I never thought I'd switch to a Mac. After all, I have used PCs since I was 5 years old. I carried around my old Dell Inspiron 8000, a bulky nine-pound beast of a laptop, throughout high school, and it never suffered from any hardware problems over its five-year lifespan.
The trouble was Windows — the operating system from hell.
So I decided to take the plunge and get a Mac. I wasn't alone; in fact, 40 percent of Princeton students and faculty use Macs as their personal computers.
In the 2003-04 school year, when the iPod was just becoming popular, a mere 10 percent of Princeton students had Mac computers connected to the network, OIT director Steven Sather said.
Sixteen percent of students chose Macs when the Class of 2008 arrived on campus the subsequent fall. The figure reached 23 percent the following year and then jumped to 31 percent of all personal computers on the network in fall 2006.
This year, the University's Student Computer Initiative has sold more Macs than PCs. Students were offered a selection of Dell, IBM and Apple computers, and 60 percent chose Macs, up from 45 percent last year.
These figures are even more surprising when compared to Apple's relatively small market share of computers sold in the United States — 5.9 percent — as reported by MacWorld in August.
After four years of skyrocketing Mac ownership, however, the advent of Windows Vista sparked speculation that Microsoft could reclaim its former dominance on campus.
But the operating system's debut was not all that PC users had hoped for. Vista requires a much more powerful computer to run properly, and unfortunately, some of the Dells found in computer clusters and science labs don't measure up.
"Some of the machines are three years old and are not beefy enough to run Vista optimally," said Leila Shahbender, manager of customer support at OIT.
Vista's sleek new interface — touted as sexy by Microsoft advocates — is almost useless and is so taxing that the system should be sold with additional memory. I mean, why hassle your customers?
By contrast, I have used the current version of Mac OS X on computers that are six years old, and it works well.
Six hundred to 700 students at the University currently are running Vista, Sather said. The system has some decent offerings, including better security than Windows XP.
But the security is so tight that it can become a nuisance for users to do everyday activities. It's worse to operate without it, though, because that leaves your computer vulnerable to viruses and spyware.
Another major issue is that Vista does not work well with some older programs and peripherals. Consequently, some users are stuck without a working printer now that they have upgraded to Vista because no drivers exist to make the older printer compatible.
Mac users have not experienced nearly as many issues when upgrading their operating systems over the past eight years. This is because Mac OS X updates build on each other, so they offer much more compatibility than Vista, which has been completely redesigned.
Princeton is not the only campus where Mac use is on the rise. At a recent college technology conference, Shahbender found that Mac sales also had significantly increased at MIT, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, Duke, Stanford, Cornell and Brown over the past few years.
"The education field has always been their strongest market," Shahbender noted. "You don't see many Macs in the business world."
In the late 1980s and early '90s, there were many more Macs on campus than PCs, but that was when computers were not as commonplace. "It was when Windows 95 came out that the ratio changed," she said.
Shahbender added that she attributes Macs' popularity on campuses in part to the ubiquity of the iPod and iPhone.
Whether or not one believes the iPod has "transformed the music industry," as Apple CEO Steve Jobs claimed, it is impossible to deny its status as the music player of choice for most people.
Apple announced in August that it had sold over 110 million iPods since the device's introduction in 2001. IPods have achieved a current market share of 77 percent, according to Bloomberg News.
It makes sense that those who already own and like their iPods would be more inclined to choose other Apple products, such as computers. The iPod also gives Apple a fun, trendy image that some of its competitors lack. This effect may have been compounded with the advent of the iPhone, one million of which have been sold since the flashy product's release on June 29.
The growth of campus Mac sales might also be related to marketing. The company directs most of its advertising resources at attracting young people, particularly college students. This approach is evident in the well-known "Get-A-Mac" ads and the iPod commercials with shadow dancers. Most other computer companies don't target such a specific demographic, and many of them appear dull because they sell a large portion of their machines for business use.
A final reason for the tremendous growth in Mac use is the quality of the hardware and software that Apple offers. Many people cite Apple computers' "cool design" as one of their major attractions. Apple certainly places a much greater emphasis on design than almost any other computer company. For example, the new iMac — introduced this summer — sports a sleek exterior made only of glass and aluminum and is touted as one of the slimmest desktops on the market.
"The hardware is very classy looking and it runs very well," Shahbender said.
Mac OS X, the operating system that comes on all Macs, is another factor that spurs some computer users to switch over from Windows. Few would dispute that Mac users face fewer software problems than their Windows counterparts.
Mac's operating system is not necessarily more secure than Windows, but it does not face nearly the same threat of viruses and spyware. This may simply be because Windows is much more popular worldwide than Mac OS X, and therefore, more of a target for hackers.
Some also view the Mac operating system as more user-friendly than Windows in terms of layout and design. All new Macs also come with iLife, a selection of creativity programs that can be used for everything from editing photos to building a website to composing a song.
But Windows users are quick to point out that many more programs are available for their operating system than for Mac OS X. That might be true, especially for specialized programs and games, but I have not found incompatibility to be a significant drawback to owning a Mac.
When Apple introduces its new version of Mac OS X later this month, it will also introduce an official version of Boot Camp, which allows Mac users to run Windows natively on their computers. This means that Mac users will be able to have both Mac OS X and Windows on their computers.
Though it is already possible to run Windows within Mac OS X using Parallels or VMware software, those programs are relatively slow. Since Boot Camp will run as an independent operating system, Apple computers will be able to run Windows just as fast as their PC counterparts. For those unwilling to break with the benefits of Windows but attracted to Apple hardware and software, it may prove an appealing solution.
With the addition of Boot Camp and many users' dissatisfaction with Vista, it seems likely that Macs will continue their ascension to campus preeminence, overturning Windows' decade-long dominance. Doug Eshleman is a sophomore and a staff writer for The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at email@example.com.