Friday, November 20, 2009

What’s this Mac thing all about?

Computers have become a huge part of our lives.  Especially mine.  The first time I laid eyes on my parents’ TRS-80 Model II at 8 years old, I was hooked.  Over the years, I have done a lot with computers - and managed to avoid mainframes (except for one excruciating class in college).  I have worked on machines from the Commodore 64, Apple II, Atari 800, all the way through half a dozen implementations of UNIX (including the Microsoft Xenix - remember that one?).

At times, as I am sure you can relate, it has been a love-hate relationship.  The Commodore Amiga, way ahead of its time, was burdened with a company who wasn’t very interested in marketing it against the PC and Macintosh (that was at the same time as the PC with DOS 4 and 5, Windows 3.0/3.1, Mac 512, Mac SE, Mac II).  Later sold to Gateway, the Amiga became a set-top-box environment used for cable boxes.  PC’s and Windows - well, I think we all know why we hate them.  The biggest gripes I had about the Mac, was that it didn’t let tinkerers into the inner workings very easily - no command line interface, the GUI (that’s Graphical User Interface) was too simplified, and the darned thing crashed a lot with that annoying bomb.

So, I began my career selling PCs and Macs, then transitioned into a job programming on a UNIX environment.  I kept up with UNIX for 10 years, doing lots of work on various environments.  When Apple announced that their operating system, Mac OS, was transitioning after OS 9 to UNIX-based OS X (X for UNIX, X for 10...), I was pretty piqued.  However, by then I was deeply immersed in the Windows world.

For those of us who were around when Windows ME came out, we remember what a fiasco that was.  That version (somewhere between Windows 98 and Windows 2000) was so overly bug-ridden, we thought for sure Microsoft had learned their lesson.  And so it seemed - Windows 2000 was very stable: the first version I could leave running for more than a couple of days without rebooting.  (My 1989 Commodore Amiga 2000, I would leave running without rebooting for weeks, by the way.)  Windows XP came out, and I was wary of upgrading - until I was issued a new laptop from work with XP on it, and I was again impressed.

Then what happened?  Vista came out.  Mac OS X came into its own.  Ahh, Vista - Windows ME all over again.  All the big promises Microsoft made about stability, new environments to help us avoid all the problems with older Windows (DLL Hell, to name one).  The biggest cheese - the “security”.  I loved the Mac ads - “Asking the user to Cancel or Allow isn’t security - it is simply annoying.  I either have to allow every time, or if I allow all, then I drop the new security altogether.”

Fast forward.  It is now toward the end of 2009, and as promised when Vista came out, I did not buy another PC.  An opportunity came up, and I ordered a Macbook Pro.


Let me say it again.  Wow.  After using this thing for a month, I have realized that the Macintosh is how I’ve always thought computers should run.  UNIX to its core, but a nice, friendly interface.  That is the power.

But what about software?  Think about it.  Think really hard.  What is it you need to do on a computer?  Web?  E-mail?  Address books?  Word processing?   Spreadsheets, presentations, convert to PDF, print, transfer files.  Oh, what about video editing, photo management?  You know, every time I tried to hook my Windows machine up to my Comcast cable box to record the video, it gave me a blue screen and rebooted.

Well, the Mac comes with all that!  Comes with it - the Office document suite, from Apple, is $40 if you buy it bundled with the machine.  Or you could get Microsoft Office for the Mac for 4 times the price, but I’ve had it with Microsoft stuff.  I mean, the Mac is just so - elegant.  But really, that’s not fair.  It comes with a ton more.  Garage band lets you arrange music, take lessons for instruments (comes free for guitar and piano), and more.  iPhoto lets you manage photos - and really well.  FrontRow gives you special multimedia watching capability.  iCal is a calendar integrated with the operating system, and all applications.  The address book is part of the Mac, not just some afterthought (oh, it’s in the e-mail package, or if you buy Office you get Outlook).  No, it’s at the core of everything.  And iTunes comes built into the Mac, and it works flawlessly - fast, integrated into the keyboard - and it doesn’t crash like Windows Media Player.

Let’s talk about the touchpad.  Laptops come with a touchpad, but the Windows ones are pretty basic.  Move the mouse around, tap to click.  Woo hoo.  Oh, now you can slide certain regions in the margins to scroll the screen.  Useful - but a pain in the hand.

The touchpad on the Macbook I instantly took to!  First there’s scrolling.  Put down 2 fingers and move around.  No confinement to the rightmost 1/8 inch if you can get your fat finger to touch it right!  Just drag 2 fingers, and it scrolls.  Effortless.  And, the buttons are not simply a tap - the whole touchpad is a button.  Just push down, and you can feel it click.  Simple, tactile response.

The Mac has Exposée - no, I don’t mean something the newspaper does.  I mean this is a sweet feature of the Mac. By swiping 4 fingers up or down, or pressing the function key, all of my open windows fly out from behind each other, and I can see and click on any one of them to locate the window I want.  Waaay too useful - now I hate using Windows!

But, something I had on the Amiga and UNIX CDE was workspaces.  You can divide your screen up into workspaces.  Each workspace takes up the full screen, but you can put windows in it, and switch between workspaces, so you don’t get too cluttered.  The Mac takes that to the next level.  By pressing F8, all my workspaces fly out, and I can see, interact with, drag windows between, and click on a workspace to switch to it.

If that weren’t enough - I’ll throw a few other facts out.  First, the Mac doesn’t dog.  My “brand new” Dell Core 2 Duo with 4GB of RAM often gets into fits where the system freezes while it writes big files to the hard drive.  I have to reboot it often (Windows XP of course), and every so often a blue screen.  Second, I don’t need antivirus, antispyware, firewall - from 2 or 3 different vendors just to protect myself.  There are currently no known viruses for Mac OS X.  Third, there’s the software that comes with the Mac.  I mean, just comes with it.  Video editing, audio editing, multimedia, movie watching, music, and more.  Fourth, this computer is a programmer’s paradise.  XCode, the free package from Apple for writing software for the Mac and iPhone and other platforms, blows away Microsoft Visual Studio.  Fifth, if you really, really want to, you can run Windows.  Of course, you need to buy it and install it.

So, the biggest 2 things I have noticed about the Mac are, 1) the Mac really lives up to the advertisements, and 2) it exceeds what they say in the ads.  How often nowadays do you get a product, and are happier with it months after the purchase?

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