By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/5/2007 3:48:41 PM ET 2007-02-05T20:48:41

Say something critical about Microsoft and Windows and no one bats an eyelash. But write anything even faintly judgmental about the Macintosh and in comes a flood of hate mail from Mac users. The worst part is the tone of most, which generally tend toward religious zealotry. So before I begin, let me begin by saying any e-mails of that type that are sent in response to this story will be deleted, with no reply.

For the record, I love the Mac and Apple’s products. So much that at age 16 I picked strawberries to earn enough to buy an Apple II, and in 1984 I bounced a check to buy a plane ticket to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, where I met with the hiring department and by the end of the day landed a job. A year later I was working for then-President John Sculley, as his personal tech assistant.

Even so, I subscribe to the motto “live and let live,” be it religion, politics, or personal computer choice. (Which, for a great many Mac folks, is the same as religion and politics.) In my role at Apple I was often responsible for showing my boss what the competition was up to, which back then meant the original version of Windows. I remember shaking hands with a visiting Bill Gates around the time Word for Mac was released. As then, I still keep myself informed in all areas of tech, even if I don’t subscribe to a certain technology or gadget for my own day to day use. It’s called reporting.

This story is for anyone considering or interested in switching from Mac to Microsoft’s very beautiful new operating system, Windows Vista.

I made the switch several weeks ago, from my trusty 12” PowerBook to (at first) a 17” HP widescreen notebook.

Was my switch from Mac to Windows Vista easy? Was I able to “Think Different,” the other way around? And a month later, have I decided to stick with Vista or go back to the Mac?

Read on to find out – and please, before you send hate mail, read the whole story.

Starting with Start
Windows Vista makes an impressive first impression. From the startup screen, to the desktop, icons, and menus, every aspect is razor-sharp and super-shiny. The new system font, Segoe UI, is simple and elegant.

Lucky for me the HP notebook was powerful enough to show off Vista’s much anticipated Aero touches. Indeed, the slightly milky, see-through glass-like style of overlapping windows is very attractive. I pressed Windows + Tab to see another cool Aero feature — Flip 3D — which overlaps windows for all running programs and documents like a Rolodex, shuffling the front screen to the back with each additional press of the Tab key. Positively gorgeous — and as useful as the Mac’s F9 Expose feature, which miniaturizes all open windows to fit on the screen so you can see everything in a single glimpse.

I launched a few more programs, including the new, very pretty Internet Explorer 7, which finally has tabbed browsing on par with the Mac’s Safari and Firefox on both platforms, as well as the new, 2007 versions of Microsoft Word and Outlook, and the new Windows Media Player 11. All of these programs were at once familiar but much better looking than before. Minimizing a few windows to the task bar, I was wowed by miniature live glimpses of the running programs as I moused over each. A video game trailer I’m viewing on Gamespot, for instance, continues to play in the miniature, minimized window.

My most important stuff
It was time to import my most important stuff from my PowerBook, including my e-mails, contacts, calendar, and sticky notes. Since much of that stuff lives on my Palm Treo 680 smartphone, I decided to install the Palm Desktop software to HotSync much of the stuff into Outlook 2007.

Which is where I hit my first hurdle. Palm doesn’t officially support Vista yet, though eventually it will. This many be the case for potentially many programs that work fine with Windows XP but won’t with Vista until they’re updated. Even so, I managed to sync contacts, calendar and tasks to Outlook, but not sticky notes. For me, my sticky notes are important for keeping track of user names and passwords, registration codes, lists of books and movies I want to see and watch, and snatches of novel ideas or other writing related bits I don’t want to forget. The inability to them between Treo and Outlook would have been a deal-breaker — but fortunately Chapura’s PocketMirror came to the rescue. It does a more thorough job of syncing all of Outlook’s available date, including sticky notes.

Next up, thousands of saved e-mails. Going from Mac to Outlook proved challenging. That’s because unlike Outlook, the Mac’s mail offers no export-all-mail option. Recalling this same challenge a few years ago, I remembered I could upload each email folder to my .Mac account’s inbox, then download them in Outlook on the PC. (This technique works with any IMAP mail server.) Another option is a $28 program called Emailchemy, which elegantly pulls off the same thing without requiring .Mac subscription ($99.95 per year).

With everything downloaded, I dove into Outlook 2007, whose all-in-one approach I’ve always admired. This interrelation between mail, contacts, calendar, tasks and notes is great, particularly when it comes to making an appointment based on an email invite, or getting a quick, month-at-a-glance look at upcoming birthdays.

What I dislike most about Outlook is how it handles individual e-mail accounts, and the way it dumps all incoming messages into a single inbox, while Apple’s Mail helpfully stores each account’s messages in a separate folder. Eventually I figured out how to create a few “rules” to get Outlook to move incoming messages to separate folders based on each account. Perhaps a little too techie for some.

Music & media
Vista’s bundled Photo Gallery is better than iPhoto, which I hate because it organizes pictures by “rolls” that correspond to the date they were taken, but there’s no way to simply organize iPhoto by existing folders. Photo Gallery, however, offers the “rolls” type of organization and the ability to browse by folder. (I hope Apple puts the same ability into iPhoto in a future release; until then there’s the excellent GraphicConverter.)

On the music front, Windows Media Player is better than Apple’s iTunes at finding album information and artwork online, but it doesn’t sync with my iPod or play songs purchased from the iTunes music store. So ultimately I had to download and stick with iTunes to keep my Nano in sync with my 30 gigabytes of music copied over from my Mac.

As for another player, the Zune, which Microsoft sent for me to check out, I like it’s bigger screen and, unlike the iPod’s bundled earphones, the Zune’s stay in my ears without falling out when I run. I don’t like that the Zune has no clock feature, do like its built-in radio, and love how it syncs with TV shows recorded with Vista’s Media Center, which turns PCs into TiVo-like TV recorders.

On that note, while the iPod and Macs can play movies and TV shows downloaded from the iTunes music store, they can’t do Vista’s TiVo-like live TV viewing and recording magic, which is fantastic for watching TV in a window while working, or full screen, later, when the work day is done.

Though add-on EyeTV devices from Elgato Systems let Macs tune in and transfer recorded programs to the iPod, the software isn’t as sophisticated or elegant as Media Center. And while Apple has introduced Apple TV, it will only show stuff bought from the iTunes store or video on your hard disk, but won’t tune into or record live TV — a far more interesting and useful feature to me. Maybe in the future?

More importantly for me is how tightly Media Center integrates with my Xbox 360 — which by the end of the year will be getting TiVo-like features itself. Getting the Vista notebook to recognize my Xbox 360 on my home network was utterly simple simple., and minutes later I was watching video, browsing pictures and listening to music via the Xbox 360 in the living room. (Though Macs can’t do this out of the box, a program called Connect360 let’s your Mac’s music and pictures from the Xbox 360 – very sweet!)

Going mobile
Going mobile with the huge, heavy HP dv9000 was out of the question for me. Way too much to carry and work with at the local Border’s café. So I called my press contact Janet, and she offered to send a smaller, but very powerful little Dell 12” widescreen notebook.

Which meant I was now faced with moving everything I transferred from the Mac to the HP over to the Dell. While this sounded like a nightmare, I was blow away by how easy it was, thanks to a built-in Vista utility called Easy Transfer and a customized $39.99 USB cable from by Belkin. Plug the two machines together, run the program, tell it which direction to transfer, and off it goes. By the time I came back from a short gym workout, the entire process was done. The only transfer I’ve seen go so smoothly is when using the Mac’s Migration Assistant to move from an old PowerBook to a newer one.

Though the Dell made me happier with Vista, certain un-pleasantries began to reveal themselves. First, Dell chose to put some of the machine’s vents on the underside – which required me to balance it by its edges between my legs. What’s more, the unit’s exhaust fan runs almost constantly,  which to me is a total annoying on any computer.

Worse, when I closed the lid one night before heading to my sister’s place for a sleepover, I arrived to find the notebook hot to the point of painful to touch when I drew it out of my backpack. Apparently the machine woke itself from hibernation mode — which is the safest way to travel because it — usually — saves everything in memory to disk then shuts all the way down. Not so with the Dell. After much research it turns out the power settings were set to a new “hybrid” suspend mode. Eventually I found an command — “powercfg –h on” — that I needed to run as a DOS command to force the Dell to give me the option to choose ordinary, full-shutdown hibernation. Not very intuitive, and definitely dangerous to anyone used to just shutting the lid and packing their notebook in a bag.

Security concerns
A few years ago I bailed on Windows after my credit card number was stolen by an individual named Phrank who used it to purchase music from Real.com. This in spite of the fact I was running a full security suite plus three anti-spyware programs. So, as much as I’d loved playing 3-D games and was able to do more, I’d had it, and switched to the Mac.

Times have changed. And I’m happy to report — and Microsoft no doubt even happier — that I’ve had zero indication of any kind of net-related badness since switching to Vista. Microsoft now bundles in a more powerful firewall program for controlling access in and out of your computer. It also includes Windows Defender, an anti-spyware program. For antivirus protection you’re on your own — or you can go with Microsoft’s own Windows OneCare, which brings all security duties under one neat, tightly integrated roof. In repeated scans for viruses and spyware, OneCare, combined with the security features built into Vista, appeared to be doing its job of preventing attacks on the Dell.

The number one thing I love that Macs have that Windows don’t: A system-wide spell checker. Number two: A system-wide dictionary. No surprise there, since I do make my living as a writer.

There are add-on options for Windows, but none works as nicely as the Mac’s.

Another everyday favorite is system-wide search. Until Vista, the Mac had Windows beat. In fact, Vista’s system-wide search in some ways beats the Mac because it requires only one keystroke — the Windows key — to bring up the Start menu, where you can immediately type. But though it’s easier to get to, and does a pretty good job of finding stuff, I often needed to take it a step further to search places it normally doesn’t. Whereas the Mac's Spotlight search always seems to find everything on the first pass.

Also high on my list of loves is the Mac’s Dashboard, which pops up handy Widgets for things like weather, a calculator, BBC streaming radio and my horoscope. Another press, and they all fade away, behind the scenes.

Windows Vista’s answer to Dashboard is the Windows Sidebar and Gadgets. Like Dashboard, Gadgets are mini programs that show quick information. But unlike Dashboard, the Sidebar stays on the side of the screen, similar to how Google’s free Desktop suite’s of same-named Sidebar and Gadgets work. Both programs let you drag a Gadget off the Sidebar to keep on the screen at all times.

The most Dashboard-like Widgets can be had with Yahoo’s Widgets, were so like the Mac Dashboard Widgets I was already used to I wound up using them and turning off Vista’s Sidebar altogether. Maybe as more Sidebar Gadgets appear the program will be more useful.

After several weeks with it, I have to admit Windows Vista’s shinier finish and sharp little touches when dealing with photo thumbnails or browsing music folders with Windows Explorer were more appealing to me than the Mac’s Finder. There just seems to be more useful information automatically displayed depending on what you’re looking at or working with. At the same time, there’s something more literally hands on with the Mac, as far as how folders are simply organized and the way programs are a single file rather than a whole folder full of files that generally cannot be moved from where they’re installed.

All told, I found myself so attracted to Vista based on my switch to the test unit I was ready and willing to lay down cash to find the ultimate Vista machine.

I went with what I think are the best looking Windows notebooks: Sony. I eventually settled on FX line, which features a 13” widescreen display in under 4 lbs. But I was disappointed to find vents on the underside. On my way out I passed the store’s only Macs on display – two MacBooks, one black, and one white. I tilted the screen back, impressed by how much brighter it looked than even the very bright Dell I’d been using. I was overcome by a weird feeling. Like, was this all a dream?

Back home, I wandered over to Apple’s Web site to preview what’s coming in the next major upgrade to OS X, named Leopard. Lots of nice features, including the addition to sticky notes in the Mail program. Also, the ability save “screen sets” of virtual desktops of programs, keeping clutter to a minimum as you switch from set to set. Neat.

On a news site I read a story about a new Mac program called Parallels, which lets you run Windows XP (or Vista) in a window, or in full screen mode, while still running as a Mac. (Apple’s own Boot Camp lets you run Windows on a Mac, but you choose which one at startup and can’t run both at the same time.) Imagine running Vista on a simple, clean MacBook that has no vents on the underside? Since there isn’t a single Windows program I’m bound to, the thought seemed too weird, but for anyone required to run certain Windows applications because of their job or for another reason, it was an interesting option. What’s more, Parallels' “Coherence” mode can essentially show only the running Windows program’s elements while hiding all the rest of Windows, including the desktop. Very interesting.

And then it hit me, the reason why I switched from Mac to Windows Vista. Because it is new. Because I am naturally curious about most things tech, and not only because it’s my job. Because I believe in second chances. And thirds and fourths and fifths. For sure, I’m enormously impressed with Windows Vista to the point of respecting it as a choice for friends and family if they so choose.

But I really miss that peaceful, Zen-like quiet I felt with my Mac when I’d wake it up or put it instantly to sleep. For me, it just works right, without really having to think about it.

So I decided to switch again. From Vista, back to the Mac — to the brand new, white MacBook on which I told this story.

As for your own story, you’re free to think for yourself. Just no hate mail either way, please, because whichever way you go is really none of my business.

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