By Harry McCracken | Monday, November 2, 2009 at 7:44 am
Back in 2004, I was shopping for a new laptop at CompUSA. I took a wrong turn into the store’s tiny Apple section and had an epiphany: Why not buy a Mac? (I’d been a Mac user in the 1980s, and still used them on the job to do page layouts, but every computer I’d bought since 1992 had run Windows.) If nothing else, I figured it would make me a smarter computer journalist, and I couldn’t think of any showstopping arguments against owning a Mac…even though I was the editor of PC World.
I ended up buying a 12-inch PowerBook. I’ve purchased and used both Macs and Windows machines in the years since, but have unquestionably logged more hours on Macs than on Windows PCs over the past two or three years.
That’s about to change, at least for a little while. Now that Windows 7 is the current version of the operating system, I’m not only going to use it–which I’ve been doing with various versions for a year–but to run it as my primary OS. What better way to come to some real-world, up-to-the-moment conclusions about how Windows and Apple’s OS compare?
The Windows 7 computer I’m going to be spending most of my time with is an Asus UL30A-X5. It’s one of those newfangled ultra-low voltage, thin-and-light laptops that the PC industry hopes will replace netbooks. It’s got a 1.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, no optical drive, and the most hard-disk space I’ve ever had in one PC: 500GB. The screen measures 13.3″, the keyboard and the touchpad are comfy. The touchpad button is too small, and the claimed battery life of twelve hours feels like an impossible dream so far. Mostly, though, I’m happy–especially for the $675 I paid.
A few initial thoughts about life with Windows 7 on the UL30A-X5:
This thin-and-light form factor is nice. I don’t think it’s going to kill off netbooks, since there’s a price premium–this UL30A-X5 cost $300 more than my Asus Eee PC 1000HE. But I like the balance of size, weight, power, and price. It’s sort of like a hybrid of the best features of the $999 white MacBook and the $1499 MacBook Air, only much less expensive than either.
Windows 7 runs well on this system. Last year, I bought a Lenovo ThinkPad with Windows Vista preinstalled, and it was a chokey, pokey dog of a PC–until I downgraded it to Windows XP, whereupon it became quite pleasant. The Asus comes with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, and it’s run pretty smoothly so far. It hasn’t been quirk-free–at one point it shut itself down and rebooted for reasons I couldn’t determine, and PowerPoint sometimes forgets to render thumbnails–but Macs can behave oddly, too.
Windows remains kinda messy. This is something which Windows 7 didn’t seem to address. I have two Downloads folders–one alongside my My Documents one and one inside it. Different software companies still have different philosophies about where they should program files. Some programs install a folder on the Start menu, and others just stick an icon there. End result: I spend more time looking for stuff than I do in Snow Leopard.
Macs still make a better first impression. This Asus isn’t crippled by unwantedware, but it does have a cryptically-named advertising demo on the desktop, along with a bunch of Asus utilities which don’t really need to be there. The Trend Micro security software demanded my attention from the moment I booted up the PC for the first time. And I don’t quite understand why Asus’s system backup software tells me to have blank CDs ready when this laptop doesn’t have an optical drive.
The Control Panel needs work. It performs roughly the same tasks as Snow Leopard’s System Preferences, yet it’s about five times more intimidating. (The dumbed-down interface that it’s had in recent Windows releases makes it harder to use, not easier.) I’d put reinventing it among the top ten items in my personal wish list for Windows 8.
My MacBook Pro comes out of sleep mode way quicker. I open it up, and by the time I’m ready to begin doing something, it’s ready to accept my input. With the Asus, by contrast, I have to press the power button, and then sit through a lengthy sequence of screens.
Hey, what’s with computer names in the Windows world? “UL30A-X5” is a typical moniker, but it’s also nearly impossible to memorize. Don’t manufacturers want to help us remember the names of their systems so we can recommend them to our pals and relatives?
Despite all of the above quibbles, I’ve enjoyed my first week with this system. In most respects that matter, it’s the nicest Windows computer I’ve owned in many years–I’m defining “nicest” as “least annoying”–and Windows 7 deserves much of the credit. More thoughts as I continue to use it…and I’ll let you know whether it stays my main machine or I end up segueing back to the Mac.