How to weigh the choice between buying a PC or a Macintosh

The battle rages on. Should you buy an IBM personal computer or an Apple Macintosh? Sure, both systems are effective for all major business applications, but they do have distinctly different personalities. And today, when PCs and Macs can talk to each other, the whole issue of choosing between the two may be academic.

If you are at ground zero and are looking to choose one system, the most obvious differences are in software. But there are also differences in hardware and, of course, price. Here's how the systems compare:

* Ease of use. Most PCs (IBMs and compatibles) use programs that run under MS-DOS as their operating systems. Such character-based software, which displays only text on the screen, is chaotic; every program works differently, and what you see on screen rarely looks anything like the finished output.

Macintosh software, on the other hand, is based on a graphical user interface (GUI), which displays on the screen graphical icons that the user selects to operate the program. With a GUI, all programs work in a similar way, and skills learned in one program can be applied to another. What you see on the computer screen generally corresponds closely to the printed page.

Microsoft Windows software puts a GUI on the PC, but it is fundamentally a DOS add-on, so you still have to learn DOS and cope with its language and other details. Windows requires a fairly powerful computer; most of today's PCs do not have the minimum configuration Microsoft recommends for Windows.

* Software titles available. In absolute numbers, there are many more software titles for PCs than for Macs, although the vast majority of PC programs are character-based products. Mac programs generally are far superior, but for specialized business applications, PCs can be a better bet. For example, there are about a dozen bookstore-management programs for PCs, but there's only one for Macs.

* Installed base. Anywhere you go in North America or Europe, PCs are more common than Macs. If you are stuck somewhere and need to use a computer, you're more likely to find a PC.

* Portable systems. Competition has generated a plethora of effective portable PCs; lack of competition has resulted in there being only a few heavy and expensive portable Macs. Many Mac users buy portable PCs instead of portable Macs, using a floppy disk or cable to exchange information.

* Price. Exact price comparisons are difficult to make since PCs and Macs are equipped quite differently. (See "Shopping on Price," next page). Macintoshes were usually priced about the same as IBM or Compaq computers of roughly equivalent power and capabilities. The newest Macintoshes, introduced last October, are priced at about the level of national-brand PC clones such as AST or NEC. PC clones promoted by no-name and mail-order companies are about 20% cheaper than Macs. Although the gap has narrowed, price remains one of the most compelling reasons to choose a PC clone over a Mac.

For companies that have more than a handful of microcomputers, the best choice may be to use PCs and Macs together. Most major external peripherals, such as modems and laser printers, can be used by either PCs or Macs. And sharing information between PCs and Macs is now easy.

If your PC uses three-and-a-half-inch disks (the same size disks that Macs use), a Mac can read any files you load onto your PC work disk, as long as you are using similar program software (for example, Microsoft Word) on both the PC and the Mac. Apple's software for reading and writing PC disks -- now included with all Macs -- is not very quick or convenient; AccessPC software ($99.95 from Insignia Solutions, in Sunnyvale, Calif., 408-522-7600) makes the process easier. On a PC a $159 controller board from Central Point Software, in Beaverton, Ore., (503) 690-8090, will enable a three-and-a-half-inch disk drive to read the most common Mac disk formats but not the latest high-density disks.

PCs that use five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks can be hooked up to a Mac via a simple cable that plugs into the serial port on both machines. If the machines are far apart, you can link them over a telephone line with modems. To set up either kind of connection, try MacLink Plus/PC ($199 from DataViz, in Trumbull, Conn., 203-268-0030) or LapLink Mac ($149.95 from Traveling Software, in Bothell, Wash., 206-483-8088).

If you need to move data frequently, a network of Macs and PCs is the best solution. From a user's standpoint, the network is simply another hard disk drive that everyone can read from and write on; whether the data originated on a Mac or a PC doesn't matter. If you already have an Ethernet or token-ring network, plugging in a Mac or a PC probably won't be a problem. If you don't have a network, the simplest and cheapest one that runs on both Macs and PCs is TOPS ($299 per Mac, $488 per PC, available from Sitka, in Alameda, Calif., 415-769-9669).

Once you have moved a file between a PC and a Mac, you shouldn't have much trouble working with it if it is in a popular format. All major spreadsheet programs for the Mac can read and write Lotus 1-2-3 files. Microsoft Excel and WordPerfect can share their respective files on the PC and the Mac. Microsoft Word for the Mac can share files with the DOS version of Microsoft Word and Word for Windows on PCs. For other word processors, look for a common format built into the programs. If you can't find one, MacLink Plus/PC, LapLink Mac, and TOPS all come with translators. Or try Word for Word ($149 from Mastersoft, in Scottsdale, Ariz., 602-277-0900) or Software Bridge ($149 from Systems Compatibility, in Chicago, 312-329-0700); both can convert many types of files and come in PC and Mac versions.

Finally, SoftPC from Insignia Solutions makes a Mac behave like a PC. This may be making a sow's ear out of a silk purse, but SoftPC lets you run DOS programs -- C prompt and all -- on a Mac. SoftPC is purely software, so it is simple and relatively cheap: $399 to $598, depending on options. There are also hardware boards for some Mac models that enable the Mac to work like a PC clone, but these are not cost-effective. No programs do the reverse -- run Mac programs on PCs.


Comparing PCs and Macs

Prices given here are typical retail prices for complete hardware including a 40-megabyte hard disk drive, video display, keyboard, mouse, operating system, and 2 megabytes of memory, unless otherwise noted.

Retail price

IBM PCs and clones

Apple Macintoshes


Basic computer with 8088 CPU, monochrome display, and 640 kilobytes of RAM; similar to the original IBM PC. Adequate for simple character-based applications.

Macintosh Classic with 1 megabyte (MB) of RAM and without hard disk drive.


Lowest-priced 286 clones with monochrome displays, similar to the IBM PC AT. Good for low-budget character-based software; can run Microsoft Windows but not very well.

Macintosh Classic with hard disk drive. Runs most Mac programs adequately; limited by its small monochrome display. Equivalent in power to a 286 computer.


National-brand 286 clones. Lowest-priced 386SX clones with 16 megahertz (MHz) and color displays; can run Windows fairly well. Least powerful PC recommended for business use.


286 models from IBM & Compaq. National brand 386SX clones. Lowest-priced 25-MHz 386 machines, good for Windows.

Macintosh LC with monochrome monitor or third-party 13-inch color monitor. Runs Mac programs well. Equivalent to a 386SX computer in power. Least powerful Mac recommended for business use.


National brand 25-MHz 386 clones. Lowest-priced 33-MHz 386 clones.

Macintosh LC with Apple 13-inch color monitor or large (one-or two-page) monochrome display.


33-MHz 386 models with large hard disks and additional memory.

Macintosh IIsi with Apple 13-inch color display or one- or two-page monochrome display. Runs Mac programs well; equivalent to 386 PC.


Faster 386 models from IBM and Compaq. Lowest-priced 486 clones, the fastest PCs available for running MS-DOS and Windows programs.

Macintosh IIci; equivalent to fast 386 models.

$6,000 and up

Many 486 models, usually sold with large disk drive and other performance features.

Macintosh IIfx, usually sold with 80-MB or larger disk drive; generally faster than 486 models.