Opinion: Fact-checking the 'Get a Mac' ads

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Whatever your stance on the great PC vs. Mac question, one thing is beyond debate: Macs have always had better commercials. (Actually, has there ever been even one great PC TV ad campaign? The original IBM PC ads with a Chaplin impersonator, maybe; the “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” ones were more unavoidable than memorable.)

After a long drought of Mac ads on TV, they seem to be everywhere at the moment, in the form of the “Get a Mac” campaign with actors Justin Long as a Mac and John Hodgman as a PC. There are now nine commercials in the series, all of them entertaining and most of them riffing on three major notions:

Macs are good at photos, video, music, and other fun stuff. Mostly because they all come bundled with iLife. (Some ads talk about iLife explicitly, but even those that don’t seem to make reference to its media savvy.)

PCs are dorky. There’s a reason why the ad casts a young, trim, handsome guy as a Mac and a portly, older, badly-dressed geek as a PC. (John Hodgman turns 35 this month, incidentally, but he has the soul of a middle-aged man; Justin Long just turned 28.) So many blogs have commented on the actors’ resemblance to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs—who have served as technology’s Mr. Nerd and Mr. Cool for more than three decades—that I’ll just move on here.

PCs are good at business tasks. It’s the one favorable thing about PCs you’ll hear in these ads—the PC never gets a chance to point out that he runs more software, is the only viable choice for serious gamers, is available in more form factors, and starts at a lower price point. “Business” seems to equal “boring” here, so this idea is an extension of the “PCs are dorky” meme. It also inoculates the Mac against accusations that it’s less useful in an office environment—for all intents and purposes, these spots revel in that fact.

Those are the big ideas, but the ads make lots of little points about Macs and PCs. What follows is a humble attempt (and an unbiased one—I use both PCs and Macs every day, and like ‘em both for different reasons) to audit their accuracy, one by one. Click on the titles to view videos of the spots at Apple’s site (QuickTime required)…


Stated or implied claims: PCs are liable to catch viruses and Macs aren’t; PCs are prone to crashing, at least after they’ve gotten a virus.

True? Yep, pretty much. Even with security attacks on Macs in the news lately, the Mac is still a vastly safer platform in the real world. As for crashing, XP does it much, much less than earlier versions of Windows, and Mac OS X is by no means uncrashable. But it’s still reasonable to suggest that PCs, on the whole, are less stable than Macs.


Stated or implied claims: PCs and Macs both run Microsoft Office and they can share files. PCs are more…hmmm, I’m not sure whether this ad is saying that they are more likely to lock up, require rebooting, or what exactly. Well, it’s probably saying they need restarting, given the spot’s name. But I’m not sure if it’s referring to reliability problems or the fact that Windows still wants you to reboot after adding certain software.

True? PCs and Macs do indeed both run Office, and getting data between them is usually a cakewalk. (But not always—I’ve managed somehow to create PowerPoints in Office for the Mac which Office for Windows won’t open.) As for the restarting bit, it’s still true that PCs are more likely to want rebooting than Macs…so I’d say the basic idea here is vague but defensible.


Stated or implied claims: PCs and Macs both run Microsoft Office. PCs are great at spreadsheets. Macs are better at “life stuff” such as pictures and movies. Making a Web site or photo book is easy on the Mac, and hard on a PC.

True? Yep, Office runs on both platforms. I don’t know if PCs are better at spreadsheets per se, but business software is plentiful for Windows and somewhat sparse for Macs.

As for Macs being better at “life stuff?” They certainly are reliably good at it, thanks to the fact they all come with iLife. With PCs, you’re either at the mercy of the manufacturer and whatever it chose to bundle, or you’re required to choose and acquire your own applications. (In which case you can choose from a bunch of options, a luxury that Mac users don’t have.) In any event, there are plenty of easy tools for creating Web sites and photo books on a PC, so the Mac’s unqualified statement that it’s hard is unfair.


Stated or implied claims: PCs can use iPods and iTunes. iPhoto, iMovie, and iWeb come on every Mac and work like iTunes. Windows comes with bundled apps like a calculator and a clock.

True? PCs can indeed run iTunes. The idea that if you like iTunes, you’ll like the rest of iLife is pretty compelling. But Windows does come an iTunes competitor—Windows Media Player. Many of the PCs that Macs compete most directly with run Windows Media Center Edition, which adds a bunch of other multimedia features, including some that Macs don’t come with, like the ability to record TV. And virtually any PC aimed at home users will come with at least a smattering of additional media-related tools.

Side notes: Showing the PC using the iPod is a clever ad-within-the-ad, especially since it somehow simultaneously reinforces the notion that the PC is a nerd, with his clumsy grooving and goofy belt clip. Oh, and for the record, Macs also come bundled with a calculator and a clock.


Stated or implied claims: It’s easy to network PCs and Macs. They can share Internet connections. The latest digital cameras from Japan work well with Macs. And maybe they don’t with PCs.

True? The stuff about networking and sharing a Net connection is accurate, and a big reason why it’s possible for PCs and Macs to happily coexist under one roof. But this may be both the most entertaining and least fair ad in the series, since it seems to say that PCs have trouble talking to new cameras. Getting cameras to talk to a PC or a Mac is pretty brain-dead simple these days, and there isn’t a camera on the market—with the exception of Apple’s iSight Webcam—that works with a Mac but not a PC. An ad which claimed that PCs are more prone to have peripheral connectivity problems than Macs might have a point, but that doesn’t seem to be the claim here.

Side note: Built-in memory card readers are pretty much a standard feature on consumer PCs, and a boon for digital camera fans. Macs don’t have ‘em, but should.


Stated or implied claims: Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal said the iMac was the best desktop on the planet.

True? Walt Mossberg did indeed call the G5 iMac the best desktop PC in existence. He says that the current Intel-based version remains the gold standard in desktop computing, although his review has a few reasonable caveats. Meanwhile, the ad suggests that when it comes to favorable reviews, the PC has to resort to making stuff up. There’s no question that the Mac line is the best-reviewed assemblage of computers from one company, but if the PC was, oh, a ThinkPad, I suspect it could also summon up a glowing review or two.

The above six ads made up the campaign’s first wave. More recently, they’ve been joined by three more…

Out of the Box

Stated or implied claims: Right out of the box, Macs let you make movies and Web sites, and they have built-in cameras. With a new PC, you’ll need to install new drivers, erase trial software, and read manuals. PCs come in multiple boxes.

True? The overarching idea here—that Macs have a great out-of-the-box experience, and PCs may not—is fair enough. But it’s easy to pick at the details. For one thing, Macs also need software updates from day one. (Try running the Software Update feature on a brand-new Mac and see what it tells you.) While Macs are pleasingly free of obnoxious, in-your-face marketing stuff, they do come with preinstalled trial software (namely demos of Microsoft Office and Apple’s iWork).

And I’m not sure what manuals the PC is planning to read—one thing that Macs and most PCs have in common these days is that their documentation is pretty darn skimpy. (The association of PCs with daunting manuals reminds me of an early Mac commercial, from the days when PCs did come with an avalanche of docs.)


Stated or implied claims: Macs can run OS X or Windows. You can’t run Mac stuff on a PC.

True? Most of this ad is devoted to a gag about the PC not knowing the proper use of the word “touché,” not the details of running Windows on Intel Macs. The Mac’s claim that he’s a PC too is plausible, but if the PC had been on top of his game, he might have said, “Yeah, but an imperfect one.” Apple’s Boot Camp is still in beta and has gotchas like the fact that it doesn’t support the Webcam that the Mac mentions in another spot. Meanwhile, the other major method of running Windows apps on a PC—Parallels’ virtualization software—lets you run many but not all Windows programs, but doesn’t really turn a Mac into a PC from a hardware standpoint. (Right now, for instance, it doesn’t support USB 2.0.)

But when the Mac says he’s a PC, is he talking about Boot Camp or Parallels, or both? Hard to say. This ad’s classy simplicity is broken up by a footnote.

In case you can’t make the disclaimers out, the top one says a Mac needs XP and Parallels; the bottom one just mentions XP. I’m not sure what explains the disparity, but the one that only mentions XP seems inaccurate by any standards, since Boot Camp is a download, not something that comes with any Mac. And it’s still a beta with its share of glitches, which might be why one of the versions of the ad mentions Parallels, which is a shipping product.

As for the claim that PCs can’t run Mac software—very true. And the fact that the Mac can do PC stuff but not vice-versa is a point in the Mac’s favor, if a confusing one in the context of this particular PC-bashing ad campaign.

Work vs. Home

Stated or implied claims: Macs do music, movies, and podcasting. PCs do timesheets and spreadsheets and pie charts.

True? Okay, this ad works only as a flight of comic fancy. Other ads in the series point out that all Macs come with lots of well-integrated digital media software, which is a specific and reasonable point in their favor; this one suggests that PCs just can’t do music, movies, or podcasting, period. Note that the PC was using iTunes back in “iLife.” And wasn’t the Mac bragging in other spots that he could run Office, too?

That’s all the ads in the series…and all the musings I have about them. The commercials may be kind of unspecific in their claims in many cases, but the Get a Mac section on Apple’s site supplements them with a lot of information which, while not an even-handed comparison of the two platforms, does do a good job of clarifying some of the vaguer statements in the ads; it’s a pretty good overview of points in the Mac’s favor.

This story, "Opinion: Fact-checking the 'Get a Mac' ads" was originally published by PCWorld.

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