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In Biology, I was told, you will almost not be able to find a professor that does not have a Macbook. And as soon as they have enough money, students and scientific staff will follow.

But also in my own field, mathematics, I have seen lots of highly respected professors with Macbooks.

Now, I have never worked with a Macbook myself, but I have helped out colleagues with problems a few times and I have really have not encountered any advantages over a regular and half as expensive Windows laptop, or an even cheaper Linux laptop. Those that I know good enough to question their choice of laptop confirm exactly my suspicion, saying they thought it was pretty/everyone in their lab had one, or swear by it but never had a different laptop.

Is there something I am missing about Macs? Maybe some recent convert out there? If not, why are academics so keen on status symbols? Isn't academia the one place where content should count, not looks, or even worse, depiction of wealth?

EDIT: while I agree that this question is prone to flame wars and the question about mac vs. anything else is also not really new, I DID want to know about the specific situation for scientists and the two answers so far are exactly of the kind that I wished when I was posting the question. Now of course mentioning that Macs might(! "if they..") be regarded as status symbols attracts attention to my question ;)

closed as primarily opinion-based by xLeitix, EnergyNumbers, Alexandros, Wrzlprmft, StrongBad Mar 11 '15 at 13:05

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Honestly, that's a boat programming question. This is just the good, ol' "Mac hardware is twice as expensive and has no advantages" discussion all over again, with the suffix "for scientists". I see no value in re-hashing this argument again and vote to close. – xLeitix Mar 11 '15 at 11:44
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    @xLeitix In all fairness, the suffix "for scientists" does raise some valid points because we do often have very specific needs in terms of hardware and software. It might be a boat, but there's lots of us in it. The problem is that questions about Macs are often either poorly researched, or written by trolls. – Moriarty Mar 11 '15 at 12:00
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    I don't think questions of the form "Why is X more popular in academia?" are boat programming if X is indeed unusually common among academics. It's a legitimate question. What I don't like very much about this particular question, though, is that it sounds exactly like the usual trigger of a mac vs pc/linux flame war, i.e., Why are Macbooks so popular when they shouldn't?! They're overpriced! They're status symbols!! You shouldn't buy them!!! I'm not saying that this was OP's intention. But I think it could use some rephrasing, if s/he wants it to get reopened. – Yuichiro Fujiwara Mar 11 '15 at 13:35
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    This question presupposes that academics would by some magical power be immune to status symbols, which seems plainly absurd. – Calchas Mar 11 '15 at 15:43
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    @Calchas this question presupposes that academics purchase Apple products as a status symbol, rather than as perfectly good tools of trade, which seems plainly absurd. – Moriarty Mar 11 '15 at 16:59
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Rest assured that there are reasons enough for using good quality hardware. Those of us who purchase a Mac do not do so because they are a "status symbol". We do so because they are the best tool for the job.

  • In many fields, using Windows is simply not an option. We need UNIX.

  • Linux is a good operating system, is free, and can be installed on a wide variety of hardware. However, Linux is nowhere near as refined as OS X in terms of its overall usability. We can often be much more productive on an OS X machine, and reserve Linux for use in virtual machines or on a powerful desktop when we need software stability or heavy-lifting power.

  • The other side of the coin is hardware. Until recently, there was very scarce competition in terms of hardware quality. Macs are built well, thin and light, and have long battery life – great for conferencing. Now, other manufacturers have caught up and are making hardware that is at least as good – but a high quality Thinkpad or Dell XPS is still just as pricey as a Mac. I repeat: comparably high quality Windows hardware is just as expensive as a Mac.

The money spent on a good machine pays for itself in productivity.

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    (and if you think Macs are expensive, wait till you see the prices of some of the lab equipment we use. A small dichroic mirror can easily cost several hundred dollars) – Moriarty Mar 11 '15 at 10:45
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    In a university context, I would add the dreaded phrase preferred supplier. At my (UK) institution, a MacBook Air is comparable cost to significantly lower quality alternatives, hence my recent switch after 10 years as a happy Linux user. – Ian Mar 11 '15 at 11:19
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    "We can often be much more productive on an OS X machine" I think with we you probably mean "those of us who purchase a Mac" but definitely not all scientists and academics. – Orion Mar 11 '15 at 13:17
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I remember the transition point, which happened in the middle of my grad school, with the major shift happening across approximately 2003 - 2006. What happened was OS X. Before that point, scientists generally faced a nasty computing dilemma:

  • Use Windows, and have a terribly difficult time using lots of Unix-based scientific applications.
  • Pick a Unix flavor, and have flaky hardware and driver support, no access to proprietary applications like PowerPoint and Word (which are often required for US government interactions), and a lot of time required in being sysadmin to your own machine.

Once OS X stabilized and picked up sufficient application support, you could get a Mac and have the best of both worlds: proprietary software, Unix (BSD), and minimal sysadmin time. The elegant design was a plus, but the big thing was the capabilities.

Over time, both Windows and Linux have started catching up---particularly Linux, where there are now much more sane graphical interfaces and it is no longer a crapshoot whether you'll be able to make the drivers work on any given laptop. Mac has remained very strong, however, especially with things like their increasing lightness and lengthening battery life, though, and so I expect it will be widespread for some time to come.

  • Linux may be much more functional than it used to be... but my top three deal-breakers are TextMate, Time Machine, and Spotlight. Sadly, I doubt they will appear on Linux any time soon :( – Moriarty Mar 11 '15 at 11:43
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    @Moriarty Ubuntu 14.10 has 'search bar' functionality almost exactly like Spotlight. 3rd party tools are still needed in lieu of Time Machine and Text Mate, but there are (free) comparable alternatives. – Chris Cirefice Mar 11 '15 at 20:23
  • @ChrisCirefice Speaking as someone who's used many different versions of MacOS, Windows, and Linux, I've never found anything nearly as good as Time Machine. It's a backup program that supports bare-metal restore, snapshots, hot backups, is free (assuming you already have the OS), and takes about 4 button clicks to configure. I challenge you to find any backup program for Windows or Linux that is easy to use, costs less than 500$, and supports bare-metal restore, snapshots, and hot backups. – Patrick M Aug 22 '15 at 8:02
  • @PatrickM BackInTime is the backup tool that I use and after my laptop basically caught on fire and died, I was able to restore to a brand new laptop without a hitch from my external hard drive. I don't know what your fancy terminology (bare-metal restore, snapshots, hot backups) means, but if I can restore to an entirely new machine and only lose 3 hours of work (because incremental backups were taken), then I'm 150% sure that for 99.9% of users, it is just as good as TimeMachine. – Chris Cirefice Aug 22 '15 at 13:30
  • @ChrisCirefice It sounds like it does what I was talking about. "Bare metal" means that you can restore from a blank hard-drive without the need to reinstall your OS first. It means that you are restoring from nothing but metal. (No existing software.) "Hot backups" means you can backup the computer without shutting it down, and booting off a separate disk. "Snapshots" basically means that when it makes new backups, you don't need to save a copy of everything, and you can delete old backups without breaking your new backups. – Patrick M Aug 22 '15 at 18:38

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