Walt Mossberg

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Using PC and Mac Interchangeably

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability.

I switched from PC to Mac a year ago, but now I am thinking of adding a Windows laptop. If I do, what kind of compatibility problem would I have? I would be using the laptop mostly to write, to send/receive email and to Web browse.

In the old days, there were compatibility problems, but most of those have gone away. Based on your simple predicted usage, I’d say that you should be fine. For instance, both Macs and PCs can interchangeably open and edit all of the major file types — JPG pictures, MP3 music, Microsoft Office documents, Adobe PDF files, etc. Email and instant messages can, of course, be exchanged between the two platforms, even if you are using different programs. And Macs understand Windows file extensions. Also, you can use both platforms simultaneously on the same home network to access the Internet.

In some cases, you might need different programs to open the same files on the two platforms. But even that obstacle has greatly diminished. For instance, programs like the Firefox and Safari Web browsers, Adobe Reader, iTunes, Microsoft Office, Google Earth, Picasa, Photoshop and many others come in native versions for both platforms that can handle the same files. And, of course, Web-based programs like Gmail and Yahoo Mail work on both. Sometimes, the same programs have different features and user interfaces on Windows and Macs, but I haven’t found these differences hard to master.

The biggest problems for average users are Quicken, whose Mac version is inferior and incompatible; Internet Explorer, which is no longer made for the Mac; and Microsoft Outlook, which is replaced on the Mac by a program called Entourage that is similar but uses a different file format. And networking can be tricky. In general, the Mac does a better job of seeing Windows PCs on a network than Windows does of seeing Macs.

I use Outlook Express for my email, and I store a lot of mail in local folders. Is there a simple way to back these up? If I buy a new computer, can they be transferred?

Yes. There are two methods. One is a manual method, which Microsoft explains in a detailed document at this Web site: support.microsoft.com/kb/270670.

The other, quicker, method is to obtain one of several utility programs that can back up your Outlook Express data and, in some cases, allow you to transfer it to another PC. I haven’t tested these in years, and thus can’t recommend one over another. But one example is a free program called Outlook Express Backup, which can be found at genie-soft.com/products/oeb. Another is a $40 program called Outlook Express Backup Wizard, which can be found at: outlook-express-backup.com.

Do you know of an iPhone GPS application that speaks directions? It would make the iPhone similar to a TomTom or Garvin GPS unit.

A: No, but Apple recently announced that, under its new 3.0 operating system for the iPhone, such programs will be possible. Several companies are believed to be working on them, and I expect them to be available later in the year. The reason none exist yet is partly legal, having to do with the licensing of the underlying maps.

  • You can find Mossberg’s Mailbox, and my other columns, online free of charge at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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