My household growing up was a PC household. We all used Windows computers every day. I stayed with Microsoft throughout my college and grad-school years too. It was what I knew, and it worked.
Then, in 2008, I was producing a video series, and it suddenly fell on me to start editing. The team had been working in Final Cut 7, a software suite exclusive to Apple. I grimaced, forked over my credit card, and made the switch to a new MacBook Pro.
After a bit of a learning curve, I was converted. Apple’s Mac OS X was so well thought-out, and my new machine was fast and powerful. When it came time to upgrade in 2012, I got another MacBook Pro without even thinking about it. That second machine served me well for most of the next six years. But in 2018, I needed to upgrade again. I was a tech reporter by then, reviewing cameras that shoot video in 4K and even 360-degree 5.2K. My old laptop just didn’t have the horsepower to keep up.
So I went to a Best Buy to try the latest and greatest MacBook Pro. I hated it. The keyboard was awful—the same “butterfly switch” model that would soon become notorious—and as I tried some online typing tests in the store, the errors piled up. I hated that it had only USB-C ports, and I imagined myself in dongle hell each time I needed to connect a standard USB-A cord or an HDMI cable. The screen was nice, but that display hadn’t really improved much since my late-2012 model, and it was using processors and graphics cards from nearly a whole year earlier. And for this I was supposed to pay 4,000 bucks? I was shocked.
In a bit of a daze, I wandered over to the PC laptops. Most looked like relics made of cheap plastic, but there was one that immediately caught my eye: The 15.6-inch HP Spectre x360. It was gorgeous. It had a gorgeous 4K screen—and a touchscreen at that! It sported a pair of Thunderbolt-equipped USB-C ports, as well as a standard USB-A, a full-sized HDMI port, and an SD card slot. It could be folded back into a (gigantic) tablet, and it even had a mechanical webcam kill switch for added security. It had the latest-generation silicon, and even with 16 gigs of RAM, the whole thing would cost roughly half the price of the MacBook Pro with weaker specs. After many hours of research and hand-wringing, I decided to take the plunge and go back to Windows.
That was nearly a year and a half ago. Maybe you’ve been thinking about making the jump too. Well, I am here to tell you about all the good things, the bad things, and the ugly things you can expect if you’re switching to Windows after many years in Apple’s walled garden.
Start Me Up
Getting up and running was pretty simple. I just logged in with my Microsoft account (you most likely already have one too) and set up the security features. In addition to setting a password, you can configure your laptop to unlock with your fingerprint or by positioning your face in front of the camera, a convenient feature called Windows Hello. Once I was set up, it was just a matter of downloading and installing my most-used applications (Chrome, Word, the Adobe Premiere Creative Suite, TextExpander). I was relieved to find that most of my favorite apps exist on both platforms, with a few exceptions that we’ll get to.
Migrating my personal data was trickier. For my documents, I did some research and decided to use Google Backup and Sync. I used it to back up my whole Documents folder from my old MBP into the cloud, then download all of it as one big zip file to my new PC. I extracted it into the local Documents folder on my new PC, then set Backups and Sync to back up that folder from my HP, which would ensure that everything I do in those folders from then on would be instantly backed up should my new computer decide to self-destruct.
My external hard drives were another pain point. For 10 or so years, every external hard drive I’d had was formatted in the Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system, which can be read only by Apple computers. Because I do a lot of photo and video work, I had quite a collection of large, full hard drives that were now effectively paperweights. So, for each of the hard drives I wanted to continue using I had to buy a new, blank hard drive, then use a program on my MacBook Pro (Carbon Copy Cloner) to copy the old drives to news ones, which would be in the exFAT format readable by both operating systems. It took my MacBook Pro 44 hours to duplicate 1.5 terabytes, and that was just one drive.
Lost in Translation
There is no way of getting around it: Windows just doesn’t have the same level of polish as macOS, the new name Apple has given to the operating system formerly known as OS X. It’s not even close. Some Windows applications look like they haven’t been updated since the late ’90s. Even within Windows itself, you’ll find screens that look modern and fabulous (like the Start menu and the excellent multitasking interface) alongside things like the Disk Management application, which looks like it teleported here from decades ago.
In my writing and video editing, I’ve come to rely heavily on keyboard shortcuts—those magical keystroke combinations that save tons of mousing—but shortcuts in Windows are virtually never the same as their Mac counterparts. Muscle memory is very stubborn, so this made things frustrating. Tasks that used to be done with Apple’s Command key are done with Windows’ Control key. Inconsistencies abound: Sometimes Control+F4 closes an application, and sometimes it’s Alt+F4, even in Microsoft’s own programs. How does that happen?
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On the third day, I somehow managed to infect my browser with some adware. I think it piggy-backed in with a disk utility I downloaded. Whether due to luck or Apple’s security, it was my first malware encounter in years, and it left me feeling somewhat less secure. McAfee Antivirus (a free trial came installed) hadn’t done anything to stop it, either.
Those gripes are all software-related. On the hardware side, things were better. The laptop was fast and responsive, the screen was sharp, and the keyboard was easy to type on. Having a legacy USB port proved to be invaluable, especially in those early days as I was using a thumb drive to move files from the old machine to the new one. I also loved having a built-in micro SD card reader, even if I would have preferred a full-sized SD card slot. But still, better than the dearth of connectivity options on the MacBook Pro.
Apple really set the standard in the modern capacitive touchscreen world when the original iPhone came out. Considering how good the touchscreen on the iPad (and later iPad Pro) got, I assumed a touch-display on a MacBook Pro was just around the corner. But it still hasn’t arrived, and that’s shocking to me. After spending about 18 months with the HP Spectre x360, I can tell you unequivocally that having a touchscreen on a laptop is great.
It just makes multitasking that much easier. Scrolling and zooming is quick, and when a message box pops up on the screen, it’s frequently much faster to just poke OK or Cancel with your finger than having to reposition the mouse pointer.
A touchscreen is also great for working with images in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. When I needed to do some shading or make a precise selection, it was far easier to do that with the HP Tilt Pen (a powered stylus) than it was with the trackpad or even a mouse. No, the pen-on-screen system is not as accurate as a Wacom tablet, but for a minimal, travel-friendly setup, it works very well. As a user, there are zero disadvantages to a touchscreen. Zero.
The software available for macOS is just so much better than what’s available for Windows. Not only do most companies make and update their macOS software first (hello, GoPro), but the Mac versions by and large work better than their Windows counterparts. Some programs you can’t even get for Windows. Carbon Copy Cloner, one of the most important programs in my arsenal, just plain doesn’t exist for Windows. “Surely there must be some alternatives,” you say? There are, and literally all of them suck quite thoroughly.
Even when apps do exist for both platforms, the Windows versions are far buggier. The Adobe Creative Cloud suite is 10 times more screwed up on Windows than it is on macOS. Even basic things like two-finger scrolling through a timeline in Adobe Premiere are completely borked. I’ve had problems exporting videos because there are so many different chipsets out there for Windows (both CPUs and GPUs) that Premiere has trouble keeping updated to support them all. When you search for help on the internet, there are fewer answers, because there aren’t as many people who have your same setup.
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I hear random chimes all the time. Each one signifies an error, but Windows often doesn’t tell me what I did wrong, or even what application is protesting. At one point, I wanted to change one of Windows’ default keyboard shortcuts. How do you do that, you ask? Why, just follow these elaborate steps through the baffling Registry Editor and enter some code into a sea of gobbledygook. Insanity. By contrast, the same task in macOS involves four straightforward steps.
The one arena where Windows has the software advantage is gaming. There’s a reason they call it PC Gaming. Much of that is owed to the modular nature of PCs, where you can slap a super-powered graphics processor into your chassis, but the net result is there are far fewer games for Apple computers. As if to emphasize this, while demand for virtual reality content is steadily growing, Steam just announced that it will be discontinuing SteamVR support for macOS. Womp womp.
Sweet Vishnu, why are drive letters still a thing that exist in Windows? Of all the ideas Microsoft has lifted from Apple over the years, ditching drive letters should have been among the first.
For those who have never used a Windows computer, your internal hard drive is typically the “C drive.” When you plug in external drives, or even SD cards, they are each assigned a drive letter as well. If you’re the type who tends to juggle multiple external hard drives and a lot of SD cards, you will find that Windows does not retain any consistency with the letters it assigns to the drives each time you attach one.
You could plug in the same drive multiple times, and Windows could decide it’s the D drive, or F drive, or G or P or Q drive on any given day. When that happens, suddenly Lightroom doesn’t know where to find the photos in your catalog—it’s looking for D:Photos, but now that location is called G:Photos. You can use the Disk Management app to manually assign a letter to each of your storage devices, but Windows sometimes switches the letters back anyway. More often than not, you probably won’t notice a drive has a different letter assigned to it until it’s too late and everything is a mess.
Microsoft, while I’m sure there are three humans left on Earth who appreciate the backward compatibility with MS-DOS, please, you have got to stop this. Throw drive letters into a sea of sulfuric lava. Apple has found a way. Linux has found a way. Just freakin’ find a way, already!
On a Mac, you get a notification every now and then that there’s a software update available for your computer. You click the update button, the update runs, and then you don’t need to think about it again until the next time. Generally, Apple bundles several small updates into one big pack so you can run them all at once. With a Windows machine, like my Spectre x360, different components are made by different companies, and each has its own update schedule. I may have to do separate updates for Microsoft, HP, Intel, and Nvidia. The Microsoft and HP updates are usually fine. The Intel and Nvidia updates usually aren’t.
For Intel, it’s rare that you get a notification about an update, so you need to remember to manually check it every once in a while. This is done by opening the Intel Driver & Support Assistant app, which takes you directly to Intel’s website. The website scans your PC and tells you what updates you need to download. It frequently tells me that I need to install an update that I have already installed. For Nvidia (which makes the graphics chip), you have to remember to open the GeForce Experience app from time to time, log in, and then install a gigantic update file. This update file is either very necessary for basic computing functions or is an optimization for some new game that you do not—and will never—own. It won’t tell you which. It would be great if Microsoft could wrangle all of these loose parts into one unified update app, because right now it feels very haphazard.
I’ve mostly loved this HP laptop I selected that day at Best Buy, but it does this weird thing. It has a tendency to randomly turn itself on when it’s supposed to be asleep, even when the lid is closed. It just suddenly fires up, and the fan is screaming, so you can tell it’s working hard. But what the hell is it doing? And why? It woke up like this once when it was plugged in, and it whirred all night and was too hot to pick up in the morning. The bottom of the laptop had two rubber strips to keep it from sliding around on a table. It’s gotten so hot at times that the glue has melted and both strips have fallen off. Impressive!
It’s also done that when unplugged, tucked away in my backpack. I once put it in, fully charged, then pulled it out on a flight only to discover that it had awakened for reasons unknown, was blazing hot, and that the battery had drained to 17 percent. Unacceptable. I had a ton of work to do that day, and there were no outlets on that five-hour flight. I’ve also had it refuse to charge past 87 percent (or sometimes 93 percent), only for it to charge all the way to 100 the next time I plug it in. Why? Who knows.
Of course, that’s not the only issue. I like having Windows Hello face recognition and a fingerprint scanner, but both are pretty inconsistent. The face scan is fairly reliable as long as the room isn’t too dark or you aren’t backlit, but then sometimes everything is perfect and it just refuses to recognize you. The fingerprint scanner is very finicky. I would say that roughly half of the time, it takes multiple attempts to recognize my finger. After it fails five times, it forces me to type my password, and this happens more often than it should. If the little fingerprint scanner on my Pixel 3 XL nails this nearly every time, I don’t understand why this can’t too.
Through the Looking Glass
This all sounds like I’ve just been waiting to unload on Windows, but that’s not the case. Most of the time, my laptop works great. It’s still fast, I still love the screen, the keyboard (with numerical keypad!), the ports, and the card-reader. Even Windows is fine most of the time. Except when it isn’t, and then it makes me insane. I should note that macOS is also not perfect. I remember plenty of frustrating bugs in Apple-land too—especially with the Adobe suite—but the problems in Windows are simply more numerous and more frequent.
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Recently, with the launch of the 16-inch MacBook Pro (and now the updated 13-inch as well), Apple addressed some of the issues I’d had before I made my switch. It finally ditched that awful keyboard, and it added a ton of horsepower, which makes it more appealing for those of us who work with video. Critics have been swooning. Of course, there’s still no 4K screen or touchscreen, and it has only USB-C ports, and I know I will constantly lose the various adapters I’d need just to do basic things like plug in my USB microphone or attach my computer to a TV. I know I will spend months poking my screen out of habit and cursing it for not doing anything. Not least significantly, the version I’d want would cost me around $4,000.
So I look at that price tag and I take stock. Just how much do my annoyances add up to? How much time have I wasted fixing stupid Windows glitches that don’t exist in macOS? How much do I miss programs like Carbon Copy Cloner? Hell, how much do I miss Finder, which works a million times better than Windows’ dreaded File Explorer? But four grand? That still feels outrageous.
Ultimately, I don’t really want to switch back to Mac. I want the world to change. For Windows to be more cohesive and polished and to get rid of all the weird gremlins in the machine. For developers to make programs for Windows that are as good—and as reliable—as those they make for macOS. I’d keep this hardware if I could, but I don’t have the time or patience to try to Hackintosh it into running macOS. Fortunately, I don’t have to make my decision right now. But if Apple really has begun to right the ship with the MacBook Pro line, then it’s probably only a matter of time before it figures out which body part I can mortgage so I can afford to switch back.
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