Published originally by Muzz Lakhani on applevis.com on 13 Sep, 2012
Mac vs PC
I’ve seen a lot of posts regarding what to do when starting Higher Education, what decision to make when talking to a technology adviser and how to best manage your allowance money. Do you buy a Mac or PC? Screen Readers, magnifiers, productivity, OCR and other accessories must all be on your mind. As a postgraduate student, who is registered blind and has used a made-to-order triple boot Mac to pursue a degree in Computer Science, and research in human computer interaction, I have used most of the screen reading technology on Mac, Windows and Linux, and own a wealth of gadgets. Here as my first contribution to Applevis, I wish to provide you with some matter of fact guidelines that might help you in making the right choices when talking to your assessors.
Firstly, remember that you are the one with your sight condition, and you know best what works for you – not anyone else no matter how much of an expert they are. Therefore, you must always plan the day of your assessment, because it will define how the entire time of your university will be managed. Secondly, your expert assessor may not be aware of the best, most cost effective solutions on offer: their knowledge may be slightly out of date, they may forget to ask you a particularly important question you may think is vital to address, they may have another conflict of interest in their role, and they may not have future proofed their final assessment – moral of the story: do your research and ask yourself all the questions you need to explain how you might deal with the absolute worst case scenario and make sure you find out what is available to address it.
So is it a Mac or a PC? Firstly, address this question objectively and avoid opinions of people who are commonly referred to as “fanboys” or equivalent. Also remember the following, no matter what you may decide at the end: Microsoft has only a limited accessibility implementation out of the box. Apple’s accessibility has improved, but by no means perfect. Third party developers and website owners do not always pay attention to accessibility so remember that you will always come across unusable programs and apps no matter what! One accessibility solution does not address all accessibility needs and each technology always interacts in different ways to a given piece of content, so remember to build choice in your worst case scenario.
So then, back to the subject, there is no such thing as a perfect computer. The best computer: one that best works for your needs! Here are the questions you need to ask yourself when deciding what to get: What are you going to study? What is your level of sight? What is your experience with assistive technology? How much time and effort you are willing to commit to learning new access technology in addition to keeping on top of your course? (please do remember to have a life! – it is vital if you want to have a good cv, better employment prospects, a social life and even some avenues for stress release and rest). How much IT support is available to your chosen platform and assistive technology within your university? Will your choice reduce the level of human assistance, administration costs, restoration of system if it crashes, security around the university, portability (specially if you have mobility issues or require working in a lot of locations)? How much money is in your kitty? What other tasks you need to accomplish when not in work mode? (social networks, blogs, recreational reading, communication, paperwork and administration and even all the thing your mates like doing.)
Although the following is not entirely true, this is how conventionally things have evolved so make up your own mind: Are you a gamer? Do you make, use or engage in a lot of flash content? Do you have a lot of videos in old AVI, WMV or divx format? Do you use a Blackberry or Android device? Are you still using that old Nokia phone with Talks or Zooms installed? If your answer is yes, then you need a PC.
Are you into making or editing music? Do you edit and shoot films? Are you interested in photography and photo editing?Do you own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch? If your answer to the above questions is yes, then you are suited to a Mac.
If you want to fiddle with your machine’s hardware a lot, get a PC. If you want to do old school software development, get a Mac. If you want to have a lean, mean, sleek operating system not bloated with unnecessary software or drivers you may never use, thereby improving your system’s speed: it’s a PC. If you want things to just work out of the box for almost all basic tasks from the word go: get a Mac. Productivity (word, excel, powerpoint, pdf): PC is better. Web browsing and creative work flow?: much better on a Mac. Managing and making a website that is cheap and easy to maintain?: PC. Want a stylish, modern standards compliant website? Mac. Want to choose from a range of developers, programs, cost prices, from almost all across the web? PC. Want a one stop shop for all your apps (nearly all your apps anyway!) : Mac. Working a lot with a mouse or keyboard? PC Want a touch screen or trackpad? Mac. Working with other people who may not be techy or comfortable with different technologies? PC. Working alone, or with designers? Mac. Want cheaper costs up front? PC. Want longer lasting hardware with significantly reduced after care costs? Mac. Want an unlimited online resource to almost any program written on earth from a worldwide community? PC. Want excellent personal assistance in a shop setting? Mac.
At this point, I will remind you of the following facts: The above are only conventional guidelines, not hard coded facts. You can these days do almost anything on any system, and Windows 8 will probably narrow that gap even further. Also remember that you will always come across programs, apps, web content or other content which is by its very nature not accessible to anyone with sight problems, so you have been warned! Also you will probably find that third party developers do not always provide accessibility in their work, but if you come across this, please report it back to the developer: they have to make their products available to disabled people by law and it only makes business sense for them to make products more people would be likely to buy. Finally, before you do commit or give into pressure from anyone, make sure that the core applications vital for you to successfully complete your degree are accessible on your chosen platform, and that you can obtain support for it at your institution if things do go wrong: talk to your admissions tutor for advice before your assessment, even as far as asking them questions about accessibility of computer based resources. Try out some of them at home, at your nearest Apple store or through a charity like the RNIB or Sight & Sounds UK, or your job centre or school, or ask your careers advisor for assistance with this. If you know that they work sufficiently well on a range of platforms with different access technologies, or you can troubleshoot them in case something goes wrong, you are better informed.
If most of your content remains inaccessible, you may need to address the issue of curriculum delivery, human support, your choice of institution or even the choice of course itself before anything else.
Always choose the platform where most of your content will remain accessible. Assuming that you find that your major apps are accessible on Windows and Mac both, this is how assistive technology then breaks down: Windows has a lot of third party apps designed for blind and partially sighted people due to a lack of in built accessibility in all Windows versions. The Windows platform has been around for commercial use since the early 90s and still dominates more than 90% of the world’s computers.Third party vendors have stepped in to fill the void for disabled people, and even after Windows 8 is released, this trend is going to continue as announced on Microsoft’s Windows 8 blog. All of this development does come at a significantly hefty cost which most people would not be able to afford without subsidised assistance from public money or an employer. Windows also has a range of assistive technology products, from a range of vendors, suited to so many needs, at so many cost brackets. The popular Jaws, is planning to move up to v14 after Windows 8 is released. There is also the free and excellent open source NVDA. You also have a choice of Window Eyes (which has been recommended for iTunes users on Windows by Apple themselves), System Access, Lightning, and the online screen readers Thunder and SATOGO. You also have some magnifiers like the excellent ZoomText, the popular Big Shot, Lunar, Hal, Magic, Supernova and so many more. A lot of these products are designed for a specific level of sight, ranging from partial sight to total blindness, so take your pick, and if you are not satisfied with your choice, just choose another one – problem resolved.
Accessibility on a Mac has hugely improved, getting better, but still a bit short. VoiceOver and Zoom are built into the OS, start up from the word go and have a logical, yet different way of interacting with the system. You can set up your machine, reinstall the Operating system and even troubleshoot most problems under the hood using Universal access. What you can do together with VoiceOver and Zoom running simultaneously hugely depends on your system configuration, level of zoom used and the app you are using, so you may be limited with your assistive technology solution. If you don’t like VoiceOver or Zoom…tough! Although I have used the alternative to VoiceOver: the Natural Speak for Mac with varying degree of success for different things. You can also tweak the Linux solution of Emacspeak, but you do need some programming skills to make it work on your version of the Mac.
Many Windows technologies do support Braille displays upon installation. On a Mac, you do not need to install anything for braille displays to work. They work straight away.
Similarly for wireless noise cancelling headsets, Windows requires installation of drivers specific to your system. Mac generally connects straight away with most headsets without much effort.
Windows assistive tech is well evolved due to a longer presence, and you can generally get support online or from your vendor. There are also a lot of training providers who can train you up on this technology.
Mac’s VoiceOver is well documented with a good help system built in, but not even Apple staff is fully aware of its full functionality and it is difficult to obtain personal support for it at the time of writing.
Windows is better on Word, Excel and Powerpoint when using with your assistive technology. Adobe Acrobat is also better on Windows as you can get document’s content (headings, lists, etc) explained to you with a screen reader. Mac’s VoiceOver does not work with Office for Mac 2011. The other option iWork, consisting of Pages, Numbers and Keynote, is reasonably accessible, but not intuitive to use. Documentation on using iWork with VoiceOver is extremely rare and I am yet to find a good thorough resource on it.
Although Mail on Mac is a good competitor to Outlook on Windows, Preview and Acrobat do not yield formatting of a PDF document and there seems to be no good alternative available to get this information to a blind user, thereby making it difficult to use PDF quickly and efficiently in large documents on a Mac. Notepad and Wordpad are good text editors on Windows. Textedit on a Mac is hugely more advanced, allowing you to compose anything from formatted Word documents to C, Java and even make file source code.
Visual Studio on Windows is not very accessible, nor is Matlab – both of which can cost a lot and are industry standard for most development. Xcode on Mac is free, Matlab is so much better now, and both are more accessible using VoiceOver.
Open Source software: Open Office is so much more accessible on a Mac than Windows. It is free and a worthy alternative to the commercial Office and iWork.
OCR: Windows has a large range of products like Abbyfine, Omnipage, OpenBook and my favourite: Kurzweil 1000. There are some good alternatives on a Mac too: Abbyfine for Mac works with VoiceOver. There is also the versatile and cross compatible Hemrick Vue Scan, the Iris Pro Scan and these days, you can even get scanners with their own OCR software, but don’t let your life depend on them.
iTunes by nature is better on a Mac but Windows support has hugely improved.
On Windows, Internet Explorer 8 and 9 are accessible with screen readers and magnifiers. Mozilla Firefox is also very accessible and has a huge range of web development tools available for free. Chrome on Windows is not terribly accessible, and not so intuitive to use with several screen readers. On a Mac, Safari is excellent for web browsing (it is the best thing on a Mac). Google Chrome is also accessible since it was designed using a Mac anyway. Firefox is not accessible straight away without the use of Firevox, but at the time of writing, Mozilla are working towards fixing this.
For Windows, the desktop, start button, system tray and menus in applications are not intuitive, and menus vary significantly across apps, but Windows 8 is planning to remedy this.
The finder on a Mac is a cleaner interface, and the Doc is a good way to quickly get to your favourite apps efficiently from anywhere anytime.
The menus on each app on a Mac have a more consistent feel to them. Just forgot to mention that in Safari, you can even navigate to a word or phrase beginning with a particular letter, not just quick key navigation like in Windows, although this option is also available on a Mac.
If you use a screen reader, you can only use a keyboard. On a Mac, you will fall in love with the trackpad or magic mouse when using VoiceOver, as it does make it easier to navigate through stuff if you do not want to stay glued to your machine. If you have already used an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, the trackpad gestures will feel similar to what you have been used to on iOS, and much more customisation is possible if you like.
You can write scripts for your screen reader to enhance the functionality of otherwise inaccessible programs on Windows. The new Java update on Windows also has Java access bridge built in, making it easier to interact with even more applications. You can also write applescript code to enhance VoiceOver, but I am yet to see scripts that would be as commonly available as they are for programs like Jaws.
Flash videos like on Youtube still pose navigation challenges on Windows. On a Mac, a free plugin for Safari, Click 2 Plugin, provides keyboard access via an HTML 5 interface to video controls on many sites such as Youtube, Vimea, TED and many others, and html 5 also improves the battery life.
Oracle is better for database management on Windows. Oracle on a Mac is just a nightmare to install, but alternatives do exist. Microsoft Access 2010 is definitely more accessible than Bento using VoiceOver and documentation is scarce and patchy. MySQL on Windows – definitely more accessible than Filemaker Pro on a Mac. Adobe CS still unfortunately remains largely inaccessible everywhere.
In terms of hardware, Apple hardware is substantially better, more durable and has a better resale value than its PC counterparts in most cases.
On Mac, if you want to use Windows, you can just create a partition for it using Bootcamp Assistant, which does most of the work for you. It provides the drivers, partitions your disk, installs your operating system and therefore you can run Windows natively on a Mac without much hassle. You can also use your favourite assistive technology on a Windows bootcamp partition. Presently I have Jaws, Zoomtext, NVDA, Kurzweil 1000 and Java access bridge installed and it was almost like using a PC with a Mac keyboard when installing this lot.
If you do use Bootcamp, your keyboard layout by default will be the best work around on a mac keyboard. You can either remap it in Windows, or use an external keyboard if that is more convenient.
Alternatively, if you do not want to waste all that disk space, and are not worried by performance speed, you can always use a tool like VMWare Fusion to install Windows on a Virtual machine, which you can always backup and restore if your Mac ever dies.
If you want to have the option of either using Windows apps natively on a Mac, the ability to copy-paste stuff between your partitions, yet retain the ability to use Windows that is not limited by processor or RAM, for resource intensive applications, you can even create a virtual machine out of your Bootcamp partition.
A nice feature, familiar to iPad users: Dictate, has arrived on Mac OS 10.8 and it makes it easier to get through large document composition quickly without having to type everything off. In Windows, this feature is still missing.
By the way, you can also put Mac OS on a Windows PC either as a virtual machine or via partitioning your drive, but you must have a licensed copy of Mac OS and the end result of Mac on a PC is often buggy and slow, riddled with errors and lacking suitable performance, especially with VoiceOver and Zoom.
Whilst on the subject of partitioning, if you do decide to use Bootcamp, you are required to provide a genuine copy of Windows to your machine, and the installation of Windows is not particularly an accessible experience on any machine, so you must have some sighted help if required, and you need an external mouse to perform some of the initial installation steps. You also need to install the required Apple drivers so that your keyboard, trackpad, graphics, audio, camera, CD Drive (if you have one), network card all work. Try doing this before installing anything else on your Windows partition. Although this process is well documented, personal support is not provided byApple or Microsoft in case anything does ever go wrong. You may also find some assistive technology vendors not so forthcoming if you explain to them that you are running bootcamp Windows on a Mac, but this trend is slowly changing as Macs are becoming more widespread. Let me also talk about restore and backup.
If you use Windows, you can backup data, but if you want to make sure that all your programs and your setup are available to restore to their original settings before your machine required a clean install of the operating system in case of disaster, you need to include a system image in your backup. Creating system images is time consuming, preferably needs to be on a separate drive from your data, and would require sighted assistance to use for restoration. You cannot create two system images that can easily allow you to take your machine onto an earlier date. Windows system images are difficult and unreliable to use, although Windows 8 will allow cloud backups and easier to restore to an earlier point in time if necessary. Upgrade from Windows XP to Vista or 7 can generally wipe out settings of your system and may even damage some files and data.
On a Mac, the best feature is called TimeMachine. It does indexed backups, so you can restore your machine to an earlier point in time very easily. You can also use it to recover everything on a Mac, including your VoiceOver and Zoom preferences, your layout and your passwords. Upgrade of the Operating System is quick, less costly, doesn’t generally destroy the data or apps. You can even use VoiceOver in recovery to troubleshoot your Mac OS installation, and the operating system can be redownnloaded from the internet when you need to format the whole thing. Download via internet recovery is also compatible with VoiceOver and zoom, so no need to worry if your system has crashed.
Most Windows users are advised to have malware protection, antivirus software and other protective measures installed and regularly updated. Windows disks also require the occasional defragmentation to improve performance and gain back disk space. Macs are generally malware free, and even more protected following the Flashback virus, and there are free antivirus available such as Sophas. Mac disks are generally not in need of defragmentation, although you can use something like iDefrag or DriveGenius for Mac if you are really pedantic.
Windows has a Command Prompt, Powershell and other utilities like Cygwin or MSYS you can use to install loads of cool free development libraries, but they are not the most accessible tools in the world and do require some learning. On a Mac, you have Terminal, which is like Unix. It is so much more accessible, although slightly buggy with VoiceOver yet still workable.
Repositories like Fink, Macports or Homebru can allow developers to download a lot of amazing free development tools that will work with Xcode. That being said, if you want to build for Windows, Office, Windows Phone, Server technologies used by Microsoft, you need a PC. If you want to develop apps for iOS, author books for iBooks, sell your stuff on iTunes, you need a Mac- no question.
As a person with sight loss, you may have support staff and you may sometime have to do group work too. Most Windows access technology is workable with a keyboard, but if someone else is working on your machine with you, they can use the mouse without turning off your speech enabled access tech. On a Mac, if you are using a trackpad with VoiceOver or Zoom, you may need to turn it off if you need someone else to interact on your machine. Long story short: account for how much privacy you want and how much can you trust other people using your machine containing your data and personal information.
Finally, you may be working with support staff who may have only used a computer for sending emails, using a social network, a bit of browsing or Youtube and a bit of photo upload and music streaming on iTunes. These are the people who may be intimidated with your assistive technology setup, and may find it hard to work within your reference frame. If you have such support staff, your problems may be compounded on a Mac, and even more when using Windows via Bootcamp. If you get a training budget allocated to learn new assistive technology, it will only be for you, not your support staff. However, if you do get a Mac, you must ask (or get it yourself) for an allowance of £79 at the time of writing to acquire Apple One-to-One. This gives you unlimited sessions at any Apple store for a year. This way, you can probably get more assistance and support on VoiceOver, and staff can also research stuff on your behalf if necessary. In my case, my Apple store were even happy to provide a couple of sessions to two of my staff so that they are more familiar with the Mac and able to fix issues where VoiceOver would not function appropriately.
Apart from some really specific commands, the keyboard shortcuts are generally similar in both, for example CTRL+P on Windows = CMD+p on a Mac to print a document.
In spite of so much similarities, your chosen institution may have varying support for IT platforms. Most universities use Windows and do not officially support Mac or Apple products. Others have Mac support that is more widespread. Yet there are some who support both, but such support is apportioned to different IT teams, dealing with different faculties or departments, or colleges, depending on the nature of the courses and environments, so you must check this with the university, and remember that whatever they say, you will always find people who have the hardware of their choice, so it is your decision how much on the edge you want to live, and if you would have the confidence to obtain support from unconventional sources if really required. If you ever wind up having an assessment at the institution itself, you will generally get an idea of what is on offer simply by what the assessor suggests or hints. However, do listen to them, and do consider their expert advise and ask lots of questions before making the decision. Remember that just by throwing money at a problem, it does not necessarily disappear.
So if you want to decide, Mac or PC, or even Linux, choose “personal convenience and greatest accessibility for your needs”!!!
I hope that this guide will help you in making a better decision about your DSA and how to best use it. Please feel free to post questions or requests for more specific tutorials and I will do my best to help where possible. Good luck with your future prospects!!