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My First Two Weeks in Mac Land

January 04, 2010

I am on my way back to Amsterdam now, having finished up 2 weeks with my parents on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. I am quite relaxed but ready to get started with the new year. I had a few goals for the break, but the only one I actually made good on was to spend a lot of time on this MacBook Pro.

Thats right, former Microsoft employee and general MSFT fan bought a MBP. Now I don’t think of myself as a switcher in the most common sense of the word. A switcher is someone who, for some reason, is tired of the Windows way and has a belief that Mac is better. That is not me since most of my work days will still be spent on a Windows machine, and I still believe that while the Mac is different, its no better or worse than a Windows-based PC. That said, the Mac is now my main home/personal laptop.

So what did I buy? I have a 15″ 2.66 GHz MacBook Pro. Its the one with the slightly better graphics card because a friend convinced me that I should get it. I swapped out the included 320GB drive with a 7200RPM 500GB drive but it includes the basic 4GB RAM. I got it with the non-glossy screen because from most accounts I read, the anti-glare screen offered truer, less saturated colors than the standard notebook. In fact, the ability to get the non-glossy screen was the main reason I went to the 15-inch model.

I think overall, this is a great machine. I am very happy with it. I would say its mostly on-par with most Windows-based laptops available today with a few key improvements. Its certainly not perfect but I am quite happy with it. Its very comparable to the Thinkpad T61 I use for work, and its a completely different experience compared to my previous, more portable eeePC 1000HE I used to manage photos on.

Let me first tell you what I think is amazing about this machine. The hardware is gorgeous. Its a little bit thinner than a Thinkpad though it looks much thinner. The so-called unibody (weird term since it is two pieces of aluminum for the bottom) is insanely strong and rigid. Holding the laptop from the edge with one hand, there is not even a hint of flexing in the body. I always thought the Thinkpad was quite stiff, but now it feels a bit limp in comparison.

When seeing other people working with Macs, one of the big benefits I always noticed was that they never seemed to be waiting for their machine to startup or shutdown. They just closed the laptop when they were done, and opened it and started working right away when they wanted to go again. Its something that some Windows laptops can do, but its not consistent across the different brands. Of course, Apple has the benefit of having absolute control over its hardware line. Its a benefit that Microsoft could never have without getting drowned in lawsuits. But Apple has done it and its amazing.

One of the things that always sucked about working on every other laptop was that night time use was a bit trying. As the light in the room went down, I had to decide what was more important: did I need to see what I was doing, or did I want to get up and turn on the light. The alternative was to either tilt the screen down towards the keyboard or turn on the dinky little light above the screen on the T61. Neither was all that effective, and Apple again has the perfect solution for the problem. The backlit keyboard on the Mac is pure genius and is a delight to work on.

The only weakness of the keyboard is the lack of the Thinkpad’s nubby thing or pointing stick. Whatever it is officially called, it is definitely the most efficient way to move around a desktop. Although it took a few days of constant use to get comfortable with, the result is a fluid and quick movement between the different areas of the screen and most importantly, never required you to move your hands off the keyboard. That said, the trackpad on the Mac is a stunning implementation, probably the best implementation of a trackpad. Its larger than any I have seen before and the 2-finger right click, 2-finger scroll, 3-finger middle click are so intuitive, its easy to forget how bad the trackpad is on every other laptop. Its the first trackpad I don’t want to immediately turn off in the BIOS. As a bonus, its the only trackpad I have used that doesn’t spontaneously move your cursor somewhere in the middle of that huge paragraph you just wrote.

When I am not working, my main diversion is photography. I take lots of photos, managing them in Lightroom, and tweaking them in Photoshop. The primary applications for this Mac will be those two programs from Adobe. So it was important to me to get a laptop that could do a reasonable job of accurately representing the colors and tones of the images I work with. I had heard that the the standard glossy screen is stellar and fantastic for watching movies on, but less than accurate for color representation. I realize I am on a laptop and I should not expect perfect colors on any laptop, but I am extremely impressed. Deep blacks, clean whites, amazing reds, blues, and greens. Its probably the best looking laptop display I have ever used.

No discussion of laptops is ever complete without touching on battery life. Its not quite at the same level of the eeePC which got about 9 hours with Windows 7, but I am 3 hours into this flight and I still have 5 hours left on the battery display. And of course, this is a much more competent machine than that little Atom-based machine. Of course, to get this amount of time, I had to use a machine that is heavier and bigger, turn off wireless (I am on a plane, so no problem there), drop the brightness, and turn off some processes. But there was no way I could get that on the T61. At its best I used to get about 4 hours but now it is down to 1. Of course, its an easy fix to replace the battery on every other laptop, but this is going to require servicing. I hope it lives up to the hype and stays in good condition for a long time.

Now remember the first or second paragraph where I said I was a MSFT fan? Well, before that I was more of a Linux guy. I did all I could to eliminate Microsoft from my daily workflow. That was a bit difficult when I was writing documents in Microsoft Word (interestingly my customers were Oracle, Sun, IBM, etc and all preferred docs in Word format), but thankfully Staroffice and AmiPro did good enough to keep the ‘Soft off of my machines. I originally went to work for Microsoft to focus on how they could compete against Linux and slowly I wised up to how much more efficient Windows was in almost every way to Linux. But coming to Mac is like a fun return to those older ways. It’s Unix underneath and having that base along with an elegant interface seems like a wonderful combination. Sure, Windows has had a Unix subsystem for about 10 years and most of the tools on Unix existed on Windows as well, but it was easier to just stick with Windows for everything. Now if only someone would port Powershell to Mac or Unix, everything would be right, but most Mac and Unix folks have the bizarre impression that bash is all they need.

From what I have written you might think that the Mac is almost perfect. Most of what I have said was very positive and it really is an amazing machine. But it has some serious weaknesses too, as does every laptop. None of those weaknesses are enough to drop the Mac and get back to an all PC world, but they are things I need to deal with. These weaknesses are in no particular order, just the order I wrote them up in.

Although you already pay a good amount for a Mac, there is an option to pay more for a model with a second graphics card. I bought that model, thinking I might get some benefit. That was a mistake. It seems to run a little better than the basic card, but not enough to justify the cost differential. In Photoshop, the newer smooth zooming is just not there on the Mac. In fact, performance overall is a bit disappointing in Photoshop. I am of course comparing this to my 3 year old base model T61 with the most basic graphics option. The T61 offers very smooth scaling and rotation of images, vs the more jerky motion on the Mac. Performance of filters and high computation steps is about the same on this brand new Mac and that 3 year old PC. But it gets my photos and my personal software (like Photoshop) off of my work machine so I am still happy.

Its also strange that although this is labeled as a 15inch screen, its larger than most other 15inchers, but with a lower resolution. Apple does do a better job with the pixels available, but I just thought it strange to get such a low resolution on a machine supposedly meant for graphics kinds of people.

The actual hardware of this machine is close to perfection, but it does have some issues. I hate the sharp edge of the base of the laptop because it always catches my watch. So I really have to take off my watch before I use the laptop. Its a bizarre thing to have to do. A small bevel on the top edge would make it so much better for me to work with.

But the biggest issue I have with the physical aspects of the MBP is the lack of storage options. On the Thinkpad, I had 1.2 Terabytes of storage space. Thats because I was able to remove the DVD drive since its so rarely used and replace it with a second hard drive. This might have something to do of course with my low battery life issues on that machine, but there is no way I could give up that level of storage given the dozens of virtual machines I need to work with and store. Some people think this might be a minor issue, but I will never be able to use this as a primary business machine until I can have more internal storage than a single spindle, which for now means 640 GB.

Another thing I hate is the MagSafe power connector. Sure, its pretty cool how it snaps in but I prefer the traditional plug. The benefit of the MagSafe connector is for the times when you trip over the cord and bring the laptop down with you. We can all imagine that happening, but I have never seen it. I don’t know anyone who has actually done that. I know more people who have shipped a laptop cross country with USPS in a manila envelope (It didn’t survive the trip, even with the single layer of bubble wrap). I know more people who have melted their screens by leaving a laptop on their dashboard in Miami in the summer. I know more people who have dropped their laptop while trying to balance a beer and a hotdog in the other hand. But I don’t know of anyone who has taken a laptop out by tripping over the cord. The result of this MagSafe cord is that the cable keeps falling out when you move it to another surface.

From the ads, you might think that the Mac is just more intuitive than a PC. Intuitive to me means I will be able to figure it out myself without any extra purchases. I should be able to do what makes sense or read the built in help files to guide me along. Unfortunately this is not the case. The help files are a bit lacking. What is the point. And since they sent their documentation writers on permanent vacation, they have no manual to guide the new Mac user on. They do have some videos online, but they target the complete imbecile who is the stereotypical switcher.

It doesn’t get much better in the after market products. Thankfully I did find one book that helped explain a few things. Pogue’s Missing Manual should be required reading for the new Mac user. Some of it was written for that same person the videos are for, but in between are valuable golden nuggets of information. What did I need? Pointers to some of the keyboard shortcuts. There is probably some mnemonic framework that these abide by, but I haven’t figured it out. And based on Pogue’s explanations, he hasn’t figured some of them out either.

When I was at Microsoft, one of the weapons we had to beat Apple with was accessibility. We knew what it meant and Apple did not. But I had assumed they would have caught up by now. There are still many things you cannot do without a mouse, and since the mouse requires you to take your hands off of the keyboard, there is no way to do those things without slowing down and breaking the flow.

One of the things that is annoying but I am sure I will just get used to is the screwed up delete key. There is a key marked as delete, but it does what I think should be a backspace. I can deal with that without a problem. What I hate is that this delete key doesn’t allow you to delete files. Have a file or folder that you want to delete? Press the delete key and nothing happens. WTF is up with that? Yeah there is a two key shortcut to do the same thing, but why not use the key that is labeled with the function? Ughhh.

And what is up with referring to a key in the docs with a symbols that appears nowhere on the keyboard? I could understand if I was using an aftermarket keyboard, but this is on an Apple-made machine. The key I am referring to is the option key which is represented by a symbol I can’t really describe. Ughhhh…

Then there are some things that Apple focuses on in their commercials which are pure FUD. They like to play on Windows’ need to alert the user when an application is installing or doing something else only an administrator should do. Once your software is installed its not bothersome, assuming your software is written in a way Microsoft has been evangelizing for nearly 10 years. Guess what? You get the exact same number of warnings on a Mac. Every time I install, I have to enter in a password to verify that I have the rights to install. I am not saying this is a bad thing, though. I think it is irresponsible to not ask for verification, but to claim that Mac bothers you less is totally bogus and nonsensical.

Another thing is the supposed greater stability of the Mac OS versus Windows. Now I am switching over after using Windows 7 but if I look at the last 2 or 3 years while using Win7 AND Vista, I have seen a frozen machine or complete crash maybe twice. In 3 years! I have doubled that number of occurrences in 2 weeks on the Mac. Maybe its because I am a new Mac user. I didn’t know at the time that there was a three key sequence on the Mac similar to Control-Alt-Delete on Windows which would give me options to kill a process. Thats due in part to their crap documentation. They never tell you about that. Ugh…

Finally there are the things I have read about but not yet had a chance to try out. From all accounts that I have read by people who have actually used both systems, XCode is nearly useless compared to Visual Studio. I haven’t done anything with it yet so I cannot really comment with authority, but from what I have seen, its definitely not as slick and user friendly. Then again, I have heard that XCode’s unfriendliness is actually what makes it kinda fun to use. Its such a challenge that it becomes more like a game. Not sure if thats a game I want to play.

Its two weeks into life on Mac for me. Generally I feel pretty good about it. Though part of me wonders if thats just because I spent way too much on it and have to feel that way to avoid being totally pissed off at Apple for ripping me off. I could have gotten a more powerful machine running Windows for far less, but part of this experiment was just to get a better feel for all things Mac. Its an experiment I plan to take part in for a few years. Who knows, I may even get sucked in and start to think that Mac is actually a superior platform instead of just even competition….or maybe not.

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