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The Great Vista/Mac showdown: Hardware is where customization begins and ends

Today, the configuration of the computer hardware has everything to do with what you want to get done most efficiently or, in specialized applications, with the greatest flexibility in the software and resulting work product.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor

Today, the configuration of the computer hardware has everything to do with what you want to get done most efficiently or, in specialized applications, with the greatest flexibility in the software and resulting work product. It’s no longer the case that one computer is just like any other, because what people do with them has exploded the old idea of data or word processing, turning the device into something as personal to its owner as their own mind, which is itself analogous to the hardware-and-software system we depend upon to do our work.

The other change, at least when considering the Windows and Macintosh operating systems is that it is no longer the case If the MacBook Pro is a 911 Carrera, then the ThinkPad is a BMW 7 Series that any executive would want to be seen in.that Mac hardware is inevitably more expensive than a PC. Hardware parity makes the choice of operating system all the more important, because it shapes the possibilities of the work or play you’ll do with the computer.
To the hardware, then, for a couple of postings, because it is important to understand why we need to think about the hardware-software system.
The two systems selected for this Vista/Mac OS X comparison are virtually the same price as configured, the Lenovo X60 tablet ringing in at $2,586 and the MacBook Pro 15-inch at $2,499.

A comparison of the features and price of the test systems

The MacBook Pro delivers higher performance—an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.33GHz with a 4MB Level 2 cache compared to the ThinkPad’s Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz with 2MB Level 2 cache—but is a far less flexible system, because the ThinkPad is both a laptop and a tablet that can be used while walking around at a weight of only 4.3 lbs. or docked with a slew of additional ports.
Comparing them by price alone misses the relevant point: They are both excellent high-end systems. Each has strengths that make it more appropriate for certain kinds of work.
The Mac is still the best system for working with media. Dedicated video memory, dual-link DVI output, Firewire 400 and 800 ports, and optical/digital audio input and output make this the system most prepared to be set down at a recording session, video shoot or anywhere you’ll need to take media from a variety of devices. The simple fact that Apple’s core media subsystems are able to isolate their processes from background tasks conducted by the operating system makes it a better choice for any live media recording.
Vista has introduced a new audio engine that relies on Intel’s High Definition Audio technology to, supposedly, dedicate system resources to audio processes to avoid the dropouts when recording. I am told this has not resolved the problem of losing data as the OS runs its background tasks by Microsoft employees and I will be testing this in detail later in this comparison. Suffice to say for now that Windows still isn’t as friendly to media as it needs to be.
The ThinkPad is the system I carry when I am traveling, taking a Mac along when I am going to be working audio or video. As a business system, ThinkPads are simply the best solution because of their light weight, rugged construction and connectivity. Both systems sport 802.11a/b/g and the new 802.11n Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth, but the ThinkPad is a better citizen when roaming. New X60 systems can be configured with a Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN, using EV-DO service from Verizon), though I use a Sprint PC EV-DO card.

The MacBook still does not enjoy reliable support from wireless carriers. The ExpressCard/34 slot will probably resolve this in the near future, but there is a tax on users for Apple’s early adoption of this new PC card spec, because it will be necessary to buy a new card for the MacBook Pro.

Finally, the tablet features of the ThinkPad are unique in this comparison. Apple does not offer a tablet, which is a surprisingly useful thing in many situations, from the middle seat of a plane to sitting and playing a game of chess with my kids. The fact the ThinkPad X60 is convertible from normal laptop use to tablet use makes it, essentially, two different computers that can be chosen based on where and how one is working.

That dual character is where the OS returns to the forefront. Vista’s Home Premium, Business and Ultimate editions include tablet support. Windows' support for the wide range of cards and peripherals used by various PC makers makes it the more flexible of the two systems out of the box. Vista enables a broader range of computer use cases, though most of those depend on peripherals and hardware configurations that aren't sold by computer OEMs. Eventually, however, I believe the computer will be so dependent on its configuration for the individual—much more than today, as customization will involve unique combinations of hardware and software offered to buyers who do not want to assemble their computer working environment themselves—that the number and variety of configurations assembled by the OEM will boggle the mind.

In that world, which is already emerging in the breadth of models and configurations offered by PC makers, Apple's end-to-end user experience will continue to be treasured, like a Porsche is today. But if the MacBook Pro is a 911 Carrera, then the ThinkPad is a BMW 7 Series that any executive would want to be seen in. There are plenty of cheaper PCs analogous to commuter cars, as well as SUV-like systems that are big, bulky and powerful but generic. These two systems are designed for the work we do.

Apple will eventually have a tablet, too, but this will mean a new set of stylus-controlled system functions that may not be ideal at first. The recently announced iPhone’s finger-based interface is not going to work on a tablet for the simple reason that we don’t write with our fingertips. Nor will it work on an existing MacBook, which doesn’t have the ability to fold the display back on the keyboard/CPU to allow handwritten input.

Granted, the Darwin kernel is open and the Mac easily programmed, but the tight control on the user experienced exerted by Apple makes its garden walls higher, albeit more exclusive and luxurious-seeming, than that of Windows. There is no Linux distro that provides support for tablet computing with built-in handwriting recognition that I am aware of, by the way.

The OS can only do so much, so we must turn to the libraries of third-party applications, widgets/gadgets, Web services and everything else we can throw into the pot to cook our own computing experience. Both Vista and Macintosh will have an application to support almost any need (here is a list of Vista-compatible applications and Universal Mac applications), but both are in the midst of changes that have challenged developers to upgrade their work to take full advantage of the OS—Vista is a substantial rebuild of the OS that developers have only begun to address while the Mac community is still transitioning to Universal application support for Intel systems.

So, we have two machines whose strengths will come through as we explore the OSes and applications they run. I carry both, depending on the tasks I need to do for my companies and clients.

Previous entries in this series:

    Before the starting gun
    Unboxing the ThinkPad X60 and MacBook Pro

Note: Thanks to several readers for pointing out that I'd mangled the name of the ExpressCard/34 in the original version of this posting. 

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