From the LA Times Archives

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A Study In Contrasts:

Software Is The Greatest Difference Bewteen Macs and Windows PCs

By Jim Heid, special to the Times, 3/04/2002

Choosing between Apple's new iMac or a Windows XP computer involves more than deciding between stylish white or basic beige.

Yes, the differences in hardware are significant, as last week's comparisons of the iMac and Gateway's 500SE showed. The new iMac's futuristic look and unique pivoting display give it the design and engineering edge, but the iMac is a bit more expensive, a bit less expandable and slightly slower than comparable Windows computers.

But hardware is only part of the story. Software is where the greatest differences exist between Macs and Windows PCs.

In the Box

Plenty of software accompanies the iMac and the Gateway 500SE (and most new Windows PCs).

The iMac includes AppleWorks for word processing and business tasks. There's also Apple's suite of "digital hub" programs: iTunes for playing music and burning CDs, iPhoto for managing digital pictures, iMovie for editing video and, on the $1799 iMac I tested, iDVD for designing and burning DVDs. These programs share a similar, straightforward design.

The Gateway 500SE comes with the titanic Microsoft Word as well as Works, Microsoft's Swiss Army Knife program; Money 2002, a personal finance program; Encarta, an encyclopedia; Streets and Trips, a digital road atlas; and Picture It Photo, an image-editing program with more features than Apple's iPhoto.

The Gateway's digital hub includes Microsoft's Windows Media Player and Windows Movie Maker and the MusicMatch Jukebox MP3 program. These programs lack the features and elegance of Apple's i-ware. Windows Media Player can't create MP3 tracks, Windows Movie Maker can't record finished videos to tape, and MusicMatch Jukebox has a brain-addling user interface.

The Gateway has the edge for productivity, business and image-editing tasks, while the iMac wins for music, movie editing and DVD creation.

Operating Systems

The Gateway runs Windows XP, while the iMac runs Apple's new Mac OS X (it also includes the older OS 9).

Both operating systems are powerful, with good crash-protection features and lots of power-user goodies.

Although both debuted last year, Windows XP is the more mature OS, taking its underlying foundation from Microsoft's Windows 2000. Mac OS X is a complete revamp of the Mac OS, and it feels like a work in progress at times.

But Microsoft has blundered by burdening Windows XP with frequent sales pitches for Microsoft products and services. Getting started with Windows XP is like watching network TV: The show isn't bad, but the commercials are annoying.

If Windows XP feels like ABC, Mac OS X feels like HBO. There are occasional sales pitches--for example, iTunes has a command called Shop for iTunes Products--but they're more subtle.

And despite Mac OS X's relative immaturity, it's often more reliable at connecting to new add-ons.

Windows XP is better than earlier versions, but the Windows world is a cacophony of computer makes and models, making compatibility glitches inevitable. The frustration Windows users often experience is reflected in a clickable link I found in Windows XP's online help: "I still can't scan."

Software Selection

More software is available for Windows than for the Mac. But all mainstream programs, including Microsoft Office, are available for both platforms.

Windows has the edge in games and so-called vertical applications (programs created for specific business niches). And you often can run the latter on a Mac using Connectix Corp.'s VirtualPC software, which lets Macs run Windows.

The Verdict

Buying an iMac--indeed, any Mac--means spending somewhat more and having somewhat fewer add-ons and programs to choose from.

But the iMac and Apple's software have a design elegance that's missing from the Windows world.

I use both Macs and Windows XP computers daily, and the Mac is less frustrating, less commercially intrusive and more elegant. Quite simply, it's a better computer.