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The Mac vs. PC debate: it seems like a competition as old as timeā€¦ (can you remember what life was like before computers??)

Buying a computer isn’t always easy, and while improved cross-platform compatibility (read: Mac and PC files playing nicely) is a great feature to have in a computer these days, it also makes the decision process more involved. There are literally hundreds of PCs out there, and by comparison, only a handful of Macs.

So how does one even begin to compare the features of these machines? Here are a few general things that you’ll hopefully find helpful when comparing the two.

1. Do you have a budget?
There are probably only a choice few out there who wouldn’t consider price when buying a machine. A common myth permeating computer conversations is that Macs are more expensive when compared to PCs. When it gets down to it, there are several points to take into consideration, so you can make an informed decision.

Many PC companies offer custom-building tools on their website for certain models. This can be both good and bad: unless you know what you’re shopping for, you may end up with such a low price, it seems to good to be true (which means it probably is). Often, if you read the specs for a Mac carefully, you’ll find that it includes most of the things the PC models charge extra for. End result? Depending on the brand, you may find similar pricing between Macs and PCs, or even in our case, 4 out of 5 PC models were more expensive than the comparable Mac.

Tip: Determine what you will be using your PC for, and consider the upgradability in the future. It goes without saying that value should be considered on an overall basis and not just an initial one. For example, would you like to get a Bluetooth (wireless) mouse at some point? Including Bluetooth internally means never having to add a port-hogging external piece on an already slimmed-down laptop, or extra cost. This holds true for any feature you may strip out because you’re thinking only of initial cost.

2. Do you need Windows XP?
This is a bigger question than you’d think. Windows Vista (Microsoft’s newest OS) is wildly pretty and has some amazing features, but there are still many programs and peripherals out there that won’t work with it without headaches. My husband uses a geographic mapping program called ArcView, which is a full-featured program developed only for Windows XP. In his search, he had to weed out any computer model that didn’t offer the option of XP.

What we found is that there are some companies who offer only Vista (save for 1 or 2 models each), such as HP and Sony. This dramatically reduced the number of computers we could consider, and usually, the ones that do have XP are on the extreme high end of business machines. (What we figured was that businesses must have made the biggest stink about Vista bugs and that these users needed a reliable alternative (tried-and-true XP); by contrast, the PC makers were able to honor their agreements with Microsoft by sticking with Vista for the low-to-mid-range (because maybe the average home user wouldn’t really know that difference?).

Read a commentary of XP/Vista on CNet here.

Tip: Find out which programs, printer(s), and other things you use with your PC now. A good way to do this is to write down the version of your software, and go to the manufacturer’s website (or search engine) for more information. Do the same for other peripherals—this will save having to purchase upgrades (if applicable) or abandon the product altogether. You’ll want to make sure you cover all your bases so that you can eliminate costly surprises later!

3. Does screen size matter to you?
How are you going to be using your notebook? Are you going to travel with it, or use it as a desktop replacement? As we found, bigger isn’t always better. You must take the aspect ratio, viewable screen size, resolution, and brightness/contrast ratio into consideration.

There are many PC models out there with 14 and 15-inch screens that seem like bargains. When we looked at the fine print and glossary of terms that some companies used, we found that most of these screens were low-resolution displays. Most were also non-widescreen and considerably dimmer than the Mac counterpart. For example, the 15-inch MacBook Pro has a resolution of 1440×900, with a widescreen aspect ratio. The 14 and 15-inch PCs had a resolution more similar to that of the 13-inch MacBook, at 1280×800 (widescreen) or 1280×1024 for non-widescreen displays.

What I like about widescreen displays is that they facilitate displaying information as your brain processes it: left to right. I find that I more often like to view data onscreen wider than taller, so it’s helpful to have the widescreen with those additional pixels. The numbers indicate the following: a screen resolution of 1280×800 means that there are 1280 pixels across 800 horizontal lines that span top to bottom.

Tip: Think about what you view on your screen. Do you use it for word processing, where the page spread would be helpful, or for web pages where you would be scrolling down? A higher resolution screen is an option that may have a value of $75+ more than a similar-sized one with a lower resolution, but depending on what you do, it may be well worth it!

This is by no means an all-inclusive list. Your needs may vary. Bonus: Check out this article on CIO.com about cost-effectiveness of OS X here.

Have an experience or tip to share? Tell us!

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