Choosing the Right Computer, Part 1:
Windows or Macintosh?

One of the most common questions we receive from beginning graphic designers is "What computer should I buy?" While this is a very important question, it is the wrong one to ask … at least at first.

The first computer-related question you should ask is "Which operating system should I use."

A computer's operating system (OS) is the program that tells it what to do and how to do it. It's what gives your computer its look and feel when performing basic functions like copying and saving files, running printers and peripherals, searching for files, and so on.

It's also the part of your computer that allows you to run all your other programs - like your word processing and design software.

The reason you should choose the operating system before deciding on a computer is that you cannot run the two best-known systems on the same type of computer.

The two best-known systems are (in alphabetical order) Macintosh - which runs, as you might expect, on Macintosh computers … and Windows - which runs on PCs. You might hear about a number of other operating systems, such as Linux and Unix, but we advise sticking with either Windows or Mac (or both) at this point in your career.

Macintosh's current system is OS X. (The latest version is 10.4 or "Tiger.") Windows has several different versions of its Windows XP system.

Some people are very passionate about which system they choose. Some are die-hard PC users, while others won't use anything but a Mac.

You've probably heard that many graphic designers prefer Macs. However, both Macs and PCs handle layout and image-editing software. So there's no need to make your decision on that basis alone.

What is important is to choose a system that you are comfortable with and that meets the needs of your clients and the printing bureaus they use. If you already have clients lined up or a favorite printing bureau, ask them which operating system they prefer. You might want to go with the one that most of them like best.

You can test a variety of operating systems at your local library, FedEx/Kinkos, or at an Internet café. Or ask your friends if you can do a test run on their systems. See which one seems easier and more logical to you.

If possible, ask other designers which system they prefer, and why - particularly if they have used both. We did that with five of our graphic design experts. Here's what they had to say …

Lori Haller: For design work, large magalogs, and direct-mail campaigns, I use a Mac and work in Quark, Illustrator, and Photoshop. We also have InDesign and other PC/Mac software on a variety of machines. I use whatever fits my clients' specifications best.

Roger Parker: All of my computers use Microsoft Windows. I want them to be compatible with the most widely used platform. I've heard stories about some software inconsistencies between versions and operating systems that convinced me to stick with Windows.

Dennis Rome: Windows. Because I am a computer consultant, I had far too much money invested in Windows software before starting the Graphic Design program - so I didn't switch to Mac. However, a Mac may be in my future as income grows.

Mike Klassen: Windows. That's just what I grew up with. Plus, I was a Microsoft employee, so I'm very comfortable with the system.

Kammy Thurman: I use Windows, because that's what I learned on. But my sister (with whom I work) uses a Mac. She and a copywriter friend have just about convinced me to switch over to Mac.

One final consideration: If you buy a new computer, it will most likely come with the latest version of its operating system pre-installed. If you buy a used computer, you may get an older - sometimes much older - version of the operating system. In that case, make sure the computer is new enough to upgrade the operating system software if you decide to do so.

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Published: July 28, 2005

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