A few months back I broke down and bought a Mac Mini. My cofounders all use TextMate (Mac only, unfortunately) for coding in, and after watching them it became apparent that if I want to mess around with Rails, OSX is pretty much the only way to go. I’ve also been curious for a while about OSX, though I was a little hesitant about Jaguar, which had just dropped at the time, given that even Apple fanboys were complaining about it incessantly. This is a group of people who would normally shrug it off if Steve Jobs poked them eye with a rusty fork and just say something bad about Microsoft like “well, Outlook 2007 uses the Word HTML rendering engine.” So I figured if they were complaining, there must really be something wrong.
But I was told I could easily downgrade if necessary (in fact, the mini came with the previous release installed and a Leopard CD for upgrading) so I headed on down to the Apple store. That experience was almost enough to make me turn away. A girl with some sort of mullethawk and a tattoo creeping up her neck asked me if I needed help and I almost said “no, but you do.”
After telling them what I was there to purchase, I was directed to the Genius Bar. No joke, they really have something there called the Genius Bar. Luckily for me I hadn’t eaten recently. I don’t think I can endure that much pretentiousness on a full stomach without losing my lunch.
I wasn’t really sure what I’d find there. I figured maybe some physicists sipping martinis and working on their doctoral thesis on string theory. Or maybe Dawkins having a Tom Collins and writing his next treatise on intelligent design. Instead what I found was some douchey twenty-somethings who get paid $9 an hour to help people pick out iPods. Genius Bar? Yeah, you’re fucking Einsteins. “Excuse me Mr. Heisenberg, does this mp3 player have a replaceable battery?”
The “genius” at said “bar” then proceeded to try to sell me so many warranties and miscellaneous accessories with such a high pressure sales pitch that I started to wonder if I hadn’t just accidentally purchased a Ford Focus. I sat there scratching my head, waiting for the manager to come over and negotiate the price with me, and debated whether or not I was willing to go more than 5 percent over invoice or walk out and test drive a Gateway instead.
So I left the Apple store hoping the user experience for the computer would be better. Setting it up definitely was. The Mini is so small and unobtrusive that it’s easy to find room for it on any desk. The power brick is huge, which I found odd since the brick for a Macbook Pro is much smaller, though it seems as if it must use more power. But you can stash it on the floor, so who really cares? Best of all, it’s dead silent, except when there’s a CD or DVD in the drive, and even then it’s not too bad.
It was easy enough to get it started and set up. I played around happily with some of the included apps like iPhoto and iChat, which are much nicer than the crap Windows OEMs typically bloat their installations with, until I ran into my first snag.
Installing programs on OSX is extremely counterintuitive and labor intensive. The whole process is very poorly designed. First you download a dmg file which, when clicked, creates a virtual drive. On the virtual drive is the program, which you then have to drag into your Applications folder. Then you have to unmount the virtual drive and delete the dmg file from your desktop. It sounds laborious here, but it’s far worse when you have no idea what’s going on and are used to Windows, where you simply click the file you downloaded and then click yes or no to answer a question or two.
There’s no way that anyone could guess this procedure, and nobody reads manuals. I thought I had installed Firefox but found out the next day that I had only ran it from its virtual drive. Different installers seem to do different amounts of this work for you (some pop up an easy little window for dragging) but none seem to do the job completely. It’s always far more work/confusion than installing any Windows program has been since 1992. For all everyone hypes up the intuitiveness and ease of use of the Mac OS, it seems that one of the most basic and perhaps important operations one performs is extremely and unnecessarily complex.
Also the fonts are much different than windows, and frankly I don’t care for them. I may get used to them at some point. I doubt it though. The blurriness is disconcerting. My understanding of why they are that way is that Windows, which I’m used to, forces the fonts to conform to pixels on the monitor, making them less pretty but never blurry. Mac remains as true to the font as possible.
Having done the vast majority of my reading over the last 10 years on a computer rather than a magazine or book, I prefer Windows fonts. I really don’t give a flying fuck about what the letters would look like if they were in a newspaper, I only care what they look like on my screen. It’s 2008 and I think we can safely say it’s time to eradicate all fonts that weren’t designed specifically for monitors. Using fonts designed for printing presses on a monitor is like saying “yeah those tires on your car really have no traction and burst every 2,000 miles, but if you put them on a Conestoga wagon, wow would you be impressed.”
Another major gripe I have is window maximizing. When I click that button on any program on Windows, it takes up the whole screen. This is invaluable for people like me who use dual monitors (which, by the way, you shouldn’t even bother attempting on a Mac. My cofounder has to close the lid when he hooks his MBP up to a monitor). On a Mac you click the maximize button and anything can happen. From what I understand, OSX leaves it to the application developer to decide, which means that sometimes it maximizes vertically, sometimes horizontally, and sometimes it rotates 90 degrees to the left and sings La Cucaracha. It’s a gamble, but it almost never does what you’d want or expect it to.
Other than those things though, I like the OS. There are a lot of nice little things. Icons are easily resizable which is nice when you’re using a big monitor at a high resolution. Uninstalling programs is as easy as installing is hard. You just delete it from your Applications folder. No registry or dll concerns, which saves you from having to reinstall your OS as frequently as you might with Windows.
Driver support isn’t Windows, of course, but it is better than I thought it would be. Apple seems to have made their own driver for my Logitech DiNovo Edge, which is awesome. Inability to use it probably would have meant me returning the Mac or selling it on eBay.
There are some pretty sweet third party apps as well. Adium is a pretty awesome chat client. I use Miranda on Windows, and after a few plugins and hours of configuration I probably still prefer it, but Adium is almost as good right out of the box. The included office productivity programs are atrocious, especially compared to Word/Outlook 2007, so I won’t be using them, but Microsoft does make Mac products which I hear, with the exception of Entourage (email) are almost as good as the real thing. I wasn’t planning on doing more than coding and maybe web surfing on that PC anyway. Safari seems nice enough (certainly far better than IE6 or 7) but I prefer browsers that crash every 15 minutes, so I installed Firefox.
I’ve had the machine crash a couple times, so I can’t say much for its touted stability. It doesn’t seem as reliable as Windows is these days, but at least Apple replaced the dreaded blue screen with something much more pleasant. I didn’t even know it was crashing until my cofounder told me, and that has to be worth something.
There’s lots of little stuff that I can see why programmers love. My cofounders liken it to “Linux but with a good user interface”. Hotkeys seem to be more consistent from one application to another, and I probably generally prefer doing stuff with the Apple key to the Ctrl key. And TextMate is pretty awesome, as is Quicksilver and a few more geek tools I played around with.
But for the most part, I just don’t see it being as user friendly as Windows for Joe Sixpack. Basic operations like program installation and window maximizing (and what the hell is a keychain?) are all so convoluted and counter-intuitive that it just isn’t worth it. So my final verdict is pretty much that if you know what a command line is and what to do with one, buy a Mac. Otherwise, you’ll be much happier with Windows.