Month with a Mac: Can the Mac replace my PC?

There are certain perennial debates amongst the technical community, constantly revisited with differing outcomes for each person. Linux vs. Windows, KDE vs. Gnome, Mac vs. PC – they are unwinnable arguments, and although the outcome varies overtime with each successive release or new piece of hardware, they consistently gain our attention. When presented with the opportunity to borrow a Macintosh for a little over a month, I jumped at the chance to resolve one of these debates for myself. The question was: Can the Mac replace my PC?

The specs: Apple didn’t skimp on the unit they sent me: it was PowerMac G4 with dual 1.25 Ghz processors, a 120 GB IDE hard drive, 512 MB DDR SDRAM, a “superdrive,” which can record DVDs, a 64 MB video card, gigabit Ethernet, a 17″ flat panel studio display, and a fresh copy of Jaguar, Mac OS X 10.2. Total value, according to Apple’s website as of today: $4298.00.

The Challenge: Can the Macintosh, with no training, technical books, or prior knowledge, replace my PC running Windows 2000 and Red Hat’s Psyche?

The Background: I am not a standard PC user. I’m a network engineer, proficient in Windows, NetWare, BeOS, and Linux. I have set up complete domains from scratch, I understand networking and the components in a computer. I am a power user, and that makes me different from much of the audience targeted by Apple’s Switch campaign.

Fair warning: This is a fairly long, honest review in an untraditional sense. I didn’t write it in one sitting, it was written over the course of a few weeks and it includes lots of information is a disorganized but linked fashion.

My G4 arrived via FedEx in a beautiful box which pictures the contents in full color. Everything was packed perfectly. Setting up the Mac is easy, there’s a monitor that connects via a standard cable, a keyboard that connects via USB, and a mouse that connects to the keyboard. Booting the PC proved the first challenge – it gave me a classy white screen picturing the Apple logo, but it wouldn’t boot. I decided that this loaner was likely unused and therefore unformatted, so I set about installing Jaguar from disc. When I couldn’t get Jaguar to install, I decided to install OS X and upgrade to Jaguar. That didn’t work either, neither install could find a volume to install to. I decided I had to open the case. Painfully scared of voiding the warranty, I found the culprit – the IDE cable had disconnected from the hard drive, probably during shipping. This was the first point against Apple. Because the challenge was from a power user perspective, it was forgivable, but I still marked it in my head.

On reconnect, I successfully booted into Mac OS x 10.2. I was prompted to set up a user, password, and some preferences and then I was let loose in MacOS-land. The interface is not unlike any standard interface, more like KDE than anything else in that the “kicker” resizes itself to fit the icons. The desktop is clean, a la Windows XP default; everything seems to be ready to go.

The dynamic animation present in the OS at each step is immediately noticeable, the system updates icon began “dancing” to notify me that there were updates available for download. The update function works like Windows Update and Red Hat Network, it simply goes out and installs the updates with your approval.

MacOS runs smoothly. That’s what I noticed first off. There’s very little waiting, very little fussing, very little Ctrl+Alt+Del/End Task for behavior control. But from moment one, I had a some problems with the Mac, most notably – the mouse. The mouse has no buttons – rather, the entire body depresses to function as a single button mouse. The world has accepted the multi-button mouse, either two or three buttons, and scroll wheels are pretty much standard fare. Why Apple insists that single button is acceptable for their elite machines is beyond me, but
it immediately annoyed me.

My PC is an AMD Athlon 1700+ that runs at 1540-something Mhz. I have 512 MB DDR RAM. It’s got a 32 MB GeForce 2 GTS video card. In following, I’d expect the G4, running dual 1.25 Ghz RISC processors and a video card with twice the onboard memory to be noticeably faster. This was not the case though. My immediate feeling was that, loaded with expensive hardware, the Mac performs about as well as my PC. With all the complaining about Microsoft puffing their system requirements to bolster their relationships with hardware vendors anxious to sell more modern hardware, OS X seems to truly use every bit of what it’s given. Let down by the lack of supersonic speed, it certainly didn’t feel slow, but I have to acknowledge that this Mac is more powerful than most, and certainly more than I’d ever buy for myself. Certainly, it’s fair to assume that I might notice a slowdown on a more affordable machine.

Launching System Preferences, I immediately found that configuring the system was a breeze. The Mac jumped right online, and making the desktop look like I wanted was more than intuitive. Setting up MacMail was also a breeze. Since my webmail account is POP3 enabled, I hopped on and pulled down my mail without a hitch. MacMail is actually a nice program – not so much better than the equivalents in other worlds (Outlook Express, Mozilla Mail, Evolution, KMail), but certainly an attractive and matching app.

iChat, which is an AIM tool, is clearly one of the cooler Mac apps. Taking AIM to another level, it mimics conversation bubbles. Sherlock, the so-called “service provider that happens to use your browser,” is Apple’s answer to Ask Jeeves times 10 – ask Sherlock anything, and he can supposedly do it. I won’t get into making DVDs or using iPhoto or many of the other benefits of OS X, because there are scores of applications and features for which one should commend Apple’s product. But this review is not of the awesome superpower applications that come with OS X, it’s about the whole product.

What’s much more impressive than the apps bundled with MacOS is the installation of new software. No Installshield or Red Carpet or Red Hat Network to fool with. Simply download the file, decompress it, drop the directory in your Applications folder (or any folder, really), and BANG!, you’re ready to go. After downloading Fire, an e-mail chat program that can connect to MSN and Yahoo as well as AIM, I found it took me just seconds to get the application to run. In the day and age where disc space is so cheap, I think it’s smart to just have all necessary files in the same directory with the application. Should make programming and installing easy. Do most users care if they have a duplicate library, dll, or config file, at probably 4k, or even 4MB, installed? Probably not. This is the best and simplest application installation possible for a power user. While app installers like IRIS and Click-N-Run are probably the least work, I had complete control with Mac installation – I wasn’t confined to any defaults or preprogrammed file structures. In my book, this method, also used frequently by the BeOS, my favorite. It’s a real plus for OS X that software installation and management is so easy. Deleting most apps is as simple as deleting the folder it’s in.

Finding applications to install for Jaguar is not hard. Apple offers downloads on their own site, there are websites, most notably,, a FreshMeat-like Mac counterpart. It’s generally pretty easy to find “Stuff-It archives,” which OS X can decompress a la Windows XP’s zip handling capabilities. I was glad to see OS X also handle zip and tag.gz files (it failed to decompress my .rar files.) A simple Google search will show you that many sites offer downloads of Mac apps. The UNIX-based core and inclusion of GCC make it possible to download source code and compile applications locally. Most apps, however, are easily installable via drag and drop to the folder of your choice within your file structure.

Speaking of file structures, the Mac is UNIX-based. Based on a (now dated) incarnation of FreeBSD, your Mac is super-stable. In fact, I experienced exactly ONE error the entire time I was in possession of the Mac. But what’s most clever about OS X is how it hides its UNIX underpinnings from you. In fact, if you didn’t know you were running on UNIX, what you’d see is a list of directories that look like logical divisions – like Applications. Masking the directory structure is a great thing for users. And for power users, like myself, it took virtually no effort to find a way to browse the actual directory hierarchy.

Let’s talk about “power users.” They’re not developers, at least in the traditional sense. I write a lot of PHP, but I’m not compiling anything for the most part, and I don’t need an IDE like Visual Studio or anything – any old “text editor” will suffice. They’re people who want to understand what the OS is doing without getting into the internals. They want to know how to troubleshoot to the detail when something is wrong, but not write their own patches to the OS. They’re people who are very loud about what they want from their computer, but usually can’t do too much to actually make that happen.

OS X has helped me understand a lot about what I actually want from an OS, and I think that I represent a good portion of people – said “power users.” I know that I want a polished UI that makes choices obvious. I know I want the advanced options generally out of sight but not buried. I want an easy way to launch applications and an easy way to kill them if they hang or eat up my memory. Jaguar does most of these things well. But most importantly – and this is the key to everything for me – I want the OS to be instantly responsive.

“Instantly responsive” might sound fine and dandy in description, but it’s much harder to actually deliver. To me, “instantly responsive” means that the OS responds to me without delay, without second guessing me, and without thought. I’ve griped before about the mouse in Linux; a premiere Linux authority tells me that the nature of the X Window system and lack of multi-threading prevent the mouse from feeling responsive. Linux based OS’s tend to feel a step behind. Windows does a greater job with the mouse but demands a lot of RAM to maintain responsiveness. And if an application crashes, even with all the advances of late, it still can swallow up the half gigabyte of RAM it’s been given.

OS X’s biggest problem is that it’s slow. And if you take nothing else away from this review, it should be that. OS X is slow. Even with incredible hardware, as I said, it just about compares to the speed of Windows. Even Linux, installed with all the bloat – Gnome, KDE, etc. – when running on the same hardware, is about as fast. The dual processors made a lot of the complaints I’ve read virtually transparent, such as Window-resizing delays, but nonetheless, the whole environment feels like it’s playing catch up to my will, and to me, this is killer.

Mac computers are gorgeous – no doubt. Since they retain the hardware specs, and therefore, a lock on the hardware on which Jaguar will run, they’ve done a great job at making said hardware sleek, modern, and fancy. They’ve done a lot of work to make the computer look like a futuristic device. Gone are the kernel messages and the terminal like prompts as the computer boots. It’s been replaced by a sharp stark white screen with a classy blue apple in the middle. The Mac knows what to do because there are so few options. Apple has designed the system from the ground up, so there is very little chance that anything unplanned occurs.

That’s all fine and good, but let’s just get to the meat of it, shall we? What makes Mac users so fanatic? What makes them appear to be an exclusive cult? Is it such a life-changing experience that people feel compelled to doodle apples on their notebooks and put decals on their car? Mac users are a community, and for that, you must acknowledge a certain satisfaction being in the Mac crowd. This community is not like the Linux community, which in my experience, is tiered, judgmental, and, I’ll even say i: elitist. The Mac community welcomes “newbies,” not shuns them and makes them feel stupid, unvalued, and generally unloved. I thought for sure that after a month with a Mac – a top of the line model, at that – that I would either be a die-hard Mac fan, saving for a Mac, or at a minimum, won over by OS X. I thought I’d be knee deep in a society of PC users who love and respect their hardware, software, and fellow users, and feel loyalty to a company that has done well by them.
But I’m none of the these. And although some will claim otherwise, it’s not because Windows has spoiled me or defined my expectations.

Apple has gone to great lengths to research user behavior and and user interface. Their much discussed Aqua interface is clearly attractive, although I find its behavior, after weeks of use, more show than action. While it’s very professional and sleek looking, at times, it feels like what it actually, like many Linux applications – a GUI front end to a much more powerful system underneath. With Jaguar, Apple has introduced the Quartz Extreme graphics engine which claims to render graphics at breakneck speeds. Although apparently successful, the OS is general is graphics heavy. While more attractive than Luna, for example, the transparency and animations are definite eye candy, and it’s RAM that, frankly, I could spare for more complex operations. In my opinion, while Jaguar looks like the most modern OS on the market, it also feels effortful at times. Even after weeks of use, the Mac environment felt alien to me. Not that it’s so obscure, just that it feels less natural to use a panel that doesn’t have an expanding “Start-menu-like” drawer. I feel more “at home” in Gnome and KDE.

Some of the tricks OS performs will impress many. For instance, when you use the yellow “minimize” button equivalent, the application will jump down to the application panel and reside in a thumbnail view. While “cool,” it’s annoying after awhile. Soon, these “features” begin to look more like tricks with tradeoff. In fact, when I became aware that the Mac wasn’t winning me over, I became almost jaded. I wanted so much to love my Mac, and it wasn’t impressing me. I had high expectations – maybe too high, and they were simply unmet.

However, there are plenty of features I did like. The best feature I can brag proudly about is that when an application is started, whether you close the app using the X or not, it doesn’t kill it from the memory. You’ll need to use a keystroke combination or actually choose Quit to kill it rather than click the the close button. This is a neat idea. Let me explain. For Mozilla users, or better yet, for anyone who uses Java applications or apps like or StarOffice, you’ll notice a delay in starting these applications. However, launching a second Mozilla window, for example, barely takes a second. By keeping some of the program loaded, you’ll only experience these “startups” once per session. Of course, you can close them if you want, but it’s nice to launch, say, a Navigator browser window and not have to wait for the next succession of windows.

While Apple, with Jaguar loaded PCs, offer a great system, I hope it’s just a step, because at the price, unless you’re a multi-media author, it’s simply too expensive. Users each have special needs from their computers. I know that I use my computer primarily for web surfing, e-mail, office documents, and web development. I also know that not everyone has the same wants or requirements that I do. Some computers have specialized purposes and excel at those things specifically. Some try to be everything. Apple has offered up the Mac as a solution for everyone, and while gorgeous and smart in some subjects, it didn’t impress me as such. If it were a high school student, it would be good at art and might be voted homecoming queen for it’s looks, but it probably couldn’t serve on the debate team, be captain of the football team, or pass that damned Trigonometry class.

I know this has been a long, convoluted, stream-of-consciousness review. I know it’s covered many aspects in detail and virtually ignored others, lingering on some points longer than it should. But over the course of my Month with a Mac, I found myself simply drawn back to my PC. For the same money, I can build myself one hell of a PC, be just as productive, run twice as much software, have tons of OS choice, and not be slave to the will of any one company.

In summary, if that’s possible, the Mac is clearly loved by many. It presents the cleanest, sleekest, most modern interface I’ve seen to date. It provides UNIX-proven stability, ultra-modern flexibility, intuition, and friendly animation unlike any other computer system available. However, doing the job best has to be proportionate to the value, and Mac’s hefty price tag along with some of the (admittedly trivial) pet peevish annoyances along with an untraditional layout left me PC hungry. While the Mac and Jaguar are compelling, for my buck, I’m content with the PC alternatives. Can the Mac replace my PC? Nope. But check my desktop in 2005, we’ll see who wins this challenge yet.


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