Out With The Old, In With The New; A Comedy Of Eras

Given the number of reviews floating around detailing people’s first experiences with every Linux distro under the sun, I thought it might be entertaining to take a light-hearted look at my early experiences with my first Mac.

“Okay sweetie, just forget everything about how you used to use the computer.”

“So now you’ll stop pressing your face up against the window of every Apple shop we walk past?”

Those were a few of the words that passed between my fiancee and I over the weekend. You see, I recently decided that those nifty little Apple iBooks had now fallen within my price range. It was a gradual decision, but I eventually sold my Acer Travelmate (a great machine, I had it dual booting Linux and Windows for six months and it never gave me any problems) and used the proceeds to purchase the cheapest Apple laptop available, a 12″ G4 iBook.

I have followed – from afar – the Apple scene for some time. I occasionally read Apple news sites, and I have always admired both the overall design and the attention to detail. I completely understand the concept of building the “whole widget,” ensuring that all components work together smoothly. An Apple has long been “the” computer to own (except, perhaps, for a Sony VAIO) and is the only computer with any exceptional degree of brand recognition (this is an important point; ask a PC user what type of computer they own and they will most likely say “PC,” “computer,” “Microsoft,” or – from the more technically inclined – “Windows”).

Most importantly, I have been involved with computers for the last decade, and although I have gained a great deal of knowledge and experience fixing my own machines (and my family’s, and my friend’s, and THEIR friend’s…), I have less spare time to “fix” things nowadays than I used to. I wanted to own this fabled machine that “Just Works.” I am not at all averted to the technical side of things – it was a profession of mine at one point, and my primary desktop ran Linux for some time – however at this stage of my life I would prefer a computer that simply did what it was told, yet still have a console handy for me to mess around in once in a while.

In other words, I’m a fairly ordinary new Mac owner.

(On a side note, I am not – strictly speaking – a new Mac owner. In a previous life I made a habit out of collecting and restoring old computers, some of which were early Macintoshes. I believe the latest model I owned was a Mac SE (with the optional 30 Meg hard drive), however it was the immense capability of those early machines – even some sixteen years since they were last available – that sparked my interest in the alternative presented by Apple. Regardless of their vintage, they provided some of the best computing experiences I have ever had the pleasure of using.)

As I had been a long distance Mac admirer for some time, a secondary condition of mine was that the machine be at least a G4. To my understanding the AltiVec extensions are being used for software optimisation more and more, and I didn’t want to drop the cash on a machine without that capability. Also, vector-processing is a well-publicised advantage that the Mac architecture holds over x86.

As our story begins, I am happily whiling away the hours with Firefox on Fedora Core 1 when I notice that the price of iBooks has changed, as well as their specifications.

“When did this happen?” I asked myself. “Surely it could not have gone unnoticed for so long? Where are the ravenous hordes waiting for the so-called ‘budget Mac’?”

I pinched myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, then checked again. Yes, I could buy myself a new G4 12″ iBook for a paltry AU$1525.70 (Student Price). Incredible. I had paid only slightly more for my Acer not six months ago (duty free in Thailand, but nevertheless) and I was sure I could sell the Acer now without taking too much of a loss. Hmm. A plot was forming in the depths of my mind…

After quickly consulting my fiancee (“Just buy the damn thing already!”), I made the decision to sell the Acer. But I would have to be creative, I needed to grab peoples attention. I’ve always thought that boring tasks are far more worthwhile if one uses a little imagination.

This was my first advert, posted to the staff bulletin board:



Mid size, adolescent African Elephant for sale. Loves kids.

Body Text:

Too late, the elephant is already sold. But I still have this awesome laptop for sale… Make me an offer that I can’t refuse! (Note: Offers may be refused.)

Yes, this is a bargain.

If you’ve been waiting to buy a laptop then wait no longer. (If, however, you’ve been waiting to buy an African elephant then you may have to wait until the next one comes up. Sorry.)

This little beast will slice and dice through all your computing needs, whether it be checking email or making the next Hollywood blockbuster. Not only that, but it will also make you a nice cup of tea when you wake up in the morning, fetch a beer from the fridge when you get home in the afternoon, it is fully trained in both Shiatsu massage and yoga, and – with twelve years experience in Her Majesty’s Secret Service – it will happily double as your own personal security guard.

So don’t waste any time, you’d be crazy to pass up this offer. Crazy. CRAZY!!”


I also attached the manufacturers datasheet to add an air of authenticity. Over the next few days I received a few interested calls, and more than a few confused ones. Alas, the interested calls failed to develop into successful sales. On to plan B..



“Plastic Surgery Raffle – Win Your Body Re-Sculpted!!

Body Text:

All you need to do to win this incredible prize is inquire about this FABULOUS LAPTOP FOR SALE!!

With the miracles of modern technology and medicine all you need to do is own this state-of-the-art fat fighting machine, and you’ll be on your way to a record-breaking figure.

Step 1: Make an offer for this laptop, truly an amazing machine.

Step 2: Log on to the Internet with you brand new laptop.

Step 3: Watch the kilos and the inches just MELT AWAY!!

And who said losing weight can’t be easy? Or fun?

If you have experience playing solitaire and checking your email then you already have all the skills necessary to use this revolutionary invention. Just imagine, you could be losing weight AT THIS VERY MOMENT!!

(Note: Actual weight loss may vary. Additional exercise may be necessary to supplement the effect of the “Weight-Loss Laptop”)

Enter NOW!!”


Plenty of witty retorts, but no takers. Perhaps I was targeting the wrong demographic..

Advert number three:



“Fully Sick WRX Laptop for sale..

Body Text:

Fully Sick Turbo Acer WRX Laptop, (current model, with the updated front bar)

The fog lights have been replaced with STI light covers, the suspension has been custom lowered 2.4 inches, with 17-inch mags. I’ve also added a 3.5 inch mandrel bent exhaust and 4 subwoofers in the boot, but they only come on when cornering (connected to a wicked system, but). 3pac enamel, tinted windows and nitro boosters added last weekend.

Customised FULSIK license plate also available.”


That hit the spot. One phone call, followed by a quick sale. I sold the machine for less than I had hoped, but not uncomfortably so – I was happy to make up the difference. I believe I let it go for a good price, Acer currently sells a similar (new) machine for about $1800, and my machine retailed for about $2200 at the time I bought it. It still had six months left on the warranty, and I still had all the original paperwork and included software. To cut a long story short, fun was had by all.

The only issue at hand was that I would need to purchase the new Apple iBook before the Acer was sold, so as to copy across all our personal data. Unfortunatley, the prospective buyer was driving from Newcastle (about 2 – 3 hours away) down to Sydney to have a look at the machine and (understandly)wasn’t planning on making the purchase if she wasn’t happy with what she saw (very, very, very unlikely, but possible nonetheless). That would leave me to return the newly purchased iBook to the store, at a personal cost of around AU$250. Not good. Ordinarily there would be plenty of spare computers around my house on which to back up my data, but since the move from Perth to Sydney last year we have been strictly a “one computer” household. It pains me to say it, but I left a part of me in a warehouse somewhere in Fremantle. I feel naked without them, but there’s nothing I can do. Wife in, random-pieces-of-electronic-junk out.

Anyway, I visited a local Apple store and explained the situation to “Con”:

Me: “Con, I really want to buy this machine. I’ve wanted one for a while. I’m standing in the store right now, and I can almost picture myself handing over the cash. The only problem is that $250 return fee, I’m not sure I can swing that past my fiancee. Is there anything we can do about it?”

Con: “No.”

Me: “Ah.”


Me: “Right.


Me: “Okay then.”


Me: “Bugger.”

Con: “Do you want my advice?”

Me: “Sure!”

Con: “Don’t buy the machine.”

Me: “Huh?”

Con: “Don’t do it. They’re amazing little boxes, but the last thing you want to do is annoy your fiancee and waste two hundred and fifty bucks just for a computer. Do you have another machine at home?”

Me: “No. Just the one I’m hoping to sell.”

Con: “How about a friend? Could you borrow a machine for the weekend?”

Me: “I doubt it. Bad time, lots of uni work.”

Con: “Do you have a CD burner in that Acer?”

Me: “Sure do, but it’s 12 Gig of data that I want to copy across.”

Con: “Well I hope you don’t have any plans for the evening.”

Me: “Uh.”

Con: “Tell you what, if you end up selling that Acer then just drop by and I’ll give you a good deal on the new iBook. But don’t stress too much about it.”

Good advice. His suggestion was absolutely correct, but I had been desperately searching for an excuse to buy the machine then and there (not to mention the soft spot I have for salespeople that specifically tell me not to buy their product). I picked up a spindle of blank CD-Rs and went home to do some serious backing up. A few hours later I had a full backup of all our personal data. “If anything,” I thought to myself, “this has forced me to again parody that much-abused quote: First. Backup. Ever.”

Of course, the story is never that simple. That week I was halfway through a group report for uni, for which I was wholly responsible for the final collating and typesetting. Classmates had been giving me sections of the report in plain text (as I normally request), and I had been putting the whole thing together using LyX. LyX is an exceptional document processor (A LateX front end, really) that – in their own words – takes the effort out of “typesetting beautiful documents”. It is simply the best way to anyone writing anything, anywhere, at any time – it makes life so much easier that you feel it must be cheating. Honestly, if you’re not doing desktop publishing or graphic design then you should be using LyX. It lets you focus on the content and structure of your document, without having to worry about layout and formatting. If you know what LateX is then you’ll be delighted to hear that – unlike many other LateX frontends – LyX doesn’t make you learn a single piece of LateX code. I’ve been using it for years, and the only time I’ve ever seen a line of LateX source code is when I opened up a .lyx file in a text editor just to see what it looks like. If you don’t know what LateX is, then all you need to know is that it’s far easier to use than MS Word, and doesn’t choke on documents more than ten pages long. I can’t praise it enough, countless times I have watched fellow classmates try (fruitlessly) to “fix” the formatting in their Word documents – even when they’re only a few pages long, with a couple of diagrams.

To cut a long story short, I needed LyX. LyX itself also has a whole host of other requirements (LateX, various converters and libraries, etc.) that need to be satisfied. Coming from Linux I was used to the general concept of certain applications not being available, but by dual booting between Linux and Windows I had kept most of my bases covered. I was, however, quietly confident that the Unix underpinnings of the new Mac OS would prove to be my saviour.

And I was right, www.lyx.org had a prominent link to an OS X port of LyX (based on the QT toolkit). The LyX/OSX page also provided a link to a neat little piece of software called “i-installer” that enables you to easily download and install all the packages required to get LyX up and running. Excellent.

Okay, so I had LyX covered. I knew (obviously) that MS Office was available (a must for my fiancee) and I was fairly certain a Mac version of Quake would exist somewhere. I don’t game very often, but when I do I always go back to my old favourite.

The day of sale eventually came (longest two day wait of my life) and I received a chirpy little phone call at about 9 AM that morning;

“Sean? Uh, hi. Yeah, I know I said I would come by and check out the laptop today, but we’ve had a bit of a family emergency and things aren’t looking good.”

Me: “Ah.”

“Everyone is okay and everything, it’s nothing like that, but I’ve just been up all night trying to sort some stuff out. I don’t think I’ll be able to make the drive down to Sydney today. Maybe tomorrow.”

Me: “Ah.”

“Um, is that cool? I mean, it shouldn’t be a problem tomorrow. I think. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Me: “Ah.”


Me: “Right.”

“Cool. I’ll call you again tomorrow. Thanks!”

Before I knew it that chirpy voice had faded into the barely audible *beep*beep*beep* of a terminated long distance phone call, a beep that seemed to drill a hole right through the middle of my quartz-enabled heart. I felt like exploding, I felt like tearing the phone from the wall (it was a cell phone, but the principle is the same), I felt like reaching through the combined GSM and copper network to grab this fiend by the scruff of the neck and cry “Such wickedness! How dare you rip from me the shred of hope that today – TODAY!!! – would be that long awaited day when I would walk into the trendy enclave of modern society that is an Apple store and utter those four fateful words: “I’ll take this one.” !!”

Of course, what I actually said was;

Me: “Bugger.”

I knew no one was on the other end of the phone, but I felt better after letting it out. You shouldn’t bottle up your feelings, you know.

After I had spent the next few hours moping around the house (Around the room, really. It’s quite a small apartment.) I received an unexpected – though not unwelcome – phone call;

“Sean? Hi! Yeah, We left Newcastle an hour ago and we’re on our way down to Sydney now. How do we get to your house?”

My heart nearly leapt out of my chest; “It’s really going to happen! No turning back now,” I thought fleetingly to myself. Fortunately I scratched such thoughts into pieces of gyprock, so as to record them here later on.

I gave the chirpy voice some directions and turned to my next task; I now had about an hour and a half to clear off all my personal stuff from this computer and get it ready for its new owner. I had already made the full backup, but there was still a Mandrake Linux partition, and various settings that I would need to get rid of. Not a big deal, a fairly quick job for anyone who knows what they are doing. First thing I did was create a new “User” account in Windows and set it as the default login, then I logged in to that account and deleted both mine and my fiancee’s accounts (and personal settings, data, home directories, etc). I Then opened up Windows XP’s Disk Management tool and reformatted the Mandrake partition as a Windows Partition. Lastly, I still needed to get rid of the bootloader (Grub) that facilitated my dual booting between the two operating systems. The normal way of doing this is by rebooting into the “Microsoft Management Console” (MMC) and typing “/fixmbr” at the console. Easy. As I did not normally have the option of booting into the MMC I would need to activate it using the provided Computer Management Tools in the Control Panel.

Full marks will be awarded to anyone who immediately recognised my mistake. As any experienced Linux user will know, Window’s Computer Management Tools do not play nicely with dual boot setups at the best of times. I had now done two things that would render my system unbootable:

1) I had deleted the Mandrake Linux partition, containing the Grub setup utilities and tools.

2) I had told Windows to mess with the booting of the system, in this case by trying to add the option of making the MMC available at boot time.

Unfortunately I was too preoccupied to realise that anything was wrong at the time, as at that very moment the nice girl from Newcastle called again to tell me she was around the corner, and that I should go wait outside to let her know where I live. I picked up the laptop and trotted outside to the cafe next door, our designated meeting place. The first thing she said to me was;

“Hi, sorry about the mix up. I thought we might have trouble finding you, but there aren’t many people around these days that stand on the side of the road and wave a laptop at passing cars.”

Me: “Ah, yes, I just wanted to make sure I would get your attention. Well, this is the laptop, as you can see it’s in excellent condition, and has all the original software loaded.”

I spent a few minutes showing her the computer, then uttered those few fateful words:

“I’ll just reboot it, and you can take it away.”

I switched off the machine (that was mistake number three) and switched it back on again. The BIOS took the machine through its paces, and then I was presented with a crisp, beautifully rendered “GRUB>” prompt, in that blocky, nameless font that will forever remind me of the subtle taste of bile.

Those in the know would immediately suggest that I now do what I should have done in the first place: Use the “fixmbr” utility available when booting directly from the Windows XP CD-ROM. The only problem being that (for a number of reasons) I did not have such a CD available. “But wait!” I screamed inside my head. “I have those ‘ACER SYSTEM RESCUE’ CDs that came with the machine!” I searched frantically high and low, turning over every piece of our (admittedly sparse) furniture and…

…and I found them. Praise the lord, I found them. I popped “Rescue CD 1 of 2” into the drive, set the BIOS to “Boot From CD” and…

…it didn’t boot. The CD wasn’t bootable. I tried again. I tried booting from “Rescue CD 2 of 2”. I even tried booting from the Acer-branded copy of Norton Anti-Virus that also came with the machine. I booted from a Mandrake Linux Install disk just to make sure the drive wasn’t playing up, then I tried booting from the rescue disk again. It was no good, the disk just wasn’t bootable.


Okay, now I had a problem. This nice girl had just driven two hours expecting (not unreasonably) to buy a working laptop, positively overflowing with preloaded software. At the moment this silver and black rectangle I held in my hands might just as well have been a piece of expensive modern art, well suited to a wall in the Tate gallery nestled snugly between the original “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and a supermarket trolley that some famous artist had, inexplicably, painted blue.

For all the good it’s going to do this prospective buyer, that’s where this damn laptop might as well be right now.

But all is not lost. Being the sociable beings that we are, us engineers often have enough friends with enough spare time to help us through these close scrapes.

Me: “Uh, I just did something REALLY stupid to this computer and deleted something important, is there any chance we could pop over to a friends house and pick up what I need to fix it? It shouldn’t take long.”

Her: “Sure, Not a problem! Don’t stress about it.”

That was good advice, as I could feel my wrists starting to sweat. Wasn’t that supposed to be a warning sign of a heart attack? Well, it would have to wait. I had to make a quick phone call;

Me: “Mike? It’s Sean. I need to come over. No, right now. Yes, now. You remember I said I was selling my laptop to buy an iBook? Well, I’m selling my laptop to buy an iBook. Yes, I know what you think of Apples, but now is not the time. Yes, I have thought it over. No. No, I don’t want a Sony. Yes. Exactly. No. Look, I nuked the MBR and I need your XP disk to fix it, OK? Yes, even if you help me I’ll still use the money to buy an Apple. Okay. Okay, see you soon.”

So we hopped into the ’93 Commodore that they had used to drive down from Newcastle – crazy, I know, you’d have to take out a second mortgage to cover the fuel for a long distance trip in that thing – and headed across town to Mike’s house…

— Slow fade to skyline, then dissolve to “Mike’s House”, external —

A few minutes later we arrive. I throw a quick “Just wait here, this shouldn’t take long,” at the girls in the car and launch myself through Mike’s front door..


Mike: “Huh? Sure, it’s on the desk over there.”

I grabbed the XP disk, threw it in the drive tray and booted up the machine.

Before we continue there’s something you need to know about Windows. Windows has a user called “Administrator” that is used whenever the computer is run in single-user mode, and whenever you use the recovery console on that machine. The Windows XP boot disk performs any recovery by allowing you to “log on” to an existing Windows installation (found on the hard disk), however you can only log on as the “Administrator” user, and must know the “Administrator” user’s password. This doesn’t sound like a problem, but this feature is a little bit – what’s the right word? – temperamental. There are a number of conditions that you must satisfy to be able to log on as the “Administrator” user, any one of which could mess up your chances of being able to log on to the machine. Firstly, there must still be a user named “Administrator”, you may not have renamed this user (check). Second, you must know this user’s password (I don’t think I ever set the “Administrator” user’s password..), and third you must have ACTUALLY SET such a password (uhhhh..). The process will bork if the password has never been set, or if a zero-length password has been used.

For system maintenance I had always used an account called “Sean” that had been given Administrator privileges, and as such had never made use of the actual “Administrator” account. The “Administrator” password had thus never been set, or was still zero-length.

Needless to say, the process borked.


At this point I gave up. I went outside and explained the situation (very calmly) to the girls, and how I would need to reinstall Windows to restore the machine to a useable state. I was expecting the worst; to be shunned, downtrodden, to have the chance of the sale dangled in front of my face only to have it yanked away at the last possible moment. The last thing I expected at a time like this was a miracle;

“Well, how long does this Windows install take? Is it hard? We could do it ourselves, couldn’t we?”

Was I to betray the Nerdish custom of never returning a machine until it was fully functional? Was I to simply hand over the CD and wish them the best of luck? Was I to simply palm off the daunting task of restoring a full Windows installation from scratch? As it turned out, I was.

“Uh, not long, not long at all. I’ll just grab a copy of the Windows CD and you can head off.”

I want readers to note that I was not encouraging the “pirating” of software here, I am a strong believer in the correct adherence to both the spirit and the letter of copyright law (Free and Open Source Software rely on copyright to exist and flourish). I explained to the girls that there was a copy of windows on the “Rescue” CDs I gave them, but that they should install Windows from this other CD that I would give them in a moment. Either way, the license key was printed on a sticker on the bottom of the laptop, and that sticker was remaining firmly attached all the way to Newcastle.

I waved goodbye to the girls, breathed a sigh of relief, and started that fateful journey toward the iBook that I had craved for so long. As I was leaving Mike turned to me and said;

Mike: “So, you’re buying an Apple? We will discuss this later, when I will proceed to give you shit about wasting your money.”

Me: “I understand where you’re coming from, but ocne you’ve used it you’ll be eating your words. And that bagel.”

Mike: “I don’t think so.”

Me: “I guarantee it.”

Mike: “It’ll never happen.”

Me: “Then give me that bagel.”

And off I went, bagel in hand. A short walk, a bus, a train, another bus, and another short walk (it was actually only a few blocks away, but I needed the thinking time), and I had arrived at…

The Apple Store.

Seeing those words upon that sign had always inspired mixed emotions. This was the company that made computers trendy – people could call their products “sexy” and not be laughed at – but they always seemed *just* out of reach. It was simply a matter of economics; I consider myself to be a strong computer enthusiast, but I could never fully justify spending more than the absolute minimum on a machine that would do what was necessary – web browser, word processor, email client. I don’t do any software development or play many games, and any complex software packages that I need are either at work or at uni. Most of my hobbies in the past had involved making the most of ancient, second hand hardware – a far cry from the top-of-the-line kit that Apple portrays its products to be.

Laptops, however, are different. You can’t pull apart old machines and build a laptop yourself, and a good second hand laptop is a rarety. There is a fairly well defined minimum market price for a reliable (new) laptop, and anything below that will either be stolen or of such low quality as to not be worth buying. When Apple dropped their consumer-level laptops to within spitting distance of that minimum price I honestly thought they would start flying off the shelves; the iBooks were now a genuine, dollar-for-dollar, better deal than many “mainstream” brands.

So I arrived at The Apple Store. Remember I had spoken to “Con” a few days earlier? I hadn’t forgotten his little tidbit of salesmanship; hopefully his “good deal” would be worth the trip. So on that sunny Saturday afternoon I stepped into the store and spoke to the first salesperson I could see, a nice young girl whose name escapes me at the moment;

Me: “Hi, I’m interested in buying an iBook. Is Con in? I spoke to him a few days ago.”

The Nice Sales Lady: “No.”

Me: “Ah.” Bugger.

The Nice Sales Lady: “As it happens I took his shift today, but he’ll be back on Monday. Is there anything I can help you with?”

Me: “Bugger.” Bugger.

Waiting until Monday was pushing it, as I really needed a computer to finish that group assignment. On any other weekend I would probably have been happy to wait, but not today. Oh well, best to cut my losses and just get this over and done with. At any rate, I’m fairly sure Apple sets its prices internationally, so I doubt Con would have had much room to negotiate.

Me: “Do you have any 12″ G4 iBooks in stock? I’m hoping to get one today.”

The Nice Sales Lady: “I’ll just go check. Are you okay to just stand here and play with this iPod Mini while I do that?”

Me: “Just try and stop me.”

As it turned out there were two left in the shop; one for me and one for the guy next to me who also happened to have just sold an Acer laptop to a crazed Canadian exchange student and wiped the MBR at the last moment, right before the sale. We exchanged business cards, but when I checked my pocket later that day all I found was a single square of toilet paper with my own phone number and the name “Tyler Durden” scrawled across it in soap. Weird.

The nice sales lady then brought my new laptop out of the storeroom and I handed over the cash. After the prolonged build up, my first purchase of an Apple computer was turning out to be a thoroughly underwhelming experience.

Me: “Aren’t there supposed to be fireworks, or something? I was just expected, you know, something more. Some sort of initiation rite, perhaps?”

The Nice Sales Lady: “I’m sorry, the Apple Cult Initiation product line is only available bundled with our G5 series of workstations. If you were considering a G5 we could probably arrange the necessary Fireworks permits for late Tuesday afternoon. Would you like me to check with the council?”

Me: “No, thank you. I think I’ll stick with the iBook for the time being.”

I then made the long trek – a bus, another bus, a train, a few blocks walk, another bus, a sudden fifty foot drop – and I was soon home. Incidentally, for the whole journey home I was trying to both grasp the iBook in a wrist lock safe from all but the jaws of life, as well as maintain a relaxed air of nonchalance and inner strength to deter any would-be bag snatchers. Fortunately the journey went without incident, but only through my staring down a number of no-good troublemakers. I don’t care what the damn sign says, I’m not getting off my seat for some strange woman, pregnant or otherwise.

I sat down on my living room couch and breathed a sigh of relief, and proceeded to open the package. The house was eerily quiet, it too seemed to have been anticipating this moment for some time. Either that or the power had gone out again.

I had heard the general consensus that Apple puts a great deal of effort into the overall experience associated with their products, and I was glad to see this philosophy extend as far as their packaging. Unlike the Acer, the box itself did not open in a manner that encouraged you to physically damage the contents; on the contrary it seemed to almost invite you to explore the many accessories that accompany the new machine. I was delighted to find a standard VGA adaptor enclosed (enabling me to use my old monitor), as well as a handy extension cable for the power adaptor. I lifted the machine gently out of the case and noticed immediately how sturdy it felt. Other laptops I have used have been quite flexible in all the wrong places, but the iBook seemed to exude physical strength to even the lightest touch.

I plugged the machine in and turned it on, and was prompted to insert the first of the included CDs. It did not occur to me that the OS would not be preinstalled – particularly on a machine from a company that prides itself on producing “The Whole Widget” – but I suppose it makes sense from a security point of view (certainly, when I first took ownership of my previous laptop there were one or two precious tidbits of crapware that I was compelled to remove before I felt the machine was truly mine). Personally I would have preferred to simply turn the machine on and be presented with a “This is the first time you have booted this machine, please answer these few questions..” or some such wizard, but the process of installing the OS took very little effort, and required no hand holding.

Finally the machine was ready for use. This was the big moment, I wouldn’t feel one hundred percent comfortable until my personal data was back in the safety and comfort of a hard disk. I’ve never liked CD-Rs, I’ve always considered them a little too flaky for permanent data storage. This fear has very few actual facts to support it, however a past experience with some el-cheapo blue/green CD-Rs a few years ago left me with a deeply ingrained fear and distrust of most forms of removable storage. I only use gold CD-Rs nowadays, and I have a habit of slowing down the burning speed just in case, but there’s always a niggling fear in the back of my mind that one of my disks will go coaster on me when I need it the most. I popped the first of my backups into the (ooooh, slot loading!) drive, and…

…it worked perfectly. I copied the entire backup set to the hard drive of the machine and begun the process of sorting my data into the relevant places. I had been an enthusiastic user of iTunes on Windows, so managing my (perfectly legal, thank you very much) music collection was something of a no-brainer. Our collection of digital photos had previously only been organised by me (by hand, in Windows explorer. Yes, I prefer it that way) so I thought I might give iPhoto a whirl instead of trying to do things the old way on the new Mac. All our other documents were quickly swept aside into the (appropriately named) “Documents” folders to be dealt with as needed.

I then turned my attention back to iPhoto, that elusive photo management tool that had come so highly recommended. This is not intended to be a review of iPhoto so I will save the details, but I will point out a few quirks I noticed on the way;

1) iPhoto doesn’t allow for nested albums. This was a problem for me, as I had to rearrange “/Engagement Party/Roll 1/” into “/Engagement Party – Roll 1/” so it would show up as a separate album. Not Good.

2) When iPhoto “imports” images it doesn’t sort them on the hard disk in any meaningful way. A better example is given by iTunes, where a song is typically stored in “/artist/album/”. In iPhoto the date information is extracted from the image file itself and the photo is stored in “/year/month/”, or some such system. When I import a bunch of photos from a folder called “Engagement Party” I would expect iPhoto to store them in its own tree in a folder called “Engagement Party”, no ifs, ands or buts about it. The metadata should be used to sort and categorise, but not store. This leads me to my next problem,

3) iPhoto doesn’t have a mechanism to import a heirarchy of photos and maintain the structure of the imported folders. I had a master “Photos” folder with a whole bunch of sub-folders (“Thailand Holiday,” “New Years Eve,” and the like), and when I first imported the master folder into iPhoto it just threw all the pictures into “Photo Library” and completely ignored the structure I had arranged. Not Good.

I found the best way to maintain my structure was to have the contents of my master “Photos” folder open in a window and drag each sub-folder (“New Years,” “Holiday,” etc.) individually into the iPhoto Album list one at a time. A little tedious, but this way it created a new Album with the name of the sub-folder, and kept the contents of each folder – sorry, album – as they were. I haven’t played around with iPhoto much since I did this, but I have since come to realise that a single photo can be in a number of Albums, and that “Smart Albums” are live queries of all the photos in the library. I can understand the “Smart Albums” concept, but I think being able to put a single photo in a number of albums destroys the “photo album” metaphor that iPhoto tries to create. The two approaches should be kept distinct: categorising photos by metadata (using Smart Albums) is the high-tech way, and “Put a photo in a photo album” is the low-tech way. There should be more distinction between the two.

I would have gone back to my old “folders-within-folders” method, but I discovered that any of the neat effects (desktop, screen saver, etc.) with an image library require you to use iPhoto to manage your pictures. One example is that the desktop can have a random, constantly changing background, but it can only alternate between photos in a single folder or photos in a single iPhoto album. It won’t delve into nested subfolders to find more photos, and it won’t let you use the “All Photos” option if you want a random background. I got past this by creating a new iPhoto album containing all the photos I wish it to alternate between, but this is a hack and I would prefer a more elegant solution. In the mean time I’m impressed that I’ve worked out how to share iTunes and iPhoto libraries between users on the same machine, largely through some creative symbolic linking.

I started playing around a little more, deciding now to try and connect to the Internet. I am still on dialup so I wasn’t expecting the experience to be plug and play, but neither should it be a very complicated procedure. I did remember being given the option of setting this up during the OS install, but I had deferred it until now as the details of my connection were contained in a text file on one of my backup CDs. The first thing I noticed – assuming one had skipped the opportunity during the install – is that there is no obvious place to go if you want to set up a dialup Internet connection. In Windows there is an icon right on the desktop called “Connect to the Internet” that runs you through a quick wizard, but there was nothing of the sort here. Being somewhat technical I presumed (correctly) to look in the “Network” section of the control panel, but this is far from obvious. Now that I think of it, I don’t remember seeing a “Welcome to Macintosh, here is a quick wizard to help you personalise your computer and offer a quick tutorial” when I first logged on, but I may have dismissed it without realising. I later noticed “Internet Connect” in the “Applications” folder, so I must assume that this is the recommended method for setting up dialup connections. I’m also not sure if I like the modem status being in the menu bar all the time, it would make far more sense to me if it were only there when the modem was in use.

Herein began more trouble. Applications started crashing – Mail, Safari, Software Update and Help would all crash soon after starting up. I had changed a few settings, but nothing leapt out at me as being the cause of the problem. Hoping to make use of my incredible hacking skills, I opened up an application called Console – assuming it to be a terminal emulator – and noticed a string of error messages, most of which referred to “WebCore” and “Glyph Fonts” in one way or another. I knew that WebCore was the HTML rendering engine Apple used for Safari (derived from KHTML in the KDE project), but the reference to fonts seemed a little odd. I had brought a reasonable collection of perfectly good TrueType fonts with me, importing them with the “Font Book” application. I had simply opened up Font Book and created a new font collection called “Imported TrueType Fonts” and dropped all my old fonts there, but I couldn’t understand why any of them would suddenly start causing problems. I googled around (using Firefox, of course) and found some other people with similar issues, most of whom had resolved the problem by finding and removing the few fonts that were in fact causing trouble. I thus opened up Font Book and disabled the whole “Imported TrueType Fonts” library, but this still didn’t fix the problem. I eventually did find and delete the troublesome fonts individually, but it would appear that disabling a font collection – in this case “Imported TrueType Fonts” – didn’t disable all the fonts contained within it. Perhaps I wasn’t using Font Book correctly, but this behaviour did seem a little odd.

I then installed Adobe Acrobat Reader and was prompted to allow it to become the default application for .PDF files. I accept that I was mistaken in assuming that Adobe – being the creator of the PDF format – would be able to make the most kick-ass PDF viewer available, but I believe I suffered far longer than necessary trying to work out how to change default file type associations. I Eventually found that doing a “Get Info” on an individual PDF file would allow me to set the default application for that particular file, and that a small button within the “Get Info” dialog would then allow me to apply that setting to all files of the same type. At first glance “Get Info” appeared to be a tool that allows you to view the properties of a single entity (a file or a folder), whereas I consider default file type associations to be a property of the system as a whole. Windows, GNOME and KDE all allow you to view a list of all registered file types (and their associated applications) in a single place, but I could find nothing similar on the Mac. I’m not saying this is (or isn’t) the best way for such options to be presented, just that it wasn’t immediately obvious. On a related note, the “Apply to Enclosed Items” in regards to changing the file permissions of a folder and it’s contents doesn’t appear to be working correctly; it took more than a few tries to change some files copied from a CD from “Read Only” to “Read & Write”.

Expose is fantastic and I can’t praise it enough. It has almost completely eliminated the need for minimising windows, an action that I only do now when I want to show off the “genie” effect. To be honest I find minimising windows in MacOS to be almost useless, as the “spatial” nature of the system seems to dictate that only a single representation of a window may exist at any one time, whether that be the window itself or a minimised version of it. The role of any sort of taskbar (or dock, or wharf, or panel) should be to allow you to start applications and to switch between any windows you may be working in, however only minimised (and hence rarely used) windows have “mini-me” versions of themselves in the dock. Thus, the only ways I have found to bring a window to the front (if it isn’t immediately visible) is to either use expose, to click on the related application icon to bring all the windows for that application to the front, or to minimise every other window (by hand) until the window you are looking for becomes visible. I expected more from a supposedly document-centric (rather than application-centric) environment, but expose solves most of those problems anyway by making all windows equally identifiable and accessible (far more so than taskbar icons or minimising / maximising). I particularly notice how I have come to rely on it when it is no longer available, such as on my Windows machine at work. It has taken some time to become accustomed to a GUI that doesn’t present an actual list of all open windows, but as they say, different ain’t necessarily better or worse, just different.

LyX and the associated software (using i-installer) work fine, though I am planning on shifting to fink. I love the idea of Application Bundles for Mac software, but most of my favourite Linux programs just aren’t available that way.

My thumbdrive (a standard USB mass storage device) appeared on the desktop almost as soon as I plugged it in. For some reason the activity light on the thumbdrive doesn’t stop flashing after the device is unmounted (unmounting the device in Windows causes the light to darken), but I haven’t experienced any data loss so I can only assume everything is behaving correctly.

My digital camera (also a standard USB mass storage device) was being a touch temperamental, but unplugging it and plugging it in a few times solved the problem. In Windows I was also able to use it as a webcam, though I doubt that capability will be available on the Mac.

I’m also discovering the joys of Konfabulator widgets, though I have yet to decide if they will remain on my desktop for the long term. I’ve always tried to keep my screen as clear as possible, but I’ve found it useful to keep a couple of widgets in the empty area to the left and right of the dock.

And is the slot-loading combo drive supposed to make a “crunch” every time it pulls in a disc? I haven’t noticed any data loss or scratching, but it is a little disconcerting.

One thing that has bothered me is how network-aware applications (web browsers, Software Update, Mail, etc.) behave while the modem is connecting. In Windows (this will be the last time I mention Windows, I promise) any network activity is delayed for the period of time that the modem takes to connect, and an application will simply wait until the connection is active to attempt the requested task. On the Mac the default behaviour appears to be to fail any network activity unless a connection is completely active. This doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but in my workflow I typically start the dial-up process and then load the web browser while the modem is connecting in the background. Under Windows this would present me with a browser window that would load my home page once the modem has connected, but on the Mac this gives me a browser window with a connection error. This isn’t a big deal, but it means that when I see a connection error in the browser window I’m not immediately sure if it’s because the modem didn’t connect or the browser window needs to be reloaded.

It has been about two weeks now and my fiancee is having a little trouble adjusting to a different operating system, she often screams “This computer is STUPID! This is DUMB! I HATE this STUPID, DUMB COMPUTER!! WHY did you get rid of the old computer? WHY!?!? I was HAPPY with the old computer, the screen is so small on this one, this is a PAIN in the ARSE!!” and so on. To be fair, this sort of language is occurring less and less, though occasionally she still turns around to me and says “Okay [EXPLETIVE], so if there’s no [EXPLETIVE] second mouse button then how the [EXPLETIVE] do I correct my [EXPLETIVE] spelling in Word? [EXPLETIVE]? And how do I [EXPLETIVE] forward delete?!?”

Well, you can right-click in Word (or any App, for that matter) by holding down ctrl when pressing the mouse button, and forward-delete on the minimal laptop keyboard is activated by pressing the “fn-delete” combination. I can’t do much about the swearing, but I’m told there are a number of finishing schools in Switzerland that specialise in that sort of thing. Explaining each of these finer points to my fiancee has made me realise exactly why it is that she has had such an easy time with both Linux and Windows as desktop machines at home; I have always been there to help. I have always done my utmost to keep our various computers running smoothly, and free from the problems (viruses, instability, configuration, etc.) that buying a Mac is supposed to solve. Because of my efforts she has internalised the belief that Windows works fine (and has always done so), purely because I have kept the truth of the situation from her. I do not shield her because she cannot understand these issues, but rather because – quite frankly – she doesn’t care.

Otherwise, everything has been fairly smooth sailing. For some inexplicable reason my USB optical wheel mouse won’t work, even though it worked happily under numerous versions of both Linux and Windows (“Blaze” brand, if that makes a difference). I’m not sure if it is the fault of the mouse or the OS, but as far as I have been able to discern it is a standard USB wheel mouse, nothing fancy. Also, friends have started commenting about the machine everytime they have a chance to use it – All love expose, one of them wants to sell his VAIO to buy an Apple, and just yesterday another friend pointed to the dock and said “did that actually come with the computer? Wow.” Apart from continually having to explain explaining the division between hardware and software to people who think a computer is about as malleable as a microwave (“Can I get my Windows to look like that?”, “Is this running Microsoft?”, “All my programs and games would run on this thing, right?”) and “Microsoft” as being synonymous with computing (“Not all cars are Fords”), I am beginning to think that there may soon be other Apple products among my circle of friends.

One final point that I would like to make is that I am a strong believer in both Free Software and – more importantly – Open Standards. Barring any “lock-in,” I believe highly in compensating a vendor for the quality of their product. I paid a fair price for a high quality machine, and I will continue to do so provided that I am not forced to store my data in an irretrievable (closed) format. I have relied on – and encouraged – Open Source and Free Software for some time, and I believe that Apple is one of the few vendors that respects and embraces this technology in a manner that benefits both communities. Make no mistake, I acknowledge that Apple’s behaviour is based far more on good business sense than on altruism, but their recent track record has led me to believe that this conduct will continue. In the mean time, I take care not to store any of my personal data in proprietary, undocumented formats and – should the worst happen – Linux will boot on this machine just fine.

Of course, Apple just announced the Airport Express audio streamer / wireless router, and I’m starting to feel “restricted” at having to work right next to a telephone outlet. Unfortunately the Airport Express device doesn’t have a modem built in, so I’d have to drop the cash on an Airport Extreme Base Station (AU$499), as well as the Airport Extreme card upgrade (AU$199) for the laptop. Another AU$700 just to be able to check my email from the couch is quite firmly in the “Not Just Yet” category, but it certainly has me thinking; Wireless audio streaming to the stereo? What about wireless video streaming to the TV? And how about controlling it all from a wireless iPod? Is Apple planning an iTunes look alike for ripping and managing your movies directly on your hard disk? Or how about being able to plug your iSight camera directly into your iPod and use it as a makeshift handicam? As a long time commodity hardware owner, it’s refreshing to see some innovation in the hardware space for a change.

So I’ve taking the plunge, now I just have to convince the two of us (yes, myself as well) that it’s worth sticking with. If we can’t get work done then the iBook will be replaced, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. We have been quite busy for the last few days so I haven’t had as much time to play around with the machine as I would have liked, but I did overhear my fiancee on the phone the other day talking to one of her friends;

“Yeah, it’s really cute, I saw one just like it in a movie the other day. I’m not glad he’s got it, but I suppose I’ll get used to it eventually.”

I hope she was talking about the laptop.

About The Author:
Sean Cohen is an electrical & electronic engineer working for a major utility in Sydney, Australia. He has a great many hobbies and interests, but too little time to actively pursue any of them. He holds quite strong opinions about the prevalence of closed standards in a number of industries, but unfortunately he doesn’t hang around people that are remotely interested in that sort of thing.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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