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Data and Media Formats:The first thing most people are concerned about is data. Will I lose my files? My invoices? E-mails? The answer, simply, is no. For nearly every data file one can create on a PC using Windows, there is a counterpart on the Mac that can read it. The most obvious example is in Office from Microsoft. All data formats used in the MS Office suits for Windows are compatible with the Office suite on the Mac. The exception is Access databases, for which there is no Mac equivalent. However, ppt, doc, rtf, xlt, xls, pps and most others are 100% supported.
Next you might be concerned about graphics and imaging files. Here, you will find your life is probably a little easier on the Mac. Generally, most graphics formats are supported on a Mac. Gif, jpg and jpeg, bmp et. al. are all supported and arguably easier to manipulate on a Macintosh. This is an opinion based experience, though, so this entry will not seek to make this point any clearer.
Media formats, including AVI, MOV, MPEG, etc. are also supported, though AVIs are more difficult here than most. The Windows codec used to encode AVIs played on a PC is not compatible with the Macintosh and thus playing AVIs required a (free) DivX player and Windows Media Player 9 (also free) to make the conversion. From my experience, 95% of all AVIs created on PCs can be viewed on Macs using this program combination. Other media formats are fully supported either by Quicktime, Windows Media Player, or Real Player, all of which exist in full version for the Mac. See the appropriate section of the FAQ for more information on this subject.
[Ed. note: There is a new (Fall '02) product called Move2Mac which makes it very easy to transfer existing data files on a PC to a Mac running 10.2 (Jaguar) or later.]
Many people are intimidated by the thought of switching to Macintosh by what they have heard regarding applications. It is no secret that Windows commands the market on available software, and this fact is unsettling when you are contemplating moving away from the plethora of apps available. I will break this down by covering a few categories of commonly used and mostly internet related applications by comparing the Windows versions to certain Macintosh counterparts.
Browsers: Internet Explorer is available for the Macintosh platform (5.2 in MacOS 9.x, and 5.2 in OS X). Though the Mac versions differ slightly from their PC counterparts, and indeed from each other in minor ways, both are functional browsers that work in almost every circumstance required by surfing. Apple Flash and shockwave are fully supported, as is FTP access. Telnet access through the browser itself is not supported, but a great many telnet applications exist for the Macintosh, and most are freeware. OS X includes telnet support native.
In addition, if you are interested in other browsers, Netscape and Opera, OmniWeb and iCab and Mozilla plus others from Sun are also fully supported in Mac OS. Apple has also created its own browser, Safari, which ships free with OS X.
IRC: Most Windows users who use IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, are familiar with mIRC, the most popular shareware application for the PC dealing with the IRC. While there are indeed several IRC clients available for the Macintosh, I find that Snak far surpasses mIRC in stability and ease of use. There are also common IRC scripts available for Snak for free download, and the program itself is shareware. For the others, I have used only a few of them and never for long enough to give a credible review, but sites like Version Tracker or TuCows maintain complete lists available for download.
Newsgroups: I am a fan of the Usenet, or newsgroups. I was an avid follower of it on my PC and have continued to be on the Mac. Applications such as MT-NewsWatcher or Entourage (Office 2004 component for Macintosh only) work quite well for following newsgroups, but neither measures up to the functionality of Forte Agent for Windows. This is one area where the Macintosh is not up to speed with the PC, but only the user can determine the importance of this.
Gaming: A huge concern for many, rest assured that most games available for the PC have been ported to the Mac, and those that have not are usually ported quickly. This statement does not apply to smaller DOS-based shareware or freeware games, unfortunately. However, major releases from large vendors, i.e. Unreal Tournament, Quake (all versions), Deus-Ex, Rune, Rogue Spear, The SIMS, Oni, Myst, Riven, Castle Wolfenstein, etc. etc. have all been ported successfully - check here for the most current titles. Straight comparisons between the Macintosh and Windows versions are sometimes available on the websites associated with the individual products, but you are most likely to find this information out only by playing the game in question on both platforms. Unfortunately, my experience with most of these titles is limited to one platform or the other so a fair comparison is not something I am prepared to do.
One thing it is important to note with regard to gaming is the absence of voice communications on the Macintosh. Roger Wilco and iVisit are both Macintosh supported applications which support VoIP for free, but neither is entirely usable nor as functional as the Windows counterparts. Look for this situation to change soon, hopefully, but the immediate future of voice communication for gaming on the Macintosh platform is uncertain as of this writing.
Graphics: It is a long standing tradition among professionals that most prefer to edit their 3D animations or their Photoshop picts on Apple Computers. This is by no means true for everyone, but is the norm to my experience in this profession. However, while the Macintosh support for these products is top of the line (Photoshop was created for the Mac and later ported to PCs), user experience and familiarity plays a large role in this decision. Whether or not your art will look better because you created it on a Macintosh or a PC is a subjective principle and not within the scope of this comparison to answer. Suffice it to say that graphics and 3D apps are supported on the Mac, in most cases, exactly as they are on the PC. From my experience, the controls (in Photoshop and Illustrator) are incredibly similar as well.
Editing (video or audio): This topic will call the name AVID to the minds of many people, being the most popular commercial / pro-sumer video editing suite on the market. Apple offers a counterpart to the AVID suites with Final Cut Pro, and Final Cut Pro2. I have used and am familiar with two of the AVID suites, but my experience with Final Cut Pro is limited, so I can offer no comparison between the two. I do, however, know many professionals that use both. Again, this is a subjective experience and I recommend you try before you buy.
For consumer editing purposes, Apple offers (free) iMovie, a very capable audio / video editing package with direct Quicktime support. A very usable, user-friendly program, iMovie can be used to import video or audio from analog (requires additional components) or digital (native) sources through the included FireWire bus. I personally have used iMovie to do limited professional editing and seen remarkable results. With the inclusion of a unit called the Hollywood DV Bridge, one can transfer analog formats to the Mac, edit them, and transfer them back to analog or to MPEG-based CDs for distribution or performance. The quality of these reproductions is extraordinary, but is obviously related to the quality of your source. A very, very useful application.
Audio: In straight comparisons, iTunes for the Macintosh is an easy winner. Many Windows users will be familiar with WinAmp or Windows Media Player for this function, but iTunes serves to easily best them both, in my opinion. This compact, free application can perform the WinAmp style crossfades with the ease of the Windows Media Player playlist combined. Also offered are the GeForce style visuals incorporated into WinAmp, plus the capability to rip and burn Audio CDs natively. Another very useful offering from Apple.
Hardware: Another unsettling factor many Windows users see is the hardware issue. For an individual used to the open-format "White Box" computers, switching to a Macintosh system where most hardware is not user-upgradable can be daunting. There are, however, advantages.
Motherboard / processor combinations from Apple, while not upgradable themselves (upgrade cards are available), are optimized for one another to assure maximum flow through the pipeline. This factor serves to increase the overall speed of your system and assure that you use the bus speed you are capable of attaining. Also to be noted is that the Apple boards and chips are quality products which lends itself well to confidence in what you buy.
Video cards tend to favor PCs, though the newest cards will usually be available in some form or other for the Mac directly after their PC counterparts are released. In the case of nVidia's GeForce3, the Macintosh version of the card was even released first. Generally, though, the Mac boards are easier to use and exhibit far fewer problems than their PC cousins, from my experience.
Audio cards exist for the Mac, but not in anything like the style or amount as for the PC. Most newer model Macs include digital audio boards which are quite sufficient to handle the needs of most users. For those desiring something more, Creative Labs offers the SB Live! for Macintosh, though I have no personal experience with this card.
Hard drives, RAM, external devices and portables are available in the same quantities for both platforms. Many people tend to overlook this fact, but it is quite true. Older devices may not be compatible with the Macintosh platform, but most newer ones are. Very few hardware vendors in this category make brand specific hardware, but it is still a good idea to look for the Apple Finder logo to be certain that your purchase is supported.
Operating Systems: We all know this line. Windows 95/98/ME/NT3.5/NT4/2000/XP or MacOS 8/8.1/8.6/9/9.0.4/9.1/9.2.1/X/X.1./Jaguar/Panther I am largely unfamiliar with Mac systems before 9.1, but my experience with Windows Oses is extensive. I will attempt, being fair, to compare and contrast the two as I see it from a general use perspective.
Features aside, any Windows distribution will do what you want it to do. The same is true for any Mac operating system. Comparing the two is very difficult, as user experience / preference plays the largest role here. Nonetheless, these are some key factors I have noticed between them.
Macintosh OS 9.1, while not the best manager, hands down managed virtual memory better than Windows 95/98/ME ever could. By contrast, a computer running 9.1 will crash easier than one running any fo the 95/98/ME trio, but not as frequently in my mind. Also, crashes are easier to recover from on a Mac, though the potential for real devastation to your system is just as possible as it is on Windows.
Due to the free / shareware nature of applications, strange conflicts are more likely to crop up on Windows than on a Mac. Most of the interface, which often includes installing software, is drag and drop on a Mac whereas Windows must write and rewrite to the registry. In short, if you install some problematic app on Windows, it will be much harder to get rid of it than it is on a Mac, where all you typically need to do is drag the offending folder to the trash and uncheck associated extensions.
Now lets compare the NTs (being NT4, 2000, and XP) to X, as it is unfair to compare any of these with any of the former Oses.
Application wise, the NT systems win. No questions. OS X is still very new as of this writing, and no matter how many thousands of apps may exist for it now, chances are that the one killer app you want or that great game you love are not available yet for this powerhouse OS.
As far as memory shells go, this argument could go on all day between professionals with much more time than I have to debate the issue. From a pure usage standpoint, architecture aside, both systems are nearly impossible to crash, even if you set out to do so. Applications run separate and apart from core memory resources and are thus unable to impact the system itself no matter what strangeness the app decides to pull.
As for comparing the UNIX core of OS X to NT, I leave that to larger minds than mine. Obviously, anyone can see that having a UNIX (BSD actually, based on NeXTStep) subsystem opens a whole new world of possibilities to the platform, but many of these remain unexplored as of this writing.
This is a very basic description of the differences between the two Systems. One should be certain to remember that functionality is based entirely on what one intends to do with the machine. In short, both are capable systems with enough options and features available to sate the needs of any technology junkie.
Comparing interfaces or uses is moot, as these experiences are entirely opinion based. I have noticed that most people who sit down and use the Apple platform tend to enjoy it more than Windows, but this is just my experience. For myself, I am certainly very happy with my decision to switch. I highly recommend it to any computer user wishing to broaden his or her horizon by trying something new. The Macintosh, far from the dead weight it is considered by many in the industry, is indeed a robust, viable alternative replete with features and functions to both enhance and ease the life of its user. I hope this document can help in the decision making process for those who are curious about the ultimate ends of switching Systems.
Ed. note: The O'Reilly site has a good set of articles that address aspects of this topic. And you might also want to read A Month with a Mac: A Die-Hard PC User's Perspective.