14 Classic Tech Rivalries

Nintendo or Sega? Intel or AMD? Laptop eraserhead or touchpad? We present 14 timeless tech face-offs, and your votes decide the winners.

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The greatest rivalries are fascinating to observe—and they invite everyone to choose sides and argue the merits of their favorite. Think Athens vs. Sparta. Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees. Coke vs. Pepsi. Wile E. Coyote vs. the Roadrunner.

Technology has its feuds, too—some of them to the death. The most recent example is Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. (Did you bet on the outcome while it was still in doubt and end up with an on-its-way-to-being-obsolete player?) Here's a proper requiem for that clash of titans: "HD DVD Falls to Blu-ray Disc."

Luckily I hadn't committed to either side in that duel. Narrow escape! But the epic struggle got me pondering great technology rivalries of the past. Which are better: Macs or PCs? Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer? Laptop eraserheads or notebook touchpads? In the instances where a clear winner emerged, did might triumph over right (Lotus 1-2-3 vs. Microsoft Office Excel)?

Other rivalries may never achieve a satisfactory resolution, which make them all the more entertaining—or frustrating. Each of our picks of classic tech rivalries in recent history identifies the main combatants, and then invites you to vote on your favorite. Accept our apologies if we left out one of your favorites (PC World vs. PC Magazine, anyone?). Please add your picks to this list in the Comments section of the story.

Mac vs. PC

What's So Great About a Mac?

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Apple products are the computing equivalent of gourmet sausage: We don't want to know what's inside these beautiful, expensive computers—or what's going on beneath the surface of the sleek Mac OS X. When it works, it works magically. When it doesn't work, we go to yoga class and wait for the next update. Oh, okay. Not only do the current Macintosh computers come equipped with some of the fastest, best-designed hardware available anywhere, but they also carry a stable, powerful, easy-to-use operating system that so far seems to be fairly immune to the security flaws and threats that menace Windows users. Top software developers—including Adobe and even Microsoft—continue to develop products for the Macintosh, making Macs competitive with Windows PCs in the workplace. A few key business applications (AutoCAD, for example) still require Windows—but fortunately, Macs also run Windows quite nicely. Apple's proprietary hardware is expensive compared to PC hardware, but third-party systems running OS X may soon become a reality. And isn't that Mac guy in the "Get a Mac" Apple commercials hip?

What's So Great About a PC?

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More than a computing platform, the PC is a wide-open, mix-and-match hardware and software eco-system that can accommodate everything from water-cooled, Internet-connected, planet-warming gaming systems, to itty-bitty portable PCs. Instead of choosing from the limited hardware offerings of one company (Apple), you can shop around among hundreds of competitors for the exact configuration you need—usually for less money than the equivalent Mac would cost. (And you don't have to succumb to the holier-than-thou attitude worn on the sleeves of Macolytes.) You can even dump Windows and use one of the many excellent Linux distributions available for free. What's not to like about choices (or for that matter, about the PC guy in the Apple "Get a Mac" commercials, the embodiment of every PC user's inner geek)?

Sony PlayStation 2 vs. Microsoft Xbox

What's So Great About the Sony PlayStation 2?

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Launched in 2000 and priced at $300 per unit, the PS2 become the fastest-selling console of all time, quickly overshadowed 1999's Sega Dreamcast, and later it outsold two challengers launched in 2001, the Nintendo GameCube and the Microsoft Xbox. Even today, slimmed-down PS2 units sell in greater numbers each month than Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or PlayStation 3 consoles. Only the Nintendo DS handheld comes close to the PS2 in the size of its user base. Crucial to the PS2's original success were its built-in DVD (foreshadowing the inclusion of the Sony-backed Blu-ray format in the PS3) and its ability to play games designed for the original PlayStation and make them look better. Among the noteworthy add-ons available for the PlayStation 2's were a DVD remote, a hard disk, a mouse, a keyboard, a Linux kit, a headset/microphone, an Eye Toy camera, and game-specific peripherals such as the Singstar microphone and the Guitar Hero guitar. In 2005, PC World ranked the PlayStation 2 in 11th place on our list of the 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years.

What's So Great About the Microsoft Xbox?

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After supplying the operating system for Sega's Dreamcast console, Microsoft ventured directly into the console race—with the PlayStation 2 squarely in its sights. Unlike the PS2, the $300 Xbox boasted a built-in 8GB hard drive and was broadband-ready out of the box (the Xbox Live Online gaming service launched a year later). The powerful Xbox had a PC-like design and used a modified 733-MHz Pentium III processor. One of its launch titles, Halo: Combat Evolved, emerged as the best-selling game of 2001. Microsoft slowly gained traction with its original Xbox. The company got quicker off the mark, too: In 2005, the original Xbox's successor, the Xbox 360, reached stores a full year before Sony countered with its PlayStation 3 and Nintendo unveiled its Wii.

Ballmer vs. Torvalds

What's So Great About Steve Ballmer?

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When Steve Ballmer, aka Goliath, sets his sights on something, he gets it. Or he throws a chair (allegedly). Or he just goes crazy. He thinks Linux is for commies. Much of Microsoft's tremendous growth has occurred under Steve's watch as CEO, which began in 2000. His tenure has been marked by the acquisition of other companies, including Visio, Great Plains, and Groove Networks. Along the way, he became a billionaire. And with a couple of Microsoft compatriots, Steve appeared as one of the very few PC World centerfolds. But with software as we know it moving off of PCs and onto the Web, Ballmer desperately needs to acquire something new (like Yahoo or Facebook) to avoid being gnawed to death by Google.

What's So Great About Linus Torvalds?

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Linus Torvalds, aka David, isn't against Microsoft products; he's just not interested in them. He began tinkering with the free, open-source operating system named after him while working on his master's degree in computer science. He doesn't throw things (even allegedly) or go crazy. Though he has final say over which programmers' contributions gain entry into the Linux operating system kernel, he is essentially a lowly programmer working for the Linux Foundation. Still, thanks to Torvalds, open-source software--and Linux in particular--may eventually eat Microsoft's lunch. And remember, David won his battle.

Laptop Eraserhead vs. Notebook Touchpad

What's So Great About an Eraserhead?

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No, not the David Lynch movie, but the cursor controller that sticks out of the middle of some laptop keyboards. Lenovo calls its version the TrackPoint. The obvious plus of the eraserhead pointer is that you don't have to move your hands from the touch-typing home row to move the cursor around the screen. Also, it's tactile, but not so easy to maneuver that you can make mistakes just by hitting it. Admittedly, the rubber tip can get slippery or gummy, depending on how sweaty your finger is and/or what you ate for lunch. But why mess with success?

What's So Great About a Touchpad?

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The touchpad has some obvious advantages over the eraserhead pointer. For example, most touchpads let you scroll or perform other tasks by tapping or touching the pad's corners or sides. Apple's Multi-Touch trackpad raises the touchpad to a new level, enabling you to scroll, resize, rotate, and otherwise manipulate windows and other on-screen objects by making simple gestures. The obvious disadvantage of the touchpad is that it requires you to move your hands from the keyboard's home row. It also is less precise than a mouse for handling fine work on screen. On the other hand (or on the same hand), a touchpad wipes clean with a damp cloth if your egg salad sandwich performs impromptu gravity experiments on it at lunchtime.

Lotus 1-2-3 vs. Microsoft Office Excel

What's So Great About Lotus 1-2-3?

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Though not the first spreadsheet program written for IBM's fledgling PC, Lotus 1-2-3 was the first great one, thanks to its speed, integrated functions, lack of bugs, and support for opening large spreadsheets in expanded memory. Though other spreadsheet programs written for MS-DOS matched and even improved on 1-2-3's features, none overtook it in popularity. In the late 1980s, though, Microsoft fielded an upstart spreadsheet called Excel for its Windows graphical interface. Lotus waited too long to release a Windows-based competitor (betting instead on IBM OS/2). By the time Windows 3.0 prompted a boom in Windows use, 1-2-3 had lost its lead. Rumors of 1-2-3's demise are premature, however; IBM still sells it as part of its Lotus SmartSuite office suite.

What's So Great About Excel?

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If 1-2-3 was so great, how did a newcomer manage to usurp its position in just a few years? By the time Microsoft ported its Macintosh-based spreadsheet to the PC in 1987, most spreadsheets offered all the extra goodies that a number cruncher could want, including built-in formulas, macro languages, and database features. But Excel offered a couple of things that its competitors lacked: pull-down menus and WYSIWYG formatting that made it dramatically easier to use. Excel's time may be up, though: Today Microsoft's Office Live (which includes an Excel component) falls short of free Web-hosted applications such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Zoho Office.

Amazon.com vs. Your Local Bookstore

What's So Great About Amazon?

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On some level, you just want stuff. Never mind supporting local merchants, paying your fair share of sales tax, or even seeing something before buying it. Amazon gets that. The mother of all online stores has a huge array of stuff for sale, including used books, used CDs, and other collectibles sold through partner vendors (all the people who used to own used-book and -record stores in your town). The biggest downside to an Amazon transaction is guilt, because every order arrives in a dead-tree cardboard box stowed aboard a carbon-spewing delivery truck.

What's So Great About Your Local Bookstore?

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My local bookstore is awesome. I love the library-like ambience, and occasionally I even buy something, especially if Christmas or someone's birthday is looming. Besides selling books, the store has an excellent selection of reading glasses and gourmet chocolates for immediate purchase (and gratification). The friendly staff members sometimes make great recommendations for reading that I would never think of. And I often discover interesting books by using my eyes as a kind of analog browser and the store shelves as a rudimentary site contents listing. Bonus: To go to my local bookstore, I have to leave my computer, if only for a few minutes. There are drawbacks, of course. Inevitably a local bookstore like mine has far fewer books to choose from than Amazon or a site like ABEBooks.com; and on top of that, I am obliged by societal mores to get dressed and brush my teeth before hopping into my carbon-spewing automobile to go shopping.

Intel vs. AMD

What's So Great About Intel?

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Intel engineers created the first microprocessor, the 4004, in 1971. The rest (the part where Intel-powered PCs took over the world) is history. Amazingly, Intel's recent CPUs remain backward-compatible with software designed for the benchmark 80386 processor introduced in 1986. On the green side (ecologically speaking), the company's newer, smaller chips use silicon and other component materials more efficiently, require less power, and support dramatically faster speeds. And the company had the brilliant idea of branding its work: Remember the "Intel Inside" ad campaign, anyone? Competitors, including AMD, have tried to carve a little slice out of the Intel pie by reverse-engineering x86 processors of their own. So far, they're just playing catch up.

What's So Great About AMD?

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For much of the early part of this century, Advanced Micro Devices enjoyed great success by producing processors that outperformed comparably priced Intel chips. Its earlier Athlon CPUs were performance champs, and they usually sold for less than comparable Intel products. But AMD stumbled when it tried to produce an immediate competitor to Intel's latest quadruple-core processors, and the company's purchase of graphics hardware maker ATI imposed a serious burden on its finances. AMD's plans to jump to 12-core processors by 2010 are interesting. And the prospect of success in an antitrust lawsuit alleging anticompetitive sales practices by Intel may be a source of optimism at AMD in 2008. Luckily, the company has some of the most loyal customers in the business. In any event, a serious competitor to Intel (especially one willing to go after it in court) is the surest way to guarantee better, less expensive products for consumers.

Gates vs. Jobs

What's So Great About Bill Gates?

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