After reading the recent article by a user who has switched to a Mac I thought I’d write of my experience. I’ve was used a Mac from October 2002 to March 2004. It was provided to me when I started working for another PPC manufacturer but they are not really in the same market and in any case don’t make laptops.
I got the Mac because I had asked for it. I needed an office computer and the combination of a friendly front end and a Unix base should provide a good system and I’d heard some very good things about it, I’d even gone to a Mac user meeting in Amsterdam (when I lived there) at one point to have a look around.
The machine I’ve been using is a 700MHz iBook with 640MB RAM running OS X 10.2.8 (Jaguar).
Physically the hardware is very nice, there is an unending attention to detail from Apple which shows right through the system, even the power supply and the polystyrene packaging looks good! There’s a nice touch in that you can either plug the PSU directly into the mains socket or remove the head and plug in a longer wire.
It’s not perfect though, the track-pad was faulty and had to be replaced, also at one point the Hard Disc died and had we were told, physically snapped. This is one of the iBook models known for white spots and video failures but I can’t say the screen has had any problems. There is a white spot but it’s hardly noticeable and never bothered me, there are also smaller spots in the bottom corners which appear to be stress points but are even less noticeable.
One gripe I had with the video system is it’s complete inability to give me decent resolutions or refresh rates on an external monitor. It would allow 1024×768 at 75Hz and that’s it. I can handle the 1024×768 but I usually set 85Hz as a minimum on a CRT monitor, anything lower flickers noticeably to me.
For noise this machine doesn’t appear to make any beyond accessing the Hard Disc and occasionally the CD-ROM drive if you are using it. There is a fan but it took 10 months to switch on, I was not even aware there was fan so I was rather taken aback when it did! We were in the middle of a European heat wave at the time (the temperature got to 40 Celsius) so the fact the fan never switched on until then shows just how cool the machine runs in normal conditions.
Of course living in Paris this machine is French so came with a French keyboard which is so strange as to be downright evil, the Q, W, Z, A and M keys have moved and you have to press shift to get the numbers. That took a lot of getting used to but I can’t blame Apple for that, you can apparently get the keyboard changed but when I was told I was getting used to it and didn’t really care. I’m so used to the French keyboard in fact that I still tend to press shift before pressing numbers…
OS X itself doesn’t assume anything about your location or nationality so I can tell it I’m using a French keyboard in France but I speak British English and it’ll be happy to comply. This is something of a contrast to the French version of Windows which installs in French but appears to offer no way of changing to English. Internationalisation is a much more difficult issue than changing the language and character set, ex-pats like me only serve to confuse the situation even further, full points to Apple for getting this right.
The battery life is good (around 4 hours) and the sleep mode is great, switching on and off almost instantaneously.
The track-pad only has a single button but pressing “ctrl” acts as a second button.
OS X fully supports the second button so if you are used to a 2 button mouse as I am you can just plug one in and it works, the apps all support it. Some people make an issue of this, why?
The OS X user interface
The first thing you notice about the Mac is the interface is both weird and on this machine, more than a tad slow. This is probably to be expected with me coming from BeOS which is designed for high responsiveness and is the fastest interface you’re likely to see on a PC. Going from one to the other is something of a slow down. That said the speed of the interface is perfectly acceptable once you’ve got used to it. Panther is meant to be faster but this machine was running Jaguar.
The interface is however very, very good. I have never used anything which even comes close to it’s quality and polish. There are glitches but these are few and far between.
The usability is as you would expect absolutely top notch and OS X provides a system which is powerful, stable and very easy to use.
I mentioned above the interface is “weird”. The OS X interface has inherited parts from OS 9 and it’s predecessors and it’s not the same as Windows or any other OS I’ve ever used. You have to get used to the menu bar at the top (very 80’s) and the fact you have to close applications by selecting Quit from the menu – unless it’s iPhoto which closes when you close the window…
There are some little things I still miss from BeOS which I would like to see. BeOS lets you navigate the entire file system with a single right mouse click, this isn’t a prefect way of getting around but if you want to get to a directory buried deep down somewhere there is no faster way of doing it, you can’t do this in OS X which is a pity (would be useful as an advanced feature you can activate).
Another thing I’d like to see is “right click to back” (right click on the title bar of a window and it moves to the back) it allows you switch very rapidly between two or three apps and is amazingly useful, it is one of those things you won’t realize just how much you use until you lose it. Even with the new features in panther I’d still like to see it implemented.
I have something of a Love-Hate relationship with the dock, it was and is confusing to use. The problem is that it tries to act as both a means of launching programs and tracking them while they are running. Invariably you end up going to the wrong icon to get the window you want. No matter how much I tried I could never get fully used to it, it always sort-of worked.
They do seem to have found a way of showing running apps in Panther (expose) and I’d be interested in trying it out but I found another way which I’d also encountered on other OSs: Multiple desktops. I’d originally used these on the Amiga which uses “screens” but they are implemented elsewhere with a small desktop “pager” or “switcher”. I got myself one and never looked back. I still use the dock but only as a launcher and very occasionally as a way to move things out of the way quickly. My one other gripe with the Dock is that the trash icon has a bad habit of moving out of the way if you aim is not perfect, there should be a bit more of a delay before this happens.
Using a desktop switcher did add a problem. Due to the way the graphics system works the windows you see are actually textures which are displayed by the 3D accelerator. If you are using a desktop switcher you may have quite a number of windows open and these all take up room in memory. This machine only has 16MB video RAM, it quickly runs out and switching between desktops can sometimes be a rather slow experience.
Using more video RAM would speed this up of course but there may be another way which uses less RAM: Graphics in OS X are drawn as vectors using display PDF, if this could be done on the Graphics card windows could be stored as a set of vector descriptions and drawn when they are needed. This would take up a lot less RAM and speed up switching as well as off-loading it from the CPU. GPUs do not support this at the moment but can be added and I believe the bitboyz (sic) implemented vector drawing in one of their mobile chips. With everyone moving to 3D based drawing it’ll be a common problem so maybe this is something worth adding to desktop GPUs.
Built in Apps
OS X comes with a selection of build in applications, the infamous “iApps” and a selection of other utilities. As the year progressed and OS X was updated a few new apps also appeared such as iCal and Safari. I don’t use or even know all the functions of these programs but I’ll tell you of my experiences with them.
iTunes got a lot of use from me. I have a lot of CDs and listen to music pretty much all the time unless really deep concentration is required. I filled 15GB with music and that’s less than half of my collection.
iTunes also has the music store now and it looks pretty interesting but I buy CDs as they are not compressed, until I can buy uncompressed files the store is simple of no use to me. iTunes compresses music into MP3s or AAC files and these are fine for headphones or PC speakers (they’ve since added an uncompressed format to iTunes).
When importing music iTunes gets the track names from an online database but it sometimes messes up, sometimes there is a selection to pick from and there’s no way to tell which is which so you just have to pick one and hope it’s right. It usually is but it’s sometimes found the wrong results but this is pretty rare. I do have one Fleetwood Mac CD which iTunes is convinced is a Chris de Burgh CD, I have both so that can be a bit weird. This is easily fixed though as you just select the tracks and change the info for Album / Artist.
One oddity I discovered was when ripping CDs which were scratched, iTunes can sometimes have a hard time dealing with these and produces some strange audio files. I found however that if I was to copy the files to disc as AIFF files they would usually copy fine without problems even if they were scratched. I could then rip them and the resulting files would be fine.
iTunes never had any problems and did it’s job of playing music. It organises the music in a sensible manner allowing you to select whatever you want quickly and without a fuss.
All in all iTunes is an excellent piece of software. There are reasons Macs cost more, iTunes is one of them.
iPhoto is another one of those reasons. I plugged in my camcorder (it has a built in still picture function) and it recognised it first time allowing me to download the files. When I got a new camera I plugged it in and again it worked first time.
iPhoto allows you to put your photos into albums and generally organize them. You can see all files at once or just the last downloaded ones (which is useful). You can also edit photos but I prefer to do more advanced editing in Photoshop.
To be honest iPhoto runs like a dog on this machine but both it and OS X has since been updated so it should be faster now. Apart from the speed issue iPhoto is another excellent piece of software, then again I’ve been using it with a couple of thousand 6 MegaPixel images so perhaps I’m just asking a little too much of it.
You also get apps such as iMovie, iCal, iChat and a few others but I didn’t use them much if at all so I can’t really say anything about them other than the fact they are present.
There are a selection of other small apps which I did make use of however:
This just displays images and PDF files, it seemed to have problems with some PDF files so I just downloaded Acrobat reader and used it. I never used it for reading PDFs after the first couple of months so I don’t know if it got any better.
The picture viewer worked fine and it’s display is better than iPhoto so I generally use it to have a good look at pictures though it is considerably slower at actually displaying my images than iPhoto. Anti-aliasing is also supported but it’s a bit over the top for my liking generating blurry images.
It’s a text editor, what can I really say? It does it’s job well and I used it a lot, preferring it after MS Word managed to annoy me. Pretty much everything I’ve written for the last year (including much of this) was done in TextEdit.
It also has spell checking and you can switch rich text processing off in rtf and HTML if you want to get your hands dirty (I also used it as an HTML editor).
My only gripe is the fact the file name gets deleted if you convert from rich text to plain text.
This is the new KHTML based web browser Apple introduced. I also used Internet Explorer and the Mozilla based Camino but I soon switched over to Safari for 99% of browsing. I do a lot of on-line research so I’m a heavy web user. Safari is a bit flaky at times but as before I have an older version, the newer versions don’t seem to work on Jaguar.
The tabbed browsing and pop up ad killer work fine and the ability to add a button which opens a series of pages in different tabs was immensely useful (you can do this in Mozilla but this works better).
Mail / Address Book
The mail client is not as comprehensive as Outlook (which I wouldn’t touch with a long pole due it’s security problems) but allows you to set up multiple accounts and folders and do the usual stuff, all easily of course. There is also a good SPAM filter which you have to teach but works pretty well after a while, the spammers don’t stand still though so it won’t catch everything.
There is also a feature which allows you to check through the email addresses you’ve used and add them to the system Address Book. This is better than it sounds because if it stored everything it encountered you’d end up with an address book full of people you don’t contact or know. This way you get to pick the important ones. The Address Book isn’t something I used much but it can export the addresses which you can backup and read on other systems which is useful.
All of the built in programs have a built in help system which can handle most problems but it does tend to be on the slow side, they should replace the display with something Safari based if they haven’t already.
For the geeks out there there is a Terminal (shell) present. It’s default was Tcsh but bash is present if you want it as I did, I believe bash is the default in Panther. You can do neat tricks like making the shell transparent which sound like a gimmick but can actually prove useful as it lets you read off info from the window below.
The usual tools are all there as you would expect but you won’t get absolutely everything you’ll find in a Linux distro (i.e. the 5 you use and the 3995 you never look at). There is however the “Fink” tools which you can download and it provides a whole set of other Unix tools.
You can of course also download X Windows for OS X but I don’t have a use for it so didn’t.
I used MS Office at times which has a different interface then the PC version which, once you are used to it I found to be better. I usually find MS software to be buggy and for some reason it seems to go out of it’s way to annoy me, this was no exception. That said it was perfectly usable, I had no 100% CPU hogging problems like Dr Haque mentioned recently in his series.
On some systems the small apps are free, on others you pay $$$ but they are not excessively priced on the Mac (low $10s). I tried a few of the free apps but of what I tried I found the commercial stuff to be better.
There’s a ton of software out there for OS X if you need it so getting software is no problem. Comparisons with the PC’s software base are meaningless as most people only use a relatively small number of applications, new platforms don’t always have these but eventually even the most obscure of platforms get a decent selection of software. i.e. I can get all the software I need on BeOS and the Mac has a much bigger software base!
I did get myself some other software for the system all of which performed their function well:
FirewalkX (enhanced firewall)
IRCicle (IRC client)
CodeTek Virtual Desktop (desktop switcher)
I also used:
RBrowserLite (Free version of a commercial FTP client)
Which seems to work OK, I did have some problems with huge transfers but they may have been the FTP server’s fault.
So, what can I conclude after using a Mac for the past year and a bit? Remember of course that the current Mac range, OS X and the iApps have now been updated multiple times.
My answer can best be given by describing my situation:
You see, it was not my iBook and I had to give it back, what do I do now?
I’d never had a laptop before and the freedom it gave was very useful. In fact with my propensity to take photographs by the ton I need a laptop if I intend to go anywhere (either that or a few 1GByte CF cards…).
So I’d like another laptop. I could get a PC laptop and then I’ve got a choice of Windows, BeOS or Linux.
The Mac provided a much better experience than any system I’ve ever used before and none of the above compare, I’d like to stick with a Mac. It’s easy and quick to set up and from then on it just does it’s job, it does not get in your way or try to annoy you. It’s also stable, Yes, I’ve seen it crash a few times but very rarely. The interface is the best in the business and it comes with some very good applications. This is the way computers should be, right now nobody else even comes close.
I do have a few minor niggles with the Mac but I cannot say I have any major complaints.
I don’t consider them to be bad value, if you are just looking at CPU speed yes P4s are faster than the G4s but these are entire systems and as such are not so bad value considering what you get. Besides of which in a Laptop battery life is rather more important than raw computing speed.
I quite like the 12 inch iBooks given their size and weight. I especially like the 12 inch PowerBooks which could act as a full desktop system given their spec (one version includes a Superdrive) but I’m not so keen on the small screen if I had to use it all the time, plugging in a decent sized external screen will soon fix that though. In fact take the screen off and it’d be small, portable and still look good, a portable desktop – hmm, Did I just invent a new form factor?
Many alternative computing (BeOS, MorphOS, etc) users have a windows partition or entire PC sitting around for when they need access to a file or content which other systems can’t read or have a device with no drivers etc.. (I myself have an old copy of Windows for this purpose). The Mac has the advantage of not having these sorts of problems, pretty much everything works and you can watch all the content on web pages (i.e. Quicktime, Flash, Real etc). If you really want to be Windows free, the Mac makes a good choice.
Unfortunately I can’t afford a new Mac right now so in the mean time it’s back to my PC…
Copyright © Nicholas Blachford April/May 2004
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