the macbook experiment, day 2

The last time I regularly used an operating system other than Linux was fall of 1997. Windows 98 was all the rage; Mac OS/X was not yet (publicly) a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye. So this means I have a fairly dysfunctional view of desktop software- I basically really don’t know what Linux and GNOME are competing against. I’ve read reviews, and played with the competitors from time to time, but I’ve never really seriously forced myself to use them- to learn the keyboard shortcuts, the quirks, and their real benefits. And I think that is a problem- it makes me a less effective part of the software ecosystem if I don’t know how most people experience computers.

An apple a day, by angermann, used under CC-BY-SA.

So when my new employer offered to get me a new laptop, I decided to get a mac, and set myself to using it for a year so that I can learn how the other half lives. It will also have Win7 installed (probably mainly in a VM) as well as Office.

Some thoughts so far:

  • OS/X is nice, but has not really jumped out at me as particularly awesome. It gets the job done, and is very polished (very consistent; low effort required), but by and large my experience with the core OS hasn’t felt that radically different than from any modern Linux distro- the differences are (so far) probably smaller than I expected.
  • that said, there are definitely nice touches- the multitouch trackpad is definitely leaps and bounds above any other touchpad I’ve ever used, though I’m going to miss the Lenovo/Thinkpad nipple a lot. The hardware in general is just awesome- solid like a rock.
  • the mac software ecosystem seems to be a mixed bag; I’d heard good things about adium, for example, but I’m not very impressed so far, and in my very limited playing with it seems roughly on par with thunderbird; that is to say, well behind gmail in usability.
  • but some of the software is brilliant- a friend pointed me at scrivener, which may be imperfect (time will tell) but so far impresses me as a rare piece of software which truly seeks (and may actually achieve) fundamental reinvention of a class of software; it just seems like software dedicated to the process of writing rather than primarily to text layout, and that feels to me like a huge, huge leap. The only reason I don’t look forward to using it is because I don’t want to get hooked :/

Anyway, I expect this will be an interesting, and potentially very troubling, year, as I get a better grip on what was accomplished, software-wise, during the time I’ve been working on the Free Software desktop.

21 thoughts on “the macbook experiment, day 2”

  1. “OS/X is nice, but has not really jumped out at me as particularly awesome.”

    This is my impression from running it on my Macbook too. The rumors said it would be amazing, but it comes with about the same issues as Windows and Linux. I would expect more from a system that describes itself as revolutionary easier to use.

  2. What drove me to try a mac, 5 or 6 years ago, was just the frustrations with Windows. Indeterminate slowdowns. Having to reboot at least once a day. Always with the constant virus-prevention updates or whatever. It was seriously getting in the way of me developing software.

    And that’s all Mac OS/X has to do to have me choose it over something else. Allow me to use the computer for what it was designed for – no slowdowns, no reboots, etc. And for that, it’s been great.

  3. Patrick: You never see the spinning beachball of death?

    “OS/X” *snerks* Apple doesn’t even use IBM chips any more, they sure don’t use IBM’s naming scheme.

  4. I see the spinning beachball of death … not very often. Compared to the day-to-day windows annoyances, it’s not even close.

    BTW, forgot to mention that since stability is essentially the main reason I tried, and then stuck with Mac, I wouldn’t expect tieguy to see that much of a difference between linux, in that regard.

    Big differences with Linux are that:

    – you don’t need to tweak hardware/drivers for the Mac – everything just works (except printers!)

    – getting command-line apps updated via apt-get et al is less attractive; there’s MacPorts, which I’d avoid at this point, and homebrew – – that I’ll try instead at some point.

  5. I did a similar experiment the other year when I got a new MacPro (the quality of Apple hardware makes it worth checking out even if you plan to run Linux). I tried to spend a week in OS X before I installed Ubuntu. I only made it about two days before it just drove me nuts.

    Overall the UI was kind of “meh”. Not bad, but not nearly as impressive as you would think based on how the mac evangelists describe it.

    I’m used to window managers with sloppy focus (ie, “focus follows pointer” which I’ve used in one form or another since 1999 (XMonad for the last couple years)), which OS X lacks completely. So I spent pretty much the entire time with the computer beeping at me annoyingly every time I started typing without clicking on a window first (years of muscle memory making me want to be able to just nudge the mouse over the window and not have to take the extra step of clicking to get it focused). That and the lack of virtual desktops made things extremely frustrating.

    I couldn’t get my scanner working. When I bought it, I made sure I got one that was known to work under Linux, took it out of the box and plugged it in and it was auto-detected by Ubuntu and just worked. So I threw away the box and the stupid CD with drivers. With OS X of course, I plugged it in and got nothing. The drivers were long gone and I couldn’t find anywhere online to download new ones. Apparently that’s how all hardware works with OS X. Lose a CD and your expensive hardware is a brick the next time you upgrade.

    I also do a lot of audio recording and mixing (using Ardour, jack, and that ecosystem under Linux). OS X came with GarageBand, which is ok and easy to setup. Ardour and jack are a pain to get configured but much more powerful once they are. To get equivalent software on OS X, it looked like I was going to have to spend thousands of dollars, so I didn’t really pursue that very far.

    I’m sympathetic to OS X and Windows users who come to Linux and find that things don’t work the way they’re used to and get frustrated, but it’s a two-way street.

  6. I got a Macbook Pro when I changed jobs a few months ago. My department is pretty platform agnostic, and the last time I’d tried OS X was about 6 years ago. I used it as my primary OS for about a month, then switched to using the Ubuntu install I had on it full-time. My impression was about the same as it was the last time I tried, yeah it’s nice enough, but there’s nothing compelling there to make it worth putting up with the discomfort it caused by adjusting my usage patterns. One thing that really struck me as funny was that there was a lot of customization I did to make it behave more like GNOME, but it all had to be done via the command-line because those options weren’t exposed in the UI anywhere. Oh, irony…

  7. Anders: honestly you sloppy focus people deserve any and all pain received :)

    Luis: I’ve been using OS X for a few months now and it mostly feels like a non-broken Linux to me. Video drivers work, suspend/hibernate works, sound works, etc. Yet there is still the friendly and familiar bash shell. Not to mention I can continue to use the same web browser I’ve known and loved on Linux.

    Also, the availability of high quality apps (Adobe CS4, Lightroom, Aperture, iMovie, the list goes on) should not be overlooked. I know hardcore Free Software types will balk, but the quality of applications on Linux is simply nowhere close to those on Windows and Mac.

  8. I am extremely uninterested in most of those applications; I still deeply appreciate the freedom of my data even if over time source access has proven less useful to me. But yeah, I’ll be playing with some of them.

  9. Well, from the other side, things that aren’t quite “there” yet in Ubuntu that keep me with the Mac. Although a *lot* of progress has been made in the last couple years, my general concerns do come down to polish/integration/ease-of-use:
    * Global notifications with Growl
    * Global well-integrated keychain
    * Global well-integrated dictionary
    * Global well-integrated search with Spotlight
    * Quicksilver
    * Set it and forget it Time Machine and networked Time Machine backups
    * Frameworks for storage/access to address book, to do list, calendar, preferences, etc., so that I can choose which program to use and still get at the same data, and easily sync it across machines. This isn’t by any means perfect, but it works reasonably well in most cases.
    * Exchange support in Snow Leopard (I’m not a fan of the big monolithic mail/address/calendaring programs, and much prefer the smaller special-purpose programs that nicely integrate with the central stores discussed above)
    For what it’s worth.

  10. Right, it’s “OS X”, not “OS/X”, but if you people teach others about that, you probably should also explain why, esp. to so someone who’s accustomed to reading things about “GNU/Linux” (because GNU it’s GNU system software with a Linux kernel).

    The “X” in “Mac OS X” doesn’t mean anything else than the roman number for 0xA or decimal 10. Mac OS X is just the next version after Mac OS 9.

    And, BTW, some people, including marketing, sometimes talk about things like “Mac OS X 10.6”, which is completely wrong as the “10” is already in the “X”. ;-)
    I guess that’s why the official line is to use the codenames for the .x nowadays, and then Mac OS 10.6 is Mac OS X “Snow Leopard” – nice isn’t it?

  11. I was thinking of getting a macbook. I heard they were better than other laptops. and I also have heard they have problems with the screens and memories sticks.

  12. I switched from Linux to Apple a few years ago when I needed a laptop that went to sleep when you close the lid, no questions asked. With portables, I see not even a hint that anything comes close in the “just works” department to a MacBook. I use VirtualBox when I need a Windows or Linux computer.

    You should take a look at Time Machine, which is the first system that makes backups realistic for the non-geeks (ie my parents, who I moved from Linux systems to iMacs a few years ago and are now converts). Scrivener is even better than you think it is, and will keep me using a Mac when all other reasons have gone.

    The “just works” part is what is killing Linux for me. I have a Ubuntu 9.10 desktop machine (quadcore) I use as a home server and that dual boots to Win XP for the rare game. It turns out that Canonical not only didn’t include a graphic login manager for GDM, but that they screwed around with the kernel to the point where Win XP 32 bit cannot be used with VirtualBox 3.1.2 on Ubuntu 64 bit, and you have to install 2.6.32 by hand. This is the sort of thing you simply don’t see with OS X (no slash, by the way) probably because nobody wants to get screamed at by Steve Jobs.

    The nice thing is, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Use OS X for the day-to-day work on a portable, and Linux for other stuff as a desktop computer, and synchronize your files with unison, the most unsung piece of software on the planet. This is what I have been doing for a while now, and am as happy as I can be.

  13. Sorry, I should add that I use Firefox on the MacBook (because of AdBlock) and Gmail for email (Mail, which is kind of meh, only picks up stuff as a local backup). So my most important programs don’t care which operation system I use anyway.

  14. Coming late to the party, but to James Willcox:

    If you’re citing Adobe CS4 as “quality apps”, then I’m guessing you don’t use them for the core of your business like my company and I do. :-) Their products tend to be rife with bugs, and often have big regressions between major versions (which are sometimes then “fixed” in the next major by being removed).

    Don’t get me wrong, Adobe’s products have a lot going for them. But code quality seems to often take a back seat to the latest interface change (can’t count the number of palette design changes from before and after the Macromedia merger) or bling feature. Worst is that the Mac version is essentially a Windows port and has gotten further away from the Mac conventions with each release.

    Take a look at for more of vox populi. Critics tend to speak louder than plaudits, but I think Adobe’s products’ history exempts them from a list of exemplary “quality apps”.

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