Apple computer review part two: Software
Recently one of the users I support (in an all-Windows environment) told me why he has a Macintosh at home. He said, “I bought a Mac because I don’t have an IT department to call on when there’s a problem. And after two years it works exactly as well as the day I bought it, which is perfectly.”
To us Windows users, that sounds like a fantasy. But I’ve heard it from enough credible sources to believe it. So I’ve been trying to become more familiar with Macintosh computers. Not only because I’d like to see some Macs in our computer labs, but also so I can give some integration support to personal Mac users in our college. Also, I wanted to give a more useful answer to people who ask “What kind of computer should I buy?” More on that question at the end of this post.
Way back in November I visited Apple’s Chicago office, and wrote at length about the “Apple Briefing, a PC guy looks at Macs”. That post describes the variety of applications that runs on Macintosh computers as it was presented to me, plus reposting some thoughts I’ve had about Macintosh marketing and culture over the years. Briefly, I wrote that Apple computers come with an astounding array of excellent applications, that Apple now has an outstanding server line, and that the Apple corporation has changed to become more corporate-compatible, though some Macintosh users, have not.
In last week’s post, Apple computer review part one: hardware, I looked at the physical design and function of an Apple Macbook. Briefly, I found it to be a top-quality device with a couple ideas I really liked, but a couple features in which it seemed that ergonomics had been sacrificed to visual appeal. I would consider owning one if they made a smaller (3 lb), enhanced-durability model with very long battery life.
In this installment, I’m following up on the November post by describing my subjective experience as a PC guy using the new Macintosh operating system, OS-X. This is really the most important because the operating system is the personality of any computer. I am not and do not pretend to be an expert on OS-X, which should be of interest to Windows owners considering a Macintosh purchase (because expert opinions on ease-of-use are worthless).
In the past I’ve not been terribly impressed with Apple’s offerings. OS-X changes this picture. It is far more compatible with Windows than previous Mac OS versions. Even if you don’t like Windows, this is important unless you enjoy isolation. OS-X is also a much heavier-duty operating system than OS-9. It’s rock-stable and secure. It’s fast.
If you read my other two posts, you know I think cuteness is for kittens, not for computers. I like an interface that draws as little attention to itself as possible, so right away I found OS-X annoying. The default Mac desktop is plagued with the same crayola-color interface that obscures so much graph data in USA Today, but don’t let that put you off. With a little customizing you can mute those loud colors and put the focus on your content. (Illustrations show the default colors)
But all that stuff is superficial. What matters to me and to my users – is this a computer or an expensive paperweight? Is it really easy to use or is that only sales hype? Can I get my work done on it? Can I get new kinds of work done on it? What happens to all my files? My email? What if it breaks? Us PC folk remember non-transferrable file formats, pointlessly different floppy-disk formats, and the general isolation of Mac systems that – for some reason – Mac users were smugly proud of. Is it worth the learning curve? And why were they so damn expensive?
The file compatibility issue is pretty much solved. There is no longer a “Macintosh” or “PC” version of a Microsoft Word file, for instance. Graphics files adhere to a standard now. With most popular file types you can bounce a file back and forth between your Mac and your PC with no worries.
Macintosh computers have a reputation of being only for graphics, and the one I used was exceptionally smooth at handling media files. And by smooth, I mean a completely new experience for a Windows user.
One exception is Windows Media files. You can still download WM9 for Mac, or use Telestream’s Flip4Mac but Microsoft “has no plans” to continue developing Windows Media for Mac. So save your videos in Quicktime format whatever platform you use. Another exception is using Outlook Web Access from your Mac. The full functionality requires IE6 or higher, which Microsoft says they “have no plans” to develop for the Mac.
You can get new kinds of work done on your Mac. OS-X comes with some wicked-cool bundled apps. Us Windows users are used to pretty much ignoring bundled apps because, well, they’re crappy – but the ones that come with OS-X and in iLife are non-crappy. In fact, they actually have features you need that actually work to get actual work done, and are actually easy to use, and the computer doesn’t lock up when you try to use them. This is a bit disconcerting to an experienced Windows user; we’re used to paying top dollar for anything useful. Keep that in mind when you think about the price.
Just for example – suppose you’ve used Windows Movie Maker, which is cheap and clunky. The Macintosh equivalent feels more like a piece of expensive professional software, only logical and smooth. And the professional version is a superset of the bundled version, so if you upgrade you are ready to begin working. Very different from the transition, say, from Movie Maker to Adobe Premiere (which is really more at home on a Mac anyway).
Or for example, the bundled photo editing software. We Windows/Photoshop users are accustomed to a linear relationship between functionality and cost, and an inverse relationship between those things and ease-of-use. We’re used to ads that say; “intuitive” when they really mean; “You will be lucky to ever figure out five percent of what this application can do”. Editing a photo on the mac with the included software is a surprising experience. (Of course Photoshop is a longtime Mac favorite and industry standard, but for most of us non-professionals…)
Both Apple and Microsoft advertise stability. We Windows users are accustomed to being stopped cold by a misbehaving application – the computer basically locks up. You try to close it and after a minute or so, you get; “This application is not responding. End now?” But “now” is a cruel joke. For several minutes you click and argue with one dialog after another, watching CPU usage bounce between 50% and 100%, and try to stop the loop that has taken over your computer, hoping not to crash entirely and lose unsaved documents in other applications that are running. “Multi-threaded, my ass!”, you fume.
Contrast this with what I experienced on the Mac. One unstable application I use is Mozilla Firefox, and it’s no better on the Mac than it is on the PC. But the first time Firefox got jammed up on the Mac, it just disappeared. A little dialog popped up: “Firefox had to close unexpectedly. Do you want to restore the session?”
Suspicious, I clicked “Yes”, and as if by magic, Firefox started up again and all the same websites opened up in the dozen or so tabs I’d had open. Total interface involvement, one click. Total time lost, twenty seconds. Workflow interruption, nearly zero.
Miraculous. I’ve never seen a computer recover that fast from a jammed-up application. I had a chance to try it several more times with the same result each time. The only time I saw an application that had to be ‘force-closed’ was Entourage, which is from Microsoft. But after it was force-closed (which worked on the first try), the computer ran fine. On a PC when you finally succeed in forcing a Windows application to close, you’re well-advised to restart the computer.
Using a Mac is not without its annoyances. Some of these derive from the fact that half of “intuitive” is simply whatever you are used to. With continued use, the Mac will become easier. But many derive from Apple’s attempt to be stylish and cool. A good example is the use of terms like “Finder” which, while descriptive, is sort of dumb. And the “Magnifier” that follows your pointer as it sweeps across the “Dock” – it’s just sort of silly. Of course Windows is full of this sort of crap too, and worse.
And at least one is inexplicable to me. In Windows and Linux, I always set larger mouse pointers. This is useful for my eyesight but also a boon to the victims of my presentations – they can see where I am clicking. The Windows and Linux pointers look smooth and professional. On the Mac the only control I could find for a larger mouse pointer produced a blocky, pixelated pointer of ugly. Oh, well. No doubt there’s a fix but it wasn’t obvious.
On balance, after many years of supporting Windows’ computer users, my intuition is that most users will find the Mac more intuitive. This is not the only factor in deciding what to buy (you can get used to anything) but it is very important.
Wireless connection and other network issues
I have set up hundreds of laptops for wireless, and the Mac was by far the easiest. It literally took me 15 seconds to connect to the elaborate campus network, and the system’s memory for external wireless networks was uncanny. Really, pig simple, and once it connected it held onto the signal like ductape.
Windows laptops’ wireless spans a wide gamut of difficulty levels. My Thinkpad is medium difficulty. Toshiba’s gee-whiz wireless utility, amazingly difficult. None as easy as the Mac. Linux laptops, once you get the wireless card recognized (difficulty level, seldom easy ranging up to 10+), medium difficulty to operate.
I found connecting to network resources a mixed bag. Joining a Microsoft Active Directory1 required the assistance of a MCSE with massive cross-platform savvy – my admin status and experience wasn’t enough. Once that was done, however, mapping network drives was easy enough, with the exception of drives on Linux servers that were joined to the domain via Samba. Here’s a tip for connecting to Windows network resources, whether mapping to drives or getting your Exchange mail into Entourage – FQDN is your friend. Use the Fully Qualified Domain Name when mapping to anything and you’ll be fine. Obviously this is of little importance in the home.
Running Windows on a Mac
I did not experiment with “Parallels”, the extra-cost aftermarket program that allows you to run Windows, and Windows applications, on your Macintosh. But I have seen it work and it is flat-out amazing. Windows applications just float free on the Macintosh desktop. You can cut and paste data from Win to Mac applications, open and close them at will. They’re not speedy but if you have special Windows applications that you have to use, you can be pretty confident of running them successfully on your Mac.
OS-X and Vista, and cost-effectiveness
Having said that, excessive visual slickery does seem to be the order of the day, as evinced by Windows’ “Vista”. If you have not used Vista, well I don’t want to ruin the surprise or anything but basically I hate it. Someone called it “the longest suicide note ever written by a corporation” and that isn’t a bad description. Vista tries so hard and yet fails on many levels. To this is added the annoyance of many different flavors of Vista so that if you make a mistake and buy the wrong one, you won’t have capabilities that you wanted.
In OS-X, there’s one desktop version and it has every feature Apple makes. You can set up more sophisticated functions and there’s very little that would have to be bought separately. Which brings us to the issue of cost. Macs are more expensive than PC’s to buy (though not as much more as you might think). But once you get your PC home, the money starts flowing in the other direction.
Need to upgrade your PC from Vista Home to Vista Media? Shell out. Need software to work with media? Shell out. Application crashed? Get your wallet. Virus updates? Mo’Money. Whoops – your hard drive is getting fragmented. Do you know how to fix it? Call your support guy. Can’t figure out how to run it? Pay for training. Then in a couple years your system runs like crap and you need to pay someone to blow it all away and “reload everything”.
So if the most important thing about a computer is what it costs, reckon the cost of ownership, to say nothing of the value of your time and frustration. Buy a Mac, you suffer through maybe a month of declining frustration as you climb the learning curve. (Visit Apple’s ‘Switch’ page. Run the tutorials, and maybe read a book, for crying out loud.) Use the Spotlight.
So why doesn’t everybody just switch over to Macintosh?
In the corporate network environment, any change to the computer platform is a huge undertaking that begins with presenting a sound business case to the pointy-haired boss, who does NOT want to re-learn how to get his email. And he has a point – he really doesn’t care about elegant design, he cares about getting his work done. Then there’s staff training, and applications that were created at great expense for the company, and legacy data files, and support-staff expertise (not easy to acquire) – the list goes on and on. I could definitely imagine a good business case for switching but it isn’t as easy as plunking different boxes down on desks.
Also, corporate culture and “Mac culture” tend to clash. If you doubt this, imagine (as an extreme example) the drive-by commenter “Heath” from my Macintosh hardware post, as a consultant to a big corporation telling them that they need to switch the whole company to Macintosh right away, or they’re all a bunch of morons. For that matter, imagine the chances of the smart-assed “Mac” guy from the “Mac vs. PC” commercials even getting hired. (I’m a lot more like the PC guy) Yes, it can happen, but there’s considerable resistance. Smug and superior is not an attractive way to begin any conversation.
For individuals, the picture is a little different.
- If you are a gamer and want to run high-end games developed for Windows, that’s probably the way you should go. (Check the forums because I’ve heard Vista isn’t exactly taking the gaming world by storm)
- If you are a tech and don’t mind taller learning curves, and you use older equipment, but still want a heavy-duty operating system, Linux is for you.
- But for most purposes, with Vista metastasizing all over the Windows’ world, there’s no contest. It is true in many areas that local Macintosh support is harder to find than local PC support – but you’ll probably need less support anyway. And though you should buy the AppleCare hardware warranty, the Mac is likely to be more cost-effective when you factor in your time and support costs.
So I am now actually recommending that most individuals buy a Mac to use at home or on the road.
Huh. Never thought I’d say that.
- July-August ‘09, we ran into a major snafu when our campus upgraded to AD08. Somehow it knocked all the Apples off the cart, and it took Apple weeks to come up with a solution to the disaster. The college of visual arts was hardest-hit with the most Apples, but we have some crucial Apple servers and it played havoc with essential services. None of this showed up in the pre-testing that was done prior to the campus rollout of AD08. It also doesn’t change my recommendation to individuals that they get a Mac for home, though I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux now and am very happy with it. But for enterprise applications, think twice.
- OpenOffice is available for the Mac, and now there’s a straight port of it into OS-X; NeoOffice. Don’t pay for an office suite!