Mac or PC for students

I posted the reply below to a student looking for advice.

I do not envy you making a choice on limited funds. I have two daughters, both of whom graduated from university last year, and got through two cheap laptops each. Those two laptops were cheaper (together) than a comparable Apple Mac. I had to provide a considerable amount of support to them over their three years on securing their laptops, making repairs, carrying out rebuilds, sorting out configuration issues. They used several low cost brands (based on discounts available to students – which also applies to Apple products by the way). Most of these came with lots of tricky to get rid of add on software (because that makes the devices cheaper for the manufacturers) – some of these add ons can cause major problems (as someone pointed out above in the case of Lenovo).

Personally, as a wage slave of large corporations for decades, I used a wide variety of Windows laptops and was often involved in large (thousands) of deployments and upgrades on Windows desktops. Windows in a corporate environment where devices are locked down and standard images are used that are centrally distributed are reasonably reliable. In single user and domestic situations, Windows can be a bit of a nightmare – wise to plan to re-install every 6 months (in fact, make an image of an initial working setup and keep it for those re-installs, which will be followed with a catch-up on Windows updates).

I started working for myself a couple of years ago, and initially bought a Lenovo Yoga 13″ laptop with additional memory and hard disk capacity. Could not justify the cost of a Thinkpad.

A year later, I replaced it with a top specification Apple MacBook Pro. On paper, the specification of the MPB is easily matched and exceeded for considerably less money using “PC” alternatives. However, the build quality and the tight control of the supply chain significantly reduces the stability and variability problems found on even high end PC products, and makes the provision of hardware drivers (needed for a much more limited set of hardware components) a much easier task.

I have a Microsoft Office 365 subscription which gives me 1Tb of OneDrive (actually Sharepoint) storage and up to five installs of all of the latest Office suite applications. The Mac versions of the Office applications are generally behind the capabilities of the Windows versions. There are also some applications I need that only work on Windows (such as Microsoft Project). Thus, I also run Windows on the MBP.

As the Apple machines use the same hardware as PCs, Windows can run natively on Macs. Drivers come from Microsoft and Apple. In fact, many view Macs as the best platforms for Windows because of the stability and quality of the hardware and drivers. Apple provide support for starting a Mac in Windows and for sharing information with the OS X environment.

I choose to run Windows as a Virtual Machine. There are three primary options for this: Parallels (which I use), VMWare Fusion, or Oracle Virtual Box. The latter is free, the other two cost money. A cheap OEM license for Windows can be used. I can mix applications from Windows and OS X on the screen just as if I was using one operating system, and can copy and paste between them as well as access the same file system.

Working on the MacBookPro has been a joy. The trackpad is far far easier to use than any PC laptop I have ever encountered (a lot), it is smooth, responsive and reliable and also works better for me than the touch screen on the Yoga when in Windows (and I avoid “gorilla arm” as I do not have to touch the screen over my keyboard, but can take advantage of all the multi-touch gestures I like). My MPB is far more powerful than the Yoga, so I find my Windows applications working faster in a virtual machine than they did on the native machine.

As Windows is actually working in a virtual machine, it is very easy to take snapshots of working versions, and be able to roll back to them quickly if any new Windows application or update causes problems. Quicker that restoring a working image or reinstalling Windows on a native machine. (Incidentally, pretty much everything you use and benefit from on the web is running on virtual machines.)

Actually, I am using several Windows virtual machines. One for running my day-to-day work activities, another for running Windows games, and a third is for testing out the latest beta release of Windows 10. I also run a couple of Linux virtual machines.

It did not take me long to adjust to using OS X, but then I have been in IT for decades. Certainly, despite having very considerable experience of Windows environments, I have found things working much more smoothly, reliably and easily on OS X than on Windows and that includes working in client offices and connecting to all sorts of strange network configurations (something I had a problem with on the Yoga).

So, do I recommend you buy a Mac? NO. Not on a student budget, unless you happen to have plenty of spare funds or a kindly relative.

Get a high spec cheap laptop from the likes of Asus and have fun. Accept that it will be temperamental, will slow down quickly as Windows changes stack up, and will get corrupted. If you take proper restorable image backups (not just file backups) at the beginning, and following base configuration with the applications you need for student hood, and backup all your files then you will be fine when you have to reset it.

I strongly recommend that you look at the FREE versions of Microsoft Office applications that are now available. These are most easily used with a basic free Microsoft Live accoint which includes 15Gb of OneDrive storage. Unless you are writing complex macros, the online versions should be powerful enough for most purposes, but a student license for Office (or 365) is pretty cheap. You can even cooperatively edit the same document as a student colleague using a different computer at the same time at the same time, and see the changes each other is making. This works from a browser, so you could even use a tablet (or a Chromebook) as cheap fallback option when you laptop has problems (it will, unless you are very lucky and very restrained in the way you use it).[url][/url]

There are great free software alternatives available for most mainstream activities. LibreOffice for example in place of Microsoft Office, and GIMP in place of Photoshop.

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