Editorial: Can You Get Serious Work Done on a Mac?

This is the third installment of a series of pieces that I have been writing about my experiences with my new Apple iBook and MacOS X Panther having been a long-term Windows user.Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

The first piece described my initial impressions of the iBook and of Panther along with the networking problems that I faced. The second rather controversial piece described my opinions about sections of the Mac community. In other words, it was a personal rant about Mac zealots. In this third piece I aim to present a more objective view of whether it is possible to use the Mac productively in the academic environment in which I work.

Before I start, I should acknowledge the multitude of digital artists and creative professionals who quite obviously get serious work on their Macs every day. If I were such a person, the answer to question in the title would be a resounding yes. However, I am not a creative professional, so are my needs adequately met by the Mac platform?

I am a physician specialising in pulmonary medicine. I am currently taking time out from hospital medicine in order to concentrate on research. When I sit down at a computer at work, the applications I use are mostly the same as any office worker: Outlook (as a MS Exchange client) for e-mail, contacts and diary, Word for writing papers, PowerPoint for presentations, Access for patient databases and Internet Explorer for web browsing. For statistics and graphing I use GraphPad Prism although a lot of same the same functionality could be achieved using Excel. There are a few other more specialist scientific applications the details of which I won’t go into. Overall, the majority of my professional computer use is with everyday applications that are used by most people in most other professions so my needs are in no way esoteric.

As you can see, Microsoft plays a rather important role in my computing life so the first step in introducing my Mac to the workplace will be installing Microsoft Office v. X. Thankfully, I can install a copy of this for free onto my iBook under the Microsoft Campus Agreement with Work at Home Rights. No problems so far. Virtual private networking is essential for all those mornings that I want a lie in. Windows XP has the simplest of VPN Wizards that make the setting up process a breeze. Can Panther compete? It most certainly can. I set up a VPN connection to my University network from home without a hint of a problem.

I have a couple of gigabytes of space on the departmental servers at work which I regularly have to access from home. With the multitude of problems that Panther has with SMB shares (including a persisting inability to browse my own home network – even with 10.3.3), I had little hope that this would work. Amazingly, it did. I was able to browse SMB shares from my iBook for the first time ever. Unfortunately, this was not problem-free. I found a rather consistent way of completely locking up Panther by attempting to open any large file stored in the share. I could work around the problem by copying the file from the shared directory onto my Mac and then open and work on this local copy. When finished I would then have to copy it back into its original shared location – rather inconvenient but not a huge issue. Despite this minor SMB sharing success, I am still unable to access shares from my own Windows desktop PC at home. This may well be due to an idiosyncrasy with my home network setup but it’s a problem that I am unable to remedy. Needless to say, other XP machines have no problems networking with my home PC.

Right, let’s get some work done. My first task was to write a presentation for a weekly meeting outlining my research findings. I opened up some old PowerPoint presentations that I had written on Windows machines to make sure that the Mac version of PowerPoint was fully compatible. Unfortunately, I came across a rather fundamental problem. My presentations contain many graphs. These graphs have been created with GraphPad Prism and then cut and pasted into the PowerPoint presentation. The graph file is stored in the PowerPoint presentation as a Windows metafile. When you open these presentations on the Mac, the Windows metafiles have to be converted in a Mac-friendly format. This conversion is far from perfect. Vertical text (which is used to label the Y-axes of the graphs) becomes garbled in the conversion process. To be fair, most users are unlikely to ever come across this problem, but for me it makes the Mac version of PowerPoint a non-starter.

My next PowerPoint task was to write a presentation for an audience of physicians describing a few unusual and difficult-to-treat cases of severe asthma. The presentation consisted mainly of slides of text along with a few jpegs (no windows metafiles), so I took the gamble of writing it on the Mac. After spending a few hours on the presentation, it became clear that both PowerPoint and Word on the Mac are incredibly sluggish applications. It’s hard to believe that an application that spends 99% of the time waiting for the user’s input can feel sluggish but Microsoft has managed to achieve this on the Mac. How much processing power can it take for a character to appear on the screen promptly after it has been typed on the keyboard? Nevertheless, I completed the presentation and stored it on a Zip disk (yes, we still use those things in our department!) ready to be displayed on the Windows PC in the departmental lecture theatre. Due to the ‘do it at the last minute’ philosophy that I employ in most of my work, I forgot to try out the presentation on a Windows machine. The potential consequences of such an oversight did not dawn on me until a few minutes before the actual presentation was due to start. Looking inept in front of an audience of international asthma specialists due to a PowerPoint presentation not displaying correctly would not have done my career any good. To my huge relief, there were no such problems. The presentation ran entirely correctly on the Windows machine and my career prospects remained intact.

Word has the same metafile conversion issues but is otherwise very usable and I have not come across any other incompatibilities. Microsoft Access is not available on the Mac and I am not inclined to buy myself a copy of FileMaker Pro to see if it can read my Access databases. So far my ‘use my Mac at work’ experiment has not been particularly successful but the worst is yet to come….

I was not a Mac user when Microsoft first introduced Office v. X but I sincerely hope that there was an appropriately vociferous outcry at the replacement of Outlook with Entourage. Having installed the update that supposedly adds support for Microsoft Exchange, I attempted to access my e-mail, contacts database and appointments diary while connected to the network at work. Things were promising at first: I was able to access my e-mail folders without problems. I then tried looking at my contacts and appointments but Entourage refused to play ball. A quick call to the IT helpdesk offered no solutions, although they were kind enough to laugh at me for even attempting to get Entourage to work. I also tried out Entourage via VPN from home. Again, there was no joy with contacts and appointments but this time there were also problems with e-mail. I was not able to access my inbox folder but was able to access all the other e-mail folders (including folders nested within my inbox) – bizarre. Why on earth would the Mac Business Unit replace a robust, functional MAPI client with a castrated, bastardised excuse for an e-mail solution. My heart sinks at the thought of Entourage continuing its reign of terror in Office 2004.

So, can you get serious work done on a Mac? Unfortunately, I can’t. My iBook has not entered my workplace for over 3 months. However, I now use my Mac for things far more important than work. I use it to organise photos of my family, to edit videos of my baby daughter and to store my music collection – things that it does better than any other computing platform.

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