The last time I had a physical Windows machine was Windows for Workgroups (3.11). Since then I’ve used Windows quite a bit: when you work as a data protection consultant in enterprise IT, you can’t avoid it.
When I left Windows behind me, it was to move to Linux as a desktop operating system, and that lasted until my first USB iPod where in supreme frustration at endless kernel recompiling and chasing USB connections around like a manic dog racing after its tail, I gave up and entered the world of the Mac – and quite frankly, never looked back.
Despite using Windows routinely for testing and customer work in my last job, I fought constantly against an assumption that I somehow refused to use it, despite the obvious facts that (a) I did indeed use it and (b) I regularly insisted I had never once refused to use it. This opinion seemed to primarily derive from my having made some unflattering comments about Bill Gates’ business practices when he was still the leader of Microsoft, and due to a tendency to buy Apple equipment each time I had to spend my own money on equipment. (The audacity of me to spend my own money on what I preferred to use!)
I’ve always maintained that I’m a technologist. I use whatever technology suits my purposes or my needs, and I acknowledge that no one company, vendor or operating system is perfect. In that sense, since switching to the Mac, I’ve maintained that I stay with it primarily because it suits my workflow.
A couple of years after I switched to the Mac, I read the post Mac OS X Shines in Comparison to Windows Vista, which had this corker description:
For Mac OS X, it’s the classic English butler. This OS is designed to make the times you have to interact with it as quick and efficient as possible. It expects that things will work correctly and therefore sees no reason to bother you with correct operation confirmations. If you plug in a mouse, there aren’t going to be any messages to tell you “that mouse you plugged in is now working.” It’s assumed you’ll know that because you’ll be able to instantly use the mouse. Plug in a USB or FireWire hard drive and the disk showing up on your desktop is all the information you need to see that the drive has correctly mounted. It is normally only when things are not working right that you see messages from Mac OS X.
Windows is … well, Windows is very eager to tell you what’s going on. Constantly. Plug something in and you get a message. Unplug something and you get a message. If you’re on a network that’s having problems staying up, you’ll get tons of messages telling you this. It’s rather like dealing with an overexcited Boy Scout … who has a lifetime supply of chocolate-covered espresso beans. This gets particularly bad when you factor in things like the user-level implementation of Microsoft’s new security features.
To put it simply, you can work on a Mac for hours, days even, and only minimally need to directly use the OS. With Vista? The OS demands your attention, constantly.
I’m still drawn to this comparison between the Mac and Windows: one hovers in the background waiting to assist, and the other routinely jumps up and waves its electronic hands in front of you to ask “Hey, do you need anything!?”
Despite that opinion, I’d learnt that Windows does suit the work-flow of an awful lot of people, and at least at the server side of the equation, it was something I was exposed to reasonably regularly. So, as a technologist, I decided at the end of April that the only thing to do would be to go out and buy a basic Windows laptop and give its tyres another kick, so to speak.
The laptop I settled for was an Acer Aspire E1-522. It came with a 15.6″ screen, a numeric keypad (seemingly odd to a Mac Book Pro user, but apparently reasonably normal), a Quad-Core AMD A4-5000 (1.5GHz) CPU, 4GB of RAM, DVD-Super Multi DL drive, 802.11b/g/n+BT, 4-cell Li-ion battery, 1000GB hard drive and an AMD Radeon HD 8330 with 512MB Graphics System Memory, a HD Webcam and HDMI out.
(I can recount all this because it’s handily recorded on a sticker on the hand-rest, just in case for some reason I either forget or stop caring.)
It looks like the following:
(That image, by the way, comes from Acer’s promotional material – original image here.)
What isn’t recorded on the sticker of course is the monitor resolution. At a whopping 15.6″, I expected it to be 1900×1020 – after all, when I was an engineering manager in 2006 and buying 15″ Dell laptops, they had (for the time) quite high resolution screens, and my 13″ Mac Book Pro retina features a resolution of 2560×1600. I wasn’t expecting a retina resolution at $500, but so many people insist Windows laptops are very good at a substantially lower price, and it looked quite nice in the store showing Windows 8.1 tiles … so imagine my surprise when I got it home and it turned out to be 1366×768.
This, it seems, is actually quite normal in 15″ and higher Windows laptops these days. To say I find it odd would be an understatement. It would appear in the period I’d not been using Windows laptops, their average screen resolution went backwards, not forwards.
Having used the laptop for a couple of weeks, it occurred to me that people who go and buy laptops with only 2GB of RAM must have an awful amount of spare time on their hands, so I was compelled to upgrade it to 8GB of RAM. Shortly thereafter, I realised that I’d been spoiled by the general fecundity of SSD units within Apple laptops, and replaced the 1TB SATA hard drive with a 256GB SSD I had laying around to be used in another project.
Between the 8GB of RAM and the SSD, the laptop moved up from Oh hell will I ever get the system back to Ah yes, this is a computer now. For fairness, I should note that I suspect I’d become equally exasperated with one of those low-end Mac Book Airs with 4GB of RAM. (It just doesn’t cut it for desktop operating systems any more.)
Windows 8.1 is an interesting beast. To give it credit, it’s like the ADHD boyscout described in the Vista review quoted above has grown up and developed a relationship with Ritalin. It still wants to popup and tell you things, but it’s more relaxed about it, and does it less frequently than Vista or (worse), Windows XP did.
There are definitely oddities involved. As I’ve experienced on numerous other Windows laptops over the years, the very first time you plug in an external mouse there’s a whole lot of whirring and checking for device drivers, optimum settings and Aunt Mavis’ shortbread recipe. Windows has become much better at hibernating and waking up – which is pretty fortunate, given the Synaptics Trackpad software installed will periodically decide that (despite my insistence to the contrary), the left-mouse click is no longer available, and only sleeping the computer and waking it back up will remind it that left is a valid click. (And if it’s not doing that, it’s insisting resolutely that I’m holding down the left button no matter what.)
There’s something I find inherently blocky in the window title bars, too. It looks like something out of Windows 2.0:
(I admit I’m being picky by criticising the title bar design, but it strikes me as irksome every time I see it.)
Windows 8.1 is more usable than v8; I’d used that in a couple of virtual machines and found it horrendously frustrating to use. By comparison, 8.1 is in fact a pleasure to use.
But I still come back to the hardware.
For years while using a Mac I’d been told that I was a fanboy (or fanboi) – that Windows machines were considerably cheaper than the equivalent Macintosh, but since buying this plastic, finger-print absorbing Acer I’ve spent quite a lot of time wading through the websites for Dell, HP and Lenovo, and I’m left with one basic conclusion: anyone who now says that a Windows machine is cheaper than a Mac is the sort of person who’ll buy chuck steak for a BBQ because it’s cheaper than scotch fillet and insist it’s just as good. (I’m also left with another basic conclusion: HP, Dell and Lenovo may have heard of “design aesthetics” for web-site stores, but they all snorted derisively at this notion and decided that the only thing people want is slow, complex and ugly-as-sin shopping experiences.)
I’m inclined to suggest that the biggest thing now hobbling Windows is no longer the operating system itself, but all the tired OEM vendors showing a distinct lack of imagination and lack of care towards build quality flooding the market with cheap and nasty equipment. In other words: it’s not the OS so much that I dislike any more, but what it runs on.