The Apple of My Eye

Overcome by curiosity at the fawning of thousands of bloggers over Apple in general and the Mac OS X operating system in particular, I bit the bullet and purchased an Apple MacBook. The nice-looking black one. In November 2006. Having used it for more than 2 years now I have mixed feelings.

Before I go into my rant, let me provide a background about myself. My foray into computers began with dumb terminals working off a mainframe. I then had an extended affair with Linux – RedHat and Slackware. I also used HP-UX, SGI Irix and Solaris quite a lot, based on which course I was doing my assignments for. After that I got into a job, which meant predominantly using Windows, first NT, then 2000, then XP and now Vista. Of course, I continued to have Linux installed on my machines on a dual-boot and I did help in the administration of Linux quite a bit.

During my formative years I had the option of choosing from vi and Emacs for editing. I stuck to Emacs, mainly because it seemed supremely configurable. When I moved into the professional world I shunned commercial software like Visual Java for JDEE on Emacs, mainly because it kept my machine spiffy and because I had a very good understanding of Emacs. Of course, once I got a taste of IntelliJ IDEA, I dropped Emacs. I started using vi (actually GVIM) at that point, just like a lot of people use TextPad or EditPlus for quick and dirty editing. It was just that Emacs was an overkill for such activities and vi was much better than any of the pure Windows alternatives. The only time I use TextPad is when I want to do a “block select” on text.

The point of saying all of the above is that I have covered a fair spectrum of machines and operating systems and have adapted quite comfortably to each. To cite an example, I took to Vista just as easily as I took to XP, unlike several people I know.

So here is what I felt about Mac. You might have guessed by now, since I have had the black MacBook for more than 2 years, that I have used Mac OS X version 10.4 and 10.5 on an Intel platform.

  • The Good
    • Undeniably, the OS reliability. I have left the machine running for weeks without having to shutdown or restart. In fact, the only time I do a restart is when some patches need to be applied.
    • The looks. You can’t argue with this one. The outward appearance is sleek and the GUI redefines polish.
    • Boot Camp. I haven’t come across a better tool for installing an alternative OS. It was as effortless as it could be. Of course, I am still not sure if I can get it to triple-boot with Linux in addition to Vista.
    • Lots of other things, like battery life, resource usage etc. My battery lasts quite long – around 1.5-2 times as much as my office’s dinosaur, HP Compaq nc6400. The Mac hardly ever makes any noise.
    • Pricing. I know I will get a few raised eyebrows for this. But I am not kidding. If I compare the most reliable of the breed in non-Apple laptops (IBM / Lenovo and Sony), the costs are comparable for comparable configurations. And with the kind of stability that the machine has, I would say it is excellently priced. This wasn’t always the case, mind you, and the falling prices are the reason that Mac sales have picked up steam in the last few years. That and the switch to Intel, of course.
  • The Bad
    • Safari. Contrary to what the fans say, I find Safari to be a mediocre browser at best. Its page rendering is slow and the features it touts are things I don’t care too much for. Its redeeming feature is that it has full versions available for iPhone in addition to Windows and Mac. But then, so does Opera (for non-Apple Smartphones).
    • I was stunned to see Apple sounding the bugle on “Spaces”. 12 years back I used the WindowMaker window manager on RedHat and that let me define multiple desktops and assign different programs to different desktops. Of course, I had to tinker with the configuration file scripts for that, but I am sure they have a UI for it.
    • One aspect that is reminiscent of Windows of yore is the system restart after applying most patches. I can understand wanting a reboot if a critical security patch has been applied, but restarting after updating QuickTime? Safari? That is a stretch, given that these are patched quite frequently.
  • The Ugly
    • Where is my right-click? I consider it a serious design flaw that I have to keep “Control” pressed and then click to get a right click (or use an external mouse). Whose brilliant idea was it?
    • I have to actually use the command prompt for showing / hiding system files. And I thought this was supposed to be easier than Windows.
    • In Windows I can define what services I want to start automatically and what programs I want to start automatically. Imagine my surprise when I had to resort to Google when I wanted to figure out how to do the same in Mac. I looked at all the usual places first, like System Preferences » Accounts etc.
    • 5th January 2009 was a very happy day for me. Because Google made Picasa available for Mac that day. Ever since I came to know of Picasa in 2004, I have been hooked by its extreme simplicity. The fact that it was available for Windows and Linux but not for Mac always had me wondering. The last 2 years have been extremely difficult – iPhoto is just plain ugly.

Given a choice will I not own a Mac? Far from it. As I said earlier, I have seen a wide spectrum of machines and operating systems. None of the flaws that I have pointed out in a Mac are really showstoppers and the strengths are *very* good. And since adaptability is not my weak point, I would go so far as to say that I like the overall package.

I guess my main gripe is with Apple and its fans harping on the usability of the OS, when really it is quite unusable for a layperson used to other things. It is like saying that vi is more usable than TextPad, while it really is not unless you figure out its quirks. I still haven’t gotten Tanuka, someone who uses a computer for chat, mail, surfing and photo management to quite like the Mac. She finds it very alien.

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