Thursday, October 11, 2007

On a Mac

A bunch of (almost) life changing stuff has happened to bluelaser since the last substantial post. One of the most significant changes has been that I have been using a Mac for the last month. And loving it.

Those who know me, know how opposed I have been to Macs and their hype for ages. For most geeks (the 'purist geeks' not 'mac geeks/fanboys') the Mac is considered a frivolous system that lays more emphasis on looks than on performance. Then there's the exorbitant price of every Mac hardware (a power adapter for the MacBook Pro is $70 while one a PC laptop is $10), which makes Mac geeks elitist and generally dumber than PC geeks. In this post, I aim to debunk the above, and some more Mac-PC myths that you will not get from Mac-PC commercials or Microsoft's strategies.

Vista Nightmare
My MacBook Pro (15" LED screen, Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz, 2G RAM, 120G HDD, nVidia graphics 128MB RAM) came about after the untimely death of my Acer Tablet PC of 3 years because of a motherboard short. Faced with the choice of buying a new laptop, I guess I owed the switch to Macs because of the monstrosity that is Microsoft Windows Vista. I beta-tested Windows Vista many months ago and somehow hoped that the retail would be free of the kinks and inconsistencies of the beta. Nope. All the things that irked me in the beta were all there in the retail. One of the 'features' of Vista is that it is stable. Can you believe that in 2007, a software giant who has been in the business of making operating systems for the last 20-odd years touts OS stability as a feature? It speaks volumes about the company and is shameful to say the least. Most of the 'cool' graphical features are blatant copies of Mac OS X (desktop search, gadgets, directory nesting arrows). Those that are not (3D flipping of windows with Alt+Tab) are completely useless for any meaningful function. And Vista won't tell you the time of day without 2GBs of RAM. User Access Control is a great idea which has also existed in Linux and Mac sinces ages, but nowhere has it been implemented in a worse way than in Vista. The Vista interface is terribly inconsistent with some dialog boxes with back arrows on the upper left (like IE 7) and forward arrows on the bottom right (like most dialog boxes). However stable Vista may be, it is horrible in the details and that is what killed it for me. Microsoft has really dropped the ball with Vista and Windows Mobile 6 OS (which will be part of a different post) and these 2 systems has really showed the lack of originality on part of Microsoft.

OSX Wins
All Macs need is for Windows users to give them a fair try for some time to get used to their OS. Like this Windows user, most never go back. I had initially intended to primarily use Windows with Mac OS X occupying an insignificant part of the drive since I was comfortable using Windows and was concerned with compatibility with all my other PCs and apps. But once I got down to using Mac OS X and figuring out how to navigate their menu system and single mouse button, I found myself using OS X more and Vista less. Sure, you could wipe out OS X and use the MacBook Pro as a Windows only machine, but I no longer wanted to. Using OS X it is immediately clear where Microsoft got its inspiration from. I must admit that some of the windows software still has no acceptable Mac versions- my most used ones being Origin for graphing and Vector NTI for sequence analysis. To use them, I run VMWare Fusion which virtualizes a Vista machine inside OS X. Its almost unbelievable to see it work. The virtualized Vista of course, works much slower than native Vista, but not enough to be a big problem.

And now the de-bunking of myths begins

1. Macs are faster than PCs
Apple first realized that the operating system was not really using the graphics processor that started to be included in computers from around the year 2000. OS X was the operating system that utilized the graphics processor in the way the operating system interacts with the user. That is why the Apple operating system is synonymous with Windows flying around and shiny, pulsating blue buttons (aqua interface). Although it increases the visual appeal of what you are doing, it does not add any speed to application processing. In my opinion, for the same hardware specification and a well-maintained system, Windows is faster than OS X.

2. Macs are more stable than PCs
What PC users have experienced as the 'Blue Screen of Death' (BSOD) when their PC crashes, has a geeky name when OS X crashes- Kernel Panic. The screen greys out and instructs you to restart your computer, in 3 different languages too. Kernel Panics also occur from bad/corrupt drivers, hard disk sector errors and memory issues by rogue apps. You can obviously limit the frequency of these panics by limiting the number and source of installed applications- same as in Windows. And the reason that Macs are safe from viruses is simply because no one writes viruses for Macs since they are only 6% (as of writing this post) of the world's computing population.

3. You are hampered by a one-button mouse
Not really. You only think that because you are used to Windows navigation. Mac navigation works just as productively with a single mouse button. And for the occassions when you gotta have that 2nd button, Apple-click or a two finger tap on the MacBook Pro trackpad (really cool how that works) will be your right click.

4. Macs are for graphics, Windows for numbers and Linux for programmers
At least that was true before Intel-based Macs came into existence a year ago. Now with virtualization software, you can run all three quite easily on your Mac (warning: virtualization is very RAM intensive). There is a perception that OS X navigation is heavily mouse dependent compared to Win or Linux. That is true. However, there are very cool apps like Quicksilver that let you add keyboard shortcuts to almost every action and far surpasses the shortcuts used in Win or Linux. OS X is Unix based, although so far away from the regular Unix that you need another plugin to keep the native Unix apps running happily. Point is- everything runs on a Mac, but you need the appropriate plugins sometimes.

5. Macs are too expensive
Apple usually keeps the pricing of its products constant while giving it incremental upgrades. This is opposed to other manufacturers making their products cheaper and getting newer, more expensive stuff next year. For this reason, the consumer line of Apple products (eg- MacBook, iMac) are now very reasonably priced compared to their competitors than they were a year ago. The professional line of Apple Macs (eg- MacBook Pro and Mac Pro) are still sold at a premium. I guess Apple considers that professionals can afford to spend more which subsidizes the consumer products (airline business and coach class analogy).

Anything bad about Macs at all?
Of course they aren't perfect. If something goes wrong and you don't have AppleCare warranty, you are looking to spend big bucks getting your Mac repaired. Mainly because every piece of Mac hardware is so overpriced. Almost nothing is user replaceable/ serviceable (except RAM and battery). MacBook Pros also tend to run very hot. Some say its part of the design that the aluminum body acts like a big heat sink. I say it makes for uncomfortable typing. Apple also acknowledges that you should not keep these super hot running computers on your lap. So they officially dropped the term 'laptop' and only call them 'notebooks'. Tablet PC functionality is also non-existent in Macs in their current form.

Summing up
My thoughts about Apple and OS X stem from using my MacBook Pro, and to some extent, from the iPod 5.5Gen which is the other Apple product I own. Apple is heavily focused on design which I think is great and under-appreciated till you use Apple products. Apple also likes to keep things simple so that the user has to do as little maintenance as possible. This gives you convenience that other products do not. As with everything else is life, this convenience also comes at a price.