What can PC makers learn from Apple?

These days Apple is generating more buzz than a swarm of African killer bees. Of course, we PC users can sit back and watch the hoopla about the Mac Mini and its brethren with detached interest, right?

Well, maybe we should pay more attention. The fact is, Apple gets a lot of things right. For starters, the new Mac Mini is a sleek, pared-down little number that has a trim US$500 price tag to match. For Mac fans, it's an affordable, well-designed digital media machine that gets along nicely with other peripherals. The Mini will let you store and play music, manage photos, watch movies, and go online. Plus, it's relatively quiet compared with a typical PC, so it might be a good fit for your living room. Oh, and it's stylish, to boot.

Now, I'm not saying that the PC universe is all bad. If you're a cost-conscious buyer, you may find that a PC is a better deal than a Mac. And if you're shopping for peripherals or internal components, you can choose from a huge range of PC brands. Plus, PCs are perfect for tinkerers; opening the hood is usually relatively straightforward. In Mac land, most systems' cases are harder to open, and components are designed more as cohesive units than as a collection of parts.

I'm not suggesting that you rush out and purchase a Mac. And I'm not talking about whether you should or shouldn't switch. Instead, I'd like to point out some of the things that Apple does extremely well. PC vendors, are you listening?

Apple of your eye

I know, looks don't make the computer. But on the other hand, where is it written that systems have to be boxy and boring? Or black and predictable?

To be fair, not all PCs fit that description these days. They're smaller and more streamlined than they used to be; they have snazzy flat-screen monitors; and thanks to Apple's rollout of candy-hued boxes a few years ago, some PCs even come dressed in hip new colors. But when it comes to design innovation in the computer industry, Apple still leads the way with its classy components and solid focus on simplicity and ease of use.

Granted, you might not care about details like translucent turquoise trim on the monitor and curvaceous cases when you are trying to pull together a last-minute sales presentation. But if you're looking for a system to power your home media center, which would you rather buy: a sleek device that you could design your living room around or a clunky box that's more about spreadsheets than Sade?

Speaking of nice-looking, Apple's operating system has raced past Windows in innovative design and functionality. The current OS X is both pleasing to the eye and intuitive. Plus, its integration of hardware and software is far more cohesive. (Click here for more about what makes OS X a winner.)

Plug and play? Not today

Well, okay. You have to give Microsoft some credit. The company's Windows XP Media Center operating system has made some strides in the past year, adding features like streaming live TV.

But all the media bells and whistles in the world amount to little more than a taunting reminder of What Could Be if you can't get your system hub to talk to the other members of your entertainment committee. And setting up a Windows-based home digital media system still seems to be about as simple as cobbling together a map of your own genetic code.

I'm not suggesting that Apple takes all the pain out of setting up a digital media system. But unlike Microsoft and all its hardware counterparts, Apple has a long history of making products that work right out of the box, mostly because it is the only company involved. In addition, Apple products typically work with a smaller group of peripherals and programs, so the company can quash more bugs and offer fixes in timelier fashion.

Living the iLife

How many media programs must we PC users arduously sort through before we can figure out which one will do the job easily? Let's see...this one has a great video editor, but it won't work with your DVD player. That one has a decent interface, but it crashes constantly. It's like trying to piece together a single recognizable image from ten different jigsaw puzzles.

Apple's iLife digital media suite minimizes hardware and software incompatibility problems and other headaches, and serves up a comprehensive package that permits you to do almost anything you want with music, photo, and video files, assuming that you have the necessary hardware and enough system memory. Oh, why can't a PC be more like a Mac?

Shopping serenity

If you've ever shopped for a PC in an electronics superstore, you know all about stress. The noise is head-pounding, the lighting is harsh, and you never know whether you'll find a salesperson who can answer your questions. (From my shopping experience, things can be especially bad on weekends.) And sometimes you can forget about actually trying out a PC. The ones that still work are often locked away, where you can gaze at them from a safe distance and read about them, perhaps on mismatched spec cards.

Now take that superstore experience and turn everything around: Think spacious, light, and inviting. Imagine computer stations where you can play freely with fully configured systems. Top it all off with helpful, knowledgeable salespeople who encourage you to try out the computers, and ask questions. (Yes, I'm talking about your typical Apple Store.)

Now, I'm sure that there are less-than-pristine Apple Stores somewhere, and no doubt some mediocre salespeople too. But the stores that I've visited have generally felt like places that I want to spend time in -- enjoying the products and imagining how I might use them in my home. That sounds like good business to me.

There's no doubt that Apple has a lot going for it. From the company's product design to hardware and software compatibilities to the pleasant Apple Store environment, there's an awful lot to like.

So come on, PC vendors: It's time to take a hard look at Apple's successes. We could all use less stress in our world.

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