David does Windows

I was recently introduced to a user group like this: “And now meet a man who’d defend the Mac until his dying breath—David Pogue!” I smiled as I went onstage, but I was quietly horrified. Was that what I’d become—a kneejerk Mac defender? At parties, did other people see the word “fanatic” tattooed across my forehead? Was I a Mac bigot?

Most of the world uses Windows. Not passionately, but they manage. I’d owned a Compaq for two years, but it had never been my main machine. Maybe I’d been too insulated. Maybe it was time to give Windows a real chance. I made a silent vow: I would use nothing but Windows 95 for a month, and then reassess my feelings.

All I needed to make my Compaq ready for prime time was a Zip drive, a modem, and a much bigger hard drive. I called a consultant. His advice: Toss the Compaq. Buying a SCSI card for the Zip drive, hiring him to install the drive and modem, and so on, would cost more than just buying a new PC.

This wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. But I perked up when he said I could get a new Pentium II Micron PC with 32 megs of RAM; a 24X CD-ROM; a 56K modem; a built-in Zip drive; 15-inch monitor; Microsoft Office; free shipping; and 24-hour, toll-free help forever. For $1500.

Suddenly I understood the appeal of Windows.

The PC arrived in a blaze of Styrofoam. Setting up a Wintel box, I discovered, is just as easy as setting up a Mac—but everything’s slightly clunkier. You can’t plug the mouse into the keyboard. There’s no built-in speaker. You can’t turn the computer on and off by from the keyboard, and you can’t plug the monitor’s power cord into an outlet on the CPU. But I couldn’t get mad; I was still giddy with how little I’d paid.

Things got hairier when I pushed the little CD-ROM-eject button. Machinery wheezed, but no tray came out. The manual’s drawings didn’t even match what I had. The free tech-support guy talked me through 30 minutes of paper-clip straightening, system reboots, and DOS mucking. But the shy little tray still wouldn’t slide out.

Eventually, we figured out that there was no tray. You’re supposed to stick the CD directly into the slot, as with car CD players. Micron had switched CD-ROM suppliers—without notifying the manual writer, the tech-support staff, or me.

I was beginning to appreciate Apple’s quality advantage: it can design both the hardware and the software. With a Wintel machine, you get components from one company, assembled by another, running system software by a third. When trouble strikes, nobody is accountable; the buck stops nowhere.

On the other hand, everything they say about Windows machines is true: they feel fast, they’re dirt cheap, and there’s tons of software. I actually liked the toolbar that lists every window in every program; and the two-button mouse; and the feeling, for once, that I was running with the herd.

But after a few days, I began to ache for the Mac. Windows 95 gets more ornery the more you use it. You can’t boot normally from a CD-ROM in times of troubleshooting. Despite the potential for long file names in Windows 95, most files are still named things like 5631_dig.dat and Wpxerror.log. And every little glitch requires reinstalling drivers for things you never even think about on the Mac, such as the mouse, keyboard, and monitor.

Worse, when you insert a floppy, CD, or Zip, no icon appears on the desktop to tell you if the thing’s working right. And to eject a disk, you have to push a button on the computer—I wince every time, not knowing whether or not the computer is ready to eject that disk.

After two weeks, it finally hit me: I’m not a Mac bigot. In fact, I have no particular attachment to the Mac at all; if something superior comes along, I’m there.

No, what I am is an elegance bigot. If I’m going to sit in front of a piece of equipment for hours a day, I want to feel the intelligence that went into my operating system. I want to sense that an English major lost sleep over the wording of the menus. I shouldn’t have to teach my computer what kinds of files it has by adding .txt and .psd to their names. I don’t want a system font that looks like somebody drew it on the bus to work. And I want my OS components to be icons that I can move or throw away—not lines of code that I must edit when troubleshooting.

Elegance, I’m afraid, wasn’t a high priority in Windows 95. The programmers may be top-notch, but I’ll bet the number who’ve studied art history, Haydn string quartets, or Bang & Olufson stereos could fit in my Honda Civic.

Unfortunately, Windows 98 doesn’t address the fundamental flaws of Windows (or PC equipment standards, which Microsoft defines). It adds better online help, bug fixes, and a Web browser, but it’s otherwise the same old glop.

Apple has been showing improved vital signs in recent months; a turnaround may finally be underway. But if the worst should come to pass, and we must all someday switch to Wintel boxes, I have but one plea to Microsoft: when you write Windows 2001, get the elegance bug. Please—copy the Mac.

David Pogue is the author of “The Great Macintosh Easter Egg Hunt” (Berkley, 1998).

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