Living with Mac OS X
I’ve been following the Mac world since about January 2003, in terms of new products & technologies coming from Apple, mainly because they seemed to be doing interesting or innovative things which were somewhat lacking in the Microsoft camp. From this ensued my massive interest in converting over from Windows/Linux dual-boot to OS X as a desktop platform, something I’ve recently had the chance to do with my move to university. After seven weeks dealing with the platform on an every-day basis, there are some reflections I’ve gathered together on it, and some potential tips for any would-be switcher.
First things first, the hardware. For the time being I am using a 12” iBook G4 800, a machine that is about two generations old now in terms of Apple product releases, but only around 10 months old in practical terms. It is equipped with Airport Extreme, 256MB of ram and a 40GB hard disk, a custom configuration at the time. I have found the form factor perfect for mobility, being able to grab the thing off my desk and throw it in a bag (with its protective sleeve) to take to lecture is really useful, and it functions well in the Lecture environment. The average 5-6 hour battery life I get during normal use is more than enough for even the heaviest days of lectures & seminars, and I can work without having to bring AC adapters with me (a real bonus).
Recently I’ve been using the VGA-output and a two button USB mouse when the laptop is on my desk, as the 12” screen by itself was getting a little cramped for programming and assignments, or just working on things that required a lot of terminals. This has given me the best of both worlds, with an ultra-portable laptop and a highly flexible desktop with plenty of screen space. The additional mouse and screen real-estate has started to push the limits of the (fairly conservative) 256MB of ram, so that is looking like a potential upgrade point in the near future. I am consistently impressed with how well the hardware and software mesh for handling things like hot-plugging displays, mice, iPods, bluetooth and other devices without interfering with the user.
Moving on to the software side of things, I had an uncomfortable first few weeks as I realised which applications I lacked from my everyday use of a Windows PC prior to the switch. (I’d previously used the iBook heavily as a wireless Remote Desktop client, and failed to notice some of the more fundamental gaps in the software set installed on the iBook). However, over time I was able to find highly acceptable (in some cases, even better) substitutes for the applications I was missing. An early acquaintance tipped me off to an application called Quicksilver, which I had heard of but not used, for various reasons. Quicksilver itself is a stunning usability enhancement to OS X, and between it and Expose I find even running with 20-30 windows open is no real issue. This ease-of-use also contributes to the considerable drain on the hardware, given that I keep so many windows open now.
Other nice pieces of software I have found for OS X have been NewsFire and FFview. MPlayer OS X doesn’t really count, since I’d been using mplayer on Windows for quite some time, but its OS X port is nonetheless an essential application for anyone who steps outside the Windows Media/Real Player/Quicktime trio of playback support. VLC seems to be the more popular choice of the two open-source media players on the Mac, but I feel lost without mplayer’s key bindings, so I have stuck with what I know best. Mail.app’s threading has been a boon for keeping my e-mails organised, although issues with the custom root CA’s used by the university cause it to prompt me with security warnings every time I send a mail (which is something I’ll try to fix when I get round to it). Safari works well as a default browser, if a tad slow at times, but I am grateful for its lack of memory leaks (Firefox had some severe issues last time I was using it on a PC in this respect). XML & XSLT support in Safari would be nice to see, and something I’m hoping to see along with the forthcoming RSS features in Mac OS X Tiger 10.4 (the next major release of Mac OS X).
The iBook & OS X stood side-by-side with a generic Windows laptop in similar circumstances, has several times demonstrated its refinement and capabilities in adapting to the task at hand. Connecting to the Wireless VPN network at university was straightforward and easy, and happily connects every time with only two mouse clicks. Getting Windows laptops to work on the same VPN network proved more tricky and unreliable, and I’ve had no problems whatsoever with compatibility on the network here at Kent. Being able to take advantage of OS X’s windows file sharing mounts along with the X11 and Terminal functionality has allowed me to concentrate on getting tasks done in the mixed Solaris/Windows XP environment provided by the CS department here, instead of configuring things to make them work.
Overall I have been suitably impressed with Apple hardware and software to the extent that I’ll be upgrading to a Powerbook based setup at the next available opportunity. With the intention to replace my own desktop setup at home with a powerful and capable system that I can also use in a mobile environment. I await the next major release of Mac OS X, Tiger with great anticipation, given the powerful capabilities of new features like Spotlight (demonstrated at WWDC 2004) and the many other enhancements to core aspects of the operating system, like Safari and Mail.app.