Reader mail: To Mac or not to Mac

Can you justify the cost of the Mac for back-to-school or back-to-work needs?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I've been writing a bit more about Macs than usual lately, although it's probably not surprising with my recent MacBook Pro purchase. However, I've received a fair amount of mail from readers who feel the same way I do: Macs are brilliant machines, but they're bloody expensive and the closed ecosystem, while great for ensuring an awesome user experience, means vendor lock-in of the first degree. In the spirit of back to school, though, I figured I'd feature one reader's email that asked the essential question that Mac-loving parents and students are often answering right about now.

Here's what Curt Fast had to say (and ask) about an upcoming purchase:

I found another person who feels exactly as I do about Apple.

I've been using the Mac since MacintoshII, about 20 years or more. I am a digital retoucher/finisher and do design and creative on the side. I like you am not complaining, but need productivity out of my hardware. I hate getting raped by Apple every time I need to purchase new hardware. Recently I thought about switching to the top of the line HP since it runs smoothly with CS5, but I can't bring myself to do it even if it is one-third the cost. So I'm looking into the laptop. I have three workstations at home because of four students who need the stations. And I'm just a working stiff who would love to get Apple to give breaks to those of us who are just trying to raise a family, be the home I.T. guy and basic guru for any computer questions teenaged girls would have.

What would you suggest? Buy another Mac laptop or go with the HP top of the line laptop? Since it's just CS5 and office that I use.

That's the conundrum, right? If you go strictly feature for feature, prices for PCs and Macs aren't completely out of whack. However, the advantage that PCs offer in terms of cost is drastically greater hardware choice, allowing users to configure systems that meet their requirements without buying more PC than they need. It's also possible to find discrete graphics and quad-core processors at relatively low prices, whereas Macs lock you into higher clock speed, dual core processors. The latter, however, improves energy savings/battery life and, since few applications make use of more than 4 threads, the higher clock speeds result in better everyday performance.

So what's the answer? Unless you're buying an HP Envy, I can say from experience that the HP laptops simply lack the durability of their Apple cousins. Windows 7 is a great OS, but Snow Leopard is pretty darned nice too. The Quartz graphics engine on the Macs and some of the screen options make for very rich visual experiences and, if I had to use Photoshop somewhere, I'd rather do it on a Mac.

That being said, Adobe CS5 runs like a champ on any quad-core PC with a decent graphics card and a well-configured 17" HP Pavilion will certainly save some serious dough over a 17" MacBook Pro.

Unfortunately, this decision will probably come down to cost for most consumers and many pros. Can you justify the extra dollars for a Mac? If you make your living on the machine and the interface resonates better with your creative soul, enhancing productivity, then yes, you probably can. If you just need a capable PC at the lowest cost, then consumer Windows laptops will get the job done.

For Mr. Fast, my money is on the Mac, since it's an interface he knows and loves. Unfortunately for him, it's not my money.

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