Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Your Agency On PCs

Your Agency On PCs
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Over the past year, we’ve been working through the switch to Macs in our agency. Our reasons for the switch were a mix of aesthetic desires and perceived efficiencies through that particular ecosystem.

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to make the switch, but I feel that we were perhaps more committed to it than before. I like the way Apple machines look and I like the way they feel. Buying new Apple hardware is generally delightful, whereas, unboxing a PC is a little like buying a bag of potatoes.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the Macs delivered all we had hoped for. I can’t stress enough how nice it is to have a single cable leaving the back of a Mac, versus the rat’s nest that accompanies our PCs. Any perceived efficiencies turned out to be wishful thinking, though. In fact, as a result of the experience, I’m even more convinced that the PC is the right choice for today’s agency.

Following are a few of my reasons behind this claim. (Forgive me if I carry on a little.) I’ll start with some observations related to our Apple experience, and then move on to why I’m so fond of PCs in the agency.

Macs Aren’t Built for Pros Any Longer

Part of the beauty of a Mac used to be how it seemed tailor made for the creative industry. The problem with creatives, though, is that there just aren’t enough of us. So, Apple has shifted to servicing the everyday user much more than the pro user. This makes complete business sense, but it also means that their focus is more on the home user than ever before. This is leading to a dumbing down of the UI, and conventions that aren’t power-user friendly. Want to do a “Save As”? Sorry, they’re taking that away from a number of apps. Thus means when you want to access the actual file you created, you’re out of luck. (These are increasingly stored within the application and inaccessible from the Finder.) Yes, these are great features for grannie, but I’d prefer my OS not come with training wheels.


I love the iPad and the iPhone. They’re great devices. Apple sells a lot of these, and I worry that as a result of doing so, they’re suffering from a kind of tunnel vision. First of all, OSX isn’t advancing as it should. It’s a decade old OS that’s showing its age. Additionally, the changes coming in Lion seem desperate to bring the mobile experience to the desktop. Thing is, though, these are different spaces. I don’t want my screen filled with a grid of apps (à la iOS), nor, do I want to pinch, zoom, and rotate on a trackpad. The advances pitched in Lion are all about glitz, without any real improvements I can actually put to use in our agency. The desktop may be boring, but it’s still the environment we live in most.

What’s Inside Isn’t That Different

I’m not a hardware guy, but my business partner is. We both agree that the iMac is a pretty solid value. Once you move into a tower, though, the cost of a Mac skyrockets. This was easier to justify when Apple had us all convinced that the PowerPC chip was superior, and that Intel’s was poop. Lately, though, when you look at what’s actually in each case, the parts look increasingly similar. From hard drives, to video cards, to RAM, the parts are interchangeable… except when it comes to cost. Adding an SSD to your PC will cost about a hundred bucks and take ten minutes of your time. The cheapest SSD option for iMac will set you back $650, and don’t even think about trying to upgrade this yourself. We really need to come to grips with the fact that what’s in the box is largely commoditized. Put together your own desktop for $750, or pay Apple several times that for what’s ultimately the same configuration. It’s your call, but if I pay that much more, I’d really like to think that the parts aren’t identical.

What’s Outside Is Style

When we started buying Macs for our staff, I suspected that any complaints about computers would end quickly. I was wrong. First of all, Apple seems incapable of building a good mouse. Sure, they all look great, but, from a usage standpoint even the most ardent Mac fans seem to loathe the mouse experience on a Mac. One of our designers brought in his Logitech to get away from the Magic Mouse; another is using my old Mighty Mouse from home. This doesn’t seem like an unfamiliar thing in Apple-land. What’s on the box is thrilling. Once it’s in use, it seems like people either make excuses or get cranky. Our colleague’s iMac screens are turning yellow from running too hot. My MacBook batteries have stopped taking a charge. Are these the only hardware problems in the world? Of course not. I find myself a little less forgiving, though, from all I keep hearing about Macs never having any problems.

The Apple Store Sucks

If Apple cared about user experience, they’d build a store with a fucking cash register. I’d rather stab myself in the eye than have to walk past all those glassy-eyed zombies to talk to a “genius.” If I go to the London Drugs down the street, a real person will address my problem, without booking an appointment a week in advance. That’s for any product they sell, and there’s little likelihood of anyone there calling me “dude.”

Not Being Steve’s Bitch

I’m one of those suckers who waited in line for the iPhone 4. It started as what seemed like a two-hour wait. Somehow it turned into six. That’s embarrassing. Actually, until now, my wife didn’t know that I wasted that much time on a phone. When I finally got into the store, some 20-year-old hipster doofus “congratulated” me on my new purchase. I wanted to pop him in the face for that one; instead, I sneered, “I’m buying a phone, not giving birth.” Apple has a brilliant marketing machine in action. That’s great for them. It doesn’t really matter to me, though. I have a business to run, and have little time for this sort of nonsense. I will never again wait in a line to buy equipment. Plenty of fine hardware can be had without the hassle (or the feeling like I’m joining a cult).

Windows 95 Is Long Gone

When did you last use a PC? I mean really use a PC? A number of the folks who tell me that they could never switch are still operating with the memory of an experience they had with Windows 95. A lot has changed since then. The “blue screen of death”? Not so easy to find any longer. Full system crashes? Very, very rare. Application crashes are also infrequent, even though InDesign and Chrome sometimes run into hiccups. I (personally) run one PC and three Macs. I see that spinning beach ball an awful lot; whereas, my PC is incredibly stable and dependable.

Windows 7 Is Very, Very Good

You can slag Vista all you want. (Heaven knows I do.) When I look back upon it, though, I have to admire that Microsoft took such brave step. I see Vista as a beta version of 7. Yes, it was a buggy pile of poop. It also was a complete tear down and rebuild of an OS. I could say all kinds of good things about Windows 7, but the most important one is that I don’t really think about my OS any longer. It’s fast, responsive, and generally bulletproof.

Metro Represents an Exciting Direction

While I really like the iPhone, I hate how the icons work. Treating each one like a little picture, makes it hard for me to actually find what I need (I, for example, always mix up the camera and the photos). Microsoft has always had a tough time with visual design and the Windows 7 UI still feels unnecessarily gimmicky. The work they’re doing with the Metro system is quite exciting. I’ve played with it a tiny bit on the new Windows phones and it’s quite nice. For the first time, I feel like Microsoft is really concentrating on good, glitz-free design. The buttons are easy to identify, the icons feel like symbols, and the tiles seem more appropriate than the iOS/Android “icon grid thing.” While some will forever see Microsoft as the evil empire, there’s innovation happening in Redmond. The rumor is that Metro will be a key part of Windows 8, and I’m pretty interested to see the results.

Everything Runs Faster with Windows

Recently, we installed Windows 7 on an iMac in our office. To our surprise, the hardware is capable of getting network speeds of 100 MB/s (as a Mac, it can only reach a third of that speed, at best). Similarly, @shelkie’s Mac Mini is one of the most painfully slow machines we’ve ever seen. The funny part is that when we put Windows on the machine, it started to be reasonably snappy. Am I obsessed with speed? Yes, very much so. I don’t want to wait 30 seconds for Excel to load any more than I want to wait 30 seconds to use my pen. (I also don’t particularly like how logging into my MacBook has turned into a 5 minute ordeal.) A good looking machine is a nice treat; a fast machine makes me money. (I like money.)

The FCP/Vegas Debate is Muddy

One of the big reasons for switching to Mac was to have access to Final Cut Pro. As we started to use it, we asked ourselves if we should have researched this decision better. FCP is finicky, does endless renders, and requires almost everything to be converted in order to work with it. This felt like a step back from Sony Vegas, in which we could drag and drop almost anything and preview live. Sure, we’re not fundamentally a video company, so perhaps we’re missing something. In all of our subsequent research, though, it seems that there are people who like using either. Apple’s marketing team is really good at convincing us that things like Final Cut are the industry standard, but a lot of this is (again) marketing over actuality.

Built for Power-Users

I see a computer as a tool.  The more efficiently I can control it, the faster I can produce results. As a result, I’ll go to some lengths to learn the most expedient ways of working. When you work on a PC for a while, you realize that options are a good thing, and that the tool is really built for performance. A few examples:

Easy Organization

On a PC you can create a new folder, reorganize files, or delete files all from Save/Open dialog boxes. On a Mac, the only way to do this is to open the Finder, navigate down to the respective folder, make the changes, and then go back to the application.

Keyboard Friendly

I don’t like using the mouse unless I need to. It’s simply less efficient than keyboard commands. On the PC, I can do things like toggle from OK to Cancel in dialogue boxes with a simple tab. I get more done this way, and when I watch most Mac users, it just seems like they’re unnecessarily dragging their asses.

Copy a URL

Day in and out, I need to provide the paths (for local files) to the people I work with. Windows’ inclusion of a URL field in the file explorer means I can cut and paste this into an email very quickly. There’s no easy way to do this on the Mac.

Intuitive Taskbar

I find the Apple launcher to be counterintuitive. For example, if I minimize a program, it tucks into that area on the right, and I can’t “Apple-tab” to it. The taskbar in Windows 7 seems more logical. I can tab between all active applications, it shows me document previews instead of just icons, and it just seems to work.

Responsive File Explorer

The Windows File Explorer seems to afford a greater number of ways of seeing files, and faster access to them. For example, tapping CTRL-N opens a new window open to the location I’m already in, instead of having to navigate to it separately. Meanwhile, the twirl downs in the URL field allow for access to any folder related to your path in one click. (This is very, very handy.)

Shadow Copies

This has saved our bacon on a number of occasions. Our Windows Server has Shadow Copies enabled, so from any PC, we can just right-click a file or folder, go to the Previous Versions tab, and roll-back to the state that item was in at any point in the past. Sure, Mac has Time Machine, but it’s nowhere near the seamless integration that has been achieved by Microsoft.

Group Environment

OSX doesn’t fit nicely in a network-centric workflow. The “connect to server and map a drive” paradigm makes it feel like a throw-back from 1995. And we’ve tried diligently to get OSX to connect reliably to our Active Directory infrastructure, including calls to Apple tech support. Their response: “Yeah, we know there’s a problem with AD in OSX. In the meantime, here’s the number for Microsoft tech support. Maybe they can help.”

All the Little Things

When people asked me why I used Macs back in the 90s, I told them it was all the little things. When Mac users ask me why I’m now big on PCs, I tell them the same. I like that I can resize a window from more than one location. I like how easily I can launch apps with two or three keystrokes. And there are dozens of other little advantages like this. Admittedly, these are all small points. Having grown accustomed to them, though, I dislike how there’s no provision for such things in OSX.

You Still Need to Create PowerPoint Templates

Most of us create things that will be used by people who use PCs. You might not like this, but it’s true. As a result, the websites we build are largely viewed on PCs. Similarly, the brand assets we build are likely to be edited on a PC. So, in spite of how good Keynote can be, most of the slide decks we create will need to be used in PowerPoint. Sure, you can make these on a Mac, but the translation between operating systems is rarely as smooth as the marketing seems to imply. Although I wouldn’t use this as my key reason for choosing to use Windows, I have to acknowledge that using the same tools as our clients does remove some headaches.

Apple’s Mobile Devices Are Still Available

Apple ships more mobile devices than computers these days (by a landslide). There’s good reason for this. The iPhone is excellent, and there’s currently no tablet in existence that touches the iPad. (Microsoft’s efforts in this category would be laughable if they weren’t so bloody painful to watch.) As I talk with a number of other agency owners, I see the same trend emerging. PCs for the primary machines, the odd Mac for testing, and iPhones/iPads for the mobile devices. Apple may still create desktop machines, but I haven’t seen mention of one in a keynote in a heck of a long time. Apple is a mobile company, and I will continue to use their mobile products… because they’re better. (Even if OSX isn’t.)

Built for Work

I’ve met far too many shitty designers who have some kind of a superiority complex because they work on a Mac. In my opinion, this is representative of the amazing hoodwink Apple has achieved in its marketing. People actually think they have skills because they selected one platform over another. I admit that PCs don’t turn heads, but such points don’t really matter to me. What does is that our tools help us get the job done. I like how Public Folders in Exchange allow our team to share email and client correspondence rapidly. I like how programs like QuickBooks work fully, instead of being limited like their lighter Mac counterparts. I like how shared contacts allow us to add contact info once for group use, after which we can use the note fields as a simple CRM of sorts.

It Looks Like 1984

I never thought I’d say this, but the Apple of 2011 looks a lot like the Microsoft of 1998. At the time, Microsoft seemed like they were hell-bent on “owning” computing. Perhaps they were, but, what finally led to the anti-trust suit was the bundling of their browser with the OS. In light of the stuff that Apple’s pulling these days, I can’t imagine it being long before Apple’s monopolization of sectors becomes an increasingly common cause for concern. Perhaps I’m getting carried away here, but when I see Apple’s practices with publishers, and the App Store approval process, I’m increasingly weary. This post has gone on too long to get into this in greater depth, but Jobs and Co. don’t really seem like the “good guys” any longer.

Final Words

Macs are great for a number of folks. If you’re a freelancer, they’re a solid, functional (even lovely) tool; meanwhile, no PC laptop matches the form factor of a MacBook. For that matter, if you’re a home user and you just want a simple, clean machine, you can’t go wrong with a Mac.

If, however, you’re in a growing agency, where working collaboratively and efficiently is important to you, I think you owe it to yourself to consider Windows. It’s a stable, mature, and surprisingly responsive ecosystem. It plays well with varying hardware, configures beautifully in a multi-user environment, and is a lot more open than some marketing might have you believe.

Put simply: smashLAB uses PCs because they just work. (And yes, we’re currently in the process of installing Windows 7 on all those Macs we started switching to.)

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