The Great Debate

Since my laptop was stolen, it's time for me to think about getting a replacement. My last laptop was a tablet PC, a Toshiba M400 Portege, which was "Vista capable," which I'm pretty sure means that it was "just barely Vista capable." I loved having a tablet PC, but the Toshiba wasn't exactly behaving great under Vista (slow, slow, slow.) So now the question is what should my next laptop be. In particular I am almost tempted to (close you ears Seattlites) a Mac.

Tablet PC benefits:

  • All my notes are on my tablet for the last few years. This is very convenient. Unfortunately the software isn't yet as awesome as it should be for a tablet as used by a theoretical scientist. I.e. there is no automatic conversion of equations to LaTeX, no good searching for equations, etc.
  • Teaching with tablets, especially when using Classroom Presenter where the students also have tablets, feels like an improvement over teaching (bludgeoning) by Powerpoint. On the other hand, blackboard teaching still feels more natural to me.
  • Momentum: I've been using a PC now since 1993 (prior to that I was an Apple diehard), so all of my files and junk is native to the platform. On the other hand, for the things I care most about: Powerpoint, LaTeX, etc it should be easy to transfer some of these over (is there an easy way that reliably converts powerpoint to keynote?)

Mac benefits:

  • Mac OS X. I'm not a Unix-head, but having command lines around would make me feel like a kid again.
  • Ability to run Windows software. This lessens my worry about the momentum problem listed above. I worry about any speed hit.
  • I can program my iPhone.
  • It's pretty. I like pretty.

So any recommendations? Anyone buy a new tablet recently that they love? Recommendations between a standard MacBook and a MacBook Pro (I'm less tempted by the MacBook Air right now...trying to avoid early adopter remorse!) For the record I spend most of my time doing the basics (email, internet), writing presentations (powerpoint), writing papers (LaTeX: currently using WinEdt and MikTeX), and programming simple scientific applications (speed isn't a huge concern as if I write something really complicated it won't be running exclusively on the laptop.)

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Get someone with a Mac to show you TeXShop and BibDesk (both are amazing free programs for working with .tex and .bib files). Also, take a look at Keynote if you want to see Apple's answer to PowerPoint, although you can of course also get PowerPoint for Mac if you prefer that. Keynote + LaTeX Equation Editor (another free Mac program) = beautiful PDF-ified equations you can drag straight into your presentations. Transparency works correctly, so you don't have to choose between boring white backgrounds or big white blocks around your equations.

As for momentum, it will take you about two weeks tops to get fully switched over. Buy a Mac, try it, and if, after two weeks, you're not happy, you can either return it (minus 10 percent restocking fee, assuming you bought it at an Apple Store) or just install Windows.

I'd recommend buying a MacBook instead of the Pro unless you either need the larger screen, the somewhat better graphics chip (only really an issue for games or 3D rendering), or you just want to spend more money to get something slightly shinier (in which case the Air might be a better choice).

Two things I forgot: I have a MacBook Pro whereas my wife has a MacBook, so I have a good basis for comparison between them. As for speed in running Windows software on a Mac, it depends on how you do it. If you use BootCamp to reboot into Windows, things will run just as fast as they would on an equivalent-spec Windows machine. If you use a VM like Parallels or VMware Fusion to run Windows within OS X, expect a 5 - 10 percent speed hit, assuming you have enough memory (get at least 2 GB if you plan to do this regularly).

I can get access to VM software through UW, so I was hoping to go that route. I'm guess this means that I should shoot to maximize CPU speed and memory if I go the Mac route.

any reasonable macbook pro. the speed hit? the fastest windows machines at my company are pretty much all running on mac hardware. now that there is no hardware emulation going on, running windows via Parallels or VMware has a negligible speed hit.

the further advantage to running windows like that is that you are running it in a sandbox with reliable drivers.

plus you get to run osx, which is an option you wouldn't (easily) get with other hardware...

and not all of us in seattle work for microsoft... ;)

The MacBook is an awesome machine. Not only is is more than usably fast, but it's small and relatively light. I've even installed Vista on it, and Vista actually runs better on my MacBook than it does on my sister's brand new Toshiba laptop. The software's far easier to deal with using than Windows, as well.

Even better, if you buy Parallels or VMware, you can run the MacOS and either Windows XP or Vista simultaneously, copying files and cutting and pasting between the two. In fact, with these solutions, you can actually run Linux as well and have a machine that runs all four operating systems.

Unless you have heavy video/graphics needs, the Macbook (over Pro) is the way to go, as previously mentioned. It weighs less, and can be had with the same 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo. The argument I like to bring up is that if you really need the screen real estate, then you can afford a mouth-watering 23"+ flat screen at your office desk. If you really need the screen real estate on the road, or have too much money and like things shiiinny, then sure, Macbook Pro. Throw the money you save into RAM, possibly a display, and why not a 1TB Time Capsule, and you'll be much happier!

If you prefer a tablet but want a Mac you can now have both. For about the price of a Macbook Pro you can get an Axiotron Modbook which is a Macbook converted to a tablet computer. I prefer the stock Macbook myself but I can see the attraction of a tablet.

is there an easy way that reliably converts powerpoint to keynote?

Yes. Keynote imports, and even exports, PowerPoint files. I don't know how some of the fancier features fare, but I don't use those features anyway.

One strong advantage of Macs over PCs is that historically, Macs have had a longer useful lifetime. My laptop, which I use as my home machine, is four years old and still going strong--I haven't upgraded to Leopard (MacOS 10.5) yet, but it runs iLife '08 and iWork '08 just fine. My last office Mac lasted about four and a half years and was still capable of running the Adobe CS2 package and the then-current MacOS version--the reasons I replaced it in December 2006 were that the old monitor (a CRT!) was going and that the lack of a DVD drive was beginning to make further software upgrades a problem. Of course, that means I can't offer any advice about which of this year's models to buy, but my bank account likes my not having to buy a new computer every couple of years.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Mar 2008 #permalink

For "Vista capable," read "Vista inflictable."

Not only does Keynote import and export PowerPoint files, both Pages and TextEdit (the Mac equivalent of WordPad) allow you to save as .html, .doc or .pdf files natively (and the html is nowhere near as bloated as Windows/Office makes it). Preview lets you look at any of those files (including .pdf) without actually opening them.

I would take the "MS PowerPoint files are no problem for a Mac" comments with a grain of salt. I recently switched to a Mac and although it was a good move, it has not at all been as painless as I thought/hoped it would be. I expect that your finely tuned, math-heavy Power Points slides will look somewhat 'different' on a Mac. You should be able to correct this, but that is going to take some time. I strongly suggest that you take some typical presentations and try and see for yourself how they turn out on a Mac. Expect also a lot of time getting used to Mac's version of Power Point.

By Wim van Dam (not verified) on 19 Mar 2008 #permalink

Hmm, I should probably check out the convert. I do tend to use those totally anoying powerpoint techniques like moving stuff around and spinning them and shrinking them :)

I had a similar dilemma a few months ago, and went for a tablet Toshiba R400 with vista, but it is way too slow. Dell also seems to have a tablet now.

Do you use your laptop as a desktop replacement? If so, then the screen size of the regular Macbook is the big issue. You need more screen real estate if you're using it all the time, so I'd suggest a Pro. If it's more for traveling then the regular Macbook or the Air is the way to go. If getting a regular Macbook then I'd max out the memory and hard disk size a bit more than the default options. It's fine for now, but Apple do like to update the OS much more frequently than Microsoft, so you'll get into problems later on if you don't. Although they claim that the OS is supposed to run faster on any supported computer each time they do an update, this is a lie. You should see my old G4 ibook trying to run Leopard!

Also, I'd just like to point out that if you are a quantum information scientist working in an academic environment then there is no reason in the world why you would need to install Windows (or indeed any Microsoft product) on the thing. At least I've never had to in the three years since I switched, despite the admin staff's continuing insistence on sending me .doc and .xls files. If you're going to do that then why bother switching from Windows in the first place?

Perhaps more surprisingly, you don't even need to install XWindows, because practically every useful X application has a Mac native equivalent. Besides, all the package management systems for X applications (e.g. fink) install their own directory trees, which makes it hard to keep track of what goes where and hard to make the apps on different systems talk to each other. That way lies madness.

Here's my essential software list:

Web browsers: Camino, Firefox (Safari still sucks. What's with having the progress bar in the box where you type the web address?)
Office software: NeoOffice, iWorks
LaTex: i-installer (only for getting the TeX installation, it's rubbish for everything else), TexShop, bibdesk, Latexit, TeXniscope (if you're going to use Aquamacs as your main latex editor).
ftp/sftp: Fugu
Text Editors: Aquamacs Emacs
Graphics: jfig (an xfig clone - OK I'm old fashioned), Seashore
Video: VLC, Flip4Mac, 3ivx
IM: AdiumX
Presentations: Acrobat (better than Preview for displaying pdf presentations on projectors, but worse for everything else), Keynote (if you want something flashier than beamer), Sofa Control (allows you to use the mac remote control for presentations)
Pseudo-legal activities: Transmission, MacDjView

For the rest I just use the native Apple apps.

I made the PC -> Mac switch 2 years ago and haven't looked back. I went with the Macbook for the form factor/price. Keynote has done a good job of importing powerpoint and Matlab/Mathematica run just fine. XCode is decent for coding in c/c++. For LaTeX on OS X, just install MacTex. While TexShop is good enough, I highly recommend Textmate (which is great for ruby/python/html/php . . lots of sweet bundles). There are some latex screencasts online which might convince you to go that route.
But the most important application is Quicksilver.

Ram. max it out. For each VM you run needs RAM. XP needs 512MB. Linux is OK with 256. Vista needs 1G minimum. And you do not want the VM Ram to be page-swapping. Also huge HD; each VM is going to run to about 8GB. Factor in backups and snapshots, and the internal HD disappears rapidly. I keep a portable 256GB drive for my backup and non-current bubbles and just have the ones I actively use on internal.

As to speed: I have a visualizer project that plugs in to Winamp's AVS platform. On my 1.8GHz PC it runs at about 20 fps. Under Parallels on my 2GHz 17" Pro I get 60 - 70 fps. Yes, core duo, but I believe XP only gets one of them.

If you need to move bubbles between machines, especially if to PCs, then VMWare Fusion may suit you better than Parallels.

So now I am really only keeping my PC for rare occasions when the HAL abstraction fails. It used to be that video over USB had problems, and MIDI, but MIDI at least is now working fine. Standard HID devices of course are also OK.

Native Apps instead of Windows or pricey commercial ones? Mostly I am in good shape on the commercial ones, but there are a few (non-scientific):

The Gimp is now I think a worthy opponent to Photoshop. And it recognizes my Pentax PEF RAW formats.

Open Office does me fine instead of Word, but then I am not a power user of Word.

Audacity for basic audio recordings, good sample rates support. At last I can move in digital domain my 32K DAT recordings.

Microsoft RDP Client for working on my various PCs without having to visit them physically (, and it is free, and XP includes the server).

Editors: BBEdit is the King, but Coda is a close second for working on website source files. The free version of BBEdit, TextWrangler, loses very few features compared to BBEdit for basic editing and syntax sensitivity.

You'll enjoy it.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 19 Mar 2008 #permalink

Get a regular PC, but go open source. You can run it on far less powerful equipment, you get an unlimited amount of tools for free, and you can always see its insides. Plus what does it say about someone in CS who does not want the source?

By JohnQPublic (not verified) on 19 Mar 2008 #permalink

Get another tablet. It sounds as though it would be more useful to you than a Mac would be. If you do get a Mac though can you make a public-transport-timetable iPhone app for Melbourne? Thanks.

THe Fujitsu T4220 was the highest benchmarking tablet PC, and they have discounted it the last few weeks which has people saying there is a 4225 or something on the way out. I think I'm going to wait for that...

Personally, I've got on time or inclination to fool with Windows, so give me a MacBook 2.2 gig and Parallels I've got a machine I can live with. It ain't cheap after you buy a copy of Vista and Parallels. Thieves love Apple notebooks, so use a crappy cheap looking carrier. I got one for six bucks at Ikea that is all stained and decrepit (duct tape patches are an artistic flair), but I try not to give them any opportunity.

Just a short comment re. travel.

I just got a MacBook Pro 15" after using a Sony superslim (ie. an Air-like machine) for several years. I did this because I needed desktop replacement capability, and using a micro with external optical is much less convenient and ends up weighing as much anyway. The 17" would probably be too wide.

I was concerned about airline travel, but used it on 2 long economy flights (~10 hours each) last week and it was fine. It sits on the seatback table fine and if you move it slightly to the side you even have room for a drink or a snack.

Since the screen is not as tall as (say) a Dell, the person in front can recline and everything's still ok. It even has pretty good battery life.

iWork is really nice, it doesn't have all the funky little functions that have been crammed into Office, but it looks fantastic and feels much more solid - you're not constantly struggling with tweaks to get the appearance right. I haven't bothered with Parallels or VM Fusion yet, but my kids use those without complaint.

Plus the machine looks beautiful, the keyboard feels great and the backlighting is really useful as you won't disturb your neighbor. It also has social status as people tend to think you own it personally rather than shlepping your employer's machine.

After my old dual-boot Windows/Linux Sony, it's a dream.

I was in exactly the same boat. My toshiba laptop got stolen from my friend's car in San Francisco. I decided to go with a Mac laptop and ever since I've regretted it. In retrospect I wish I had gotten a Dell and installed Ubuntu.
While I must admit that a Mac laptop is impressive in many ways there are 3 reasons I think I would prefer Ubuntu(which I use on my work desktop)

#1 Apple won't constantly be bugging me about my updates. On Ubuntu I can set it to do kernel/software updates periodically or I can not.

#2 No bloat. On Ubuntu I install only the software I need. OS X has just as much bundled bloat as windows.

#3 Poor software selection. I know this might seem crazy to some people, but with the synaptic package manager on ubuntu it normally takes me less than five minutes to find and install a piece of software I need, but on OS X I really have to dig to find certain pieces of software. I was surprised at how skimpy the software selection can be for certain types of software on Mac, but on Linux the OSS community has been making clones of anything I might want for windows for a long time(If only because they are jealous). Plus there is a lot of great stuff that is unique to Linux

Of course there is the other reason cost...but that doesn't really figure much into my selection. I figure spread over the 2-3 years I'll have any laptop the cost per diem is a deal no matter what I get.