Six Months Into Using A Mac

Wow, it’s been six months since I started using a Mac and things have changed quite a bit. I find myself enjoying it a lot more than I did at the beginning. I found a lot about Mac usage to be frustrating at first, but I think it is starting to click. Of course, its not all rosy, but there is quite a bit I really like about this machine. I much prefer using this over the corporate Thinkpad. That said, if I need to get something out the door quickly, I will still go back to Windows since I am still more familiar with that toolset.

I looked over some of my original blog posts about the Mac and wanted to give an update. The things I loved about the machine are still amazing. Some of the things I did not like have grown on me. Not everything though.

First lets look at the hardware. The edges still cut into my wrists, the trackpad is not as efficient as the pointing stick, and the hard drive is still too small, but almost everything else is pure genius. It feels incredibly solid when holding it from the corner with one hand. The little lights that show the available power in the battery without turning on the laptop are so fantastic. How did they make it so you can’t feel the holes for the light to come through, yet they do? The backlit keyboard makes typing at night much more comfortable than the Thinkpad lamp allows for. And the unit stays cool to the touch (in most places) and yet there is no visible grill for air to blow from.

As I mentioned though, the lack of a pointing stick is really tough to get used to. I could do very precise retouching in Photoshop with that while it’s a lot tougher with the trackpad. I also miss the integrated fingerprint scanner on the Thinkpad as an alternative for logging in to the system. I know there are addons available, but it was just part of the laptop. But I guess the built in camera makes up for it. I don’t use it too much, but I am sure I will take advantage of it sometime.

Now to the software. The biggest problems I had with the OS was a lack of coherent keyboard shortcuts and the inability to resize a window from anywhere other than the lower right corner. I am getting used to the keyboard shortcuts. In fact, its getting a bit tough to keep them straight on Windows. I keep pressing Alt C to copy instead of Control C since the Alt key is where the Command key is on the Mac.  I am finding myself paging up and down, backspacing and deleting, and other performing other typing acrobatics with ease so thats no longer a problem either.

Zooom/2 solved my issues with resizing windows. In fact, once you start uncovering them, there is quite an active community of developers writing little addons for the OS to tweak it in any way you like. I love MiddleClick, InstantShot, SoundFlower, and Alfred, all of which help me get what I need done on the Mac so much easier.

Having access to Word, Powerpoint, Excel, and Entourage has certainly made the transition easier. And I look forward to a real Outlook client coming to the Mac in the next few months. Other big apps that I use include Final Cut Pro which works incredibly well (and has helped fill out my bookshelf with the required books to get me up to speed). I am also spending a bit of time in Xcode. Too early to say much about that, but I am loving the debugging tools in there.

So my state of the mac is very different today than it was just six months ago. I am not sure when things started to click but the fact that its starting to happen changes everything.  I wouldn’t consider myself to be a switcher just yet, but I am very glad I made the plunge.

Overcoming My Biggest Hurdle With The Switch

From the time I first touched this MacBook Pro, there was one behavior that annoyed the hell out of me. It’s something every Windows and X user takes for granted but is missing from the Mac. Its easy screen management. What I mean by that is that moving and resizing windows on Windows is just easy. Grab any side or corner and drag to resize that window. But that doesn’t work on the Mac. I have no idea why this is the case.

Every now and then, I spend some time searching for solutions to this problem, but most mentions of it simply say its something you need to get used to. In fact, some forum posts that talk about the issue claim that it won’t bother you after a while. As I have gotten more familiar with Objective C I started looking into how to control this myself. I just noticed how to do this programmatically but I haven’t tested it out yet. Maybe I’ll figure this out after a few more weeks, but it turns out I don’t have to.

There is a developer out there who has already figured it all out. Someone who obviously had the same issue I had and figured out a solution. The application is called Zooom/2 and can be found at http://coderage-software.com/zooom/index_green/index.html. This tool is nothing short of amazing. By pressing a pair of shortcut keys, just moving the mouse resizes whatever window I am hovering over right now. A similar shortcut and a drag moves to window to another location on screen. Its absolutely fantastic.

Its got some other cool features as well. It will snap to a user-definable grid and/or to the edges of other windows or the screen. This is magic when trying to get a few different windows arranged on the desktop. I have heard suggestions that Spaces gives you a more powerful arrangement tool, but that is completely different. I want to see multiple windows on the desktop at the same time. Like when I am in Xcode while wanting to read some docs about whatever I am working on, and viewing the Stanford U Objective C course. Spaces is completely useless for that scenario.

So Zooom/2 from Coderage Software is an incredible tool that I will be buying very soon. Its 19.95 USD and has a 30 day eval, but it only took me about 3 minutes to know that I needed it.

Getting up to speed with Objective C

As you know, I bought a MacBook Pro about 6 months ago. Since then, it has really become my primary PC. I carry it with me everywhere, including when I travel for work. In fact, since the battery life on the MBP is so much better than the ThinkPad, its become my main traveling work laptop too. My job requires the use of virtual machines and the fact that I can run my VMWare Workstation virtual machines on VMWare Fusion makes all of that possible.

I think I am a bit different from 90% of Mac users in that I am not content with the applications provided by others. I want to build a few of my own to solve some of the problems I have. On Windows, I could do this fairly easily with Visual Studio and C#. I even built a course around developing custom solutions for Alchemy using C# and VB.NET (once you write something in C#, translating to VB is pretty trivial). I would like to do another one of these courses in the future around the RightFax API as well.

Doing this on the Mac though isn’t possible using my existing knowledge. While C# is on the Mac in the form of Mono, I don’t think its quite as baked as Objective C and Cocoa. But how does one get up to speed on this new platform, language, framework, and IDE? Well, it turns out there are quite a few resources available today. I first started with a book called Learn Objective C on the Mac. I am not sure whether its a good book or not since I seem to have misplaced it. So I picked up Cocoa and Objective C: Up and Running. Don’t waste your time on this one. It doesn’t seem to be written in a way thats helpful for the person learning about Objective C who already has experience with other languages.

The best resources I have found so far for learning about Objective C and Xcode are free. They aren’t easy reads, but I am learning quite a bit about them already. The first is on iTunes U and its a course in developing for the iPhone put on by Stanford University. I am not so interested in building apps for the iPhone right now, but the first few lectures have just been about building simple apps in Xcode. This is enough for me to get familiar with the language and the IDE. There is just enough lecture to get the gist of it, then some assignments that are a bit challenging but easy enough to complete on my own. Now I am reading through the extensive documentation on the Apple Developer site learning about what is in the Foundation classes and Cocoa.

Whats next? I’ll continue with the course and see where it takes me. I’ll also take on some CodeKatas to see if I really understand it all. 

When Buying Global Tech, Warranty is King

In a couple months, I will be heading to Seattle for some internal meetings. I always love going back to Seattle since that’s where my parents live and I still have a bunch of friends in the area. Its also just a whole lot easier to do any technology-related shopping in the US than anywhere else in the world. Its easier and cheaper than anywhere in Europe because there are no decent gadget stores on this continent. While it might not be cheaper, its certainly easier in the US than anywhere in Hong Kong or Tokyo or anywhere else on the Asian continent. Brick and mortar stores like Frys and online retailers like NewEgg are non-existent outside of the US. So this means I need to plan out what I need to get while I am there.

Coming up with a plan for purchasing is not exactly easy. First, I am not made of money so I can’t just buy everything I see. Then I cannot buy anything big since I have to fly back. Plus anything that’s is very expensive is simply not worth buying outside of Europe. Although some might be scared of the customs officials catching them as they come in to the country, I am scared of additional costs of getting something repaired when it dies. If I save 100 euros getting a gadget in the US, but then have to pay 200 in shipping when it needs fixing, the savings is useless.

I found this out when I bought the Creative Zen Vision:M in Singapore. Within 10 days of returning home, the device was dead and needed repair. I had to ship the device at my own expense and deal with figuring out where to send it. The hassle ended up being such a pain that I decided its rarely worth buying expensive tech outside of my home region unless the tech comes with a world wide warranty.

That’s the main reason I travel with Swiss Army brand luggage. It’s the only suitcase I know of with global warranties and global repair centers. I don’t get that with Samsonite, or American Tourister, or Tumi, or pretty much anyone else. The bags last for ages and when there is a problem, a local repair center quickly fixes it and doesn’t charge me.

Apple also has an amazing global warranty. I haven’t had to test it yet, but supposedly AppleCare will take care of the repair where ever I am. Now the people who staff their help line are a bunch of morons, but I trust that the repairmen who will actually fix the laptop are competent.

Buying something like an expensive camera rarely makes sense outside of your region. Nikons and Canons in the US come with US warranties. If your camera dies and you need it fixed after you move to Amsterdam, then ship it back to the US (at your expense) to get it repaired…and good luck on getting customs to realize its not a new camera on the return shipment. When I got the D700, I bought it here in the Netherlands because the savings of getting it in the US just wasn’t enough.

So coming up with something I need in the US might be a bit tough. I already have all the luggage I need. I already have the MacBook and Kindle DX and other good, portable tech. I already have all the tech gadgets I think I need. I guess I’ll just have to go to Fry’s to see what tech I don’t yet know I need. 

 

The Shelving Project

Ahhh, finally a weekend with nothing that needs to get done. Nothing I am doing or putting off doing. Just a weekend to do whatever I feel like. It hasn’t been this way for quite a while, and thats mostly because the big projects are mostly done. 

I bought this apartment a little over two years ago and storage was always an issue. I really should have had closets built into the place, but I didn’t. With nearly 1400 square feet or about 130 square meters, I have plenty of room for storage, especially since I live alone. And yet most of my stuff has been in the boxes I used when moving. My first storage space project is mostly done: a wall of shelves and cabinets. And what a project that turned into. 

I started planning it almost as soon as I moved in. I have one long wall that goes from the from to the back of the apartment. Towards the front there was the chimney, a fake fireplace (it had been blocked up years ago), and a mantel. I really didnt like it and wanted shelves to go in its place. When I described this to others, most thought that would be a bad idea, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I started pulling it out. I thought it would be an easy project, maybe taking a weekend. But the mantel was very well built…too well built. Removing it all ended up taking a good 4 or 5 weekends.

Then I was able to start building shelves. I had looked at Ikea for shelves, but nothing seemed right. I talked to neighbors who had shelves made for them, but the prices were high. It seemed that for what I wanted I would be paying 4000-6000 Euros. But they would be done in a month or two. I figured I could do it myself instead. Before I could start building, I needed to buy tools and then wood. Oh, and review all of my recordings of the New Yankee Workshop. Along with the books on cabinet and furniture making I had, Norm was able to give me ideas on how to do all that I needed. I ended up with a nice collection of tools including and circular saw, jigsaw, router, sander, drill, shopvac, and table which could mount the circular saw and jigsaw upside down giving me a table saw and other configuration. 

Now I had to come up with a design. One of the main inspirations was the Greek Revival Bookcase episode. I liked the thick shelves but the prices of wood here in the Netherlands made it a bit scary. I ended up making each shelf, and in fact most of the bookcases, from two 1.7cm thick pieces of plywood sandwiched together. A rough design was drawn up in Google SketchUp over a few weeks and eventually I went over to Praxis (the closest thing to a Home Depot here in Europe…Just try to imagine a Home Depot with a quarter of the selection and understaffed, mostly with people who don’t want to be there). 

One of the challenges I faced was building shelves that would eventually be nearly 3 meters tall using wood that I would be bringing back from Praxis on my own in my Volkswagen Golf. Oh, and then I would have to carry all of that wood by myself up 4 flights of very narrow stairs. 

The whole project would involve using about 8-10 sheets of 1.2 meter by 2.4 meter (which is the same size in the US as a 4ft by 8ft sheet), by 1.7cm plywood. By the fourth flight of stairs, these are very heavy. I actually had them cut down to size at Praxis but the wood is still heavy. 

At this point I have to remind you that I don’t have a normal 9-5 office desk job. I spend a lot of time out on the road. Between the first cut and the last, I ended up seeing Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Uruguay, USA, France, UK, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Dubai, Hong Kong, Macau, and more. This was over a time period of about 18 months. Looking back, 5000 Euros and two months seems like a pretty good deal.

But the shelves are mine. I made them. They aren’t perfect, and actually they aren’t quite done, but I have a very strong connection to them and I love them. My estimates for the project were blown by orders of magnitude, but I learned a lot and now have plans for a few other projects around the apartment. Coming up are a few extensions to the shelves, a linen closet upstairs, a more appropriate desk area in my home office, and more.