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Mac vs PC - a review by a new Mac user 1.5 years on

Mac vs PC - a review by a new Mac user 1.5 years on For the last 1.5 years I've been using a lovely iMac for my desktop PC and now I am sharing my experience – the good, and the bad. I am comparing against Windows (sorry Linux fans), although I've used just about every operating system in the past myself.

As a programmer at heart my views are likely to swing in the technical direction, but I've tried to be fair and not make specific comments that only apply to other programmers.

There are a lot more bad points in this particular article than good points, but my objective is to be critical and if I were writing about Windows it would be the same. There's no point me writing about what Apple do that's "good enough", so for the good things I am only going to be covering things that really stand out for them above Windows.

The good

To start with here are some things I really love about my Mac.

  1. The hardware is great, especially the screen, and the remote control. It's a really nice machine.
  2. MacOS is really very pretty, and that's certainly welcome if you spend a lot of time on a computer like I do.
  3. The integration and consistency between everything is great, perhaps the most compelling reason to use a Mac.
  4. You can schedule the thing to turn itself on automatically. I never use it, but that's cool!
  5. You can talk to the computer! (although the implementation is really rather poor interface-wise)
  6. If you move a file, programs currently using that file will still keep the same reference to it when you save.
  7. Window management works really well, in general. The graphic effects pull form and function together for great usability.
  8. The dock is very good. It's the Windows system tray, start menu, quick launch panel, and alt-tab, all mixed into one. I find it works really well. I particularly like how my bittorrent client is able to show transfer-speeds overlayed over it's dock icon. Windows 7 is going to have something similar to the dock actually.
  9. I really like the Applications directory. I used to use this style of self contained icon-application back when I was an Acorn user (about 10 years ago now), and I always thought it was the best approach. It's much better than Windows "Program Files"/"Start menu" system, and much much better than the typical "strewn all over the place"/"all thrown together" Unix system. Installation and especially upgrading is much quicker than going through a wizard on Windows, and uninstallation is just a couple of clicks.
  10. Universal drag and drop is brilliant. For example, I like to drag images out of my web browser and into Photoshop without needing to save.
  11. The way the system only allows a program to run once, and puts different instances as windows within the single app, is much cleaner.
  12. For some reason I just love how I can play movie previews using the remote control from my chair. It's not logical as I could view a website to do the same, but somehow it just seems a good example of how the Mac redresses/rejigs the priorities of cold technology to make it to be more lifestyle-orientated.
  13. I can drag an icon from a window title-bar to use somewhere else. This is incredibly handy when editing files for upload via FTP – I can drag straight from the editor to the FTP client.
  14. The computer is very stable. It very rarely crashes, doesn't degrade over time, and it rarely feels like I am fighting it.
  15. It is Unix based, so I have a great solid set of underlying command line tools to fall back on, and it's all very standard when compared against Linux.
  16. If you do want to run Windows it's easy - Mac's are actually PC's now, so you just reset the computer and choose Windows - or set up a virtual machine (extra software needed). Of course you need a copy of Windows to do this.
  17. Spotlight is a great application launcher. I like to play Unreal Tournament for a few minutes each day and I just click in the corner of my desktop and type "unreal" and it loads. I could have it on my dock but that would be too distracting, and it's great to not have to negotiate a bloated start menu.

The bad

And now for the bad…

  1. When I bought the Mac I got a 'free' printer, which I'd have to pay for initially but get a rebate on. To do that I had to carve up my Mac's packaging using a stanley knife and fill in a complex form, following instructions which were actually wrong. Through no fault of my own I sent the 'wrong' bar-code in and had to go through the process again. This really ruined the initiation experience for me- it's all meant to be about ease of use and instant-go, not carving up boxes and filling in erroneous forms.
  2. I bought a Mac with Leopard (when it was new) but I had to upgrade to it manually – which wasn't explained at point of sale. Again, this is a spoiler to the experience that Apple really aim for.
  3. My free printer installed ok, but I was left thinking it hadn't as the installation program re-ran whenever I started up the computer. The install program suggested the printer wasn't connected when the truth was it couldn't find a printer to install because it had already been installed. Kind of expected this thing would not happen seeing as the printer was given to me by Apple ;). Also I had to download new drivers as the ones with it crashed on Leopard – again, I'd expect if Apple sold me a new Mac with Leopard, that they would make sure either the driver with their supplied printer was compatible, or at least educate me to the fact I'd need to upgrade it.
  4. Macs are meant to make things simpler, so why do I have all these accelerator keys: Shift, Ctrl, Command, Alt, Function. It's even worse than PC's! Don't get me started about the crazy hieroglyphics used to represent key shortcuts. The ability to use 'slightly sub-optimal' keyboard menu navigation on Windows is much better than having to remember dozens of complex key shortcuts on the Mac.
  5. At first I used a cheap USB hub that plugs direct into a port (no cables). My Mac was constantly crashing, and there was an electric charge going around the case somehow. I think that's pretty much the peak of 'hardware incompatibility'.
  6. Mac's are expensive spec-for-spec with PC's. Also the darned Apple store doesn't price things – I think the expectation they have is I pick something up and take it to the counter and then pay whatever they tell me the price will be.
  7. I accept the different window/program metaphor the Mac uses is better in many ways, but I don't like it's visual implementation. In Windows an active Window has a very clear blue title-bar. On a Mac it's much more subtle (you have to look at the right place, a quick gaze won't tell you), so it's hard to tell at a glance what Window has the focus.
  8. My preferred Windows OS, Windows Server 2003 is not supported with Boot Camp. I guess that's fair but I also kind of feel I was given the impression that "I can run Windows on it" – and not given an impression that which versions of Windows would be limited.
  9. Mac's have UK keyboard keys in a funny order, which I can live with – but plug in a PC keyboard and then the key positions are wrong. I managed to find a new keyboard map, but it didn't work – just stopped the keyboard working. Then magically a few days later it just started to work. I think my problems are exacerbated by being a UK user – but using PC keyboards is not optional given the choice of Mac-only keyboards is really very limited.
  10. As a PHP developer, I can say (like many other's using a Mac have found) the default Apache/PHP setup has serious compatibility issues.
  11. Parallels (which let's you run Windows inside MacOS) did not work if you have USB drives unless you alter the config file by hand (which is not explained). Not really Apple's fault, but this is considered such a key app that sells the Mac for people, that I don't expect to have to hunt down solutions for this kind of basic thing.
  12. Whilst some of the Apple UI's are great, the majority aren't any better than Windows – there are plenty of gaffs. For example, if I go into 'Disk manager' and a disk won't mount, it'll tell me to run 'First aid' on it. However, the actual buttons to do it are greyed out, and there is no explanation why. So (a) why did it tell me to do the impossible and (b) why did the UI not explain the situation?
  13. I had to buy a third party app to get my iPod's library to import back into my new computer's iTunes. Otherwise I would have had to transfer the files from computer-to-computer. This is pretty lame as I might have sold me old computer, or it might have died. Generally Apple's DRM and attitude for closedness creates very real problems for people.
  14. It irritates me than I can't alt-tab between windows like I can on Windows. I can move between apps, and I can move between windows of a single app, but not together. I often am in a situation where I have 3 different windows each fulfilling a different purpose and I want to be able to move between all 3 in a consistent way. I should mention though there is a commercial plugin for this; but it feels clumsy compared to what MacOS has to offer in other areas.
  15. ZIP files made by MacOS are cluttered with junk.
  16. If you start dragging an icon it's really hard to stop. Pressing escape won't stop the drag.
  17. Quicktime (the Mac media player) has advertisements to upgrade built into it that cannot be disabled – very cheeky.

When minimalism goes awry

  1. On a PC, you get various messages saying how to alter the boot sequence (or at least it says what to press to get into the bios where you can do that) – on Mac you get nothing. Parallels had killed my Windows partitions independent bootability so I was left with an unbootable computer after I switched bootcamp to run Windows. I had to search the net to find you need to hold 'C' to boot from DVD, and then you can change the start up partition back using the Mac OS X install disk. Good thing I had my iPod touch to do this on.
  2. There's no hard disk activity indicator (it's very important in my view to help one diagnose why a computer has gone slow, and even a Mac can sometimes).
  3. There's no CD/DVD eject button (a PITA if you need to eject during boot, or from Windows, etc).
  4. The keyboard and mouse that come with the Mac are really bad. Really bad. There is zero ergonomic design on these things, and the cheapest PC keyboards are far better. This said, I understand the Mac Pro keyboards are more suitable for those not using the computer as a media device at the center of a hip cool lifestyle.

Spotlight: out of focus

Spotlight is the Mac's search tool, used for general searches, but also for all file searching.

  1. If you start a search from a Finder window it always tries to search the whole computer, and there is no way to control this. This is really backward – if I search from a specific directory window, I naturally expect it to search that directory not the whole computer. Every time you do a search you need to tweak the settings.
  2. Spotlight really sucks at finding precise results. I understand it uses an index to try and do smart matching, but it approximates things far too much, and sometimes I need to make a literal search. It should at least have an option to turn on non-indexed searching. For example, it couldn't search CSV file contents when I tried the other day – these are just very simple, and standard, text format files – it has no excuse.
  3. When doing a desktop Spotlight search and attempting to click a result another result can appear where you're clicking as you click and you end up running the wrong thing. It should really avoid changing what's under the cursor to avoid this – basic usability for such a key part of the system.
  4. If you do a Finder Spotlight search there's no UI feedback as to how far it is through searching. I want to know if my search is 20% done, or finished (the spinner progress indicator seems rather random and results can come in after it stops spinning).

Finder: to help you get lost

Finder is the Mac equivalent to Windows Explorer.

  1. It's a shame you can't turn an address bar on. I realise that it is best that regular users don't have one, but for power-users it's a must. It's necessary to be able to get file and folder paths for use in code, or the command line. Fortunately there's a free tool called 'FilepathtoClip!' that makes up for the problem.
  2. Finder overwrites a directory if you move a directory of the same name into it's parent directory – whilst Windows would have the sense to merge them. It's really unbelievable that Apple hasn't done something about this rather notorious problem. It should give the user a dialogue giving them a merge option at the very least.
  3. If you carefully select a load of icons for moving, then go to "Go->Applications" from the Finder menu bar, it'll move your Finder window to the applications window, and lose your icon selection – clicking back will not restore it so you have to start again. "Just works" my ass.
  4. The Mac 'trash' sucks compared to Windows's recycle bin- you can't see when things were deleted, so you can't do a very basic "order by deletion date".
  5. There's no easy way to find file sizes in Finder in icon view (you need to open and then dismiss the file info dialog to find them).
  6. Icons for images that are wide and short are really hard to click as the transparent bit is not clickable.
  7. I can't see .htaccess files unless I turn on all hidden files in a command line. That's a pain to do, and I don't want to leave all hidden files enabled. Apple need an easy UI toggle button, or selective hiding. This is a common problem not just for web developers, but basic users of website software.
  8. Finder crashes fairly often (about once a week). When it happens, you lose all your open Finder windows.
  9. If you try and copy a file that's too large for a FAT32 disk it gives an "unexplained error" rather than a true error message.
  10. You can't move files between disks except by copying then deleting.

Safari: A rough trip

For those that don't know, Safari is the Apple web browser.

  1. When you edit a bookmark it opens the edit screen over the existing browser tab, and once you close the edit screen your tab is lost – very annoying.
  2. There's no support for favicons in the bookmark toolbar. This isn't just stylistic – icons exist for a reason, to help you quickly associate things.
  3. If a download starts in Safari it's very possible not to notice, as the main window won't tell you and if the download window is obscured you see nothing. Maybe this is fixed in the latest version though, I'm not sure.
  4. If you start a download, and Safari/the-computer crashes (happens more than one would wish) the download restarts.

Time Machine: a journey back in time

Time Machine is Apple's backup tool. In some ways it's very good – it handles backups transparently giving cheap peace of mind – and it makes it really easy to browse through different versions of a file – but it has many problems…

  1. Backups are not 'differential'. So, for example, if I make 100 tiny changes to a 10MB PSD, that's a whole GB of backup space used.
  2. I can't say "don't archive any .avi files" or "don't archive any files larger than xMB" – I have to manually choose every file/directory not to archive.
  3. I wonder how it deletes old backups – does it preferentially delete stuff for which a newer backup stores a revision, or does it indiscriminately delete based on archival time? I really should know this from using it, and preferably be able to control it. It's important to understand how one's backups work so you know how/if you're protected! I think it just throws out the oldest layer and then the next backup fills in any gaps that came out of that, but I'm not sure.
  4. I restored a file for a test, and it pushed me back to regular Finder and asked me if I'd like to replace a file. The message said something like "Would you like to keep the original or the replacement?". That's not clear – in my eyes as a restorer, the "original" is what I'm restoring, not what I'm restoring over.
  5. The restoration interface is really jerky to use. Apple have tried to make a really fancy user interface for restoration, but it is horrible to work with. To be fair this may be exacerbated by the fact I am using a slow USB hub to plug in my backup disk.
  6. Time Machine really slows down the computer when backing up. Again to be fair it might be my slow USB hub.

Apple Mail: missing the message

Apple Mail (also known as Mail.app) is the Mac e-mail package.

  1. If you move a message it remembers the move pattern so you can repeat it from the right-click menu for other e-mails. But the memory is global rather than per-account, which kind of ruins it. If you move something to a certain folder, and go into that folder and right click a message, it'll even invite you to move the message to the same folder it's already in!
  2. There's no support for read receipts, without inflexible hackery. For many people working in business read receipts are a basic essential.
  3. "Mark as unread" is pretty irritating. You can't right click and mark something as unread if it isn't initially selected, as it gets auto-selected after doing so, undoing what you just did. Also if you click the dock icon, whatever is selected is marked as read even if you just marked it unread last time Apple Mail wasn't hidden.
  4. If I double click an attachment in an email, and then reply to the email, the original message is not included in the reply. This is because Apple Mail tries to be smart and only includes what you highlight in it's reply, and double clicking an attachment highlights that attachment. It's too smart– if I highlight a few words to copy and paste into another program it doesn't mean I want to reply to those words. If it is going to be smart it should really do it properly.
  5. There's no link auto-detection.
  6. There's no toolbar button to make a list or do basic text formatting like 'bold' (you need to dig them out from the menus).
  7. There's no way to turn existing paragraphs into a list.
  8. There are big problems with attachment compatibility with various mail clients (many people have reported to me not being able to open image attachments, for example). The problems are in that the image embedding is totally different to how Microsoft do it, and also MIME content-disposition settings aren't handled well.

iTunes: out of tune

iTunes is actually very nice in my opinion, but there are still some minor issues:

  1. My number one gripe is that search is local to the folder you're in. If you accidentally search in the wrong folder you need to erase your search filter, go to the right folder, then type it in again. It really needs a drop down that lets you do choose either local or global searches, and a way to jump to different localities if you fail to get any search results.
  2. The 'Plus' icons Apple uses on various apps are very confusing. iTunes has one in the bottom left, and it creates a playlist – but if you're trying to create a playlist, there's nothing to indicate that's the button to use as it isn't (from a visual hierarchy point of view) underneath the 'Playlists' section (it's part of the footer toolbar) or marked with an obvious icon or caption.

Here's a good example of Apple doing bad UI design. See how the layout makes it looks like the password is only something to do with AOL radio button? Apple are meant to be the best at this…


TextMate - great editor, slow updates

TextMate is the most popular programmers text editor on the Mac. It's a fantastic tool, but unfortunately it has been a long time since the last major version and there are some really annoying glitches. Of course none of this is Apple's fault, but as this is the best tool on the Mac in most programmer's opinions it of course is a factor in actual usage.

  1. If you use the Subversion bundle to delete a file be very sure there isn't a file selected in the project pane because it'll delete that one instead of the one you're looking at. Many things in TextMate have no 'undo'.
  2. Really long lines crash TextMate.
  3. There's no way to search only in a subset of files.
  4. If you save-as a file to make a copy, you can no longer access the original without reopening TextMate.
  5. There is no confirm after doing a "Replace All" from the Find-in-files window, and no single undo if you do accidentally click it.
  6. It really irritates me when I try in to jump to a file like "example.php" and at the top of the list is something like "exampeople.php" (it looks for matches very loosely, and then doesn't order them well).
  7. Sometimes when you command-tab to TextMate it focuses the app but not the window. This behaviour seems to occur randomly.
  8. It drives me crazy that I can't view it's search results at the same time as another window. As soon as I change focus my secondary window disappears.

Conclusion

I do really like my Mac. It's a lovely computer (a lovely PC in fact, given it can run Windows and has an Intel x86 chip :P).
However, on balance I do not honestly think MacOS is better than Windows. There are good points, and bad points, and I think it's a pretty level contest. The Mac has much better integration, and a generally smoother, faster, prettier experience – but it often lacks control, isn't as usable as people often claim, and is expensive.

I think I'd really recommend a Mac as the best computer for regular people as long as they aren't using it for business or games, otherwise I would probably be completely neutral. So in all that, even with the negatives I've found, Mac does generally come out on top :). I hope you found this useful and that I won't be lynched by Mac fan boys ;).

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