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Should an Apple catch your eye?

The debate has raged almost since the birth of the personal computer: Should you buy an Apple or an IBM-compatible PC?

But 1998 brings even more confusion than usual. The Macintosh can rightly claim to be a superior product in many ways, but even the most loyal fans can't ignore the company's troubles _ most notably, its plummeting popularity.

Last year Apple accounted for only 4.1 percent of the nation's computers. That's down from 6.7 percent the year before. Dell Computer, by comparison, a company that relies on humble mail orders, accounted for 9.5 percent of all U.S. desktop sales.

But it's also hard to ignore Apple's recent successes: its first profit in two years. Hints of new innovations include a computer for less than $1,000 and a sexy flat-panel monitor, due this month for about $2,000.

And it's tough to find a Mac user who still doesn't rave about the simple-to-use, sturdy machine.

So we decided to take a fresh look at the Mac, based merely on its merits versus a Windows 95 computer. If you're thinking of buying a Mac, here are the reasons you should, or maybe why you shouldn't.

MACS ARE FASTER: Which can make a big difference if you plan to work heavily with pictures or graphics.

"Oh, man," raved computing consultant Tim Robertson about Mac's latest processors. "I can't believe how fast they are."

If you've turned on the TV lately, you may have seen Apple's new ads, which feature a snail lugging an Intel Pentium processor. G3, Mac's latest chip and its answer to the Pentium, is up to twice as fast, the ads say.

That's true, says Robertson, a computing consultant in Battle Creek, Mich., who owns both Macs and PCs and has tested their speed. The PC, he said, took three times longer to manipulate the Photoshop image he used for the test.

MACS HAVE FEWER VIRUSES: One of the upsides to having a less popular machine is that fewer hackers will write viruses for it, says Robertson, who also publishes an Internet magazine called My Mac.

"People don't write viruses for the Macintosh programs," he said.

True, says Genevieve Haldeman, public-relations manager for Symantec in Santa Monica, Calif.

According to her company, which makes anti-virus software and runs an Internet site for reporting new viruses, the number of bugs written for Windows platforms is a whopping 13,000. The number of viruses that work on both Mac and PC: 2,000. And the number of viruses written just for the Mac: 65.

MACS ARE EASIER TO USE: Want to launch a file on your desktop? Click once, not twice, the way PC users have to _ unless they know how to reprogram their settings.

Want to access your hard drive, where most of your files and games will probably be stored? On a Mac, an icon for your hard drive sits on the desktop. With a Windows machine _ unless you know how to create a shortcut _ you'll have to go through the "My Computer" icon, which takes an extra step.

Even some software works better on the Mac. The shiniest example: the Office software suite created by archrival Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash., giant is releasing its latest version, 8, on Mac only, with no immediate plans for a PC version.

The Microsoft public-relations machine stops short of calling version 8 better than what's available for Windows _ "It's just different," it said. But only version 8 has an entire thesaurus available with a single right click of a mouse. And only version 8 lets users install the software by dragging the icon directly into the hard drive.

Mac's ease of use is something to consider _ if you're not already accustomed to that PC in your office.

IT'S SIMPLER TO UPGRADE A MAC: Want to buy a faster modem for your Mac? Chances are, your machine will have an easier time accepting it than if you were using a PC, says Andrew Gore, editor-in-chief of Macworld magazine, a publication that often rankles Apple with its criticisms.

Windows 95 made much ado about its "plug and play" capability, but the reality belies the hype. Often you must track down a special driver to make that modem or printer work. And horror stories abound about access ports, driver conflicts and incompatible peripherals. Users who want a fix will have to wait for Windows 98.

Why is the Mac simpler to use? Apple has come under fire for keeping the Mac system under tight control, letting only a few companies sell clones. But that means fewer chances for buggy or incompatible parts, Gore said.

So, why you shouldn't buy a Mac?

SHARING FILES IS A PAIN: Files that will load and display on a Mac don't always work with a PC. There are ways to reconfigure some files, such as photos or graphics, to make them work on either machine, but are you willing to spend the time to figure it out? Macs can read Windows floppy disks, but unless you get special software a Windows machine can't read Mac disks.

APPLE IS STILL SHAKY: Some still think the company will die. Not this year, but eventually that could happen, says Jim Meyer, an analyst who follows Apple stock for Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

If Apple keeps losing market share the way it has been, "eventually you run out of money," he said.

FEWER SOFTWARE CHOICES: Software designers want to write for an accepted computer standard _ and that belongs to Microsoft, Meyer said.

"Apple is not the standard and will never again be the standard," he said.

Only now is the company thinking about offering a computer for $1,000 or less _ an omen that Apple may have permanently lost touch with consumers.

"This is probably the worst time to think about buying an Apple," said Stephen Baker, senior hardware analyst at PC Data in Reston, Va. "The market is not looking for top-of-the-line products, but middle- to lower-end products," he said.

"I went into the store and asked if they had Apple software," Meyer said. "And they showed me one row on the bottom shelf and a bunch of torn-up boxes, and that was their entire inventory."

Mac has always lagged Windows in the number of business and game software choices, but the gap is widening. In 1997, business users with a Windows machine had 3,377 software titles to choose from; by comparison, an Apple owner had 1,952 choices, according to PC Data.

The gap is even wider with games. Windows gamers have 1,532 adventure, sports or racing titles, while Apple joystick jockeys have to be satisfied with 621.

For Apple, the most troubling trend lies in education software. Apple has long been the king of the schoolhouse set, but in the past five years it has gone from being the leader to lagging badly. In 1997 there were 459 Mac education titles, a steady decline from 1995. The number of such titles for Windows has climbed to 883.

FEW LOW-END OPTIONS: Buying a new Mac will cost from $1,699 to $4,899, while buying a low-end PC can cost you less than $1,000. Cheap PCs now make up 40 percent of the overall market.

For less than $800, you can get a Pentium 200 PC _ not as fast as an Apple G3, but quite slick _ plus Windows 95 and a whopping 2 gigabytes of storage space.

Yes, Apple has expressed interest in producing a cheap computer. But it has not announced specific plans to do so.

LESS TECH SUPPORT: Compared with PCs, Macs aren't exactly falling out of trees. In February, the company abandoned most of the retail outlets that hadn't dropped it already, leaving only one major reseller, CompUSA.

If you don't like that chain, you'll have to look in regional outlets, specialized Apple dealers or Apple's online catalog at www.apple.com.

Fewer sellers means fewer technical-support options. If you're a first-time computer buyer, make sure you'll get all the help you need.

"When you have got something wrong," explained Terry Currier, vice president of the North Orange County Computer Club in California, "fewer people know what to do."

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