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Making a case for the Mac

photo
Jim and Virginia Watson got an iMac in the summer to keep in touch with their four daughters around the country via e-mail.
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]

By WILLIAM LAMPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999


Which is better, Windows-based PCs or Apple Computer's Macintosh? That depends on you - and your needs.

When Linda Watson began shopping for a computer her retired parents could use for e-mail to keep in touch with their four daughters, she looked at Windows-based PCs and Apple Computer's Macintosh. She picked an iMac.

"I wanted their computer to be as up-to-date and as turnkey as possible," she said. "The Mac was easy to use on the Internet, and e-mail was going to be the first way they were going to use their computer."

What to look for in a Mac
So while in Largo to celebrate their parents' 60th wedding anniversary, the sisters bought them an iMac.

"Our four daughters were on e-mail and we wanted to get on, too," Linda Watson's mother, Virginia, said.

Jim and Virginia Watson, who are in their 80s, aren't alone. Apple says it has sold more than 2.1-million iMacs since the machine was introduced in August 1998. Apple says orders for its new iBook laptop computer have topped 300,000 since its announcement in July.

Despite that impressive comeback, Macs still ranked seventh in personal computer shipments during the third quarter of 1999, with 4.1 percent of the market, said John Brown of International Data Corp. So with Windows-based PCs clearly dominant, the question arises: Why buy a Mac?

"If you're buying a computer to play Duke Nukem, a PC will do a fine job of that," said Jim Workman, publisher of MacToday and Photoshop User magazines in Dunedin, referring to a popular shoot-'em-up action game. "People are buying (iMacs) because of their simplicity, they take virtually no space on a desktop, and they are reliable."

"If you spend your time writing or surfing the Web," he said, "your experience is made a whole lot easier with a Mac."

Linda Watson agrees.

The director of client call centers for GE Assurance, Long Term Care Division, Watson said she has about 20 years of computer experience, having worked in sales and marketing for software companies and as manager of a computer retailer's training division.

"I've started gravitating toward Macintosh," she said. "Over the past many years, I've used Windows in my business. It's the standard at work. But I knew that the Mac was easier to use, which helped in determining which computer to get for my parents."

Apple has maintained tight control over its operating system and hardware. That may have cost the computermaker market share over the years, but it has benefited users by making the Mac a true plug-and-play computer.

Watson said setting up her parents' iMac was a snap. "Since they would be using the computer on their own, I wanted them to read the manual. They plugged it in and figured out what fit where," she said.

MacToday's Workman offered an analogy for why he uses a Mac: "I don't care how my watch works; I just want to know the time."

If there's one great risk about being a Mac user in a Windows world, it's that the software you want might not be offered in Apple flavor.

"Most of the major software packages are cross-platform," Workman said, "but the biggest difference is in games."

Of the 20 best-selling computer games for September compiled by market research firm PC Data Inc. of Reston, Va., only seven were available for the Mac.

For other software, there often is a lag time in offering a Mac version. America Online's new software, Version 5.0, has been released for Windows, but AOL says the Mac version won't be available until spring. And while Microsoft Office 2000 is available for Windows, Mac users still are relegated to working on Office 98. The Mac version of Office 2000 is scheduled for "maybe the year after the Windows version," a Microsoft representative told the San Jose Mercury-News in January.

Macs come with software called PC Exchange, which allows you to open PC disks and translates PC files on your Macintosh. So you can get PC-originated Word files to open in AppleWorks or .wav sounds to play back in QuickTime. But PC Exchange doesn't run PC software.

If you only occasionally need to run Windows software, a solution is emulation software that in effect runs Windows on top of your Mac operating system. The trade-off for this flexibility is a significant loss in speed, so don't expect to play many PC games. Virtual PC and SoftWindows 98 simulate a Pentium chip via software but run about a fifth the speed of a PC, according to a MacWorld review in February. The emulation programs sell for about $160 to $180.

iBook
The new iBook gets high marks from reviewers.
[Photo courtesy of Apple Computer]
In the past two years, Apple Computers has trimmed a confusing array of computers to four lines: For consumers, iMacs and portable iBooks. For high-end users, Power Mac G4 desktop computers and PowerBook G3 laptops.

The iMac has been the best-selling model in Apple's 22-year history. The colorful computer first appeared in 1998 (as a 233MHz PowerPC G3 system) with a price tag of $1,299. The third and latest version pushed the system's speed to 350 and 400MHz and the price of the cheapest iMac to below $1,000. The new midrange iMac DV costs $1,299, while the iMac DV Special Edition costs $1,499.

The all-in-one system features a built-in 15-inch color monitor, 64 megabytes of RAM (or 128 MB for the Special Edition) and built-in stereo speakers. Now, PCmakers are starting to copy the iMac's anything-but-beige colors and styling.

Reviews of the new 300MHz G3-based iBook have raved about and razzed its rounded appearance and pastel blue and orange colors, but in general this new consumer laptop has gotten high marks for its bright screen, easy-to-use keyboard and above-average battery life. It is designed as a laptop for home and school use, not necessarily for business. For that, the PowerBook G3 laptops offer compactness, larger screens and greater expandability, as well as faster processors.

PowerBooks range in price from about $2,500 for a 333MHz G3 with a CD-ROM to about $3,500 for a 400MHz G3 with a DVD-ROM.

The Power Mac G4 desktop systems cost about $1,600 to $3,500, depending on the configuration. Though chipmaker Motorola has delayed release of the 500MHz G4 processor until after the first of the year because of technical problems, Apple is offering G4 systems in 350, 400 and 450MHz versions.

All four lines have built-in 56K modems and Ethernet connectors, which allow the computers to be linked to networks or cable modems.

So how does a Mac's processor speed compare with a PC? In most instances, Apple's new G4 computers are faster than the Pentium III PCs, said Julie Bennett, an Apple-certified technician at Entre Computer Center in St. Petersburg. "Macs have a lot of graphics power."

PC Magazine pitted a G3 Mac against Pentium-based computers in tests of Photoshop, Filemaker Pro, Microsoft Word and the game Quake. Tests showed the Mac had a clear advantage in Photoshop and performed better in Filemaker Pro, but it dropped behind the Pentium computers in Word and Quake.

With the iMac, Apple stopped equipping its computers with floppy disk drives. So adding a standard 1.4-megabyte floppy drive will cost about $90, while an 120MB Imation SuperDisk drive will cost about $150 and a 250MB Zip drive about $180.

"I think that was a big boo-boo for Apple," Bennett said.

The iMac also signaled Apple's move away from SCSI and Apple Desktop Bus connectors for hooking up peripherals such as disk drives, printers and scanners. Replacing them are USB, or Universal Serial Bus, and FireWire connectors. You can connect up to 127 peripherals in series to a USB connector and up to 63 devices on a speedy FireWire port. In addition to disk drives, many digital video camcorders sport FireWire connectors, which allow you to transfer digital video from a camcorder to an iMac DV or Power Mac G4 for editing and back.

So which Mac is the one for you?

"All Macs run the same software, but the G4s and (PowerBook) G3s are geared more toward graphics," Bennett said.

Likewise, Workman said, "The G4s are really, really fast machines. If someone is considering a G4, they are probably getting involved with video production or high-end graphics work."

The "i" in iMac and iBook stands for Internet. So if you primarily will be surfing the Web, sending e-mail and doing home office tasks, those Macs should suit your needs. Workman says that with a good color inkjet printer, a scanner and photo manipulation software, such as Photoshop, you can use your iMac to print high-quality photos, e-mail them to friends and family or post them on the Web.

"My ideal setup," Workman said, "is an iMac with 96 megs of RAM, an Epson 740 color printer, a cable modem. You'll be a hotshot with that. You'll take full advantage of what the Web has to offer."

The cost for Workman's ideal setup? $1,334 plus cable modem service.

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