Over a decade ago Alex Hern switched from PC to Mac and never looked back. But the new MacBook Pro’s very expensive so could he finally be tempted to switch again?
I’ve been an Apple user for over a decade, ever since I picked up a refurbished 17in PowerBook back in 2005 to replace my ailing Windows XP box. But last month, after Apple announced its most expensive new MacBook Pros in almost 15 years, I reconsidered my decision for the first time and, for the past few weeks, I’ve been back on a Windows PC.
I wasn’t always a Mac user. My first three computers were PCs, although the house I grew up in had an ailing, hated Power Mac Performa. My reasons for switching in my teens were fairly simple: I’d been playing fewer and fewer PC games, and spending increasing amounts of time using my computer to manage the music library linked to my iPod. I was one of those switchers, surprised by the elegance of Apple’s music player and convinced to take the plunge into their full desktop operating system.
The laptop wasn’t cheap, but it made shuttling between my separated parents’ houses much easier. And while I missed being able to play the full library of PC games I’d built up over the years, it was an exciting time to be moving to the Mac OS world. Plus, World of Warcraft was cross-platform, which was all the gaming I needed for a good while.
Ten years on, I’m a fairly default Apple user. I’m on my sixth iPhone, second iPad and third Mac; I have an Apple TV at home, Apple branded keyboard on my desktop, and even an Apple AA battery charger, from the days when they made them.
But the twin punches of a Brexit-led depreciation of the pound, and Apple releasing a new range of MacBook Pros with the least bang-for-your-buck in recent memory, made me think twice. The cheapest Mac that would be sufficient for my needs, a 13in MacBook Pro with 512GB of storage space and 16GB of ram, comes in at well over £2,000, yet is barely more powerful than the machine it’s replacing, a 15in retina MacBook Pro from four years ago that cost just over £1,500 at the time.
So I switched back. For the past month, I’ve been using the Surface Book, the top-of-the-line laptop sold by, of all people, Microsoft.
It’s been an experience.
My expectations going in were uncertain. I know Windows has evolved radically since I last used it, back in the XP era, and has even changed since the last time I used it in anger, shortly after the launch of Windows 8.1. The current latest version of the operating system, Windows 10 (confusingly, only one version later than 8.1; the story goes that too many developers wrote code referring to Windows 95 and 98 as “9*”, meaning an actual Windows 9 would break compatibility), is generally considered a good thing. It meshes the new Windows experience of version 8 with an old-style desktop more elegantly than previous versions, while consigning ever more of the cruft deep into nested menus and offering a slick experience for first-time users.
I was also given hope by the machine. After an awkward start with the first version of the Surface back in 2012, then pitched as an iPad competitor, Microsoft has become one of the best manufacturers of Windows PCs there is. The Surface Book is a delicious machine, masquerading as a MacBook Pro-class laptop but with a fully detachable touchscreen that opens it up to a whole new range of uses.
The quality of the Surface machines has caused problems when it comes to Microsoft’s relationships with its hardware partners, who tended to expect Microsoft to be content raking in millions with the licensing fees for Windows, rather than competing with them directly for profit from hardware manufacturing. But for now, the company has been content to sit on the edge of the market, making niche devices for the power user.
Despite all of that, I had a fair amount of trepidation. Memories of blue screens of death, of driver conflicts, of cleaning out my registry and restoring the system after a malware infection, are hard to shake, as is the general hangover from my youth of Microsoft as the Great Satan of the tech world. As Zuckerberg is to the 2010s, Gates was to the 1990s: ever-present, professionally amoral, and incredibly, unflappably, successful.
But Gates is gone, as is Ballmer. This is Satya Nadella’s company now, and the Microsoft of this generation is everything the Microsoft of the 90s – or the Facebook of today – isn’t: humble, quiet, content with success where it can win and partnerships where it can’t, and as proud of working with competitors as Gates was of crushing them. In short, it’s a Microsoft that I could consider being friends with. It couldn’t be that bad.
The worst thing about switching, it turns out, is switching.
I’m not trying to be tautological. But the bulk of the unpleasantness I’ve experienced actually making this change hasn’t been inherent to Windows, but has either come about because of the differences between the two operating systems, or even just the difficulties in actually getting up and running from day one.
Some of the problems are as simple, but nonetheless infuriating, as different keyboard shortcuts. A lifetime of muscle memory has told me that Command-Space brings up Spotlight, which is the main way I opened programmes on my Mac. The same shortcut on Windows 10 is to simply hit the Windows key, which invokes Cortana, Microsoft’s AI assistant, and then typing in the name of the programme you want to open.
Similar mismatches appear in areas like window management, alt-tab behaviour, and programme installation. It’s a push to say which is better (though I maintain that running an installer is less elegant than just dragging an app into the Apps folder), but whichever you’re used to, the other will be worse until you re-educate yourself.
That’s not to say I didn’t have plenty to complain about, though.
That Spotlight/Cortana mismatch, for instance? It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Windows maps the alt key to the location of the command key on Macs, and alt-space is the Windows shortcut for switching languages, so every time I failed to invoke Spotlight, I would accidentally switch the language my computer was set up in, resetting my keyboard to a US English layout.
That was an annoying problem. Worse was that I didn’t actually have two languages set up on the Surface Book in the first place. And yet, hovering in the bottom right, permanently, was a little box showing whether I was running in UK English or US English, with no option in sight to remove it.
In the end, I had to turn to Twitter for troubleshooting advice. We determined that there was no option to remove the US English language because there was no US English language set up. So to remove it, all I had to do was go into a language menu, add English (United States) as an option, and then remove English (United States) as an option. I know. But it worked, so who am I to complain.
I’m also firmly aware that a critical eye on Mac OS will reveal many similar bugs. Mac users, particularly long-term, slightly jaundiced, Mac users, have long become familiar with the hollow laugh and invocation of Apple’s erstwhile marketing slogan “It Just Works” as something emphatically continues to not Just Work. In fact, that phrase has been uttered in irony so many times that it’s easy to forget that it really does come from a place of competitive advantage for Apple.
That advantage has largely been eroded over the years, as Microsoft has cottoned on to the joys of vertical integration, plug and play accessories, and standards-compliant behaviour.
But not entirely. Plugging in an external mouse (an utterly standard Microsoft-made laser mouse), I was annoyed to find that I couldn’t reverse the scrolling behaviour on the scroll wheel to match that of the in-built trackpad. It’s one thing to have to relearn behaviours when you switch machines, it’s another to have to re-learn them every time you plug in a peripheral.
About an hour of fruitless Googling later – including several suggestions to install obsolete utilities, hack the registry, or roll back to an earlier version of Windows – and I discovered the way to do what I wanted. I had to download drivers for my mouse.
If you’re young, a Mac user, or not particularly technical, that might not mean much. Drivers are the small pieces of software that tell the operating system how to work with hardware, from complex components like graphics cards to simple accessories like this mouse. But the necessity, or not, of drivers for accessories was a big part of that competitive push by Apple, which made a point of ensuring out-of-the-box support for many of the most commonly used peripherals like printers, cameras and mice. When Steve Jobs said “it just works”, this is the sort of thing he was referring to: the ability to plug in a mouse and have it Just Work.
Installing drivers for a mouse to enable a niche behaviour is no great hardship, but it still left me moderately concerned. Microsoft made both the mouse and the laptop, yet the two weren’t able to play nicely together without my intervention. This digging in the nuts and bolts of the machine was not something I had missed.
Touching the void
The Microsoft of 2016 has a split personality. In many ways, the split is the same that it’s had for the past 20 years, between its desire for continuity and its desire for reinvention and technological leadership. Where the company is successful today is where that latter desire is ascendant, and the Surface Book is the best example of a forward-looking Microsoft you can find.
It’s a fantastic machine. Small and powerful, with a long battery life, it impresses as a laptop, but its real strengths are revealed when you undock the screen from its base. Being able to carry my laptop around the kitchen when doing the weekly shop, before docking it back and typing up some recipes, was genuinely cool.
Unfortunately, cool is all it was for me. The ability to pop out my laptop and write on it with a (very accurate) stylus was never that useful. If anything, it served to underscore how efficient the keyboard-and-touchpad combo is for a lot of hefty tasks.
I had a similar experience with the ability to use the touchscreen while the Surface Book was in laptop mode. I simply didn’t do it much, and most of the time when I did, it was just to see if I could.
Occasionally, the touchscreen was actively bad. My first time opening Windows Mail, I was greeted with a helpful popover showing that I could swipe mails to the left to archive them. But I couldn’t work out how: click and drag? Two-fingered swipe on the touchpad? The answer, of course, is to reach up to the screen, and swipe that way. A shortcut it is not, particularly if the screen is up on a dock and you’re already using a keyboard and mouse.
Incidentally, unlike many hybrid laptops, the base isn’t just a keyboard: it also contains a second battery, and a number of hardware components including a discrete GPU. (One downside of that setup: if you let the screen run out of battery while undocked, you can’t re-dock it until you’ve charged it separately, even if the base still has some power left).
PCs are from Mars
If this sounds like a long list of nitpicks, it’s because … well, it is. For all the existential battles that have been fought over Windows versus Mac, there’s little to distinguish the two on any important level. The platforms have converged on everything but aesthetics and personal preferences. Both have a locked-down store which power users ignore; both are fighting for relevance in a world of web apps and mobile-first design; both feel the weight of versions past sitting on their shoulders.
If you asked me to explain why, despite it all, I’ve put my money down for a MacBook Pro rather than buying the Surface Book from Microsoft (which loaned the device for this trial), I can give you some reasons that feel solid enough for me.
I was shocked by the amount of advertising and cross-promotion riddled throughout the OS, from adverts for apps in the start menu, to a persistent pop-up offering a free trial of Office 365.
I was surprised by the paucity of solid third-party apps in general, and particularly by the lack of any good consumer productivity suite. When the most common recommendation, for services from photo storage to calendaring, is “just use Google’s web apps”, there’s a hole waiting to be filled (though maybe that’s just my dislike of web apps in general). It feels like the Mac dev scene is full of teams making fully featured apps that compete with the big companies, while Windows devs are more content to make niche utilities which serve particular needs without needing to start a war.
I disliked the lack of a smart sleep mode, meaning my computer would often be flat when I opened it up in the morning because some utility had been running in the background.
I hated the difficulty in typing special characters, from foreign accents to ellipses and em-dashes. I hated the lack of a universal paste-as-plain-text shortcut, and I mourned the loss of iMessage access on the desktop for texting my girlfriend.
Most of all, though, I couldn’t stand the small irritations, from the failure of Chrome windows to correctly adapt when dragged from a high-res screen to a low-res one, to the trackpad’s inability to accurately click when I used it with my thumb rather than my finger.
I don’t pretend that those irritations are unique to Windows, or even that they aren’t things I couldn’t have fixed with time, effort or re-education. But the problem is, fixing them isn’t worth it: the difference just isn’t there.
That’s true whichever way you’re thinking of switching. If you’re a Windows user nodding along with my problems, I can guarantee you that within a month of switching to Mac, you’ll have a list just as long. Maybe one day, one or other platform will have a commanding lead. For some use-cases, that’s already happened: gamers have Windows, while iOS developers have Mac, to state two obvious examples. But for now, for the vast majority, it’s hard to say there’s anything in it.
Except, of course, for price.
Because these problems are minor, and a price difference of up to £1,000 isn’t. The Surface Book is around the same price as the new MacBook Pro, but many other high-quality laptops aren’t: you’ll easily find models like Dell’s XPS range or Lenovo’s Thinkpads for hundreds of pounds less than a comparably-specced MacBook.
For me, with four years of saving for a new Mac, good credit, and risk-aversion to digital irritation, it’s worth paying through the nose to stick with what I know. But it might not be the case for you.
Switching isn’t a panacea, and there’s no silver bullet out there – no Windows computer that will be anything better than a bit annoying for former Mac users – but before you get too complacent, I have a feeling the same is true the other way round. Ultimately, the question comes down to how much you’re prepared to pay to keep things the same as they have been. For me, it turns out that figure’s quite high.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010