Living with a Mac

So, a few months ago I dumped my Windows PC and replaced it with a Macbook Air. Here is a brain dump of my thoughts, emotions, loves and hates with converting a long-time PC user to Mac OS Lion. This is not a review of the Macbook Air – there are plenty of those around the internet already. This is about my transition from Windows and Linux desktops to Mac.

Design, specs, performance
I’ve got the 13″ MacBooc Air. I’m not going to go on about this too much, but I really love the hardware. It’s really exceptionally designed and constucted and feels very solid while only being a tad heavier than my netbook. I do occasionally get static electric shocks from it which can’t be too good … however this is nothing compared to my neighbour in the office who is constantly shocked by his Macbook Pro (at least 4 times a day, much to my amusement). As laptops go the Air quite a thing of beauty, the thinness of it is quite incredible. On a few occasions I have had to go back to my old laptop or netbook for something, and the hardware felt like a pile of crap. Apple did an amazing job with the design and build here – end of story.

Internally it has a 120Gb SSD, 4Gb of RAM and an Intel core i5 1.7Ghz CPU. It boots extremely fast – around 10 seconds from cold to being at my desktop. Apps open instantly when launched and things all move around the screen very quickly and smoothly. Generally I’m very pleased with the performance. It is light years ahead of the old Windows 7 machine it replaced. Battery life is pretty good, about 6 hours if I am not running VMware Parallels. Running a VM will knock off a few hours of battery life. I am not really sure where the fans are on this thing. On a few occasions I’ve heard them ramp up to cope with CPU going crazy. But in day to day use it is almost completely silent.

On Windows and on Linux, sleep (suspend/resume) has always been a bit hit and miss on laptops, particularly the combination of sleep – undock – wake, or sleep – dock – wake, used to be pretty painful on Windows. On the Mac it works perfectly every time and extremely quickly. The suspend literally takes about 2 seconds, and about the same to wake up. It’s nice to put the lid down and have confidence it will always resume properly when you turn it back on.

The keyboard on the MBA feels nice and I enjoy typing on it. I love having backlit keys and dedicated buttons for controlling the bightness of the keyboard and screen backlight. I do have some criticisms about the keyboard layout though.

Apple sacrificed a lot of keys for the laptop keyboard, the most important ones being hash (#) and delete (yes really, there is no delete key), end, home, page up, page down. There doesn’t seem to be any way at all to delete text without moving the cursor to the end and then using backspace. Some people on the Interwebz suggested cmd+backspace is a shortcut to delete, but this seems to do something different in every application I’ve tried it in, and it usually does nothing. I’ll come back to the inconsistency of the keyboard shortcuts later. On all laptops I’ve owned there are a lot of dual purpose keys, but there aren’t really any on the Mac aside from the usual selection on the number keys.

I found the missing # key to be the most upsetting though, I spend a lot of time in shell scripts where # is used for commenting code, and pressing alt+3 to get a # is frankly a hassle I don’t want. Luckily I did find a solution to that, someone has remapped the totally useless ‘§’ key at the top left to draw a ‘#’ instead, and published the keyboard layout file anyone to download and use. I have never, and never will needed to draw either of these symbols:

Figure 1: Useless key

Inconsistent shortcut keys
On the full size usb keyboard you do get page up and page down, and next to them in the usual home/end position you get a keys with diagonal up/down arrows … which I assumed were home/end. I’m still not sure what these really are intended to be used for since they map to different functions in different applications. For example in iTerm, they do map to home/end, but in Skype they do a page up/down thing and move your position in a conversation to top or bottom. In Outlook for Mac, these keys just make a system beep, and you have to use cmd+left or cmd+right to replicate home/end,yet in iTerm, Sublime (and other apps) cmd+left/right key combos either do nothing or do something entirely unexpepected. Blah blah etc etc, so basically, forget about home/end keys, unless you want to learn a special key combination for every application. Also forget about delete unless you want to buy the USB keyboard for £50, on and also forget about using ctrl for anything, since the cmd key has replaced it for almost everything.

Apple did helpfully publish a guide to this kind of stuff, but unfortuntely it is just totally wrong and should not be read by anyone.

With Apple’s reputation for focus on user experience, I’m surprised by how scatty this is. The shortcut keys should be managed at OS level, not at the application level.

I also have some things to say about these buttons.

Figure 2: Traffic lights

It doesn’t bother me at all that these buttons are in the wrong order and at the left side (the wrong side) of the window. I adapted the new locations pretty easily. What does bother me is the behaviour of the buttons. Close and Minimise seem to do exactly the same thing, ie. Close doesn’t actually close the running application, it just closes the window leaving the task running in the background. To really exit an application you have to use cmd+q, otherwise it will just ‘live’ on the dock in some kind of semi-open state. Minimise seems to do exactly the same thing, only with an animation which shows it shrinking into the dock. One of these buttons could surely be removed.

In Windows I used alt+tab a lot to cycle through all open windows. In Mac OS you use cmd+tab and it cycles through running programs, rather than open windows (much like the new behaviour in Unity and Gnome 3). However, if you have minimised a program, when you cmd+tab and select it, nothing happens. I can’t really fathom this out, the cmd+tab seems to be a bit pointless to me – if you select it but not activate it with cmd+tab, it should just be removed as an option in the list. Apple have given you some other ways of viewing and managing open tasks though, through the ‘expose’ view (4 fingers up on the trackpad), and Mission Control which shows you all open Windows for the application currently in focus (4 fingers down on the trackpad). There are also shortcut keys for these on the full size USB keyboard.

Maximise doesn’t really maximise windows either, sometimes it will make your window full screen but usually it will only maximise vertically and not sideways, which is really annoying (I’m not the only one who is bugged by this behaviour). In Lion there is a ‘full screen’ button in the top right of every window, but this is a bit different from Maximise as it really does take your entire screen, making the dock and top menu bar and window controls disappear. Also if you have a second monitor attached, the app becomes full screened on your primary screen, and your secondary monitor becomes useless as it can only show the desktop wallpaper. When you press the maximise button in iTunes, something very unexpected happens that isn’t what I wanted when I was watching a video:

Figure 3:
iTunes when maximised

From what I’ve seen, my complaints about the window buttons are fairly common grumbles from Windows users migrating to Mac. I’ll just have to get used to it. Full screen mode is crap until I can use my second monitor for something else.

As a Linux user (and Android) I am used to having a repository full of free software at my fingertips. I kind of had an expectation that the App Store might have a lot of free software in it too. Unfortunately this is not the case. Almost nothing is free. Compared to Windows it can actually be quite hard to find free software for Mac. You will have to hunt around in places like sourceforge to get things that should be free – like VNC clients, simple image editors, etc.

In general I wold say I really enjoy using the OS, but some of the software is not as good as the Windows counterparts. Skype for Windows is better for example. Google Chrome is identical, but often freezes up and requires a ‘force quit’ after a reboot. Flash plugin sucks and crashes frequently. Outlook for Mac sucks on many levels…  Most of the basic functionality is there, but many key things are missing, like being able to manage mailbox rules, auto archive, book meeting rooms, browse the global address list.

Some apps can be awesome though, Twitter for Mac being one example. A really stylish app which has a nice visual flair.

Time to wrap-up
How could I summarise my transition to a Mac? It really wasn’t very hard to migrate. The laptop itself is great. One thing I didn’t touch on above is the touchpad, the multi touch gestures you can do on it really enhance the experience, and again, going back to a normal laptop afterwards makes you realise that.

Is a Mac worth the money? I don’t know about that. I really like the slim form factor. I would probably be just as happy with a Windows ultrabook. But I am a bit surprised by how much I like Mac OS. Its very pleasant to use despite the criticisms. It’s a coherent experience and everything works well, although in a few places the interface is simplified a little too much … one example being wireless networking. If I could get something more detailed than ‘network timeout’ when I can’t connect to a wireless network it would really improve it, since the Macbook Air doesn’t have an ethernet port and debugging broken wireless is critical to getting the laptop working properly.

What about comparison to Linux desktop environments? Well, in my opinion Linux is in kind of a dodgy state at the moment. Compared to Mac OS, both Gnome 3 and Unity are newcomers lacking polish and do not feel refined. Gnome 3 still feels experimental to me, and it seems little thought has gone into the design of it. They seem to have focused more on re-engineering the way you work rather than making it look really nice – the stock themes feel chunky and childish, and the system settings are sparse. I can’t really comment on KDE since I was never a massive KDE user, but each time I tried it I never found it very reliable. Mac OS seems to win in a desktop war if I was to pit them against each other in their current forms.

I guess I would be a bit gutted if I had to hand back my Macbook Air now. There are few odd quirks but mostly it was a great exchange. And working from a Unix based platform does make me a little bit happier than using Windows 7.


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