10 impressions from a new Mac user

If you've spent most of your time in a Windows environment, the Mac may hold a few surprises.

I recently purchased a Mac mini server so I could embark on learning iOS development. While I have used Macs in the past (the last time I touched one was 2000), I never used them extensively, and I have been a Windows user since the 3.0 days. But just because I have been a Windows user for decades does not mean that I am close-minded to other systems. And since I had the Mac, I thought it would be good to give it an honest evaluation. Here are 10 impressions I have as a new Mac user.

1: Wow!

The "fit and finish" on the Mac mini server I got is astounding. The hardware is beautiful, OS X is very welcoming to me, and there are little touches that make it feel warm and fuzzy. Even the packaging evoked positive emotions. There is a genunine opportunity to feel pride in ownership of a Mac product that is rare for a Windows PC. I know that this is a commonly noted phenomenon, but I must say that it is real. Kudos to Apple for a slick product.

2: The keyboard... argh

All my delight disappeared the moment I tried to get the cursor to the beginning of a line. Or copy and paste. Or do anything else with the keyboard other than type. Let's just say that OS X and Windows have wildly different sets of keyboard shortcuts, and using a keyboard on a KVM to handle both is not fun. Some of the OS X shortcuts involve multiple steps (like taking a screenshot of a single window, which is merely Alt+ Print Screen on a Windows machine). Even simple things (like moving to the beginning of the line) require two keys where one suffices on Windows. The silver lining is that I'm learning on a blank slate, so I can develop better habits up front.

3: I love the App Store!

Something that drives me nuts on a Windows computer is requiring an application to fill a particular need but not trusting the things I find. I've written plenty of Product Spotlight and Five Apps articles for TechRepublic, and along the way I have stumbled across some pretty shady looking packages — the kind where you run antivirus on the installer before loading it and then run antivirus again after installing it, "just in case." With the App Store, I feel confident that I can install applications and stay safe. The App Store makes it easy to find applications that meet my needs, too. While I've had to go outside the App Store a number of times, I already prefer the App Store and items within it to those outside it.

4: Those apps sure are expensive

Maybe I've been spoiled by the freeware and open source applications for Windows, but I found that a lot of things that would be free for Windows cost some money. Not much, but it's something I noticed. Good for the developers to be able to turn their time into money, though; that's how you build a vibrant application ecosystem.

5: Speaking of applications...

One of my big concerns when trying out the Mac was that there would be a lack of applications or I'd have to constantly flip back to my Windows PC. Are all my favorite Windows applications also on Mac? No. But most of the "can't live without" applications I use (notably Chrome, Microsoft Office, and Skype) are there, and I have found suitable alternatives for those that aren't, with two special exceptions.

As a software developer, I do not expect my Windows-specific development tools (like Visual Studio) to be available, and obviously they are not. But the one major application I may always need a PC for is Quicken Home and Business. It hits the sweet spot between "basic consumer money management" and QuickBooks, and while I am looking around for a good Mac equivalent, I have not found one yet. So far, GnuCash looks like the best option. I am also fishing for a better alternative to Outlook. The good news is that Steam runs a lot of my games on the Mac.

6: iTunes has a specific audience, and I'm not it

My initial reaction when I started using iTunes was dismay and confusion. Tasks that were simple in WinAmp or Windows Media Player (like queuing up multiple albums to play in order) were not intuitive. But what was intuitive was grabbing a bunch of songs to play on shuffle, making playlists based on metadata or recommendations, and buying music.

After a while, I realized that my trouble with iTunes was that it has a specific purpose, which is getting people to purchase and pay for music, typically a single song at a time, and to play music based on their "mood" or "likes" or other similar criteria. But I'm the kind of person who just treats the computer like a really advanced CD rack. I listen to one album straight through, then another. So while iTunes has its issues (it is still harder to use than it needs to be, bloated, and has a poor user interface), my being a different kind of music listener than its intended audience amplifies those issues. Add in the lack of an optical drive (Apple has been aggressively phasing them out), and it is clear that Apple doesn't want me buying CDs from Amazon, ripping them, and putting them on my non-iPod MP3 player. It wants me buying the digital download through iTunes and syncing it with my iPod.

7: It needs more physical RAM than it comes with

My Mac mini "server" had only 4 GB of RAM out of the box and is only available with 8 GB from Apple. Apple says it is upgradable to 8 GB, but in truth it can go to a full 16 GB. When I first turned it on, it was fast and zippy. A few app installs later, and I found it bogging down. I didn't even install anything too heavy, but it is clear that OS X was sending a lot of stuff to the paging file. If I had an application open for a while and then returned to it, there wasn't a "pregnant pause" waiting for the application to respond. It was more like "waiting for the kid to grow up and go to college," as the application's memory was pulled off disk. I upgraded to 16 GB of RAM and it is a night-and-day difference.

8: The Magic Trackpad is really nice

I am not a huge fan of trackpads, but I picked up the Magic Trackpad anyway, on the recommendation of another Windows user who's been using a Mac lately. I like it a lot! I have to figure out a way to incorporate it into my daily life a bit better, though. It's fluid and easy to use, has lots of gestures other than clicking and double clicking, and is large enough so I don't have to constantly reorient my hand to it. The only thing I dislike is that a click requires enough pressure that a subsequent drag of the selected object is tough to do well.

9: Apple ID everywhere

If you think Windows and Google are overbearing, with their various single-sign-on systems, the Mac trumps them both. The use of an Apple ID is all over the place. It's funny, though: I do not question it as much as I do with Google or Microsoft. That's because Apple is not in the game of providing the data to third parties or tracking my use. If I had to rank Apple, Microsoft, and Google in order of, "who do I trust to not abuse my personal, private data for their own gain?" I'd put them in exactly that order. Does Apple use my iTunes history to suggest that I buy some songs or make it easier for me to decide what to buy? Probably. But it is no more intrusive than Amazon is, and I trust Amazon a lot with this data. Microsoft and Google, not so much.

10: It hasn't turned my life upside down

At the end of the day, an operating system is not the reason to use a device —it is what enables you to use the applications on the device and to maintain and manage it. Does OS X meet the "it just works" promise? Sure. But I do not use a computer for the sake of setting up printers or moving files around. I use it for the applications running on the device or through a Web browser. More and more, work is shifting to the Web browser, which makes the operating system almost an afterthought.

For the things that an operating system is supposed to do, OS X certainly fits the bill. But after spending a month using it, I am not running back to my Windows machine... but I am not shunning it either. Which OS I spend more time in simply depends on whether I am using my Windows development tools or the Mac development tools. If I did not use the specialized applications on either one, I don't think I would prefer either machine over the other. There are differences, but not strong enough differences for me to say one is definitively better than the other.

What is most telling is that after a month of use, I can't see any reason to hang onto the Windows machine for anything other than specialized use (development tools, Quicken), but I can't find the Mac compelling enough to take the time to hook it up to the second monitor that the Windows machine has on it and make it my fulltime primary machine. It's a stalemate. At this point, it's likely that I will wait until Windows 8 arrives and make a decision then.

How about you?

Are you an avid supporter of one platform over another? If so, what features and capabilities earned your loyalty?


Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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