the big 3”. Of course, the flames haven’t rolled in yet but I’d be willing to bet you receive FAR less than the average blogger does.

  2. Bravo!
    Thanks Leo for this mature overview of the platform debates. I have always found the often hostile and childish arguments from both camps in the PC/Mac wars to be irritating at best. The same thing is alive and well in the iPhone vs Android debates. The simple truth is that if you are happy with what you have and it does what you purchased it to do, then relax and enjoy the moment.
    Thanks again for a well written position.

  3. I have used Apple ][ and every variation up to the II GS. Then I wanted a good Money Management program and the best I could find was Managing You Money. Sadly they decided to kill it and I was sitting with financial data covering years all the way back to 1966. Found another program Quicken, finally converted the data and have been using it since 1998. Last year I bought an Apple iMac and to be able to run Quicken 2011 I had to get Parrallels for the Mac and purchase another license for Microsoft Windows 7. Believe me if I could find a comparable money program to Quicken that would run on the Mac I would trash the Windows bit right now. Despite what they say Quicken is not developing a comparable program for the Mac. The version they have for the Mac now is so inferior to the Windows version I know several people who have tried to switch, threw up their hands and reverted back to the Windows version.
    Anyone have any info on a program that works as well as Quicken 2012 on a Mac I would love to hear about it.

  4. Hey, so what was that feature in Final Cut Pro that you couldn’t find anywhere else?

    Just curious

    Automatic synchronization of multiple video & audio tracks. Saw it demoed earlier this year and it’s very cool.

  5. I recently purchased the latest iMac after owning, and using, a Mac Mini for about four years. The Mini has been great, and after about two months on the iMac I have the same trouble free, very fast machine(fully loaded i7 quad core, 16Gb ram, 256Gb ssd running a 64 bit os it really rocks ;o)). I do have to grant the Macs that they are more trouble free than Windows machines, particularly when it comes to using disk swap files, though OSX has a habit of gathering increasing amounts of ‘inactive’ memory which can easily be cleared by using the ‘purge’ command in the OSX terminal window. Having the activity monitor on your screen dock set to show memory usage from boot allows timely purges, Firefox being a prime culprit in this area.

    One word of caution, I am running OSX 10.5.8(32bit) on the Mini and various CS2 modules from Adobe. The iMac came with OSX 10.7.4(64bit) and I cannot install any of my CS2 Adobe programs, and because my versions of the OSX CS software are so old I face a bill of heading on for $2000 to upgrade because we get screwed for software prices in the UK, as the $ sign is changed to £, giving a price hike of 1.6 approx. I have a sneaking suspicion that this has more to do with Adobe putting the financial squeeze on than compatability issues…

    I do not of course have any of these backward compatability software problems on any of my XP machines, nor would I if I installed the newer versions of Windoze. However, I’m fed up, and totally bored, with having to pay for the privilege of being part of Mickeysoft’s R&D dept, and have been wanting to move to Unix for a long, long time, so I finally went down the Apple route. OSX does not have these teething problems, it just works.

    The only hardware upgrade concessions on the old XP machines was to replace some old screens and cooling fans, fully load the ram to max and stick ssd’s in all of them, which for the performance increase was cheap.

    This OSX software situation has required some lateral thinking and I now have Gimp and Inkscape(both free and quite mature pieces of software) replacing Adobe, fortunately Quack still installs and runs without problems, though I am giving Scribus a serious prod and a poke.

    When I have some time I need to aquaint myself with WINE running under OSX, as my email/news software, Forte’s Agent, is not available on the Mac, and as anyone who has used Agent knows, any other email software sucks in comparison. I don’t expect any problems in this area.

    I do not use Mickeysoft Office, long ago switched to Star Office -> Open Office -> Libre, but I know from a friend who does on a Mac, that MS Office is actually much, much better than on the PC, it is not Windoze bloatware but an elegant slim Unix application.

    Hopefully my little dissertation, outling my Mac experience is of use to someone.

    ps. The Macs are so beautifully made and the wireless keyboards are wonderfull, but, and it’s a BIG but, I use Mickeysoft wireless mice on the Macs, because Mac mice SUCK BIG TIME, and, Mickeysoft are still king of the mouse.

  6. Used computers since 1982; never had a desktop; had one Mac. But expense was/is always a problem with Apple products. I usually save 1/3 by buying PC’s. So probably saved $5000 in the past 20 years.
    PS. Mac zealots drive me nuts anyway; always have!

  7. I don’t believe the US military gives users a choice. And I don’t know about other federal, state & local government entities. In switched to Mac about a year ago … satisfied with my decision, thanks to Virtual Machine, which allows me to revert to Win7 as needed.

  8. As you said Leo, it’s all about software. The market share win for Microsoft has been software availability. However, MS is taking tips from Apple in the device market. The Windows port to ARM processors (called Windows RT) will be fully locked down just like Apple devices. This means for example you will use IE, not Chrome or Mozilla on your hand held device, like it or not. Great to see corporate greed is alive and well.

  9. Thanks heaps for the un-fanatic Mac comment. I use only a Win7 laptop at present but am thinking of a change. My ONLY requirements are:

    1. Quiet…quiet…quiet for working late at night. Unfortunately laptop reviews are carried out in noisy workshops and they hardly ever comment on the noise. I have all the quiet settings engaged, but still the fan comes on.

    2. MS Office, which is almost the only software I use – including Outlook. I’m worried that the Mac version (as Jabba comments above) might be a problem.

    Are you willing (given the fan hazards!) to comment on these two points regarding a Mac laptop?
    Many thanks….Austin

    Well, the fan is going to come on when the processor is under heavy load – that’s important for overall cooling, particularly on a laptop. I know that my older MacBook Pro is pretty quiet, but the fan does kick in when needed. The fan is relatively quiet, but it is a fan and does make some noise. As for MS Office everything’s peachy, up to Outlook. As I understand it there is no Outlook in Mac Office (I vaguely recall there being a different email program instead).

  10. As you said, if basic computing is all that’s needed it makes little difference, apart from the price of course.

    I use a PC because of programming needs, sure you can use simulation software on other platforms, but why would you?

  11. “A friend recently told me that he absolutely couldn’t stand many of the ways that MacOS does certain things in its user interface. A long-time Windows user, he’s off to try a Linux distribution.”

    – Another one here. I switch between Vista and Ubuntu laptops on everyday basis, and there is nothing galling in the process. Apple is different, indeed – at any cost, and to the point of quirkiness. Occasionally, I have no choice but to use a Mac for mundane activities. The irritation never ends.

  12. Thanks for this well-rounded article Leo. I’ve actually tossed around the idea of trying out a Mac for the last few years, just to see what they’re like. I have been a screen reader user for many years, and have been very impressed with the ones I’ve used on the Windows side. There’s only one of them that I’ve not used, that being Hal/Supernova from Dolphin. But I’ve heard great things about Voiceover, the screen reader which is built in to all Macs. At least I’m pretty sure all Macs have it, but it might just be the newer ones. Over the Thanksgiving break my parents and I discussed this, and so hopefully soon I’ll be getting a Mac Book Air or similar variant to replace both of my Windows PC’s. I emailed another article of yours on this subject to my parents, for them to read at their leisure.

  13. Great article Leo, thank you. I am also a multi-operating system user and share many
    of your same ideals, only you are much better at articulating the subject.

  14. I see this article was posted more than five years ago. Is the information contained within still relevant? If so, when Leo RECYCLES these articles – can there be some mention of an update so we readers know it’s still current? Thanks!

    • The published article will always be the most current. Occasionally there will be a link to a newer article if that is warranted. And any changes in publication dates are listed at the bottom.

    • I’m not sure how it was “recycled”? When I re=publish an article I update the publication date and provide a note just above it that indicates the article’s original date, as well as the magnitude of the update.

      Yes, this article is still relevant.

  15. The only real issue I have with Apple products is the cost. They are often twice the price of a comparable Windows product. Only being able to get repairs at an Apple store is painful if you live in the country. Only being able to buy direct is a pain too – no competition. Apple really rip us off bigtime.

  16. My daughter and son-in-law have Macs. 3 of my grandchildren use IPads for school. I have used a Mac and I have to say, I do not like the OS. To me it is totally non-intuitive.
    To give an example, I’m looking for a particular file on my daughter’s machine. How to do this? Ah, here’s something called “Finder” – obviously that’s what I need. No? I need to use “Spotlight”?
    Can anyone tell me what the Hell the word spotlight has to do with finding a file?

    This is just one example but I find the entire OS similarly puzzling. I’ll stick to my PC thanks!


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.