As I noted in the last post, I started a new job a few weeks ago. Given the number of different jobs I’ve been in over the years, this isn’t anything unusual, but in this particular instance the transition from one job to the next has been a little more difficult than usual, mostly because for the first time in my professional career I have found myself needing to use a Mac for my day-to-day work. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty much a diehard PC junkie, and anyone who has read my various writings over the years (especially the older stuff I’d really prefer to just keep buried in the depths of the Internet Wayback Machine never to see the light of day again) knows that I’ve never cared much for Apple in general or Macs in particular, mostly as a result of early exposure to Mac zealots in my formative years. One thing I’ve learned about my personality over the years is that I automatically tend to become skeptical about pretty much anything that inspires irrational fanaticism. There used to be a time when I wouldn’t go anywhere near a Mac, but over time my career path and various circumstances have mellowed my attitudes toward Apple products somewhat.
I am no longer at a point where I would just flat-out refuse to use anything with an Apple logo on it, but I still don’t care for them all that much. In fact, after using a number of different tablets over the years I’ve pretty much settled on an iPad Mini as my everyday tablet (although I think I might eventually go back to the 10″ size since the Mini is a little smaller than I’d like it to be.) I’ve tried a number of other ones (most notably a Nexus 7,) but haven’t been able to quite get used to them on a day-to-day basis. I know quite a few people who have gotten to the point where they have basically replaced their computers with an iPad for personal use, and for some people I can see that making sense.
The problem with it in the long-term is that tablets in general (and iPads in particular) are functionally limited in what you can actually do with them. Even though I’ve done it before, I would not recommend doing any significant amount of writing using a touchscreen keyboard. And unless you’re running on a tablet with a full Desktop OS like a Surface Pro your tablet doesn’t have the capability to develop software for itself (and even there I wouldn’t recommend it. Even with the Type Cover my Surface Pro still has a pretty horrible keyboard for anything but the most basic of typing.) When it all boils down, tablets are great devices for consuming media (video, audio, etc.), so-so devices for web browsing, and flat-out terrible devices for basically any productive work. In spite of that, they still have their niche. Even though I’ve got all the computing power I could possibly need in my big powerful Windows desktop, there are times when you just don’t need all of that.
Which brings me to my experience with using a Mac. Somehow I suspect that I would have had an easier time getting used to a Mac if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve spent over 20 years using PCs, and have gotten very comfortable with them over the years. One of the things I’ve noticed about computer users is that over time they begin to develop their own workflow and particular ways of accomplishing certain tasks. You like to have this window here, certain taskbar icons in certain places, certain keyboard shortcuts you like to use, and so forth. The last time I bought a new smartphone (nearly three years ago at this point) I found that one of the first things I did with it was to arrange the homescreen icons and widgets in as close to the same layout I had with my old phone as possible. Given the fact that I was going from one HTC phone to another at the time it was pretty easy to get it pretty close. The biggest issue I’ve found when switching between PC and Mac is that there’s really no way to replicate that familiar workflow when switching to a different operating system. Eventually you come up with a workflow that (sort of) works on there, but there always seems to be a couple of things missing, and a couple of things that you can never seem to get quite right.
In my case, perhaps the biggest nuisance of switching between Windows and Mac on a daily basis is the fact that a lot of the keyboard shortcuts are almost, but not quite, the same between the two. For example, the copy and paste commands (which I use a lot) are CTRL-C/V and Command-C/V on PC and Mac respectively. The annoying part is that the Mac keyboard has a CTRL key in approximately the same place that a standard PC keyboard does, but it does basically nothing except for inside the command shell, where Command-C (a commonly used *nix command to abort a running process) doesn’t do anything. What this means is that switching between the two platforms involves a fair bit of having to do things twice because you used the wrong keyboard shortcut (which happens to be the right keyboard shortcut on the other platform).
One of the reasons I’ve never been much of an Apple fan is that for all of their obsessive focus on design, they frequently seem to place form over function, opting to make things look pretty at the expense of making them useful. Perhaps the biggest example of this in OSX that I’ve found is in notifications. On a Mac, notifications for things like mail and updates are placed in a little pop-up that appears in the upper right corner of the screen. I’ve found that this has a tendency to get in the way of things, as it happens to be right in the area where I might have things like browser tabs or menu options. There is also no obvious way to dismiss these notifications. I figured out eventually that you have to click on them and push them back off the screen, but most users wouldn’t be able to figure that behavior out without being prompted, and there’s no obvious prompt for this. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to move it (and a Google search reveals mostly message board posts complaining about the behavior) and no real solution to this besides to turn notifications off. On a Windows machine, the vast majority of these notifications happen in the lower right corner, which makes a lot more sense because it rarely interferes with anything there. Windows apps also tend to standardize on right-click to dismiss notifications, or at least provide an obvious X icon.
Another major nuisance I’ve found compared to Windows on the Mac is that there’s no good way to deal with child windows in an app. The way I have Windows 7 set up, these child windows just show up in the taskbar, which makes them nice and easy to find (Windows also has a “group icons” option, which I find much less useful.) On the Mac, you can’t see where any of your windows are unless you open “Mission Control”, a view that basically shows every open window at once. If you’re using a trackpad you can use a gesture to open this, but if you’re on a Magic Mouse there’s no good way to do it without using a keyboard shortcut. So basically if you’re looking for a window you had open but moved away from (such as an e-mail message) you have to find the icon in the dock, right-click on it )or command-click if you’re one of those Mac traditionalists who never bothered enabling right-click) and find the window you were using.It’s just a pain to deal with really. I suppose someone used to using a Mac would know how to do all this, but especially for someone who has been using Windows for years, this stuff just seems like a bad user experience to me.
That said, in spite of various nuisances in the operating system, I do have to say that the hardware is top-notch, which is pretty much what you’d expect for the premium price you (or in my case, someone else) would pay for Apple hardware. After years of dealing with laptop keyboards ranging from mediocre to outright terrible (I have to say that the Type Cover on my Surface Pro tends much more toward the latter category unfortunately) I’ve found that the keyboard on the MacBook Pro is actually quite nice to type on. The USB Apple Keyboard I use at my desk at work is slightly less so, but still pretty decent. The construction of the system is nice and solid, and after you use something like this you start to wonder why you spent so long dealing with cheap plastic laptops. For the development work I’m involved in, it’s also nice not having to go search the Internet for an ADB driver for every Android phone I connect to the system, and having a proper Unix command shell to work with, since the work I do actually involves a fair bit of work in the command line. That said, there does still seem to be something of a disconnect between the Mac side of things (Finder and it’s version of the file system) and the Unix side of things, which functions very differently. For the most part it works, but getting one to talk to the other when you need to can be annoying.
When it all boils down, even though I’m no longer the Mac hater I used to be (I’d say I’ve mellowed out to something more in the “Mac Skeptic” category) I still don’t see myself ditching my big powerful desktop PC anytime soon in favor of a Mac. When you use both platforms regularly you can see a lot of the areas where Apple and Microsoft copied things off of each other over the years. Even so, both platforms are still very different from each other, and switching from one to the other (especially if you’re doing it on a daily basis) isn’t exactly trivial. I think I’ve mostly gotten used to it, but there are still some regular tasks that are accomplished easily in Windows that I haven’t found a good way to do on a Mac. Part of that may be just a matter of figuring out the proper way to do them, but in general, I find I just have a (very slightly) harder time getting work done on a Mac than I do on a Windows machine. And given the choice, I’d still rather work on a PC. That’s not to say that the Mac is necessarily any better or any worse at what it does. Just that it’s different. And isn’t different what Apple was going for in their ad campaigns many years ago?