It was about a year ago that, after a decade or so of Windows on my client and Unix/Linux on my servers, I bought a TiBook and got into OS X. I am only rarely tempted to go back. It's worth it, I think, to look back over the past year and see what the take-aways are.

In this connection, you might be amused by the stressed-out piece I wrote back then amid all the angst and commotion of making the move.

Two Reasons I Won't Go Back · Let's start with the good stuff. While you will find some griping here (in fact I have a whole category dedicated to it), I ain't going back any time soon. There are two reasons that loom larger than any other, and the two pictures (screen shots of my main screen and external monitor) illustrate them both, I think.

busy Mac, main screen
· · ·
busy Mac, extra screen

It's Unix/Linux/GNU/BSD/whatever! · The Darwin under the hood on my personal machine is the same basic kind of OS as the various Linuxes and Unixes we like to run Visual Net on, and the Debian used at the ongoing colo, and this just removes impedence mismatches and makes life easier.

I do pretty well all my data-prep work for Visual Net right here on the machine, and I also run the ongoing staging site (check the URI in the Safari window) here. The fact that Apache and Perl and Mysql and Emacs and vi and bash and ssh and so on are all first-class citizens here just makes life easier. Essentially there's nothing I run on my servers that I can't run on my laptop.

Another nice consequence of this is that it doesn't crash; once or twice, with no data damage, in the year I've been pounding it. Typically it only gets rebooted when Apple insists after downloading OS updates, often running for weeks at a time.

It Takes a Licking · If you look closely at that screenshot, you'll see that I'm currently running (in alphabetical order) Emacs, Excel, iTalk, Mozilla mail, NetNewsWire, Palm Desktop, Pathfinder, Photoshop Elements, Safari, and Terminal (2 instances). Of course you can't see Apache, Mysql, and a big honking Perl extract-and-merge pounding away in the background. This is the basic repertoire that's more or less always there; at other times you'd see iTunes, Chatzilla (Mozilla IRC) the JUnit testrunner, Acrobat, and some more MS Office stuff too.

This seems like a pretty heavy load, and it doesn't seem to cause any instability or flakiness. When I'm resizing a big image or running a perl script over a million lines of text I'd like the CPU to be faster, but really I can't complain very much.

So, to give the conclusion first, this is a pretty good computer.

The Really-Heavy-Geek Factor · The first really heavy geek I saw with a Mac was Rohit Khare. After I'd taken the leap, I discovered that Tim Berners-Lee, James Gosling, Roy Fielding, Tim O'Reilly, and a lot of RHGs from the Open Source and Web Technology worlds were already in OS X-land.

I'm not sure this means that Macs Are The Future, or that I Will Score With Hot Babes, but still it's nice to be in good company.

The Hardware · The basic computer hardware (CPU, memory, bus, I/O) is, as noted above, pretty darn good. But the industrial design and packaging of the TiBooks is, as the popular wisdom says, not that great, see below.

intermittent red flicker in powerbook LCD
A vertical stripe of the LCD screen has an intermittent flicker of the red pixels; you can make it go away by touching the screen just right.
scratched corner of TiBook
I don't know what it is about this corner, but it sure isn't holding up.
scratched top of TiBook
The top really looks pretty poor after only a year's wear. The bottom is no better, in particular the case is bending out of shape around the battery slot.

To be fair, I'm hard on computers. I have big strong fingers and touch-type fast and hard, and I stuff this thing in my bike panniers for several commutes per week, and I travel a lot with the Mac jostling around in my briefcase. But still, the Toshibas I generally carried in the years before making the switch held up noticeably better.

I think there's grounds to hope that the next generation of Macs will be a little tougher. At the premium price you pay for these suckers, it's really unacceptable for them to be starting to go to pieces a year in.

It's also unacceptable not to have keys for page up/down, insert/delete, and a built-in mouse with only one button.

And finally, I am one of the luckless early adopters of the Airport Extreme base station, a product that routinely fails to work. I guess I've learned a lesson about getting in on early releases of Apple products, though to be fair, they are not notably worse than most other players in the market.

OS X in General · When you're talking about OS X, you're pretty well talking about the GUI and the packaged applications. The machinery underneath is Unix-y enough that you can just ignore the areas where it's not (resource forks, case-folding filenames); at least I've been able to so far without ill consequence.

As for the UI, in general I'd put it a little, but not much, ahead of Windows. The core infrastructure is the Dock and Finder, whose metaphor still suffers from lack of integrity and consistency in a bunch of different irritating little ways. The keyboard navigation, as I've written repeatedly, is primitive.

The aesthetics, however, are infinitely better than Windows, which seems to get more cartoonish and overexcited with each successive release. Aesthetics are important, I spend hours per day looking at this real estate and it should look good by default.

I'm just not prepared, any more, to live without anti-aliasing and adjustable transparency and shadowing and all the little things that leave the eye a little more rested at the end of the day.

The apps are really a mixed bag. Safari, iTunes, the DVD player, and iChat are fine pieces of software. Mail.app (Just Doesn't Work), iCal (slow and loses data), and iSync (insanely slow) are horrible. I don't understand why you'd want iPhoto. iMovie and the Address Book are good enough to use but don't leave you with a warm glow.

This is a better batting average than most software companies.

Apple in General · I generally fail to understand the religious haze that possesses many Apple-philes. They're a computer company that makes hardware, an OS, and some apps, some good, some bad. I guess not being a ruthless monopolist is enough to earn love these days.

The really hard thing for big companies is to listen. Microsoft has been spectacularly bad at this; it's only now beginning to sink in over at the Windows group that all system management activities, yes all of them, have to be scriptable or they're just not usable in enterprise server deployments. Unix geeks have been saying this for years, and if Windows had been fully scriptable five years or so ago, I bet they'd have at least twice the server market share, relative to Linux, that they do now. Now it's probably too late for Redmond to win it back, because they'd need to be a lot better than the server-side competition, and they're just not.

Apple is sometimes better, sometimes not; having Hyatt hang out in public and talk to the world via his weblog while he wrangles Safari is very impressive.

But then the iTunes people go out and make a bunch of basic Web-architecture mistakes in the Music Store deployment, don't they talk to anyone?

And surely if you polled the Apple user base, 90% or more of them would be OK with another button or two on the mouse.

Pain Points · So, what really needs work?

The Built-In Mouse · It just isn't very good. I'm always dropping things in the wrong places, accidentally moving mailboxes around, having trouble getting a window to resize, you name it. All this goes away when I plug in the usual Microsoft or Logitech optical mouse, so Apple just needs to do better.

UI Consistency · I'm always getting confused about which window has focus and end up swearing when I start typing and the letters go the wrong place. I haven't thought through what's going on here very deeply, but after a year of using it there shouldn't be any surprises left.

Also, there are this notion of windows vs. applications, and you have to remember which is which, and it effects the behavior of command-TAB, and all this is, well... wrong.

The Finder · It really isn't good enough and it's kind of at the center of everything. Apple should hire the guy who did Pathfinder, and listen to the gripes they're getting, and do some basic rework here.

Sometimes I Want to Go Back · I occasionally have occasion to spend time in front of a Windows box, and am constantly irritated by the klunky appearance and and the stupid Start Menu and application menus that are always hiding the choice I need because I haven't used it recently, and the fact that I can't kill -HUP things or use ps or top to see what's going on.

But... damn, Windows is fast. And there are those slick keyboard shortcuts. And Alt-F4 makes whatever I'm looking at go away without worrying whether that was a window or an app. And Alt-TAB is much smarter, you can cycle through three apps over and over in sequence.

Should You Run Out and Buy One? · It depends. Our CEO's windows laptop frapped out, and a couple of the other Mac zealots here at Antarctica were after him to get one. Since he uses it for email and PowerPoint and that's about it, I thought he should probably stick with Windows. But then the Mac store across the street had a deal on a lightly-used Powerbook and he got one for maybe a little less than a decent Windows box, and he's certainly not disadvantaged.

If you're a design weenie and live in the Photoshop/Dreamweaver space, a Mac is probably the best bet if only for cultural reasons.

If you're music-centric, it would appear that Apple is pretty well the place to be right now, but who knows if that will hold.

And if you're a person who spends a lot of time doing server-side work on boxes where the OS's name ends in “x,” well it's a no-brainer, you'd be nuts not to get a Mac.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

May 07, 2003
· Technology (77 fragments)
· · Mac OS X (113 more)

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