mot (symmys) wrote,

Turns out Macs are just computers

I grew up a mac person and was a loyal mac user up through OS 8.6. Around that time, I discovered emacs and from there I was turned onto free software. It's been a number of years now I've been using linux and dealing with the various frustrations of computers -- unsupported drivers, the occasional obnoxious bug, software that doesn't quite do what I wish it did.

For much of this time, I have to admit there was a nagging thought in the back of my mind: maybe OSX, with its undergirding of BSD and its shiny exterior, is actually the ideal. Maybe I was making a sacrifice using linux all this time. (Note: I've also been exposed to Windows through work, but it never occurred to me that I was missing out on anything by not using Windows).

Anyway, a week ago or so, I got my new Macbook, which came with my new job (okay, so it's not exactly mine). I've been acclimating to the machine, and there are a number of things I like -- both from the geek and nongeek sides. On the nongeek side, the Mac clearly has all the things right that linux has finally gotten right in the last few years -- wireless just works without any of the complexity of windows, for instance, and the basic desktop is quite decent to use. Some of the usability quirks of the old system -- such as throwing disks in the trash to eject them -- have been smoothed over. On the geek side, the bsd underlying the system means that emacs is installed by default (it actually isn't in ubuntu, sadly enough) and I could use ssh from the get-go and edit a .profile to configure my commandline properly.

That said, the Mac is far from paradise. Here are some of my observations. These are minor pet peeves really -- but linux users make lists of these pet peeves every time a new distro release comes around. It is very comforting to know that a similar list exists for our competitors.

After a few years in the linux world -- which follows the windows paradigm of using underlined "mnemonics" to let you access controls and menus -- I find it intensely annoying not being able to explore programs from the keyboard. Of course, once I learn the Mac control sequences, I can avoid this, but still -- every time I open a new program, I have to use the mouse to explore what functionalities are under the menu system.

I've read that Mac usability people say that in tests people are far faster with a mouse than with a keyboard -- even "power users" who believe they are faster on the keyboard. I believe this may be the case -- and that would justify the Mac's design, for a desktop. But I highly doubt that anyone is faster with a trackpad than they are with a keyboard -- good god, I'm growing to hate that thing. I also sorely miss the scrolling built into my regular laptop's trackpad -- between the lack of a scroll mechanism on the laptop and the lack of PageUp and PageDown buttons, I find it very difficult to read on the Mac.

Confusing design...
Although I have to hand it to Apple for making programs that have a great look-and-feel to them, they are not without their annoyances. I couldn't figure out for the life of me how to do basic fades in garageband. I finally learned that there's an arrow button that brings up a very nice interface for changing the volume over the course of a track. That was great -- but there was no way for me to discover the functionality of the arrow button -- no tooltip, no equivalent in the menu, no label. I had to read the documentation -- always a bad sign.

It reminds me a bit of when I first got my ipod and couldn't figure out for the life of me how to turn it on. Hit the play button? What?

I've found countless instances of things like this -- once I learn where to press, I'm okay -- but there's no way for me to predict how I will do something until I read it somewhere. The menu systems and text on the screen on so pared down I can't read my way through to learn how to use things -- that's the cost of gloss I guess.

Little Things
Here are some of the surprising annoyances that came from the Mac -- annoyances that have their parallels in the linux world for sure, but that make me think that maybe Macs aren't so perfect after all.

  1. I couldn't get my shared printer to work using the Mac dialogs. Luckily, I know enough to know that Mac runs cups under the hood -- using the cups web interface (identical to that in Ubuntu), I was able to get my shared printing working, but it wasn't something that would have worked smoothly for a nongeek. I also quickly found a website that didn't work properly with safari (I couldn't manage to log into my sourceforge wiki for some reason). I installed firefox and that solved the problem.
  2. I couldn't copy my music from my ipod to my computer. I ended up logging into my linux computer (which had copied the music from the ipod) and scp'ing my music over to the Mac. How's that for strange -- linux seems to support the ipod better than Mac.
  3. At one point I ended up with firefox refusing to quit and couldn't remember how to force quit. Needless to say, this isn't obvious from the interface (it's a magic key combo if I recall correctly). When I went to log out, nothing happened for quite a while, leading me to try shutting down several more times. Finally, a dialog popped up and told me that firefox refused to quit and would I like to kill it. This is a classic experience--the "hang", the lack of feedback--but it was very surprising to see it on a Mac given the great usability I've been led to expect from them.

Big Things
A final thing -- when I opened up Garageband recently, it asked if I'd like to learn about updates. "Of course!", I thought. It brought me to a webpage that gave me the opportunity to spend $79 upgrading. WTF!?! And here, of course, I learned how used I am to free software. I got in it for the freedom, of course, but I've come out of it being a monumental cheapskate. I just can't quite stomach the idea of paying for software, and the idea that I would have to pay to get improvements (rather than just clicking "Upgrade") is really astonishing.

So in the end, I'm very happy to be back on my linux laptop. I'm excited that linux is getting better and better and competing with OSX. For any mac users out there -- there is one good side effect of my experiments with the Mac: I now have instructions for installing my lovely recipe software on OSX. It's not exactly easy, but so it goes...
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