Apple, Computers, Hardware, Linux, Open-source, Personal, Ruby, Software, Windows

Living in an Apple World

Welcome readers to what is a first here on my blog – a review about Apple’s OS X. As some of you may know, part of my new job is working on a Mac for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Someone asked me about my experiences, and I feel up to sharing my findings. I want to be fair in my assessments, so if it sounds like I am starting to get a little slanted, keep me in check with a comment!

First things first – the initial impression. I have a 27″ iMac and I was initially impressed by the appearance of the machine. The iMac screens and case are one piece, so I have plenty of room to kick around beneath my desk with minimal cord entanglement (not that it matters because I sit cross-legged all day). The compact style keyboard has an aluminum casing, which matches the iMac. The mouse is the Mighty Mouse. Both are wired, which I appreciate – especially on the mouse. I hated the compact keyboard since it feels shrunken, and the addition of the “Fn” key in the bottom row meant every time I tried to press “Control” I missed. After swapping this out for a full-sized keyboard I was much happier, and even unlearned some bad habits. The Mighty mouse absolutely sucks. The tiny wheel stops responding all the time from the slightest spec of dirt, and you have to turn it over and rub it back and forth on your jeans, or the mouse pad. Its one saving feature is the ability to vertically, and horizontally scroll which is occasionally helpful. I am a right click fan, and though invisible, the region on the mouse that registers as a right click versus a left is about 10 times smaller. It feels like the edge of the mouse.

The keyboard on a Mac is different in important ways from its PC counterparts. The “Windows” key is replaced with the Command key, which is utilized far more than the Windows key ever was. In fact, most of the operations of the machine are done using Command (copy, paste, new tab, close window, etc) effectively making it closer to the “Control” key in Windows. However, the Control key remains, which actually introduces a whole new key combination to more effectively use shortcuts. The Command key is located next to the space bar, which is much more convenient than the extreme left placement of the Control key. I do copy, paste, etc operations using my thumb, and not my pinky finger – much less strain.

The computer screen can be tilted, which is nice since the whole world seems to be moving towards the annoying high gloss screens. I can tilt it down, and out of the florescent overhead lights. I really feel that gloss is a showroom gimmick just like turning the brightness up to max on the TVs in the store. If I wanted to look at myself, I would sit in front of a mirror. Fortunately, I have a second non-gloss monitor, and I do most of my coding on this screen. Also, it would be nice if the monitor had a height adjustment, as second monitor isn’t quite the height of the iMac screen.

Enough about appearance – lets talk hardware. This is a dual core Intel-based processor, with 2 GB of memory (later upgraded to 4GB). The video card is decent I suppose (however the interface can get quite “laggy” at times). I don’t have any idea what the machine costs, but this is definitely unimpressive hardware. 2GB of RAM is the minimum I would work with, and it being slow laptop RAM doesn’t help at all. At least there isn’t a laptop hard in it too.

As for the Operating System, it seems pretty stripped down. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I can quickly find what I am looking for, without going on a damn field trip through obscure dialog windows. The flip-side to this is it doesn’t feel very “customizable”. You use the stock features, or you don’t use a Mac. Perhaps there are a bunch of third party utilities that I don’t know about? Sometimes I am disappointed by the lack of customization options (there are just a handful of settings for the dock). To be honest, I am not sure what I would customize, but I like to poke around, and I often leave the System Preferences disappointed having not found “setting xyz“.

I really enjoy the file system indexing, and they have the best implementation for full-text search I have seen. It doesn’t bog down the computer, and the results are instantly updated. Magic. It effectively is the starting point for all my open actions. I don’t know why it isn’t available for the first 10 minutes after a boot, but I don’t shut down that much so its ok.

I was surprised by the lack of a default system-wide notification system – something that Growl has aimed to fill. I was also disappointed by the lack of package management on the Mac – again third party solutions exist. The system updates are just as annoying as in Windows which was a disappointment. Once the “restart” prompt stole my typing focus and proceeded to shut down the system. A few times the machine has “beach balled” (the Mac “hourglass” icon), and hard locked. Most of time its fairly responsive and stable which I can appreciate.

Other points of interest are the window management. I use Expose almost as regularly as I do the task switcher (Command + Tab), though admittely sometimes I get lost in the special effects and forget what I was doing. There are a bunch of other window groupings, but I don’t really find them that useful. One particularly frustrating observation is that once you minimize a window, you can’t Command + Tab back to it. Isn’t that the point of the task switcher? It even shows up in the task switcher, but when it is selected, absolutely nothing happens.

As for the software available on the Mac it is more comprehensive than Linux, and less comprehensive than Windows. Some of my co-workers commented that in OS X, there is usually one utility to do something, whether you like it or not. I use Google Chrome, JetBrain’s RubyMine, Ruby, Terminal, Lotus Notes, Adium, and Propane almost exclusively. Because of this, I can’t really assess the state of the Mac software ecosystem, but I will say that all these programs run damn well on the Mac. The only software crash I have is Flash. Flash on Linux and Windows is stable, however on the Mac probably one in ten uses causes the browser tab to lockup. I am not sure whether this is a Chrome issue or not, but something is seriously wrong with the state of Flash on my Mac. Now I understand why so many Mac users hate Flash – as a Windows user, I never experienced the constant crashing.

In summary, due to the nature of my work, I use the Mac at work in essentially the same manner I would use Linux. The terminal is where I spend my time, and I am more or less indifferent about the operating system around it, as long as I can install the system libraries I need for Ruby extensions, and it stays responsive. My next computer purchase will be a netbook and I will install Ubuntu on it, as I can’t justify spending the designer prices of Apple products to use a terminal and a web browser.  Toe to toe with Windows, and many Linux distributions, OS X excels in many areas. Its a fantastic operating system, but I am not sure that it is worth its cost. If I could throw it on my PC at home it would be worth $100. Buying a special machine just to run it is just silly.

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12 thoughts on “Living in an Apple World

  1. Maybe it’s because you’re the new guy that they gave you one, but I think the iMac is the wrong machine for your work. The iMac is meant to be a family computer, not a workstation. I really don’t know how anyone who does anything beyond basic computing can stand to use one. The Mac Mini is even worse (it’s so bad I had to look up its name before I could write it). So I think that colors your review quite a bit. Also, the keyboard and mouse you have are total shit, too. I would just hook up a regular Logitech mouse. I don’t know what keyboard I would use, though. This one might work, but I doubt it. As you’ve learned, the keyboard is used much more in OS X than Windows, and the keys need to be in the right place.

    This is the second time today I’ve read a Windows user (yes, I know you also use another OS) complain about the lack of customization options in OS X. Why is that so important? I know I used to do all kind of crazy stuff with LiteStep and e16, but now I can’t fathom why I would want to. When I sit down at my computer I just want to get my work done. And if I sit down at someone else’s computer I don’t want to be lost. Adding a touch of personalization (wallpaper, new icons, etc.) is about as far as it should go.

    What sort of system wide notifications have you found on Windows or Linux? The ones that do the same thing as Growl are really just imitations of Growl, and poor ones at that.

    I don’t find system updates that annoying. The window pops up every few days as opposed to every few minutes. And when it does popup you can just close it. Hell, I haven’t updated my laptop in months.

    Expose is great. I haven’t seen any imitators that get it right. They’re all klunky. Also, I can’t remember the last time I pressed CMD+Tab. I never switch apps that way. I have the upper right corner as “show all applications” and the lower right corner as “show all application windows”.

    Again, this is the second time today I’ve read someone dissing the software selection on OS X. The first said that Windows has more freeware. I think that guy is living in an alternate universe. Flip through http://osx.hyperjeff.net/Apps/ and tell me there isn’t any OS X software. But, like you said, if there isn’t a free equivalent, there is usually a really good paid application available. You owe it to yourself to look at Panic’s software (http://panic.com/). Also, why would you use the included Terminal app over iTerm (http://iterm.sf.net/)?

    Finally, you seem to be overlooking the key difference between Linux and OS X. Linux does not have a cohesive GUI. Sure, you have Gnome, KDE, etcetera, but what happens when the piece of software you want to use is built on a different toolkit than the one you’re using (GTK+ vs QT for instance)? We both know it isn’t pretty. Then there is the radical shifts in workflow between releases for no reason (e.g. KDE 3 to 4). And what about when you take your laptop to give a presentation? Will X play nice with the projector? Will you have to fiddle with it for 20 minutes ahead of time? These are concerns you don’t really have with OS X (even Windows is worse in this area).

    When it comes down to getting work done with minimal fuss, OS X is it. Part of that reason is because it doesn’t have to worry about they myriad of hardware configurations that Linux and Windows do. It’s just a different way of thinking: product versus component. Apple sells a product. Dells sells the combination of two components.

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  2. I move back and forth in a mixed environment. We have iPads, iMacs, Mac Book Pros, Dell’s, and even a few IBM’s. We also have Windows XP, Windows 7, and Mac OS X from 10.4 to 10.5.6 so we see a lot of different things out about the OS and Hardware. Namely that all of them have their issues, period.

    I think it comes down to preference and usage. Most of our Mac folks don’t do much beyond email and word processing. Calendar and other admin tools for meetings and such. The Mac works great. All of our Devs are on Macs, most on the Mac Pro boxes or powerful laptops. The billing and admin folks are on some form of Windows, cause well other businesses use Windows.

    I think my next home computer could be a Mac as I’m not really a PC Gamer anymore but we’ll see.

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  3. @James – The iMac is responsive for what I do which is code. I like to customize my computer because I am an enthusiast. I love to tweak the hardware and software for the same reasons that I like to buy furniture, hang pictures and paint the walls of my home – I want to make it mine. I just can’t subscribe to “we know whats best for you” paradigm. I have similar complaints with game consoles and phones.

    I didn’t say there wasn’t ANY software for Mac, but it’s market is positively smaller than Windows. (Half-Life 2 is just now showing up!) Windows has nearly everything because it has the marketshare. I think proof of this is Mac users typically having a Windows VM, or partition to run application ‘x’.

    Its interesting to me that if Apple wants to sell a product, and not components that they have put so little care into the peripherals. This is clearly an example of choosing style over function which isn’t the choice I would make. Apple is a company that does a lot of stuff well, but I put them in the same camp as I put Microsoft. There is a tendancy to want to integerate you into this “vertical stack” and it becomes an all or nothing game. I don’t want iTunes, or an iPod, or an iPhone, and so I couldn’t care about anything specific to these things. An Operating System today is becoming a commodity, and ultimately it comes down to the software available. As @Chris mentions – the Mac users just check email and browse the web. Maybe its not representative of users like you and John, but it comes down to what you use a computer for.

    So for $600 I can but a nice PC, or I can buy a Mac Mini. The enthusiast in me is probably going to choose the faster hardware. My Operating System choices are free, a little, or a lot. I’ll take free, or cheap.

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  4. You said yourself you don’t know what you actually want to customize. It seems to me that you just want to change something for the sake of changing it. There are tools (ape) for doing that.

    I don’t think being an enthusiast equates with “customizing the OS.” I believe that being an enthusiast means you know more about the system, and how it works, than the majority of the population.

    When something breaks on an enthusiasts computer he doesn’t take it to Best Buy (or wherever). No, he actually digs in to figure out what broke, why, and how. Then he fixes it.

    If there’s some esoteric thing that needs to be done then the enthusiast knows how to figure it out. And if it can’t be done with the stock software, or via third party software, he writes it himself.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the peripherals comment.

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  5. Wow, kinda wish I had gotten into this a bit sooner. I agree with most of what you said Ben, except the comparison to Microsoft. OS X is less customizable out of the box than Linux, but it is far more customizable than Windows. It is a full Unix system that you have complete access to. Just drop to the terminal and the computer is yours.

    I also want to defend Apple peripherals from both you and James. The mighty mouse was a neat idea, but pulled off poorly. The magic mouse however is absolutely the best mouse I have ever used. I say that knowing that it is not a good mouse for gaming, but I don’t game at work. As for their keyboards, I absolutely love my aluminum keyboard. If you got the mini keyboard, that sucks for you, but that is for home users who are not enthusiasts.

    I do miss the feeling of control I had when running Debian, Ubuntu, or whatever. I miss a feeling that I had of working in an open system. It was like I was using something that could change the world of computing. Then my job became too busy. I didn’t have the time to spend making my system work the way I needed it to, much less the way I wanted it to. The lack of software on Linux was also a major factor of me abandoning it on the workstation. Gimp is neat, but a toy when compared to Aperture and Photoshop. There is not a video production workflow suite at all.

    If I had a home system I would probably want it to be a Mac, but I would also have Linux on it. I miss Linux, but it really has no place in the multimedia workstation environment yet.

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  6. And our three Mac users have no weighed in – what a discussion provoking topic! I miss the Underground…

    @James – The knock on peripherals was reiterating my disappointment with the Mighty Mouse, and the compact keyboard. @John likes it though, so it works for someone 🙂 Is there an Apple equivalent of the “Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard”? I think that the component vs a product rhetoric is an interesting argument, but I think instead that Apple bundles everything in an all-or-nothing ploy to maximize profit on a minimum of sales.

    I think we have very different definitions of what a computer enthusiast is. I don’t know any computer enthusiasts running Linux or Windows that haven’t customized it. Apple has not traditionally been marketed towards this crowd (outside of the design world). Things were real bad for them before OS X shipped, and they are turning it around now. I still see it as a novelty device that for me would serve as little more than an expensive terminal and web browser because of the lack of games. I think its silly to break my pattern of building desktops to save money, and instead pay a premium because of some software restrictions. Maybe your just tired of tinkering?

    @John – in fairness I have done quite a bit of terminal customization. My “rc” files are a few hundred lines long in total. I think doing graphical design in a perfect marriage with a Mac. If I did photography, or image/video editing then I would have to re-evaluate my stance. I run Ubuntu and Windows at home. I keep Windows for gaming, and I keep Linux for day to day tasks (web browsing, IM, printing, playing music, and development)

    Its still strange to me to remember how involved you two were in Linux, and now you have just given it up for a lack of time, etc. You both seem to be big advocates for whatever you are using at the time – which isn’t a bad thing, I just can’t keep up!

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  7. I can’t think of any other way to describe it other than to say I think I’ve matured in my computing. I do enjoy building a computer. The most powerful computer I own, and the one I’m typing this on, is one I have built. But it mainly does two things: download things from the network that shall remain unnamed, and play games. It runs Windows 7 (http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1038672/win7-desktop-5-28-2010.jpg).

    When I try to do any sort of real work on it I just get frustrated. None of the tools are up to par (Notepad++ is okay but still annoying). All of the good ones run on all platforms and don’t fit well on any of them (e.g. Netbeans). You’re aware of how retarded it is to get anything even close to a decent terminal.

    Moving over to Linux, sure, these problems are fixed to an extent. But you encounter the problems I outlined earlier (maintenance being the biggest). It just gets tiresome having to do work to your desktop OS before you can start using it do work. On a server, I think you’ll have a hard time convincing me that there is anything better than Debian.

    OS X has its share of problems, of course. Things like a complete lack of a decent, free, image editor (Gimp SUCKS outside of Linux), and the junk files left over after deleting an app. But it does so many other things right. It makes daily computing easy, and it has the range to do so for people who need their hand held to those who are like you or I.

    I think that if you look at the technical side of the OSes you will have a better understanding of my position. Write a basic text editor with each platform’s dominant framework (Cocoa, .NET WinForms, and GTK+). Here’s the step-by-step instructions for all three:

    Cocoa = http://www.cocoadevcentral.com/d/learn_cocoa/
    WinForms = http://www.java2s.com/Code/CSharp/GUI-Windows-Form/Asimpletexteditor.htm
    GTK+ = http://www.micahcarrick.com/12-24-2007/gtk-glade-tutorial-part-1.html

    Finally, I want to address this notion that Macs are more expensive. Let’s look at the latest computers Apple has released — the mid-range 15 inch MacBook Pro (tech specs). This is the closest thing Newegg has available. The Mac is $2,000.00 and the ASUS is $830.00 (both rounded up to the next dollar). Looks like the ASUS is the clear choice here, right? Well, it is a bit slower, has a slightly worse video card (310M vs 330M), a lower max resolution, and it’s made of chintzy plastic. So, yes, for a little under half the price you can get an almost comparable laptop. But it’s not going to last as long, and it’s going to perform a little slower. I could probably have found a more expensive Dell that would match up a little better, but Newegg had a greater probability of having a lower price for the same thing.

    So, speaking in terms of laptops, the question is this: do you want to spend $830 every other year (possibly every year) or pay more for a technically better machine that will last several years? I have owned two of Apple’s professional laptops and each has lasted at least 3 years.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I purposefully did not compare a custom build to the current Mac Pros. I think the Mac Pros are in sore need of an update and are not currently worth the money. They’ll probably get updated soon, though, and we can play this game again if you like. My bet is that the custom build won’t be much cheaper.

    I don’t think I’m trying to convince you to go out and buy a Mac. But I’m surprised that you still don’t buy my points of argument after having used one every day for 3 months.

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  8. I just read this on the Haiku site and think it succinctly describes my outlook on Linux on the desktop now-a-days:

    “Linux-based distributions stack up software — the Linux kernel, the X Window System, and various DEs with disparate toolkits such as GTK+ and Qt — that do not necessarily share the same guidelines and/or goals. This lack of consistency and overall vision manifests itself in increased complexity, insufficient integration, and inefficient solutions, making the use of your computer more complicated than it should actually be. [top]

    Instead, Haiku has a single focus on personal computing and is driven by a unified vision for the whole OS. That, we believe, enables Haiku to provide a leaner, cleaner and more efficient system capable of providing a better user experience that is simple and uniform throughout.”

    http://www.haiku-os.org/about/faq#3

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