My First Mac Experience; More Painful Than it Should Have Been?

I have been using Windows in its various guises for the past 10 years. I am comfortable with Windows. It has served me well. I am a happy Windows user. However, unlike a majority of Windows users, for the past 5 years I have harboured a secret passion – an unfulfilled desire. Since 1998 I have wanted to own an Apple computer.Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

This desire was first roused by the original iMac. This was a truly revolutionary machine. It had beautiful curves, shaped from mesmerising Bondi Blue panels. It dispensed with the floppy drive 5 years before Dell had the courage to do the same with its PCs. It bravely adopted USB and turned it into a mainstream industry standard. This was a wonderful machine. However, in 1998 I was not prepared to make the leap. I was not prepared to ‘think different’. I was far too comfortable in my Windows world. I buried my desire.

My desire remained dormant for 2 years. I was happy with my reliable yet plain Dell PC until I walked into the computer section of a London department store in the summer of 2000. What I saw made my jaw drop and stoked up passions that I had not felt for years. Before my eyes was the G4 Cube coupled with a Cinema display. Apple had produced a computer of such astounding beauty. I just had to have one. But then I saw the price. As much as my heart yearned for the Cube, my head would overrule and my desire would remain unfulfilled.

I continued to be interested in Apple product releases – the iBook, the wonderful titanium PowerBook, the LCD iMac etc. In 2001 I decided that I would eventually buy a PowerBook. However, over the course of the next 2 years, Apple’s products became less desirable. Development of the G4 processor was painfully slow. Prices remained painfully high. It became far easier for my head to continue overruling my heart. I accepted that I was unlikely to own an Apple computer any time soon. That was until 2003, the year of the laptop.

The second revision of the 12-inch PowerBook hit the sweet spot. It was just what I wanted: compact form factor, built-in optical drive, USB 2.0, firewire, Airport Extreme. Most importantly, it was reasonably priced. Finally both my heart and head came to the same decision. I waited for the imminent release of Mac OS X Panther, after which I would order my Power Book. But then along came the G4 iBook. This new consumer machine stole my affections. It too offered a compact form factor, a built-in optical drive, USB 2.0 and firewire but at a bargain basement price of 850 UK pounds. I had begun to read problems with black pits appearing in the aluminium casing of the Power Books along with white spots on the screen, so the tried and trusted iBook sounded like a more reliable bet. I ordered it within days of it being introduced (I added an Airport Extreme card to the standard spec) and took delivery within 2 weeks.

The new iBook is beautifully designed. I love the glossy white “grand piano” finish of the outer casing. The translucent white keyboard and surrounding metallic paint of the old iBook has been replaced with opaque off-white items. I think I prefer the former. Maybe this was a cost-cutting exercise. Nevertheless, it still looks good. The latch mechanism seems to work reliably. The whole thing feels quite solid except for a small amount of give in the left palm rest. There were no screws that could be tightened to remedy this, but I can live it. In operation the iBook is virtually silent. The fan hardly ever comes on and the hard drive is admirably noise-free. Unlike the 12-inch PowerBooks, the iBook never becomes uncomfortably hot. The bottom becomes warm when connected to the power supply but the palm rests always remain cool. The screen is nothing more than adequate but just as good as any PC laptop for the same price. The same can be said about the keyboard. The speakers are surprisingly good.

I was prepared to give Mac OS X a good opportunity to grow on me. Having used Windows for so long, I was not expecting to be immediately comfortable with a new operating system. When I first booted up the system, I was surprised at the unimaginative start up sound. Not a major issue, of course, but surprising nonetheless. It took me a while to get used the menu bar being disconnected from the main application window but this was not a problem. More puzzling was the requirement to press APPLE-Q (or select Quit from the File menu) in order to shut an application. Simply closing the application window does not do the job (except for certain applications such as iPhoto – rather inconsistent it seems). The Preferences panel (equivalent to the Windows Control Panel) seems rather sparse. Certain functions such a setting up internet connections, Bluetooth (if installed) and passwords cannot be accessed through the Preferences panel. Instead, you have to run certain applications that are hidden away in a Utilities folder. From the point of view of a Windows user, it would be nice if all these configuration tools could be accessed from the same place.

Mac OS X Panther provides a beautiful user interface. I was impressed at the beauty of Windows XP when I first upgraded from Windows 98. But XP is ugly in comparison to Panther. I love the brushed metal look. The drop shadows are neat. The genie effect when minimising windows is great. Expose is a truly useful function (and looks cool to boot). But the Panther UI has a major flaw that has been discussed to death in the past. It’s as sluggish as hell. Fair enough, an 800 MHz G4 is the slowest processor of Apple’s current hardware line up, but running Panther on this machine sometimes feels like wading through mud. My humble 1.7 GHz Celeron running XP is much more sprightly and zingy.

For me, the real test of Apple’s operating system would be its ability to live and communicate in a Windows-dominated world. Connection to the internet through a wireless router was a breeze. WPA wireless security was fully supported after a software upgrade. Connecting to my Windows home network, however, proved to be an insurmountable problem. My iBook fails to connect to my Windows shares, giving an error message -41. I have similar problems connecting to Windows machines at work but error messages vary (-36 and -50 if I remember correctly). Interestingly, I am able to easily browse the files on my iBook from my PC but not vice versa. The Apple support helpline was useless. After spending some time on the support forums, it became evident that Panther’s networking capabilities were seriously broken. I eagerly awaited the 10.3.2 upgrade to address these issues but the problems remain. I’m astounded that an operating system can be released with such severe networking problems. I’m even more astounded that 2 subsequent updates have been released without fully addressing these issues. By all accounts Jaguar had no such problems. In this regard, Panther seems to be a step backwards.

From this account you may feel that I am a typical Windows-using Apple basher. This is not true. I still love my iBook. I love the attention to detail that has gone into its design. I love the positive comments I get from colleagues when I take it to work. I love the fact that it is such good value for money. I’ve enjoyed learning to use Panther. I love the iApps. I’d prefer a faster UI and the networking issues are unforgivable. In time the networking problems will be solved. When that time comes, I will have a stable, pretty system that I can use both at home and at work. Until that time comes, Mac Utopia will remain a dream.


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