The Spacebar That Broke the Camel’s Back: Why I Switched from Mac to Windows
After many years of using Macs, I’m writing this on a Windows PC. And I couldn’t be happier with my choice to switch.
The spacebar on this Lenovo laptop doesn’t constantly stick. As ridiculous as it may sound, that’s not something I can say about my $3000 MacBook Pro, which has keyboard problems almost every day. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s very symbolic for a much broader problem: Apple’s lost attention to detail. It was the final factor that pushed me over the edge.
Goodbye to a dozen years of Mac
Almost 12 years ago I switched from Windows to Macs. I was frustrated with the disaster that was Windows Vista and was ready for an alternative. Apple had just released the massively improved Tiger version of Mac OS X and had started to switch to Intel CPUs. That gave me the confidence that I could use Windows apps on a Mac if needed. I ended up never actually doing that, but it removed an important obstacle for switching.
Until recently, I never looked back. Over the years I used a series of MacBook Pros, Airs and a couple of Mac Minis and was always very happy. I also bought a lot of iOS devices, all the way from the very first iPhone for which I stood in line for hours on the first day it went on sale. They were all great. It was technology that did its job in an ideal way: Hiding complexity, but still providing all the power I needed.
The version 7 itch
After a few years of my unabated Apple fanboydom something changed. Apple’s innovation power started to wane. My first wake-up moment came when iOS 7 was released in 2013. I was severely disappointed by the lack of progress and the ugly new UI and decided to switch to Android phones. A blog post I wrote about this decision went semi-viral and was even republished by Gizmodo. To my surprise, it seemed to hit a nerve. I got lots of comments from frustrated iPhone users who shared my disappointment, plus of course a lot of heat from Apple fanboys who passionately defended their revered brand.
I never regretted the switch to Android. iOS went through years of mediocre software updates and lackluster hardware, while the Android ecosystem was evolving much more quickly.
Slowing down Mac progress
But at least the Mac was still a haven of quality, a refuge from the disasters that were Windows Vista and Windows 8. Mac hardware still was of unparalleled quality and pushed the envelope for innovation, and Mac OS was both cutting edge and rock solid.
Soon that started to change as well. First, the pace of innovation on the software side clearly slowed down. You could make an argument that Leopard (2007) was the last version of Mac OS X that really made a jump in functionality, and the last time Apple added any reasonably interesting OS features was with Lion (2011). Since then, all they added were features that increased users’ lock-in into the Apple ecosystem, plus some half-hearted UI changes that make Macs feel like a bastardized mix of a personal computer and an iPad — but, of course, without any actual tablet functionality.
The hardware side was slow to evolve as well. The older designs for the MacBook Air (originally released in 2008) and Pro (2006) barely changed in almost a decade. The last major jump was the introduction of Retina displays in 2012. There’s nothing wrong with solid incremental change, but a decade is an eternity in technology for a fundamental design to be largely static.
The most disappointing laptop in the world
Then in 2016, the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar happened. I ordered one immediately because I needed a new machine with more power. The new Pro looked amazing, but it certainly was expensive for a not so great performance step-up, barely topping 2012 models. Anyway, when you’re in Apple’s world, there’s not much choice, so I shelled out a sizable amount of money for this new laptop.
It would turn out to be the most disappointing computer I have ever bought. It’s not unusable (at least on the days when the keyboard mostly works) but considering the price and position in Apple’s model lineup, it falls far short.
The Touch Bar, a small touch-sensitive display above the keyboard, turned out to be a useless gimmick, trying to provide some of the flexibility of a touchscreen without going all the way. The result is an ineffective mess of a user experience. Far too often I had the experience of not being able to change the screen brightness or volume because the Touch Bar had crashed. And the Escape key was now just a blob on a piece of glass, sometimes spontaneously disappearing too.
The list of flaws goes on: Since there are only USB-C ports, you have to shell out on expensive conversion dongles to connect to external screens and older peripherals. Battery life is mediocre on a good day, and downright terrible on a bad day. Every new software update seems to break Wi-Fi reliability. It can’t seem to consistently connect to external monitors. And so on.
Last, but definitely not least, the keyboard. Oh, the keyboard. Its butterfly key mechanism was hyped (as usual) by Apple as a revolutionary new concept that would allow for a great typing experience with very little thickness. Instead, it turned out to be a downright disaster. First, it’s very, very loud. I’m a fast and furious typist, and I’m pretty sure you can hear me from two blocks away when I type on this thing. It has made it nearly impossible for me to use this laptop in a meeting.
And then, there is the sticky spacebar (as well as frequently other keys — last week was broken “R” day). Somehow dust and debris get very easily under these newfangled magic keys and prevent them from working. There are tricks (with knives, vacuum cleaners, compressed air and such) to fix the situation, but should I really be expected to do clumsy repairs on a weekly basis on such an expensive laptop?
Bottom line: Apple has seemingly lost the ability to make good product decisions and build a well-rounded, high-quality computer that makes the right compromises instead of over-optimizing to a single dimension (thinness, in this case). Similar disappointing things have happened in its pro-level desktop line.
Meanwhile, across the border…
While I wasn’t paying much attention, remarkable things happened over in PC land. First, there was proliferation of new PC form factors. When you’re locked into the world of Apple, it’s easy to forget what real choice in hardware configurations feels like.
On the PC laptop side of the world you can get:
· Incredibly thin sub-notebooks that look as good as the 12-inch MacBook
· Solid business workhorses like the good old Thinkpad line
· Innovative 2-in-1 machines that do double duty as laptops and tablets
· Massive gaming laptops with crazy designs (and even crazier specs)
· Decent entry-level machines for well under $500
Oh, and by the way, touchscreens are pretty much standard for PC laptops these days and have been for years. Apple’s response? A barely working Touch Bar.
Did I mention that almost all these machines are significantly cheaper than Apple’s comparable setups? That’s hardly a shocker, but I was surprised by how large the difference is.
My reason for switching to Macs back then was mainly the software: Windows in 2006 was a buggy and confusing mess. Apple promised “It just works” and mostly delivered. I was blown away by how easy and efficient things were in Mac land. Plus, Mac OS’s solid Unix underpinnings were a huge plus for software development. But much of this has changed since — Microsoft for the better, Apple for the worse.
Microsoft went through a tough decade since Windows Vista. It lost its dominance of the computing industry to the kings of mobile, Google and Apple, and to Amazon in the cloud. But it is remarkable how well the former quasi-monopolist recovered on other fronts. It got serious about usability and stability, opened its ecosystem to other worlds, including *gulp* Linux and iOS and came up with some really striking hardware designs. Microsoft is the leader in AR with its HoloLens mixed reality product, and it made some smart acquisitions.
Most of all, it cleaned up Windows. Version 7 was a decent first step forward. Windows 8 (2012) was a bit of a mess because it tried too hard to be a tablet OS. But then Microsoft took its time to get it right. Windows 10 (symbolically skipping a version number) was released in 2015 and has rapidly evolved since then. Microsoft now adds significant new functionality with update packages twice a year.
Wait, this is really Windows?
Windows 10 surprised me positively already during the setup process. I still have occasional nightmares about going through 47 floppy disks installing Windows NT back in the day, and traditionally Windows setups have been a pain. But now, it feels at least as streamlined and elegant as Apple’s. It even involves Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant, so if you are too lazy to click the “Next” button, you just tell it to continue. Yes, that’s a gimmick, but a nice one.
The UI looks surprisingly clean and — dare I say it — quite a bit more modern than Mac OS. Microsoft’s design language is all about clean and simple lines, large fields of strong colors, flat and monochrome icons. No pointless transparency effects and overly dramatic drop shadows.
Even more importantly, Microsoft fixed Windows’ annoying verbosity. Windows Vista was a mess of intrusive dialog boxes and notification windows that popped up constantly with no good reason. Windows 10 is much politer. It asks you things when it really needs to know and notifies you only if it’s important. When you install new software from its store, the app just installs quietly in the background instead of walking you through an endless installation wizard. Shockingly, it feels more consistent and respectful of users’ attention now than Mac OS (which annoyingly keeps asking about software updates it’s not able to make. Every. Single. Day.)
The built-in apps (mail, calendar, Microsoft Store, the new Edge web browser, etc.) follow these same principles and all look very nice and clean. And everything operates very snappily, with tasteful animations that provide a dynamic feel, but don’t distract unnecessarily (looking at you, Google Material Design…).
It’s not perfect in all details. In some older apps and some less visited corners of the system, a bit of the old Vista ugliness shines through. There’s also a bit of nostalgia to be had. Yes, MS Paint and NOTEPAD.EXE still exist.
Overall, this is an extremely impressive OS. And developers will enjoy it much more than past Windows versions as well. One of the crazier new features is the Windows Subsystem for Linux that lets you install a Linux distribution on top of Windows. You can then run (most, but not quite all) Linux applications right inside of Windows, using the same files. Steve Ballmer would not be happy, but developers are (insert obvious joke here).
What, a laptop can do that?
Once again: Hardware choice is a good thing. As outlined above, Windows PCs come in more form factors than ever, and for every PC type there’s a choice of 5 or more well-known brands that make slightly different variations, plus a few more exotic brands that come up with cutting edge stuff.
My choice for my new PC is a Lenovo Yoga 920 2-in-1 laptop. Its screen can fold over fully to turn the device into a tablet, or if you don’t fold it fully, into a kiosk-like media consumption device. In tablet mode it can operate in portrait or landscape orientation. It comes with a pen, so scribbling something quickly is easy, and more extensive works of hand-painted screen art are possible too. The display has a 4K resolution and is a touchscreen, which makes interacting with this machine a lot more intuitive, not just in tablet mode.
This adds so much versatility to a laptop. In case you missed it, laptops are not pure work machines anymore. Most of us probably use them for video consumption or for creative tasks as well, and a 2-in-1 model is just superior for these purposes. You would think that this idea should be a natural fit for Apple. It’s incomprehensible to me that they’re still sticking to old-fashioned traditional laptop designs.
Apart from these features, this laptop equalizes or outperforms my 13-inch Macbook Pro in every single aspect — faster CPU, longer battery life, higher screen resolution, a better (and very quiet) keyboard. It feels as solidly made as the Mac and (apart from visually somewhat unusual hinges and slightly rounded keys) sticks to a minimalist design philosophy as well.
And, oh: It does all of this at just 2/3 of the price. Yes, really. I now have a significantly more capable laptop that cost a third less. Who knew such a thing existed?
It’s all just a window to the cloud
Switching to a new computer, let alone a different OS, used to be very painful. Transferring your data just in itself was punishing.
But fortunately, we live in modern times. In the times of the cloud, to be specific. Most of us probably spend the majority of their computing time in a web browser, and the remainder happens in applications that are or can be connected to cloud services, making the data largely independent of a specific physical machine.
If you have set up your machine to back up everything to an OS-independent cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox (and if you haven’t, you really should), migrating to a new machine becomes extremely easy.
From the time I took my new Windows laptop out of its box to when it was fully set up with all the apps I need and all my files, it took less than an hour. Quite incredible. The hurdle for switching is lower than ever.
The best tool wins
I’m always a bit surprised by how much some people seem to pin their identity to a mere tool such as a computer. Sure, fanboy wars can be fun, but they seem somewhat pointless.
My personal philosophy is that I want to use the best tool for the job, independently of who makes it and what (typically imagined) ideology might stand behind it. Switching to a Windows PC doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Apple at all, despite the disappointment with recent products.
For example, I just recently bought a new iPad because I wanted to have a highly capable lightweight content consumption device, and Apple makes the very best ones. PC tablets are heavy, and Android tablets are awful, so an iPad it was.
But my choice for my main productivity and creativity device is clear: It was time to go back to Windows after a dozen years, and I’m glad I found the best tool for me at this point in time.