It's a Mac v Windows question
December 7, 2020 3:36 PM   Subscribe

I need a new laptop. Can you help me work out whether I should get a Mac or a Windows machine? Many details follow.

I’m sorry for how exhaustive these details are, but I worry a lot about making a big financial commitment only to find that a new machine doesn’t do all the things I assume it will or want it to do. I want something that will last upwards of five years and, if it will last, I can afford to treat myself a bit to something beautiful, small and light.

I’ve never used a Mac before. The main thing that makes me think it would be a good idea is that I’m wedded to my iPhone. I have the impression that seamlessness between my phone and a laptop would be a significant benefit. I’ve also got the idea from somewhere that cloud backup is easier and less hassle with a Mac. Are these things true?

I had just about settled on a MacBook Air, but I visited a showroom where I fell for a beautiful Microsoft Surface 3 laptop, and now I'm second-guessing myself. I also worry about getting ever more dependent on one operating system and its devices, having to get familiar with a new OS, and whether it will play well with other things I use, like Chromecast and devices that rely on USB connections.

In general, I worry about how few options these tiny laptops have for plugging stuff in – USB devices, SD cards, headphones, microphones etc. (but maybe all I need is a good hub?). Also although I would like to rely more on cloud storage, I’m not very au fait with how it works and I have to fight my inherent preference for having local copies and hard drive storage.

Most of what I will use the new laptop for is the usual web browsing, social media and email. I need to be able to cast via Chromecast – am I right to assume that if I access Netflix, BBC iPlayer etc via Chrome this will work regardless of whether I’m on a Mac or Windows machine?

I expect that I will only rarely want to connect it to a monitor, but if I do, it will be an HP monitor supplied by my employer. If a Mac required an Apple monitor I’d just go without.


Photos: these days I mostly just use my iPhone to take photos, and seamless syncing with a Mac is a big draw. But I also still need to be able to connect cameras or read their SD cards. I have a 115GB of photos stored on my current, creaky Windows laptop and backed up on external hard drives. I’d like to be able to view and weed my collection easily on my laptop. I don’t do very much photo editing: cropping and a bit of touching up or filtering is about the height of it, and I’ve only ever used whatever program is built in for editing.

Listening to music: I have 95GB worth of music in iTunes on my current Windows laptop, mostly burned CDs plus a bit of downloaded music. In practice most of my music listening is now through Spotify, but there are some playlists and specific albums or tracks which I have in iTunes that I can’t get on Spotify. I’ve always found iTunes on Windows a bit shonky and deliberately haven’t updated it for years for fear of it going wrong. Is there any prospect of being able to connect an iPod classic successfully to a new machine?

Notes: I use the Apple Notes app extensively on my iPhone and have just started using it on a laptop by logging in to iCloud, which seems fine; I plan to use this even more heavily in the future. I’ve no idea whether using Notes on a Mac would be a signficantly better experience than using it in a browser.

Documents: I do a small amount of creation, editing and storage of personal Word and Excel documents; I probably don’t even use these enough to justify an Office 365 subscription. But I have a small back catalogue of Office files that I can’t afford to lose access to or have screwed up by updates, different operating systems etc.

Making music: I do some recreational music-making with acoustic instruments, and use the iPhone Voice Memos app and GarageBand (on an old iPad) for this. It would be good to have these sync easily on a laptop where I can manage and store the recordings I want to keep. Am I right that that isn’t possible on a Windows machine? I don’t use an external mic with the iPad but I don’t know whether I’d need one if I was using it on a laptop? I’ve occasionally used other programs that require plugging in a mic and headphones.

Some of this probably boils down to understanding whether it’s easier to use Apple stuff on a Windows laptop, or Office 365/Google stuff on a Mac, and some of it will be personal preference I guess. But I’d be really grateful for advice on whether there’s an objectively better option given my usage, whether there are any red flags for either in my requirements, and whether you have any suggestions regarding storage and peripherals. Thanks!
posted by FavourableChicken to Technology (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First, the caveat that I personally use a Windows laptop for my personal computing -- but I think for your uses you'd be well-served by the new M1 MacBook Air. It's crazy fast (it utterly destroys the CPU in the Surface), the battery life is bananas, it's small, and from what you describe above you seem to be ... fairly Mac-adjacent ... already, so simply stepping over the line would probably simplify your life.

As time goes on I find myself using a hub less and less, so while you may want to buy a hub I wouldn't personally go for something crazy with a zillion USB ports. Just something inexpensive and reasonably well-built with just the ports you actually need on a regular basis. Maybe even buy the hub a week or two AFTER you've got the laptop, so you can be sure you actually need those ports...

Lastly, I find it's easier to use MS/Google stuff on a Mac than using Apple stuff on Windows.
posted by aramaic at 3:53 PM on December 7, 2020

Agree with aramaic. Get a Macbook Air M1. Use Microsoft Office Online (It's free) and iCloud storage for your office files. Make a copy of those files and see if they will convert into Pages/Numbers/Keynote. If not, you should still be good with Office Online.

The only thing you might run into is storage with your photos and music. You're going to top out at 512GB with the Air. I mean, half of your storage is going to be taken up with photos and music, but you use paid iCloud for more storage space.
posted by Master Gunner at 4:46 PM on December 7, 2020

Point by point here:
  • Photos: If you can get the photos on your Windows laptop into iCloud, that might be the best way to sync them all. Apart from that, I think either Mac or Windows would be good at letting you connect cameras and read SD cards.
  • Music: iTunes on Windows has never worked as well as the Mac version (possibly deliberately, but who can say). I don't know about Spotify.
  • Notes: I haven't seen a good way to use Apple Notes on a Windows box (I too have a use case for this). Using it natively on a Mac is definitely better than the browser.
  • Documents: About equivalent, honestly.
  • Music: I have yet to find a good equivalent to GarageBand on Windows.
So I'm leaning Mac for your use cases. Get yourself an external SSD for extra storage (Apple's prices for more built-in are a little silly). The new M1 Macbooks are staggeringly fast and power-efficient, and I've been tempted myself to get one.
posted by wanderingmind at 4:47 PM on December 7, 2020

I haven't had an Apple computer in over 30 years and I think that a new M1 Macbook is the right choice for you. I have a Surface Pro and my wife has a Surface Laptop and I think they're really good computers but this M1 chip appears to be something else entirely and it seems like you run a lot of Apple-specific stuff anyways which I don't think have any good options on Windows. If I was buying a new laptop today I'd get an M1 Macbook.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:05 PM on December 7, 2020

I've flip-flopped back and forth between Mac and PC over the last 20 years or so--usually when I'm in the market, I look at what's on offer and pick what makes the most sense. A few years ago, PC made more sense when Apple was putting those garbage butterfly keyboards on their laptops and not really updating their machines. The machines were just not worth the money they were charging. These days I would be all-in for the new M1 Macs, which are price-competitive and reportedly blazing fast compared to PCs.

Overall, the ownership experience has always been better when I had a Mac. My current laptop was a top-of-the-line Dell when I got it, and straight out of the box it came with unstable driver issues I couldn't solve and that Dell support couldn't either. I endured a couple years of random blue-screens until I downgraded the BIOS to an old version, which is apparently a security risk. Even now, the thing stutters while watching streaming videos and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. My Macs, on the other hand, I could get by on for 8-ish years until they just got slow. Never had to mess with drivers or BIOS to make them work smoothly.
posted by TrialByMedia at 5:08 PM on December 7, 2020

Given your current toehold in the Apple ecosystem and the criteria you listed, I think you'd find a Mac would serve your needs better than a Windows device.

I've found iCloud syncing between iPhone and Mac to be reliable and highly convenient, whether it's Notes, Messages, Reminders, or any of the other apps. Just being able to use Messages on my laptop makes the whole thing worthwhile for me. I haven't used Notes in a browser, though I have to imagine you'd find the app provides a smoother experience than that. Another feature I use all the time is AirDrop, which is incredibly useful when moving large files between your devices or between yours and somebody else's. The screenshot and screen recording capabilities that are built into MacOS are yet another feature that has proven to be very convenient and well-designed.

In terms of documents, Apple's native apps can handle the majority of tasks for most people. Pages is fully capable of opening Word documents and, just as importantly, it can save documents as Word files (using the 'Export' function). Same goes for Numbers and Excel. These two Apple apps are not quite as full-featured (or as bloated) as Microsoft's and you may encounter some formatting irregularities between them, but they're more than serviceable for the kind of personal use you describe. In any event, Office 365 also works fine on a Mac in my experience. When it comes to PDFs, the Preview app is fantastic (and is a good all-around image viewer too). It allows you to annotate and makes it very easy to build and rearrange multi-page PDF documents.

Google services, including your Chromecast, shouldn't be any different on a Mac compared to Windows. I've used pretty much all of Google's offerings on my Mac without issue.

As far as photography goes, cloud syncing between iPhone and Mac through the Photos app works a treat. When using other types of cameras I usually connect them directly to the Mac via a cable and use the Image Capture app. There's no reason not use a card reader if that's your preference, though.

Lastly, I don't find ports to be a problem. Granted, I'm on a MacBook Pro with four ports instead of two, but it's pretty rare that I'm using more than two at a time. Given how long battery life is on the new M1 MacBooks, it'd be even less often that you'd need to charge while having other devices plugged in. The only mild complaint I have is that so many device makers have been slow making the transition to USB-C.
posted by theory at 7:28 PM on December 7, 2020

The safest option would be an Intel Mac, which can run both Mac OS and Windows (via Bootcamp). The M1 Macs will not run Windows at this time.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:37 PM on December 7, 2020

Personally I vastly prefer living with a manageable handful of inconveniences to making a commitment to any single vendor's ecosystem, especially a vendor with as notorious a history of apparent contempt for its customers as Apple. The tradeoff for the seamless single-vendor experience is that anything you want to do that isn't something Apple thinks most of its customers will also want to do is almost certain to be difficult in very bizarre ways, and if you need to get your device fixed you're going to be paying monopolist prices for that.

If you're contemplating owning a Mac, make a list of all the things you do every day with your present Windows box, take the list with you to an Apple Store, and have the sales droid sit with you while you try out everything on that list. The time to find showstoppers is before you plunk down your dollars, not after.
posted by flabdablet at 1:21 AM on December 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

One point not answered yet - you can definitely use non-Apple displays with Macs. Which is just as well given the cost of the one display that Apple makes. You may need to get the correct cable and/or adapter to hook them together (I’m out of touch with exactly what’s needed, so can’t be more specific, sorry).
posted by fabius at 5:13 AM on December 8, 2020

I think a Mac will be the best machine for you today, but the future with Apple is less certain, alongside their cosying up with Trump the Apple approach to content is increasingly anticompetitive. It feels like they are slowly moving away from selling a general purpose computer into selling a console where you can subscribe to Apple's approved services. You may find this an interesting read: Falling out of Love with Apple by Zach Herbert.
posted by Lanark at 5:33 AM on December 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

As pretty much everyone has said, it sounds like the M1 Mac is the best choice for you. I was a reluctant switcher five years ago and I love MacOS so much more than windows that now I find it annoying to have to use Windows at work.

P.S.While true the M1 Macs won't run Windows at this time but there have been proof of concepts where the ARM version of Windows has been ported (sounds complicated) to run. Rumours indicate Windows for Apple Silicon chips for everyone is on the way.
posted by jeffmilner at 9:32 AM on December 8, 2020

Definitely go with one of the new M1 Mac laptops. I endorse theory's remarks, and suggest this little Anker as a good general purpose adapter.
posted by implied_otter at 10:36 AM on December 8, 2020

Concurring with many here, as I’m setting up a new M1 MBP right this moment. The M1 Air just became the best $1000 laptop on the market overnight. The specs are almost ridiculous. The reviews are solid raves.
posted by spitbull at 12:09 PM on December 8, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the thoughtful and thorough replies! Only one thing I haven't seen addressed - anyone know if there are ports out there that would work with an M1 Mac that include microphone inputs? I believe there's a headphone jack on the machine itself, but I'd like to be able to connect headphones and a mic at the same time (bluetooth won't cut it). I don't need specific recs necessarily, just proof of concept.
posted by FavourableChicken at 4:56 AM on December 9, 2020

I've got a headphone amp that can connect to computers either via bluetooth or USB. It has an input for a microphone, although I've never used it, so the product does exist. I'm pretty sure mine cost less than $100.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:24 AM on December 9, 2020

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