On The Wisdom of Buying a Mac In Light of Windows 7 and Snow Leopard | iLounge Backstage

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On The Wisdom of Buying a Mac In Light of Windows 7 and Snow Leopard

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Friday, October 16, 2009
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With a brief breather in the middle of several extremely busy weeks, I wanted to take the time to post some Mac-related thoughts that readers have asked for in e-mails and comments on the site. What follows is a discussion of the Mac, divided into two sections: Apple’s Snow Leopard software, and current-model Mac hardware. The Snow Leopard side is relatively negative, the Mac side generally positive, so I’ll start with the Mac part for those who like their good news first. Click on Read More for the full story.

Mac Hardware

On the topic of purchasing a Mac going into the holiday season, here’s a brief story for those readers who might find my recent experiences helpful as they explore their own potential computer purchasing decisions for the next several months. Subsequent comments about Snow Leopard aside, it’s my view that there has never been a better time to purchase a Mac—at least, it will be when Apple announces its new machines in the next couple of weeks. As many of Apple’s computers are now “revision B” or “revision C” versions that have had their first-generation bugs and rough edges worked out, the hardware is as or more excellent than it has ever been: the MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, and Mac mini computers our editors have purchased over the last year or so have been essentially trouble-free from a hardware perspective, physically better built than their predecessors, and without out-of-box defects. Even Apple’s white box refurbished machines offer a better out-of-box experience than brand new computers from its competitors.

The only question I personally faced this year was one that I agonized over for several weeks: the “MacBook Pro or MacBook Air?” issue. Apple’s initial pricing for the MacBook Air was way out of whack, and the reliability of the first machines tracked with our expectations. However, the current pricing and performance of the Air, particularly refurbished machines, had me very seriously considering a transition, and I wound up doing a lot of research on the performance of current and past generation 1.8GHz and 2.1GHz Air hardware. Ultimately, as much as I was enticed by the idea of shaving 1/3 the weight and a lot of thickness off a metal MacBook/Pro, I concluded that now is not the right time for me to make that transition.

Processor benchmarks and reports from real users suggest that Apple is marketing the Airs at those clock speeds even though their real-world performance is as slow as the prior generations’ 1.6 and 1.8GHz machines—a hint that the processors are not really capable of running all the time at their specified speeds without overheating in Apple’s chassis. Some Air users have reported that their machines slow down and sometimes even turn off when the ambient room temperature becomes too high. On the other hand, Jesse Hollington has a “revision B” MacBook Air and has found its very fast solid state hard drive to be a major countervailing factor: it compensates for the machine’s slow CPU somewhat by making initial application and machine loading lightning fast, but CPU-intensive tasks such as video editing and the like are far better handled on other machines. In other words, an Air with a solid state drive is punchy at loading apps, but once they’re running, it falls back to sub-Mac mini, sub-plastic MacBook levels of performance.

What ultimately pushed me away from the Air was my gut feeling that the CPU wasn’t going to be up to running the sorts of apps I sometimes need to use. I came across numerous reports that Apple Store employees had told disappointed Air users that the machine was not really meant to play videos stably—even YouTube videos—a claim that struck me as ridiculous on its face, and was disproved at least for certain Airs by both Jesse’s generally positive experiences on a 1.8GHz machine, plus my own sampling of a 2.1GHz machine with a couple of video windows open at once. But even on the 2.1GHz Air, I noticed that trying to have more than one video playing at once resulted in frame drops, which isn’t as important in the specifics (who plays two videos at once?) as in the abstract: under ideal circumstances, video playback plus something else on the Air can be dicey, and if the temperature of the CPU gets high, all performance bets are off. Reliability concerns, particularly as to the Air’s hinges, also impacted my decision. The metal MacBooks and Pros are comparatively rock solid machines, and the latest ones are the best Apple has ever made.

I’m going to revisit the Air question whenever Apple gets its fourth-generation model out the door. For now, for me, the 13” MacBook Pro is the way to go.

Snow Leopard

After highlighting serious issues with Snow Leopard crashes some weeks ago, then noting that I had downgraded back to Leopard, and ultimately posting some potential solutions to the stability problems that had been discovered, a reader asked me whether the solutions had fixed my problems. My response:

“Snow Leopard went off of my machines and won’t be going back on again until the issues are resolved…. I can’t risk having the sorts of Photoshop, Safari, iChat and other crashes I was dealing with before. There are too few hours in a day to be a beta tester for 10.6 on top of everything else I’m working on.”

That was roughly two weeks ago. This week, after reading many comments from readers who reported success with one or both of the solutions, I purchased a new Mac—a 13” MacBook Pro—with the full understanding that it would ship with Snow Leopard pre-installed, and that a migration from my prior Leopard machine to Snow Leopard would be necessary. My hope was that between the 10.6.1 update and the listed solutions, my second attempt to switch over to Snow Leopard would be smoother than the first.

Yesterday, I flipped that switch. Having backed up my prior machine’s contents to a drive with a FireWire 800 port, I rejoiced when the 160GB migration and transfer process took only an hour. Blessed be the miracles that enabled Apple to fit that FireWire port into the 13” MacBook Pro, a feat deemed impossible by Mac pundits only months earlier. (The “miracles” reference, for those who only skim articles, is sarcasm.) Soon thereafter, the Snow Leopard problems began again. Safari was hanging. NewsFire was crashing. An hour and a half into using Snow Leopard, my new computer—with only Apple-installed RAM—had already seen apps crash 10 times, more than my Leopard machine had experienced in weeks. It was a repeat of my prior experience. So I tried the solutions in the prior article. They didn’t seem to make any difference; the problems continued.

So I decided to use the Redmond solution: completely wipe the hard drive and begin again, with a totally clean version of the operating system, rebuilding all my essential applications, preferences, and the like from the ground up. That process took the better part of 7 hours, but now, it’s mostly done. The crashes? So far, they’re gone. The system seems to be stable. All I had to do was completely start over again, losing all of my prior settings. Great.

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There was, however, one problem. The new MacBook Pro has an SD card slot in its side. Roughly 5 minutes after plugging a card full of photos into it, the first time I used the slot for anything, Snow Leopard managed to completely destroy its directory. Folders and files were gone, replaced with jumbles of nonsensical letters. It took an image rescue program to recover the images; if I hadn’t had one on hand—transferred from my old Mac install as a precaution—I would have lost all of those pictures. So apart from the instabilities involved in a migration, there’s that file corruption problem, and the other one that Apple is apparently in the process of addressing.

As mentioned in the Mac section above, it’s easy for me to recommend a Mac hardware purchase right now—the hardware is fantastic. But whatever is going on right now on the software side at Apple is a disgrace to the Apple name, a sign that the sort of pre-release testing that needs to be done isn’t being done properly. Marketing Snow Leopard as “finely tuned” is at this stage misleading, relative to Leopard, and these sorts of problems are most likely the reason that recent Windows 7 reviews have suggested that Apple’s and Microsoft’s operating systems are coming closer to parity… even if some of the same people were praising Snow Leopard only a month ago.

We could debate endlessly whether, as users have been posting with increasing frequency for months, Apple is becoming no better than Microsoft. It might surprise some to learn that I would argue that Apple is unquestionably better than Microsoft in both intent and execution. But I also firmly believe that the differences are becoming harder to see. Third-party software can be blamed in some cases; it’s a convenient scapegoat and, for some, a lot easier than accepting the idea that Apple is fallible. But only the most misguided of apologists would deny that there’s something very wrong when a user has to worry about installing a new Apple operating system on any Mac, running Apple’s core applications without crashes, or plugging a memory card into its integrated SD card slot. With Leopard, these sorts of things were not issues. Until its data-destroying and upgrade-wrecking tendencies are fixed—something that seems to take Apple way longer to fix than it should—Snow Leopard is the only reason I would pause before recommending that someone go out and get a new Mac.

But I’d only pause on that recommendation, not completely withhold it: my advice is “wait a little,” not “buy a new PC instead.” I wouldn’t trade a Mac for a Windows machine any day, under any conditions, and Windows 7 doesn’t change that. Apple’s marketshare is surging for a reason, and though Macs will be outsold once again by PCs this holiday season, the tide is turning, and these sales will continue if the company can expand its price competitive offerings and keep its Mac hardware up to the generally outstanding levels we’ve seen over the past couple of years.

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Comments

1

I’ve had zero problems with Snow Leopard on my two machines that are capable of running it, and have heard no complaints from the 10 or so people I know that are using it. These were all upgrades, not clean installs.

On the other hand, my unibody MacBook’s lid has flexed outward a bit from the case, leaving the Apple logo loose; some light searching indicates I’m not the only one with this problem. However, I could probably get it fixed in warranty if I really wanted, but it’s a company machine and I’ll only be using it for another 9 months anyway.

I certainly won’t let that stop me from buying another Apple laptop when I give this one up. And again, my experience with Snow Leopard has been universally positive.

Posted by Ward on October 16, 2009 at 12:09 PM (PDT)

2

Ward, for whatever it’s worth, the problems do appear to be unpredictable from machine to machine, and our editors continue to report mixed results with SL. One person who was having no problems a month ago is now seeing what appear to be major memory-related issues on an iMac, which needs to be reset every day or two because processes aren’t giving back the RAM they were occupying. He’s having no problems on his MacBook Air. As for me, I’m now experiencing the intermittent complete Wi-Fi drops that I’ve read about some other people having with their MacBooks. No problems with two 13” MacBook machines in the hardware department yet. So… yeah.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 16, 2009 at 1:21 PM (PDT)

3

My experience was the same as Ward’s. No problems and none of my employees who are on Snow Leopard have had problems, either. In fact, there were problems we did have on Leopard (mainly with Excel and OmniGraffle Professional) that seem to be nonexistent on SL. My 2¢.

Posted by Davezilla on October 16, 2009 at 1:45 PM (PDT)

4

Have installed SL on 5 Macs with no problems.

obvious question is what software you are migrating. lots of shareware, freeware, and plugins have compatibility issues with SL until they are updated (if ever). also some startup background applications. did you ever start in safe mode to see if they were the culprit?

Posted by Alfiejr on October 16, 2009 at 2:56 PM (PDT)

5

I have installed Snow Leopard on 2 Macs myself, from Day 1 (X.6.0), with only two issues; A gMail account had to be reconfigured and Networked Printer Drivers weren’t ready yet.

My Sister’s White MacBook had the gMail account issue too, but worked flawlessly otherwise, and my Brothers iMac wasn’t updated until the updated printer drivers were available. He didn’t have gMail problems.

I really have to wonder what is wrong with the computers of people who are having Snow Leopard issues.

Posted by Dan Woods on October 16, 2009 at 4:10 PM (PDT)

6

Jeremy, have you installed the performance update that Apple recently released? Maybe that can solve some of your MBP’s issues.

As for me, Snow Leopard has been absolutely flawless. I’ve had no problems at all. I’d even go on to say that it’s been more stable for me than Leopard.

Posted by Mitchell on October 16, 2009 at 4:31 PM (PDT)

7

#4: Yes, starting in Safe Mode was one of the two solutions recommended to users with the issues. It didn’t help.

#5: Me too.

#6: Yes. Didn’t make a difference - that update was for a very specific hard drive issue, which wasn’t the problem here. The crash issues continued with the same hard disk contents on two different machines, which suggests a cruft-related software migration issue of some sort that SL does not properly handle.

After wiping the computer and reinstalling apps, the crashing issues appear to have stopped. As noted above, there are other issues, but they’re comparatively trivial.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 16, 2009 at 4:46 PM (PDT)

8

I have installed 10.6 on three macs and have had no issues outside of waiting for some new printer drivers from Canon, and an app or two needing an update. The issues described in this article seem way out of the norm, and suggests the issue rests in the data being migrated over to the new systems. 10.6 isn’t without its flaws, but I don’t think you can blame it for the issues you are seeing here.

Posted by Ned Scott on October 16, 2009 at 7:27 PM (PDT)

9

well if a wipe/reinstall solved things then you had the bad luck of a file corruption the first install. can happen to anyone. had that problem twice i think over the years out of maybe two OS dozen installs. also have gotten bad hardware three times over the years. law of averages, no one (and no platform) exempt.

Posted by Alfiejr on October 16, 2009 at 7:34 PM (PDT)

10

See the prior articles (and present 166 comments on article 1). I didn’t go through and retype the prior stories because they’re sitting there already, but there are quite a few people experiencing the same issues. Link:

http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/backstage/comments/problems-with-mac-os-x-10.6-snow-leopard-join-the-sizable-minority/

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 16, 2009 at 7:38 PM (PDT)

11

I must add my positive response to those who have had NO issues with SL.
I have installed it on my 2006 MacPro and my wifes 24” iMac.
We are both waiting anxiously for Unsanity to update WindowShade.
But Photoshop CS3 works perfectly as do dozens of other third party apps, even MS Office 2004 and MYOBs’ Account Edge 2003.
All I did was do a full backup of Leopard using Carbon Copy Cloner and then did an upgrade of SL.

Posted by Richard Dalziel-Sharpe on October 16, 2009 at 7:39 PM (PDT)

12

I upgraded a laptop and an iMac to Snow Leopard… no problems. However, I run a very tame OS… no hacks to the system, no CLI modifications to the system. I also run Windows Business Vista via parallels.

I wonder if the crashes are caused by exotic system modifications to wring the very last bit of power out of the system… and the upgrade doesn’t like it. Just my opinion…

Posted by Joe on October 16, 2009 at 9:49 PM (PDT)

13

I think it prudent to reserve judgment about System Seven until several months after it is released. Upgrades are often not as easy as advertised. Getting an upgrade into the hands of fools reveals much which the pundits never saw—or didn’t talk about.

I also think you are being too harsh on Snow Leopard. The migration to Leopard was much worse. I know people who waited until 10.5.3 before they upgraded from Tiger.

Snow Leopard had a lot of changes under the hood and it was released about a month earlier than developers expected. The rough edges of the upgrade are being smoothed out just three weeks into the upgrade, not three months later. Not shabby, at all.

If you are a suspender AND belt person, you wouldn’t buy anything soon. You really shouldn’t buy until the 64 bit applications start becoming numerous. That is when you will hear reviews which say that the 64 bit apps are much faster. That will give you sufficient reason to buy. You won’t have to talk yourself into anything.

There are many secrets under Snow Leopard’s hood which Apple isn’t talking about yet. Give it six months.

Posted by UrbanBard on October 16, 2009 at 10:26 PM (PDT)

14

I have had zero issues with SL on a Mac Mini and 15” MBP upgraded from Leopard.  Don’t know anyone who has had issue and I work for a very large well known US company as an IT Architect.  We have hundreds of people on SL on MBP and MBA.  issues have been few and far between.  10.6.2 is just around the corner.  Your experience does not track at all with what I have seen or heard from quite a large sampling of hardware and software.

Posted by Darwin on October 16, 2009 at 10:55 PM (PDT)

15

#12: As mentioned in the prior article, my machines have no exotic hacks - no hacks at all, really. I run clean systems, and anyway, SL was supposed to quarantine problem files in an incompatible folder, right?

#13: The migration to Leopard was previously trouble-free on five Macs here. SL was the complete opposite, but on two machines as the rest were not Intel.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on October 17, 2009 at 4:28 AM (PDT)

16

Add me to the list of people who have had zero problems with Snow Leopard. I installed it on 5 machines (2 white MacBooks, a Mac Mini, 13” MBP, and MacPro) and each machine hums along without a hitch.

Now if you want to ask me about my iPod touch 2g and firmware update 3.1, 3.1.1 & 3.1.2, that’s another story entirely and a disastrous one at that!

Posted by John Hadden on October 17, 2009 at 5:12 AM (PDT)

17

Of the three Macs in our household we’ve upgraded to Snow Leopard (2 iMacs and a MacBook Air) we’ve had no significant issues whatsoever either.  There was only one issue we had with SL that I’d even regard as being worth mentioning, and that was a bug with iCal not working with certain subscribed calendars.  However, Apple sorted that out quickly and they have been working perfectly fine ever since the 10.6.1 maintenance release. 

All in all, SL has easily been the most painless OS X update of them all in my experience (going back to 10.3 which was the first one I dealt with after I first became a Mac user).  I’m sorry to hear you’ve had issues there, but just wanted to let you know as well that they’re definitely not affecting the majority of users apparently based on both my personal experience and the comments left here.

Posted by Lance on October 17, 2009 at 5:14 AM (PDT)

18

In some respects I’m quite surprised at the major problems some people are having with Snow Leopard.  It has done nothing but good for me.  All the stability issues I had with Leopard are gone.  I don’t have to reboot any more. 

However, although I have lots of applications, I also have a very vanilla installation of Mac OS X.  Only one customization, a more Mac-like skin on Firefox; and the standard directory structure accepted as a given.  I also patched everything I could at the time of the upgrade.  I can easily see how someone with a more complicated installation could get into trouble seeing how much changed “under the hood” with SL.

Posted by DBX on October 17, 2009 at 7:23 AM (PDT)

19

I have first installed (upgrade) SL on a Rev. A Air. It not only saved me a whole chunk of memory, but it has been very stable. The last week, I upgraded my other three machines and they have been working very well.

The article suggests that the author was having problems when he upgraded and then when he migrated everything, but that the problems did not exist when a clean install was done. This would suggest to me that the problem is probably with his particular setup and not with SL. If it were otherwise, the problems would be expected to persist even after a clear install.

Posted by Tamer on October 17, 2009 at 4:09 PM (PDT)

20

I’m an Apple Developer and also beta test a host of third party apps. I’ve installed Sl on 7 Macs (2 MacPros,3 iMacs and 2 MacBook Pros) with the standard install (not a clean install) with no problems except with some third party utilities, something which is predictable. My only real disappointment is the inability to use external eSATA drives as boot drives, regardless of what PCI-E card/software combo I use. Hopefully, Apple will adopt both USB 3.0 and eSATA as standard ports on forthcoming hardware. Given the multitude of third party beta software I use, I was quite pleasantly surprised that all continued to work, even with the early SL betas (and 10.6.2 will be out soon, fixing the guest account problem that’s been reported). I also use Windows 7–the release version–and superficially, it really is pleasant to use. But if anything goes wrong, and I’ve had a few BSODs, figuring out the problem is no easier than on XP. And that’s my major gripe. Until Microsoft makes troubleshooting as easy as it is on a Mac as on the Windows platform, I’ll stick with 10.6.x. Terminal can tell me a lot about any real problems with my OS, but editing the Registry is still, at least for me, a daunting task.

Regarding your difficulties with the upgrade, I can’t explain it. Was all your software up to date with 10.5.8? Are you running in 64 bit mode? Did you rebuild the directory with DiskWarrior or the like prior to the upgrade? Any font corruption issues? These are just guesses, but I sure hope that SL installs won’t require a clean install like most Windows users are accustomed to doing every time. Reinstalling apps off of CDs or DVDs–apps on which I rely for a living–is not an appealing thought. Anyway, my two cents…

Posted by Ishan Bhattacharya on October 17, 2009 at 7:26 PM (PDT)

21

Running a clean install of SL on my old MBP here, and everything seems pretty good!  I can’t even remember any app crashing. 

One glitch I’ve come across is streaming music to my Airport Express seems to drop out every now and then since iTunes 9- however the work around is to use Airfoil with iTunes which has got rid of any drop outs.

Posted by Cam on October 17, 2009 at 8:00 PM (PDT)

22

Reading the comments posted here and elsewhere has reinforced my determination to hold off on upgrading the three Intel Macs in this family to SL until either 10.6.2 gets a clean bill of health or 10.6.3 is out and has been vetted. Not that waiting a few point releases is any guarantee of good performance- I was doing fine with Leopard until 10.5.5, then my 2006 Mac Pro developed any number of odd behaviors which lasted until I installed 10.5.8 whereupon it traded those for the long startup delay at the blue screen problem - but I seldom reboot so I can live with that.

Posted by Seth Lewin on October 17, 2009 at 9:19 PM (PDT)

23

I’ve installed SL on three Macs, two 24” iMacs and a MacBook with few problems. I have switched browsers, from Safari to Firefox because of Safari’s instability, but it was becoming unstable on Leopard, so I think it’s the program and not the OS. Problems can occur in upgrades. When I upgraded the previous generation of Macs to Tiger, one of them went south and I had someone from Apple troubleshoot over the phone. The install had just gone south, simple as that, and a clean install was required. Crap happens.

Posted by Richard on October 18, 2009 at 10:42 AM (PDT)

24

We also can’t forget that Seven will likely take at least 6-12 months, maybe more for all of its bugs to be ironed out to the point where people will be comfortable upgrading. By then we should have a pretty damn stable Snow Leopard. So by timing alone Apple is and will likely be ahead of the game in terms of OS superiority. (I’m not biased at all… haha)

Posted by John Coleman on October 19, 2009 at 7:38 AM (PDT)

25

I need to add my own SL success story. My 3-year-old iMac, which originally shipped with Tiger (10.4), upgraded flawlessly to 10.6 and 10.6.1. I’ve done nothing more than download updated printer and scanner drivers from their respective manufacturers. User accounts and functionality are exactly the same as before, only faster and smoother.

My 1-month-old MacBook Pro shipped with 10.6.0 and has been upgraded to 10.6.1. Migration Assistant copied everything over from the iMac without a hitch, and it has been smooth sailing as well.

So I am very puzzled by the “Redmond” experience so many of you seem to be experiencing.

Posted by Herr Doktor on October 22, 2009 at 7:06 AM (PDT)

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