Why do Mac laptops (seem to) last longer than Windows laptops?

Macs are pricier, but they last longer than PCs running Windows, so the assumption goes. But when comparing two like systems – in terms of processor, storage,  and design – is it still true? 

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File
A youngster tries out Apple's new MacBook in New York. The Apple and Microsoft ecosystems are vastly different, and that results in different user experiences

Recently when we published an article about the new Apple MacBook, we suggested that readers might want to instead consider a comparably-equipped Windows machine. The comment section on that feature then lit up with opinions from readers on which laptops are better. Essentially, it became an argument about the pros and cons of Windows vs. Mac.

In those discussions, a frequent sentiment was expressed: Mac laptops are pricier, but they last longer. But where does this assumption come from? One argument is that, yes, of course, if you're comparing a Mac to all other Windows machines, regardless of the configuration and build quality, you'll get the sense that Macs last longer because they're naturally built better than a $300 machine.

But many still hold that even when comparing two like systems, in terms of processor, storage, design, etc., you'll still encounter an experience in which the Mac seems to last longer than the Windows laptop.

So what's going on here? Is that actually true? And if so, why? We turned to devout PC user, Marcy Bonebright, for her perspective on this issue.

Windows and Mac are Totally Different Systems

Let's start this comparison of Windows and Mac by stating what should be obvious: comparing Windows and Mac to each other is kinda silly. From the operating systems (OS's) to the hardware to the software, these two computer ecosystems are apples and oranges, pun intended. Apple maintains strict control over almost every aspect of a given computer's production, which means there's no mystery in how any given component will communicate with another. Every action is like a dinner party with close friends that's been planned for months in advance. The Apple OS plays host, making sure everything runs smoothly.

Microsoft makes an operating system, and that's it. The BIOS (the software that allows the OS to talk to the hardware) is generally proprietary to the motherboard manufacturer. The individual hardware components (like a video card or CPU), peripherals (mouse and keyboard), and applications (like word processing software or games) can all come from different companies — Microsoft has no say in which parts are chosen for a given system. The Windows OS merely coordinates the communication between those individual parts. If a Mac is a dinner party, a PC is the United Nations where everyone speaks Windows.

So Why Do Macs Seem to Last Longer?

These design differences have repercussions on both sides. Apple's tight control of its ecosystem means all the components of a Mac system are optimized to work together. That allows every process to run more smoothly, throughout the lifetime of the system. This optimization comes at a premium though; component manufacturers aren't letting Apple dictate the production process for certain parts out of the goodness of their hearts. This is one reason why Macs cost more.

On the other hand, Microsoft's success and long-time dominance of the personal computing arena makes Windows the universal OS by default. Every hardware or software manufacturer (that isn't working on mobile components) makes parts that are compatible with Windows, but Microsoft doesn't really have a say in how those parts are made. A Windows machine is a collection of discrete parts, which makes processing inherently more difficult. (Of course, it also makes PCs cheaper.)

Over the life of a PC, all the components and applications can receive hundreds, even thousands, of minor and major updates from their manufacturers' support teams. Every change is noted in the Windows registry, which is essentially a very long list of commands that the OS has to read every time it boots up. As that list gets longer, the PC slows down. To keep up with our metaphor, this would be like if a UN meeting started with a reading of every other meeting's minutes. This slowing down can make your PC feel ancient.

Fixing a PC Isn't Hard, Just Time-Consuming

The average PC user understands that these computers require upkeep. But what you may not know is that as Windows evolved, the list of tips and tricks for tuning up Windows has also evolved. Microsoft has its own page dedicated to speeding up Windows, which includes ideas like limiting the number of programs that run at startup, deleting excess applications, and running the Disk Cleanup utility. (Note that these tips are current to Windows 7; if you're running something else, Google is your friend.)

Should those fixes not work, it's a great idea to make sure your drivers are up to date. Drivers are the operating instructions a manufacturer gives to Windows to tell it how to run a given piece of hardware. If you've got an Nvidia graphics card, the Nvidia GeForce Experience program will automatically tell you when to download and update your GPU drivers. (AMD has a similar program.) Otherwise, you can use Windows Update or Device Manager to update old drivers.

Should all else fail, you can always just reinstall Windows. A clean reinstall is by far the most time-consuming option, but it'll wipe out all but the most pernicious of PC problems. This Lifehacker article explains how to reinstall Windows without losing all your tweaks, but a completely fresh install is recommended if you think your PC's slowness could be due to an infection.

In the end, a MacBook isn't inherently better or longer lasting than a comparably configured Windows machine. It's just that the Apple and Microsoft ecosystems are vastly different, and that results in a different end user experience. Tighter controls over how Macs are built means your laptop is less likely to get bogged down by missing or conflicting updates, but you pay a hefty price for that luxury. Even the best Windows laptops require constant vigilance, but my souped-up gaming rig with its Frankenstein parts can run circles around your Mac — so there.

Readers, what do you think? Does this explanation put the old "Macs last longer than PCs" argument to bed, or do you have another theory? Share your thoughts in the comments below, you know we'll read 'em!

Marcy Bonebright is a feature writer for DealNews, where this article first appeared. 

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