Switching from PC to Mac and back: three lessons learned so far

I'm running a PC and a Mac side by side as part of a long-term commitment to developing more expertise in Apple's platform. In this post, I share three of the lessons I've learned along the way, including insights about old habits, new hardware, and the joys of cross-platform software and services.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

We live in a cross-platform world. Windows-powered PCs still dominate in the workplace, but Macs have captured substantial market share and even greater mind share among the affluent and well connected.

As I explained two weeks ago, I'm running a PC and a Mac side by side as part of a long-term commitment to developing more expertise in Apple's platform and, along the way, helping my readers bridge the Mac-PC gap more smoothly.

So far, it's been a mostly delightful, if occasionally challenging experience. Although I've owned a Mac for several years, I've probably used this one more in the past two weeks than I have in the past six months combined. In this post, I'll share three of the lessons I've learned from switching between platforms, including insights about old habits, new hardware, and the joys of cross-platform software and services.


The software that has made this setup possible for me is an open-source package called Synergy, which allows two or more computers (running Windows, OS X, or Linux) to share a single keyboard and mouse. I finally broke down and spent some quality RTFM time with the program's documentation, a process that gave me a series of small headaches but solved a few bigger ones.

The Synergy software has an unfortunate interaction with Internet Explorer. When Synergy is running, it causes the New Tab button in Internet Explorer to stop working in some circumstances and can even temporarily freeze IE. I first encountered these symptoms a week or so ago and I assumed it was a bug in Internet Explorer 9, but the problems persisted even after I uninstalled the IE9 beta and went back to IE8 on Windows 7.

After much troubleshooting, including resetting IE to its default configuration and uninstalling every add-on, I finally concluded that the Synergy software was to blame. This Stack Overflow thread confirmed that I'm not the only person experiencing this issue, and it also offered what appears so far to be an effective workaround—running Synergy as a standard user rather than as a system service.

I've made a conscious effort to spend roughly half my time in each OS over the past two weeks, a task made easier now that Office 2011 for Mac is finally released and available through TechNet.

Overall, I find more similarities than differences between PCs and Macs these days. Both Windows 7 and OS X Snow Leopard are mature, highly usable operating systems with an ample selection of quality third-party software and hardware to choose from. Aside from a few PC-only features like Blu-ray playback and built-in support for TV tuner hardware, I haven't found any task that I can't accomplish on either platform. The difference is the degree of difficulty, which varies depending on your experience and personal preferences.

I suspect a lot of my readers can relate to what I'm trying to do here. If you use Windows at the office and a Mac at home, you know what I'm talking about. If you have a desktop PC running Windows 7 and a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air running OS X, you've probably run into some of the same issues I have.

On the next three pages, I call out the three biggest lessons I've learned along the way.

Page 2: The keyboard is the biggest pain point. Nagging inconsistencies in basic keyboard operation have been, without question, my greatest source of frustration as I've switched between PCs and Macs. It's a little like learning a new language.

Page 3: Cross-platform tools and services are a blessing. It helps immensely to have some tools that look and act the same in both places. Here are some of the tools I've found indispensable so far.

Page 4: Hardware matters. There's no question that a Mac is easier to maintain than an equivalent PC. But a lot of that simplicity comes as a direct result of a lack of choices. Here's how I'm resolving those trade-offs.

Page 2: Keyboard shortcuts are a pain point -->

<-- Previous page

When you switch from PC to Mac and back again, keyboard shortcuts are the biggest pain point.

Nagging inconsistencies in basic keyboard operation have been, without question, my greatest source of frustration over the past couple weeks. I am a keyboard-centric Windows guy, with years and years of experience using Windows and Windows apps. I use Windows-standard keyboard shortcuts everywhere:

  • Ctrl+arrow and Ctrl+Shift+arrow to navigate and make selections anywhere there's editable text.
  • Ctrl+C, Ctrl+X, and Ctrl+V to copy, cut, and paste, respectively.
  • Ctrl+A to select all the text in a document or all the items in a folder or the full address in a browser window.

I can tap the Windows logo key to open the Start menu and immediately begin typing into the search box, and there are a whole lot of other shortcuts that go with that key.  When I press Windows logo key + E, for example, Windows Explorer opens to a view that shows all available drives. Windows logo key + L locks the screen. And so on.

Each one of those shortcuts is different on a Mac. The OS X version of many (but not all) shortcuts replaces the Control key with the Command key. Command+A is Select All, for example, and Command+C is copy, but moving or selecting a word in either direction is Option+arrow or Option+Shift+arrow on the Mac. There's no real equivalent to the Windows key in Apple's world. To start a search using the Spotlight box, I have to press Command+space.

The layout of those accelerator keys is confusing also. On a Mac keyboard, the Command key is located where the Alt key is on a PC keyboard, just to the left of the spacebar. A Mac keyboard has a Control key in roughly the same place as its PC namesake, but the two keys are rarely used in the same way. Here's what I see when I switch between keyboards.


So when my muscle memory kicks in and I press Control instead of Command, the result on the Mac is often something other than what I expected. It's like learning a foreign language, and it can take months or years to achieve the same level of fluency in one as in the other.

The problem affects applications, too. In Word 2010 on Windows, I press Ctrl+Shift+left to select the word to the left of the insertion point. On Word 2011 for the Mac, the same keyboard shortcut promotes the current paragraph to heading level, and to undo the change I need to press Command+Z instead of Control+Z as my typing fingers keep insisting.

I imagine experienced Mac users have the same problem when they sit down in front of a Windows PC. The systemwide shortcuts are just different enough, and the layout of the physical keyboard complicates things even more.

On the Mac, I tried using a keyboard remapper called DoubleCommand to help make the Mac keyboard layout feel more PC-like, but it merely changes the problem, it doesn't eliminate it. So I bit the bullet and I'm training myself to do things the OS X way, using a Mac keyboard. So far it's been less difficult than learning Italian.

What eases that mild discomfort is a refreshingly large collection of tools and services designed to work well on either a Mac or a PC, without significant compromises.

Page 3: Cross-platform tools and services -->

<-- Previous page

Cross-platform tools and services are a blessing when you move back and forth between a PC and a Mac. It helps immensely to have some tools that look and act the same in both places. Fortunately, software and web developers have discovered there's a pretty big market for this sort of stuff.

If I were strictly a PC or exclusively a Mac, this wouldn't matter, but in my current configuration it certainly does. Here are some of the tools I've found indispensable so far. (If you have other suggestions, feel free to leave them in the Talkback section.)

LastPass is a brilliant and indispensable password-management tool that allows you to create strong passwords for web sites. Save a set of credentials in one place and those credentials appear  in the other location, unlocked only by a private master password. LastPass works in every major browser on Windows, OS X, and Linux—not to mention lots of mobile devices. Although the LastPass Vault page works a bit differently depending on which OS/browser combo you're using, it's pleasantly consistent. I can't imagine using a PC or a Mac without it.


For Twitter, I switch between TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop 2. The secret of compatibility for each program is a cross-platform runtime: TweetDeck runs on Adobe AIR, Seesmic Desktop 2 is powered by Microsoft Silverlight. Although I had problems with TweetDeck in its early days, it's been a very reliable performer in recent releases. I have not encountered any memory, performance, or stability problems with AIR or Silverlight on either platform. I have to confess, though, it's strange to see this dialog box on a Mac:


In addition to the default browsers for each OS (Internet Explorer on the PC, Safari on the Mac) I have Firefox 4.0b7 and the latest stable build of Google Chrome installed on both PCs. I use all three on both platforms, depending on sites and circumstances. My default browsers are the IE9 beta on the PC and Firefox on the Mac.

Most browser-based apps run equally well on a PC or a Mac. The WordPress management dashboard and editing console, for example, work pretty much the same everywhere, as do webmail services. Most Google services work just fine in IE on Windows. Likewise, most Windows Live services work well in Chrome or Safari on a Mac.  I had no problems using the Office Web Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) in any browser on the Mac, except for the ability to open documents directly in Office 2011 programs.


I use Windows Live Mesh for file syncing. The Mac version works surprisingly well, and I like its flexibility in allowing me to map multiple folders to sync between different computers, including a variety of laptops. Some people might prefer Dropbox, which is a little simpler to set up and use, but having used the two extensively, I prefer Windows Live Mesh.

The latest releases of Microsoft Office for Windows and OS X have lots of similarities but far more differences than I expected. I'll have a closer look at Office and other applications in a later installment.

Page 4: Hardware matters -->

<-- Previous page

Switching from a PC to a Mac, even for occasional use, really makes me appreciate the virtues of both ecosystems.

There is no question that a Mac is easier to maintain than an equivalent PC. On a Mac, I don't have to worry about updating drivers, and I feel absolutely no need to run an antivirus program. On the other hand, a lot of that simplicity comes as a direct result of a lack of choices.

For instance, upgrades that are trivially easy on a PC are difficult or impossible on a Mac. It's easy and cheap to add RAM to a desktop PC for memory-intensive tasks like video editing or running virtual machines. Those upgrades are not so easy and definitely not as cheap with a Mac.

I've upgraded the graphics card on this PC twice, each time making a substantial difference in performance on a whole class of new applications that tap directly into the GPU to offload tasks like video transcoding. You can't upgrade the graphics on a Mac Mini or a MacBook or an iMac, ever. If you want a more powerful graphics processor, you have to buy a new Mac.

And speaking of choices… If I want a quad-core Intel i7 CPU, I have thousands of options in the PC ecosystem, at all price points. Apple offers exactly one i7-based product suitable for use as a desktop machine, a 27-inch iMac that is beautiful but also costs $2599 with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. I can buy a top-of-the-line HP Pavilion Elite with a bigger hard drive and a better GPU, add a gorgeous 30-inch professional-grade S-IPS flat panel, and still spend less than that. Or I can attach two 24-inch monitors and save another $500.

[Update: As several readers have pointed out, the MacBook Pro is available with a dual-core i7 and a 15-inch or 17-inch screen. With 8GB of RAM and a relatively slow 5400RPM 500GB hard drive, this notebook costs $2599 or $2899, depending on screen size.]

One of the first things I discovered after I set up this configuration is that using a single monitor is no fun. Even at 1920 x 1200, managing windows is a chore. Windows 7 has Aero Snap, which works really well for arranging windows side by side, and Apple has Exposé, which offers decent app-switching options. But having at least two monitors is a huge boon to productivity. I've added a second monitor to the PC and to the Mac (for a total of four on the desktop) so I can compare the benefits of dual displays on each platform. In each case, the system detected the second monitor and configured it without any effort (although I had to buy a custom adapter cable to use the Mac's mini-DVI port).


The strangest part of using dual displays on the Mac is the menu bar, which sits at the top of one monitor. If you have two high-res displays and you maximize an app on the secondary display, you have to move the mouse all the way to the top of the other monitor to perform some tasks

The price/performance ratio is really in the PC's favor in my configuration. I notice the Mac slowing down dramatically when I start to use up most of its 2GB of installed RAM. An upgrade to 4GB would be cheap ($50 or so), but on this one-year-old Mac that process involves a fairly tortuous disassembly process involving putty knives and lots of tiny screws. The newer 2010 models support up to 8GB of RAM, although the uprade price for that configuration is a mind-boggling $500. Fortunately, they allow users to upgrade RAM easily via a panel on the bottom of the case.

I'll probably end up selling the Mini and buying a newer model, maybe even a 27-inch iMac. I'll probably wind up spending an extra grand, but I'll get a faster CPU, more memory (and the option to expand it easily), and discrete graphics, which will certainly make for a better all-around computing experience.

Hey, did you notice that? I'm starting to think like a Mac owner…

Editorial standards