As an IT professional I’m often asked for recommendations when someone’s looking for a new computer. I’m uniquely suited here in some ways because I’ve been a dedicated cross-platformer most of my life. Something to do with my attention span, maybe. New and shiny aren’t always the order of the day, but they’re up there.
Give me gadgets. Give me shiny gadgets with functionality that I can push and expand and play with. Give me little slates of malleable magic. Give me devices that I’ll push the envelope with and get tired banging on and wake up the next morning thinking “OOO I want to try THAT next!”
Throughout most of the 00’s I jumped from feature phone to feature phone and pushed my computers to their limits. Netbooks were thrilling to me (I still miss that little black Eee-PC) and chromebooks and budget-ultrabooks seemed to pop up around the same time. Dual-booting between Windows and Linux was a favorite exploration for me, and simultaneously running Chrome OS and a stripped-down Ubuntu on my slim and light Samsung Chromebook felt thrilling.
Throughout most of this time I had almost no personal access to Macs. They dominated my school environment so I got a taste of them, between BASIC programming on Apple II-GSs in middle school and keyboarding classes and library research in high school. And I was also lucky and privileged enough to have a computer in the house since my early childhood – first a Tandy EX-1000, then various flavors of Windows PCs. But Macs never made the cut. Maybe a pricepoint issue – I’m not really sure.
So I grew up purposely straddling platforms to see how I could push them. Even when iPhones came into their own, I mostly stayed an Android user – the malleability Android devices offered attracted me more. And early PC-mobile interoperability, as far as I can remember, hit Android first at that point. Google services definitely contributed there but so did apps like Pushbullet. My iPod did a good job at the one thing I needed it for but didn’t play nice with anything else.
All that history in mind I find myself at an odd crossroads: after decades of Windows usage I’ve moved all my productivity to Apple products. And with exceptions, I recommend most folks do the same.
Before you groan I want to assure you that I’m not the fanboy you fear and this isn’t an unhinged design rant. I mean, look at the Apple Mouse.
Or the first-generation Apple Pencil.
Mistakes were made.
And I still see the benefit and usability of non-Apple products. I own an array of them – it’s very much a requirement in a Support role as it allows me to replicate not just the problems people are having but their overall experience. Because you start from the experience and work from there.
But along with getting older I also find myself deeper into a profession that affords me the ability to craft my workflows more, that gives me breathing room to not always predicate device decisions on the cheapest affordable. For the longest time I’ve had to make do with what I have (and push it further). But I’m now in a position to decide a little more freely what works for me.
When folks approach me today and say “I’m in the market for a new computer, what do you suggest?” my first question is: Do you have an iPhone?
If yes, even if you’re a Windows user, it’s time to consider switching to Mac. This is especially true if you have both an iPhone and an iPad.
The third supporting condition here after iPhone and iPad ownership is: do you have a few hours to kill to learn a different operating system? It’s not rocket science, and it’s pretty user-friendly. New Mac users will fumble around a little. But the rewards will be great. The interoperability between devices and apps, ease of data stored in iCloud (as long as you’re not cloud-averse), and the app ecosystem overlaps all make for a much smoother experience on the Apple side.
A few specific points to speak to:
Mobile integration: the interplay between Apple phone, tablet, and computer is second-to-none. Android lost its malleability somewhere along the way, and didn’t push itself in any way to replace the functionality that was lost. So while I can receive and send text messages from my laptop, ipad, or phone, Android and Windows are stuck with a still-flaky “Your Phone” app on Windows with about 25% of the functionality. Usable, but only just, and prone to serious weirdness (especially notification glitches).
Tablet experience: I’ve had an iPad for years now, but I’ve also experimented with a whole host of Android and Windows tablets trying to find both a good digital handwriting device or a lightweight, hyper-mobile laptop replacement. The state of the Android operating system leaves a lot to be desired here and often causes even premium manufacturers to abandon hardware updates, leaving tablets vulnerable after just a few years (Samsung’s burned me twice, here). And of course the plethora of manufacturers and standards means that the experience will differ with every tablet, so you never quite know what you’re going to get.
The Windows tablet experience has similarities and differences here, and I’ve been searching for a good Windows tablet for something better than a decade. The trend here is disappointment: manufacturers cutting corners and costs with not enough RAM and not enough storage to contain a bloated operating system.
“But Ian,” you say, “It’s so much easier for Apple to cover only branded devices while Microsoft has to cover so many others.” And that’s kind of the point. But let me speak to that directly: I spent most of 2020 simultaneously using a Microsoft Surface Go and a base-level iPad. On the laptop replacement level, the Surface Go won just by dint of the specialized stuff I do that’s not really viable on an iPad (SSH, server work, etc). But on just about every level as a tablet, the Surface Go lost to the base-level iPad. On the same exact uses cases (e-reader, digital handwriting notebook, media player, interoperable messaging device, and more) the benefit that the iPad carried was clear: an incredibly active, robust developer ecosystem in more carefully protected app store.
Developers simply didn’t make the apps I needed on the Surface, or the pickings were so slim that it didn’t matter. The Surface Go afforded me a lot more malleability, but trying to use it as a tablet was painful given the lack of apps developed for it. I struggled to find good replacements for all sorts of things and while Edge has made leaps and bounds it wasn’t tenable to switch to. Other browsers appeared rather hobbled and hard to actually make as usable as the well-developed iPad app for this or that purpose. So even Microsoft’s very own branded tablet couldn’t nearly compete with the lowest-model 2018 iPad.
And as someone that’s had to support entire offices of premium Surface gear, I’m amazed at the problems the first several generations regularly had that should’ve been weeded out long before. So it’s not a “Microsoft can’t possibly support all this different hardware!” problem, because that problem shouldn’t exist on Surface products. And yet they suffer from a lot of the same problems and without nearly as much interplay as Apple products.
Backup confidence: Apple has Time Machine, a native utility that makes setting up a system backup incredibly easy. In my experience it just works, and works well. Contrast that with the state of Windows backups: Microsoft stripped out most of the backup features Windows 7 sported and half-shoved them back into Win8/Win10 with a warning they were probably going to get pulled back out again. Win10’s native backup utility is File History – few users seem to know about it, it’s somewhat clunky to set up, and it’s prone to glitching out and not backing things up or completely forgetting you ever set anything up to begin with. When I talk to people about File History, I warn them: babysit it, because it fails silently and regularly. I haven’t had nearly that experience with Time Machine.
Random niceties: Apple’s been able to implement a lot of random features that either don’t exist in other products or aren’t nearly as polished.
With two clicks I can turn my iPad into a second monitor for my macbook as long as they’re connected to the same network.
Mac’s implementation of virtual desktops is a functional and mostly-smooth experience that allows for quick and easy navigation between multiple desktops, allowing for seamless task-switching and organized efficiency. Windows’ virtual desktop feature feels clunky in comparison, less tested and more “shoved in there just to compete with a Mac feature.”
And circling back to the original point of this post, getting a new computer: the price point for macbooks has fallen significantly and the price point for premium Windows laptops has risen to the point that Macbooks are competitive rather than overpriced. A Macbook Air that will serve you for 3+ years now costs roughly the same as a performance Lenovo (X1 Carbon) or Dell (XPS 13) laptop. Add in the efficiencies that come with the interplay between devices and it’s made all the sweeter.
I’ll never really get cross-platform exploration out of my blood, I think. Interesting things are still coming about in other areas; Samsung DeX is fun to play with, Microsoft Wireless Displays are pretty neat, and of course premium gaming will very much stay a Windows domain. But for most of my productivity and creativity purposes I’ve finally settled down with a single ecosystem and it’s pretty damn easy to enjoy.