A year or two ago, the notion of replacing a PC with one of Apple's stylish Mac computers was fraught with risk, uncertainty, and incompatibilities. Today, the computing landscape is not so black and white. Thanks to Apple's conversion to the same Intel-based computing platform used by mainstream Windows-based PCs and a host of software tools that make it easier than ever to interoperate between the Mac OS X and Windows worlds, buying a Mac is easier--and smarter--than ever. Sure, there are some hurdles to overcome. But for many people, choosing between a Mac and a PC doesn't have to be an either-or proposition anymore.

We can credit Apple CEO Steve Jobs for correctly seeing the future once again. For years, Apple had secretly developed Intel-based versions of its flagship Mac OS X operating systems alongside the PowerPC-based versions it was selling to the public. Dramatically, in 2005, Apple announced that it would move the Mac to the Intel platform over time, transitioning its OS and hardware to the new systems, eventually leaving the stagnating PowerPC platform behind. What Apple's accomplished in the intervening two years is impressive. Today, all of the company's hardware runs on standard PC-based Intel hardware, and the Intel version of Mac OS X "Tiger" (see my review) runs even PowerPC-based software just fine for the most part, thanks to a low-level emulator built into the OS.

Apple and various third parties have also released software solutions that make it easy to run Windows on these new Intel-based Macs. (Though the reverse is not true: You cannot legally run Intel-based versions of Mac OS X on PCs made by other companies.) There are two basic types of solutions. First, you can dual-boot between Windows and Mac OS X on the same Mac hardware, using software such as Apple's Boot Camp beta. Or, you can utilize a number of virtualization environments, such as Parallels Desktop, to run Windows "under" Mac OS X in a software-based virtualized PC. Both methods involve some trade-offs, but either should satisfy any users' particular needs.

Using Boot Camp Beta

Billed as a feature in an upcoming version of Mac OS X codenamed Leopard (see my preview), Boot Camp is a free beta utility that partitions, or segregates, your hard drive into two parts, one for Mac OS X and one for Windows (XP with Service Pack 2 or Vista). After partitioning the drive, Boot Camp prompts you to insert your Windows install disk, and then it installs Windows and, when completed, a set of drivers specific to your Mac hardware. When this is all done, you've got a two-headed monster that can run either Windows or Mac OS X. You can choose which system is the default when you reboot or manually choose between the two each time the system boots. Boot Camp works well, and I was excited to see that the latest version both supports Vista and all of the hardware in my MacBook notebook. (For more information, see my review.)

Using Parallels Desktop

Parallels Desktop is the best of several virtualization environments available to OS X users. This $80 utility lets you install Windows in a software-based environment under Mac OS X so that you can run Windows and OS X side-by-side. Performance on the Windows side isn't ideal, since the OS is running in software and can't fully take advantage of the underlying hardware. (With virtual machines, more RAM is always appreciated.) But most users will find that Parallels is perfect for running that one Windows app they simply must have. And if you're looking for a truly integrated solution, you simply have to see Parallels' Coherence mode, which visually merges the OS X and Windows environments into a single, weird, Frankenstein-like environment. In my tests, Parallels offers better performance and integration than even PC-based virtual environments like VMWare Workstation, and that's pretty impressive given that Parallels is such a new solution.

PC or Mac? Understanding the Benefits and Problems

Of course, before you can decide whether to use one of the interoperability solutions, you should determine if a Mac is the way to go. Historically, Macs have been more expensive than comparable PCs, but prices have come down in recent years and Apple's machines are now much more competitive. Here's the difference today: Because Apple only offers very specific Mac configurations with few customization options, you don't get the wide range of price points in the Mac world as you do with PCs. So you will generally be able to find much less expensive and, go figure, much more expensive PCs than Macs. But if a particular Mac model does meet your needs, you will generally find that it is comparable in price to similar PCs.

Apple sells two types of Macs: Portables and desktop machines. Apple's portables include the MacBook, an entry-level notebook computer aimed at consumers and students, and the more powerful MacBook Pro, which is aimed at businesses, creative professionals, and power users. Both are available in a variety of models, and the MacBook Pro comes in both 15-inch and 17-inch widescreen form factors. (One side issue: Because of differences between the keyboards on Macs and PCs, portable Macs are often harder to get used to when running Windows.) On the desktop side, Apple offers the diminutive Mac mini and the iMac for consumers, the latter of which comes with various size built-in screens. On the high-end, Apple sells a Mac Pro workstation that is available in several configurations, including a heady 8-core unit aimed at the upper echelon of the market.

All Macs share certain characteristics. They are incredibly well-made, beautiful to look at, and are generally devoid of any extraneous ports and other doo-dads. This can be bad in some ways, since you'll never find a useful Flash RAM reader on a Mac, but for those who appreciate design, Macs are top-notch. All Macs come with Mac OS X and Apple's highly-valued iLife suite of digital media applications. In some ways, iLife is reason enough to own a Mac: There is nothing like iLife on the PC side. Mac OS X isn't as full-featured as Windows Vista, but it is also a lot less busy looking and serene in nature. Aimed more at technical users than consumers, Mac OS X isn't so much friendly as it is austere and Spartan. But master its quirks and you'll find you can be as productive as you are in Windows.

Conclusions

With less than 3 percent of the market for computers worldwide, you might think that Mac OS X and the hardware it runs on are not a viable alternative to the Windows hegemony that most of us simply take for granted. Nothing could be further from the truth: Macs offer the best of both worlds, giving you the ability to run both Windows--with its huge software and games libraries--and Mac OS X--with its better security and iLife solutions--side by side on the same hardware. One might argue that a Mac is, in fact, the ultimate PC, simply because it can do so much more than other PCs. I believe this to be the case for many users.

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2007 issue of Connected Home Express.