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I've been writing about the Mac for ten years, andthe hardest story to write is the one that tries to compare Apple's products with those from the other side of the fence -- computers made by companies such as Dell or Gateway, powered by processors from Intel or AMD, and run by an operating system from Microsoft. I've seen attempts to compare the usability of Windows with that of Mac OS; stabs at measuring Photoshop's performance on Macs against its performance on Windows and Unix workstations; and efforts to quantify, somehow, the complete cost of owning a Mac versus that of owning a PC.

The results often prove little. One reason for that can pretty much be summed up by that old Sesame Street song about how one of these things is not like the other. A Mac is not a PC. Mac OS doesn't behave the same way Windows does. Applications with the same names and version numbers behave differently on different platforms.

But a stickier issue is the one that we, as a Mac magazine, must face: What exactly are we trying to show our readers? If the Mac wins the tests we lay out, we can point our fingers at the Wintel crowd and claim superiority. If the Mac runs behind, we can explain it away by saying how it's the ease of use, the friendliness, the you-name-it of the Mac that's better, no matter what the tests say. Put simply, we are Mac users because we prefer the Mac. So why do any comparison at all?

The G5 Challenge

The magazine you're reading features a lengthy comparison of Mac and PC performance ("The Race Is On"), so we obviously have reasons to go down the perilous path of platform competition. Some have to do with a general perception over the past few years that the Mac is hopelessly behind the PC in terms of speed. But a primary reason is Apple's claim that its new Power Mac G5 system is the fastest desktop computer in the world.

Our results, gathered by Macworld Lab and our colleagues at the PC World Test Center, show that Apple's claim is a mix of merit and marketing spin. But what we learned should give all Mac users -- whether they're fighting to keep their office Macs, deciding if they should invest in the G5 for graphic-design work, or simply tiring of the guff they get from PC-using pals -- a better idea of the Mac's strengths and weaknesses.

For me, the good news is that the G5 offers a major speed boost, making the Mac a relevant player in terms of speedy personal computers. Can Apple leap ahead of its competition? That depends on the innovations of the next year, not only from Apple and IBM, but also from Intel and AMD.

Cat, Out of Bag

With the October 24 release of Panther -- Mac OS X 10.3 -- Apple has settled into a routine, releasing major OS X updates on an almost yearly basis. This new version offers numerous interface changes and feature additions, many of which we've detailed in "Panther by the Numbers". Sure, I've got some interface quibbles -- most of which enterprising shareware developers will take care of in the next couple of months. But just as the G5 marks an important performance milestone for Power Macs, Panther represents a huge step forward in Mac OS X's evolution.

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