Why It’s Increasingly Tough to Compare Macs and PCs

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In 2006, CompUSA tried to answer the Mac-or-PC question for its customers

When I sat down to review Apple’s new Retina-display MacBook Pro, I instinctively wanted to compare it with similar Windows laptops. I wanted to discuss how the specs stacked up and whether the price seemed fair. I hoped to contrast its industrial design with those of its closest counterparts.

Then it dawned on me: there are no similar Windows laptops.

It’s not just that the new Pro’s ultra-high-resolution display is unique, at least for now. Its basic form factor — 15.4-in. screen, no DVD burner — is almost unheard of in the Windows world. Samsung’s 15-in. Series 9 is at least vaguely in the same ballpark and is an interesting computer in its own right. But it’s not all that similar: it’s lighter, cheaper and less powerful. You can’t compare it with the new MacBook Pro and come to any definitive conclusions about which is the better value.

Macs and PCs may have the longest-running, most iconic rivalry in tech history, but more and more, the two personal-computing platforms are choosing different paths. They reflect different priorities and are aimed at different sorts of consumers. And we may be headed into an era in which they’re less similar than ever.

(MORE: PC vs. Mac: Which Is Right for You?)

The great divergence began when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s. Rather than trying to make computers for everybody, Apple winnowed down its product line and focused on the high end of the market. It managed to avoid the PC business’s overarching business model, which had everyone else competing to provide the highest specs at the lowest prices.

When Apple latches onto a feature it likes, like unibody aluminum cases, it tends to roll it out on all its computers. When it gets excited by new technologies like Thunderbolt, it’s often the first company to adopt them. But the company frequently opts out of trends that are otherwise industry-wide: it’s never going to offer Blu-ray drives, and it’s only now getting around to selling laptops with USB 3.0 and HDMI ports.

And while Apple remains the most influential computer maker in the business, the rest of the industry has chosen to ignore some of its design innovations. When it started sealing up its portables a few years ago — eliminating the ability to easily swap in batteries, RAM and hard drives — I thought that other hardware makers might follow along. For the most part, they haven’t.

When other companies do copy Apple — or build impressive machines like Sony’s VAIO Z, which take on Apple without imitating it — it’s not a surefire recipe for success. My sense is that ultrabooks, which pick up on the minimalism of the MacBook Air, aren’t (yet) hugely popular: people who buy Windows notebooks tend to like the most powerful processors, large screens, mammoth hard drives, optical drives and lots and lots of ports — the sort of things that Apple either doesn’t emphasize as much or doesn’t offer at all.

(MORE: The History of Apple’s MacBook Pro, 2006 to Retina)

And if Microsoft has its way, PCs and Macs are about to get more different than they’ve been in decades. For all of the interesting things about the new MacBook Pro, it’s a straightforward notebook computer based on a form factor that’s been around for 30 years. Apple seems to be content to let Macs be Macs, while the iPad goes places that computing devices never have before.

With Windows 8, however, Microsoft is trying to reinvent the PC from scratch. The Metro interface has little to do with the basic concepts that Windows 7 and OS X share, and it’s conceivable that a bunch of long-standing form factors that have never quite worked, such as touchscreen PCs and laptops that convert into tablets, will finally take off. If they do, and Apple doesn’t push the Mac in the same direction, the average Windows PC could end up having very little in common with any Mac. (We’ll see.)

Comparing Macs and Windows machines is still fun: a few years ago, I went on a jag of doing it all the time. But when I did, and no matter what my conclusions were, I found that at least half the people who responded to my stories argued that my methodology was screwed up. I came to the conclusion that the two platforms simply catered to different sorts of people, and that was O.K.

It’s still O.K. (At least with me: I understand that some Windows users are violently angry about the fact that some people like Macs, and some Mac users believe Windows people are idiots.) So I don’t feel too guilty about having failed to compare the new MacBook Pro with state-of-the-art Windows notebooks.

Maybe you can manage to do it, though — and if you can, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

MORE: Sony Introduces an Ultrabook and an Ultra-Ultrabook