A couple of weeks ago I bought a new computer:
Yup, it’s a Mac. I get a strange feeling of rebelliousness saying this, considering that I worked at Microsoft for 5 years. And I know I’m totally jumping on the bandwagon here — my friends Divya, Gautam, Casey, Marques, and Eric all switched to Mac over the last few years, and a few of my coworkers at Redfin are pretty gung-ho about their Macs.
But for me, this is the first Mac I’ve ever owned. It’s even the first Mac I’ve used at all in about 10 years, ever since my freshman year C++ programming course at the University of Michigan (and that experience, BTW, was not a great one — we used Code Warrior and it would cause the machine to hang regularly).
So why did I decide to switch?
- Form-factor became a priority. I’m not just talking about style/industrial design, I’m talking about size. I live in a small condo in Seattle, a condo that’s become more cramped over time. The situation was exacerbated recently when I purchased a rather large filing cabinet, a cabinet that happened to only fit in the space where my PC used to sit. I tried to move my PC around to various locations but nothing worked well enough (e.g. the bluetooth keyboard’s communication was spotty). I started warming up to the idea of a small form-factor computer like a Mac Mini or an iMac.
- I upgraded my old computer from XP to Vista. This was painful. First off, a few of my peripherals weren’t compatible: my external hard disk, my scanner, etc. After replacing those peripherals, I found that I also had to upgrade my memory from 1 GB to 3 GB in order to get reasonable performance, and even then it felt more sluggish than with XP.
So, it’s true that I could have reverted back to XP. I could have purchased a small form-factor PC. Or I could have switched to a smaller form-factor filing cabinet. But I decided to give Mac a try. This was not a 100% rational decision. There was definitely an impulse-purchase factor.
Buying the Mac
Before heading to the apple store, I made a big list of all the things I would need the Mac to do before I’d consider it:
I spent about 1.5 hours talking to one of the Apple store representatives about all these things, item by item. He was awesome. I won’t mention his name here because he deviated from Apple store rules by telling me about some 3rd party software I could use to accomplish some of the things in my list. I find it a little bit obnoxious that Apple instructs their sales reps to only discuss home-brewed software. But whatever. At least this guy was cool enough to give me the information I needed.
I pretty quickly decided that a Mac Mini will not work for me. The main reason is that I couldn’t get one with a big enough hard disk for my needs (160GB was the max). Also, I discovered that by the time I upgraded the Mini to the version that includes the larger hard-disk and the DVD burner, the price was not that far from an iMac. And the iMac includes a new monitor, a built-in video camera, and other goodies. So, I decided to go with an iMac. The base price was $1200. By adding $50 I got got the wireless version of the keyboard and mouse, which is good in my case because my cats like to chew cables. By having Pnina buy the computer for me, I got the student discount of $100. My (I mean her) final price after tax was about $1250.
There was no way for the sales rep to prove to me that my peripherals would be compatible, so he suggested for me to take the iMac home and try it. Normally, if you return a computer to the Apple store, you have to pay a restocking fee (something like 10%). But this sales rep spoke to his manager and arranged for me to be able to return it within 24 hours with no fee (I ended up keeping it anyways).
Setting up my iMac & testing my peripherals
I bought my Mac just 2 weeks after Leopard was released. The actual computer still had Tiger on it, but the box included a DVD to upgrade to Leopard. Instead of simply doing an upgrade, I decided to do a clean install. I did this for two reasons: 1. prior experience has taught me that clean-installs are a great way to get rid of cruft, and 2. the sales rep tipped me off that you can save a few gigs of hard disk space by doing a custom install and only picking the printer drivers you need.
Leopard installation took a couple of hours and it was pretty smooth. The one tricky bit is that if you do a clean install, you wipe out all the add-on applications, e.g. iLife. You then have to go back to the box, pull out the “other stuff” DVD, and re-install these apps. Only now you have the Tiger version of these apps, and if you try to run them you may not get the desired results (e.g. when I ran iMovie, it crashed upon startup!!). But if you then open Software Update (equivalent of Windows Update), it will upgrade to the newer version of these apps and then you’re good to go. I’m a little annoyed that Apple didn’t make this process smoother, and I’m disturbed that the QA folks at iMovie didn’t take the time to check the scenario where a Tiger box is clean-install-upgraded to Leopard. But I recognize that this complexity will go away as Apple starts shipping computers with Leopard pre-installed.
Most of my hardware connected without a hitch: the printer, speakers, all external hard disks, the video camera, the still cameras, and the iPod. For the Canon scanner I had to download a driver from the Canon website. The Linksys router required no special drivers. The Mac wireless client (“airport”) picked up my network and allowed me to connect with the WEP key. It occasionally displays an “unable to connect” message, but this message appears to be incorrect — I am able to connect to the internet even when this message is displayed.
The only hardware that presented a real challenge was my T-Mobile Dash smartphone. Windows comes with the drivers to recognize my T-Mobile Dash and with the software to sync my important data (address book, calendar, etc.) to the computer. The Mac comes with none of that. I found that the Mac was not even able to recognize my phone at all, not through bluetooth and not through the USB connection. I had to go online and do some research. I ended up buying a 3rd party program called The Missing Sync. It cost $40. I had to use the special Leopard-ready version of the program which is currently in beta. This program seems to work — I’m able to sync my data and view it in the Mac Address Book and iCal applications. I don’t use those applications too much, but it’s enough for me to know that I have this data backed up and that I won’t have to manually retype this data next time I switch phones. By the way, there are other ways to sync a smartphone to a Mac besides The Missing Sync, and some of these ways are free, but all of them seemed to be more complex (e.g. by setting up an Exchange server as a middle-man).
Transferring my data
Since my external hard-disks were compatible, transferring the data over was pretty easy. I did one final backup of all my data from the Windows machine, and then I plugged the hard disk to the iMac and copied everything over.
One question was: where do I put everything? On my Windows machine I hard two separate physical hard disks — one was the C drive and the other was D. I put all the data I cared to keep on D (D = data), whereas C contained the OS and apps. This made it easy to do backups — simply copy over everything in D (no need to fuss with “My Documents”, “Local Settings”, etc.). On the iMac, things are arranged in Unix-like fashion. Under the root (/) you have a folder called Users, and underneath you have a subfolder for each account. So, I simply copied all my data into the appropriate subfolders under /Users/shahaf.
After copying the data, I had to do some cleanup:
- Music. While I tried to stick to MP3 in all situations, there were a few WMA files that snuck through over time. I used a free program called Switch to convert these to MP3. When I imported the converted files into iTunes, I found that all their metadata was stripped. What a pain! I ended up assigning artist and album to these tracks through iTunes, one album at a time. My friend Justin would frown at this, but for me having artist and album info is enough. After converting all these WMA files to MP3, I also went through and cleaned up some of the other random files that Windows created (e.g. JPG’s for album artwork). I then let iTunes import the artwork for all my albums. This worked to a large degree, but not completely — some of my albums still have no covers.
- Photos. Windows creates Thumbs.db and similar files in various folders. I went through and cleaned them up using shell commands like find . -name “*.db” -delete
Getting used to Mac applications
Here’s a list of the applications I would use regularly on Windows, and the comparable program I now use on Mac…
Work. I regularly need to work from home. Sometimes I only need to check email, something I can do with a browser. But sometimes I need to connect to the work network (VPN) and open a remote desktop session to my computer at work. On Windows this was pretty easy. The Windows network wizard has VPN support built-in, and Windows ships with the Remote Desktop Client. On a Mac it took a little more setting up. First off, I had to install the specific VPN client for our VPN server, which happened to be a Cisco variety. Then I installed the Microsoft Remote Desktop Client for Mac, which is currently in beta but works without a glitch for me. I found that it’s most convenient to run the remote desktop client in full-screen mode — that way I can see the maximum amount of the remote computer. For this to work, I had to change the dock to auto-hide (the dock is the Mac’s equivalent of the start bar). I’m still getting used to controlling a remote XP machine using a Mac keyboard and mouse. This wireless keyboard looks great but lacks some keys I’m used to. The delete key acts like a backspace and there’s no button that acts like a delete key; there are no page up/down buttons; the function keys are set to do various tasks like pause music; and the ctrl/shift/alt/fn keys don’t always do what I expect them to do. And the mouse looks nice too and even supports left-right-middle buttons; but the little ball on top is not quite as comfortable to use as the full scroll wheel on my old mouse. On the plus side, Mac comes with a great virtual desktop feature, so I can have my remote desktop session running in one virtual desktop and a bunch of Mac applications in a different desktop, and I can toggle between them with super-quick control-arrow combinations.
Of course, I use Office — Word, Excel, Powerpoint. The iMac comes with a 30-day trial version of Office. I’ve used it a little and it basically seems to work. I’m planning to ask one of my friends back at Microsoft to pick up a copy of Office for Mac for me.
Music. On Windows I used iTunes to import, browse, and play music, to download podcasts, and to manage my audible book collection. Yes, iTunes works on a Mac
Photos. On Windows I used a program called XnView to batch-rename my photos and Adobe Photoshop Elements for basic editing. I now use a free 3rd party app called Metamorphose for doing batch renaming and iPhoto for browsing and simple editing. iPhoto does support batch renaming, but this operation only works on the “title” of the photo, which is not the same as the filename (the title is probably stored in some iPhoto-specific database). Metamorphose allows me to be just as anal-retentive as I want to be about how I name my photos (e.g. YYYY-MM-DD-HH-MM-SS Title #.JPG) and it keeps all this metadata in the filename, which is the most cross-platform place to put metadata, IMHO. To install Metamorphose you need to first get Python and some Python windowing libraries, and when you run Metamorphose you do it through an IDE, which is a little clumsy. But it works. iPhoto is great for browsing photos and for doing simple edits (e.g. crop, red-eye, etc.). I especially like the full-screen view and the ability to compare photos side-by-side when choosing what to keep and what to toss. But iPhoto is definitely not as rich as Photoshop Elements.
Video. On Windows I used Pinnacle Studio (or occasionally Movie Maker) to edit videos and MyDVD to burn DVD’s with menus (or the new Vista DVD maker, which is pretty awesome). And for viewing DVD’s I used AVS (I also tried to use Vista’s Media Center, but I wasn’t able to get any audio out of it). On my iMac I use iMovie to edit, iDVD to burn, and DVD Player to play. I’ve noticed that iMovie is less feature rich than Pinnacle, right down to the core of the UI. Apparently Apple thinks that the typical iMovie user would be confused by a user interface that included multiple parallel tracks for different video footage, or even a single track that looks timeline-like. They might be right, but I suspect it’s a little too dumbed-down for me. I may end up buying a one-up program for video editing.
Web. On Windows I used IE7 or Firefox2. I basically needed some browser that supports the websites I visit regularly: gmail, wordpress, flickr, audible, redfin, etc. I found that the built-in Safari browser works pretty well across the board, but occasionally I revert to Firefox. For example, with gmail on Safari I don’t always get tab-completion when I type email addresses. Also, Redfin doesn’t work on Safari (we’re working on it!).
Communication. I would regularly use MSN IM and occasionally use Skype for voice-chats. The sales rep suggested using an IM client called Adium, which works with many IM applications including MSN. Skype has a client for Mac that appears to work.
Administration. I regularly use Windows task manager to see what processes are eating up my computer’s resources. On Mac you have Activity Monitor, which looks very similar. On Windows I would do backups using a program called Second Copy. Leopard has a very cool backup application called Time Machine that includes a sweet UI for looking back in time to restore files you accidentally deleted. On Windows I would use some anti-virus program like eTrust. On Mac, well, I haven’t installed an anti-virus program yet. The sales rep at the store made some pretty bold claims like “you don’t need an anti-virus program” and “Macs have never hard a virus”. It sounded pretty suspicious to me, but it’s possible the dude was not that far off. One thing I will admit is that Macs are a smaller overall attack surface and therefore less appealing to black hats. I still plan to install some protection on my machine, but I haven’t figured out which yet.
Other. On Windows I used Turbo Tax to do my yearly taxes. I haven’t tried it yet, but there is a version of Turbo Tax for Mac. I also used the Google Screensaver to automatically display the latest photos I post on Flickr. Mac has a similar RSS-feed screensaver.
You probably noticed that I didn’t mention any games here. I’m not much of a gamer — occasionally I get super-addicted to some game (e.g. WOW), but those phases are short-lived and far between. I am totally at peace with a computer that doesn’t serve as a gaming platform.
My old computer was a PC running Vista with 3 GB of memory, and it felt sluggish. At the Apple store I looked at the iMac stats and noticed that it only comes with 1 GB of memory, and I grew concerned. I asked the sales rep about this and he said “give it a try”. Well, I did, and yeah, it’s fine. My iMac with 1 GB of memory is definitely zippier than Vista with 3 GB. Of course, this is not a pure apples-to-apples comparison. My old computer had a slower single-core processor and a couple of years of installed cruft on it. But at any rate, the iMac can perform well even with just 1 GB of memory.
I noticed that the biggest memory hog is the remote desktop client. It can easily eat up half my memory. Also, when I do big operations on iPhoto (e.g. importing lots of images), it can also grow to hundreds of megabytes. But I don’t often find myself going around killing apps to conserve memory.
I’m surprised at how relatively easy it was to switch from Windows to Mac. You could almost say that it was easier to switch from Vista to Leopard than it was to switch from XP to Vista, at least as far as hardware compatibility goes. I won’t pretend for a second that switching is completely free. I probably spent a good 30 hours setting everything up, and I’m still finding my way around this OS. I still discover things that delight me and things that annoy me. Overall, if you’re a Windows user and you’re wondering whether to try a Mac or not, the basic message you should read is: “it’s not that hard to switch”.