Switching from PC to Mac? You have questions, we have answers

A lot of the customers I help at the store I work at on the weekends are new to the Mac platform. There are three main reasons they switch: They are tired of the problems they're having with Windows PCs, they have an iPhone or another Apple device that they're happy with, and they have friends, family or other trusted people who tell them about their own experience. They also have a lot of questions. Here are some of the basics I cover with them.

It's worth understanding that about half the people who walk into an Apple retail store to buy a Macintosh are new to the platform. So you're not unique. Apple's invested a lot of time and effort to make the transition as painless as possible.

Don't Macs cost a lot of money?

Not really. You certainly can spend a lot of money on the Mac, but a basic Mac mini will only set you back $499. And that Mac model is more than enough for a lot of people. The Mac mini will let you re-use your existing PC monitor, keyboard and mouse, too.

Sure, you can pick up a cheaper PC, but I'd challenge you to find one in that price range that comes nearly as well-equipped as the Mac mini does — it includes the exact same suite of software included on every other Mac. What's more, the Mac mini doesn't include a lot of trial software or adware that's going to get in your way.

Isn't using the Mac more difficult than a PC?

There are a few things you're going to need to relearn, of course: The command key is like the control key on a PC. The option key works like the alt key. And the absence of a lot of mouse or trackpad buttons sometimes confuses PC users (more on that later).

But Apple knows that, so they've included help to guide your transition right into the operating system. If you click on the Help menu in the Finder, you'll see Get to know your Mac. Select it and you'll be brought to an Apple web page where you can learn more about how the Mac works. Clicking on the Help menu again, click on Mac Help then select New to the Mac? and see even more info that will be helpful to you. It's all there, built right in.

Do I have to use a special mouse/keyboard/hard drive/printer?

No. Apple's really good about making sure that commodity peripherals designed to work with PCs will work with the Mac too. External mice will be recognized as soon as they're plugged in, and contrary to the belief of some, the Mac does just fine recognizing more than one mouse button (it should recognize the right button as a "secondary click" right away, and many mouse makers these days also offer Mac drivers if you want to customize how it works). PC Keyboards are also work fine — the Mac recognizes them and asks you to type a couple of keys to make sure it knows where everything is.

External hard disk drives should be reformatted for the Mac using the Disk Utility found in the Utilities folder. And if the Mac doesn't have driver software for your printer already included with it, it can usually download the software from Apple's servers without any hassle.

But does Office work on the Mac?

Yep, Microsoft has made Mac versions of Office for many years. You can buy it outright, or if you prefer, subscribing to Microsoft's Office 365 program (for about $10 per month) will let you install it too. And Office is even available for iOS.

For casual users, there's less need for Microsoft Office now than there used to be, because Apple includes a very competent set of productivity apps that mimic some of the capabilities of Office — Pages is Apple's word processor; Numbers is Apple's spreadsheet app; and Keynote is Apple's presentation software (analogous to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, respectively). And all those apps can import and export their Office document counterparts. Up until 2013, Apple charged extra for those apps, but they're included with new Macs now.

Having said that, some people prefer to use Office because it's what they're used to. And that's fine. The choice is yours.

Do Macs get viruses?

Macs aren't as nearly susceptible as most PCs are to getting malware infections like viruses, trojan horses, keyloggers and other nefarious software. Most of that software is aimed squarely at security exploits that exist in Windows.

Apple has its own countermeasures for dealing with this sort of problem: anti-malware software called Gatekeeper, built into the Security & Privacy settings in the Mac's system preferences. Ordinarily, software can only be installed on your Mac if it's been downloaded from the Mac App Store, and Apple checks all that software to make sure it doesn't have these sort of problems.

You can override those preferences if you want, and that's how people with Macs typically get problems with "adware" — software that hijacks the web browser and redirects searches. So my recommendation is to not override the system preferences unless you really have to, and then, be very careful about where you download software from.

Some third-party companies make anti-malware software for the Mac. Ordinarily you don't need to run it, but it's there if you want to be extra careful.

I have an app that only runs on Windows. What do I do?

Although there are some apps that only run on Windows, there usually is an equivalent that runs on the Mac, so I'd shop around a bit to see if you can find an app (or ask here or in iMore's Mac Apps & Games forum).

The Mac runs OS X — a different operating system from Windows, so the same apps that run on your PC won't run on your Mac under ordinary conditions. But the Mac is quite flexible, and can be configured with software that will let your Windows apps run. In fact, Apple makes software called Boot Camp that will let you partition part of your Mac's hard drive for Windows, and use it accordingly. When your Mac is running Windows, it is a Windows PC, for all intents and purposes.

One downside to Boot Camp is that it requires you to restart your Mac each time you want to use Windows or OS X. To get around that, you can install virtual machine apps that will let you run Windows apps at the same time as you're running OS X. There's a free one called VirtualBox; there are commercial products including Parallels Desktop (opens in new tab) and VMWare Fusion (opens in new tab). You can download the commercial ones and try them out before you buy them. Bear in mind that you will need a copy of Windows (and whatever Windows-specific apps you'll need) to install on your Mac, too.

Can I bring my data files over from my PC?

Yep. Easiest way to do it is simply to copy them onto a USB thumdrive or another device, then move that device over to the Mac and copy the files. Apple also includes an app in the Mac's Utilities folder called Migration Assistant which can copy the contents of your PC's user directory on the Mac; it works in conjunction with a Windows utility you can download from Apple's web site (opens in new tab). (Migration Assistant works between Macs too.)

More questions?

I know I'm only scratching the surface here, so if you have other questions about switching to the Mac from Windows, let me know.

Peter Cohen
19 Comments
  • You need to factor in the part where Apple have baked some obsolesence into your new Mac.
    I love Macs but they’re not as cheap or have as much diversity if you want to stay current as do PCs.
    It’s all well and good to include a software suite at no, (apparent), added cost but it’s like Cable TV. You get a million channels per package and only watch some but pay for all.
    I use iTunes cos I have to if I want a place to sync my phone. Never use iDVD, iMovie, iPhoto, iBooks or Facetime so I didn’t get quite the value that I might expect even though the cost of these apps is hidden in the cost of the Mac.
    Just bought Win8.1 and don’t remember lots of trial or adware, maybe I haven’t looked hard enough?
  • Trial/ad-ware come pre-installed in cheap, off the shelf windows PCs (it’s part of why they’re not expensive). If you buy a Windows license/box straight from Microsoft, you get the luxury of not having to deal with those.
  • Ok, makes sense. I’ve never actually bought a brand new DOS box.
  • Buy a Dell PC. The only thing mine came with was an Amazon One Click Taskbar thing, and that was easily uninstalled. Apart from that, just Cyberlink Media Suite which uninstalls in seconds. Additionally, if you buy from the Microsoft Store, the PC comes with no pre-installed software on it. Good OEMs don't load up much junk. They are basically Nexus Windows PCs, and it's no different than buying a Mac from Apple.
  • Ahem, Mac mini is not particularly inexpensive given that you have to add in the display, all the peripherals, etc. It is suddenly a 800-900 dollar computer. You can get decent PC laptops for the entire family for that money. Macs have been and remain expesnive, just like all Apple products. They are not iPhone-expensive, but expensive nonetheless. I personally do not care too much about the price, since I keep a computer for three years at least. Unfortunately, the operating system on Macs does not meet my accessibility needs, so I have never owned one.
  • I didn't say it was inexpensive. It's just that the Mac mini is considerably less expensive than other Macs, and merits consideration — especially if you have a keyboard, monitor and mouse you'd like to recycle from your PC.
  • Excellent article. One caveat for people who specifically ask about MS Office, however, is that they should look at their own spreadsheet requirements. Even if you are not a macro junkie, Numbers is missing some features (e.g. Pivot Tables) that make it unsuitable for even moderately complex spreadsheet needs. Pages is perfectly adequate, and I prefer Keynote to PowerPoint, but Numbers is where people find useful features missing pretty quickly.
  • There is much truth to this, especially re: Numbers. Also, Pages is NOT a replacement for Word if you need documents to be consistent between platforms. Importing my Word 2010 CV into Pages was a travesty. If you NEED to know that your documents will be compatible with PC users, stick to MS Office.
  • Okay I know this has nothing to do with the post, but what car is that in the photo of this article?? Sent from the iMore App
  • Aston Martin Vanquish. drool
  • Looks like an Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
  • When you think of the cost of a computer, that's just the beginning. Think about all the Microsoft operating system upgrades that you have to pay money for. Also think about the pro feels that don't work is Microsoft upgrades their operating system. With a Mac upgrades and operating systems are free downloads. Over a few years the cost for each one is going to be very competitive, with the Mac being a far better experience. Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't think you should sing the praises of migration assistant. It is worse with Mac to Mac. I migrated from a Mac Mini to an iMac and it messed up so bad I had to take it to a reseller to try and put it together. Even they told me migration assistant is not good. Even the geniuses at Apple couldn't fix it. It's still not perfect and I probably need to find an IT guy to straighten it out. But, once you have a Mac, you never go back! And what do you tell people when it's time to move up to a new OS? I'm still at Lion and iOS 7. I may stay there.
  • Returned my MBA after 5 days of practical non-use. It was, virtually, useless compared to my Windows desktop. The Storage is pitiful, and the accessories are beyond overpriced. The Desktop Macs at the lower end are actually priced decently, but I don't think Apple's laptops (which cut corners at every possible point they could getaway with it) are worth what they're selling them for. Windows' advantage on the software front was extremely glaring off the bat when I tried to migrate off of it to the Mac. I simply couldn't find use for it, because a lot of the software I use are simply unavailable for OSX and I'm not about to Subscribe to Creative Cloud or pay $200 to get software that is functionally equivalent to a $59 Windows application. There's a 70% chance I will get the 21.5" higher end Desktop iMac instead. It does run the few games that I play very regularly and since it actually has 8GB RAM and decent storage solutions like Boot Camp are a lot more viable for running Windows/Windows Apps on it than on Apple's laptops (where I would have to pay way too much to do that). And it's not like I need two notebooks :-) Prefer Windows (Dell or Lenovo) for Notebooks, and iMac for Desktop. Also, Apple Accessory prices... Magic Mouse for $69. If I got an External HDD that would have been almost $100. By the time I would have gotten done doing that, I would already be over $1200, anyways. So keeping the Windows Notebook and getting the desktop (which I don't have currently) makes a ton more sense.
  • Thanks, Peter. Now, can you share that wallpaper with us? I would love to see on my MBA. :) Sent from the iMore App
  • Here's the link. I wanted it as well and decided to do some hunting. I know @Peter is a busy man so I thought I help you out by sharing. :) Link: http://hitomm.com/2015-aston-martin-vanquish-volante-black-color-wallpaper/
  • Nice article. In the past I was not able to register with iMore due to the brand of tablet or o.s. (Android) I use for browsing. That problem has apparently been solved. I like it that Google emailed me that I might have missed this article, which prompted me to try again. I know this is not relevant to the article at hand, but I wanted to mention the cross-platform progress.
  • Hello , does the MacBook Air have only memory flash of 128 gb ( it doesn't have a hard drive ) ? Sent from the iMore App
  • Hi Ben, yes MacBook Air has only flash drive. 128GB/256GB Sent from the iMore App