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

On The Wisdom of Buying a Mac In Light of Windows 7 and Snow Leopard 1

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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