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No, I don't want to get a Mac!

August 24, 2014

Let me start off by saying that the Apple Mac is a very fine computer indeed. It just isn't the machine that I need for what I need a computer for. I recently announced that I needed a new laptop because my old one had suffered a disaster and I was of course given the advice to "Get a Mac" from all directions. I pointed out that my business is based on a product which requires Microsoft SQL Server so I really had no option for the sort of computer I had to buy.

I was told that I could use virtual machine software like Parallels or VMware which would allow me to run Windows on a Mac, but I was actually able to buy a new laptop from Acer for a price which is about the same as just buying Parallels plus the necessary Windows licence without the expense of buying a Mac as well.

One thing I've noticed when computer or software wars break out is that a lot of people have an opinion about products that they don't use. As an example, I am often told about the dreadful problems with the Internet Explorer browser but these comments come from people who don't actually use it. They might have used an older version but that doesn't really qualify them to comment on IE11, just as my limited experience with Safari means that I can only comment about it in a superficial manner. A similar thing seems to apply to people whose only experience with computers is with Mac but who have horror stories to tell about Windows.

Just this week for example I was told about people, presumably friends of friends of a cousin's friend's jockey, who had been required to completely replace their PCs because they had a virus. A virus is a piece of software and there is no way that a virus can require a complete replacement of all the hardware surrounding it and making up the computer. I've heard these stories as well, but they always end up going back to somebody selling something that doesn't need to be sold. The very worst case scenario for replacing hardware because of a virus would be replacement of the hard disk, not the complete computer. I can't remember the last time I saw a virus on a computer that I own or even on one belonging to a client, and I have seen clients with machines which were hopelessly out of date with Windows updates and not running virus protection. Maybe they were lucky, but viruses are certainly not the problem that they used to be, particularly for anyone running any antivirus software.

You know the Blue Screen Of Death that happens to Windows all the time? I think I've seen one in the last four years and that was caused by a faulty piece of hardware, in that case a card which provided additional USB ports. Replaced the card and the problem never came back.

I'm also told all the time about security flaws in Windows but nobody ever seems to be able to say what these flaws really are. They quote people talking up their own book about security but often the probability of any of this happening is so remote that it is really nothing that most people have to worry about. I'm not saying that you can be completely cavalier about security but most people don't have to worry about much of the nonsense that they see in the tabloid press. I've got a lot to say about the quality of IT journalism but I'll leave that for another day.

Is interesting to note that the very first antivirus program was created by Symantec and it was targeted at the Apple Mac of the time. It is also useful to observe that the first and possibly only person ever imprisoned for distributing a virus or viruslike software let the thing loose in a UNIX environment, and UNIX is at the base of the current Apple operating system. So much for viruses only existing in a Windows environment.

So what do I do to keep my computers running safely, properly, without viruses and without security problems?

First, I download and install all the patches in Windows update whenever they become available. Many of the updates are to fix recognised security flaws in Windows so it is essential to install them. Note that this isn't a criticism of Windows per se because the very nature of operating systems is to run programs and viruses are programs. Also operating systems are extremely complex pieces of software and only people who have never written a program or who have no idea what they are talking about whatsoever can suggest that you can write an operating system and get it right first time. It is simply sheer weight of numbers that means that viruses are more likely to be written for Windows than they are for the Mac or for Linux, just on the basis of market share. People often complain about the number of Windows updates but I would prefer a system which is updated regularly to fix problems than one which was only released on an occasional basis.

Secondly, I use a good antivirus program. There are a number of these products available, some for free, some for money, but whichever one you choose it is essential to have one. I use Norton Antivirus because I've been using it for many years and it does what I want it to do, but almost any of the products will do what it says it does and some of them even offer a free version. The most common free program that I see is AVG, which also has a paid version, but Microsoft provides some quite useful free antivirus programs for Windows 7 (Microsoft Security Essentials) and Windows 8 (Windows Defender). Security Essentials also works with Windows XP, but there have been no updates to virus signatures since April 8, 2014.

The third thing is to run firewall software. The one built into Windows does a pretty good job and is free. It configures itself virtually automatically and lets you say what programs you want to allow to use your communication facilities. You can also do hardware firewall protection outside your computer on your network but the sort of computers you use make no difference in this case. You can see some more about securing your wireless network here.

Another thing that is worth doing is to periodically clear out Windows temporary files. This won't protect you against viruses and other nasties is but it will make your computer run better.

So what you need to think about when you're buying a new computer? If all the software you own is there as Windows versions and there is something essential that you must have that only runs on Windows, then you buy a Windows computer. If all the software you own is for a Mac and there is something that you need which only runs on a Mac, then buy a Mac. If you don't have a computer at all, list all the things you want to do with it and mark those that are essential then see whether versions of all the programs are available for both Windows and Mac. If you can do everything that you need to do with either a Windows machine or a Mac then buy the one that you think is the prettiest or the cheapest or will make your friends go "Ooooooooh!" the most.

And promise never to tell anybody what sort of computer they should buy without knowing what they want to use it for.

Yes, another option is Linux. This is a free operating system and it is very good. It is perfectly suitable for people who know a lot more about computers, who have a lot more spare time, and whose expectations are lower than your average Windows or Mac user.  I've spent a lot of time working with it (it's similar to UNIX and I have recommended, installed, and supported UNIX in commercial environments). If I were to be running a Web server it would be my only choice, but I'm talking about computers for day-to-day productivity here. Please don't suggested it as an alternative to either Windows or a Mac for your average office or home user.

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