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Platform Diplomacy

(February 2003) posted on Tue Feb 11, 2003

Macs vs. PCs? Debates focus on getting the job done


By Jake Widman

What does your choice of computing platform say about you? There are two approaches to answering this question.

One is that whether you use a Mac or PC says something about your personality or about the way you think (or, more commonly, that whether someone else uses a Mac or PC says something about their personality). This is the traditional approach, the one that leads to "Think Different" ad campaigns, cute coinages such as "Windoze," claims that Macs are overpriced, and endless flame wars on Internet bulletin boards. (On the Well, where I hang out, we're up to Mac vs. Windows--part IV.)

The other approach is to look at the computer as just a tool and to recognize that neither platform is perfect. That doesn't mean there aren't still differences, of course. One of the most obvious points of distinction is that PCs, at this point, use faster chips--at least as measured in raw gigahertz numbers. Now, it's possible to argue that the way Mac chips work makes the pure speed numbers irrelevant--that despite their slower clock speed, the Mac's Motorola chips can do just as much work as the PC's Intel and AMD chips. Apple, for instance, can provide the results of lots of tests to show their G4 machines will outperform PCs with higher speed ratings.

But other people do tests, too. One of the most provocative recent head-to-head competitions was the series of tests carried out by photographer Rob Galbraith and reported on his site for digital photojournalists. Galbraith used four computers--one desktop and one laptop Mac and PC--to perform a series of conversion and processing tasks on RAW files from digital cameras.

RAW files are the, well, raw files taken right from the digital camera's sensors, before interpolation and conversion into one of the standard digital image formats such as JPEG or TIFF. Serious digital photographers tend to like RAW files because they allow the photographer to control some of the parameters of the conversion process--a process that usually takes place in the camera, out of sight.

Galbraith used six different RAW processing tools on images from eight cameras. (Because each camera manufacturer's RAW format is different, you have to use the vendor's own tools to process them.) He timed such tasks as converting files to JPEGs and changing their white balance. Unfortunately for Mac partisans, the PCs won the speed tests--nay, they kicked butt. To Galbraith's credit, he didn't claim the tests proved anything about PCs or Macs in general--just that on these specific tasks, at this point in the computers' development, the PCs he tested outperformed the Macs.

But here's where things get interesting. The ensuing discussion on the forum Galbraith hosts features digital photographers of all sorts analyzing the results--in a reasonable fashion. There's discussion of whether the utilities used have been optimized in any way to make use of the Mac's advantages, such as the Velocity Engine built into the G4's architecture. There are opinions offered about the latest iterations of the two platforms' operating systems. (There seems to be some agreement that Windows XP is a very usable, almost enjoyable version of Windows.) There's debate over whether color management on the Mac is still better than that on Windows. Mac fans explain why they'll still stand by their platform, despite the potential speed penalty, citing reasons such as familiarity and consistent interface. There's even a tantalizing hint of a plug-in to come of Adobe Photoshop, supposedly being written by Thomas Knoll, the man who originally developed Photoshop, for processing RAW images.

The remarkable thing is that all this discussion happens with a minimum of rancor and neener-neener. One comes away with the sense that professionals don't have time to get into playground taunts"?these days, it's about getting the job done. And that brings a certain level of maturity to the "platform wars" that's long overdue.


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