First Impressions of the Macbook Pro and Mac OS X

From Microsoft to Apple in on Fell Swoop

The Macbook Pro running Parallels

Contents

Introduction

Update

I got a lot of helpful responses to this article. Thank you to all who recommended software and made suggestions. You can see a summary of the answers to most of the questions in this article in: Response(s) to Mac First Impressions.

I'm a programmer. My language of choice is Python, which is a cross platform language that has been heavily influenced by the Unix culture. Despite this, I have always developed on (if not for) the Windows platform. My current job is using IronPython, which runs on the Microsoft .NET platform, and so my day job is development for Windows.

Despite this I have a fond hearkening back to the days of the Amiga, where I did everything at the command line, and I have usually enjoyed my brushes with server side Linux. I've long thought that I ought to switch to a non-Windows OS and various people I know have been saying good things about Mac OS for a long time.

So recently when it came to upgrade my laptop I took the jump and bought a refurbished Macbook Pro. These are my first impressions of both the machine and the operating system.

First of all let me say that this is inevitably a superficial comparison. Even more so because I use the laptop for my daily commute (about two hours a day) and still use Windows at work and on my desktop machine. To make matters worse, I'm currently writing a book (about IronPython) and my publisher insists that the manuscript be submitted as Word documents. I don't mind Word, and I own a license, so a lot of the time that I am using the Mac I am actually using the Windows version of Word inside virtualisation!

Even so, there are a lot of immediate differences between using a Mac and using a Windows machine, and this article records my first impressions of 'making the switch'.

The Macbook Pro

My previous laptop was a Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pa1510 Laptop. Despite being reasonably high specced I was disappointed with its performance and happy to switch to a new machine. The hardware comparisons are with this machine, rather than a general comparison with 'Windows machines' in general.

My Macbook is a 15" 2.3 Ghz Macbook Pro. It sports an Intel Duo Core 2 processor with 2 gigabytes of ram.

The first thing, that I hadn't really anticipated, was that this machine is as powerful as my desktop. My desktop PC also has 2gig of ram, and has an AMD Athlon 4600+ Twin Core processor. This is clocked slightly faster than the Macbook, but the core 2 processors tend to slightly outperform the Athlons. This may also be down to the OS, but no more cursing my laptop for freezing and grinding to a halt.

The built in webcam is pretty funky. A minor touch, but nice.

The battery life is better. I get two and a half hours reliably, whereas with the Fujitsu I got two hours maximum. It will be interesting to see if this lasts.

On the Macbook hibernate works! Even if hibernate worked on the Fujitsu (which it often didn't) it would still drain the battery so I had no choice but to switch off every time, and then endure the slooow startup again next time I wanted to use it. With the Macbook I get the two and a half hours of battery life even if it is left hibernated.

Even if I do switch off the Mac, or have to restart, the startup is about fifty percent faster than on Windows (whichever laptop I have used). This is great.

The magnetic power connector for the laptop is pure genius. Smile

The keyboard has a lovely feel. Unfortunately I have corrosive fingertips, and no keyboard lettering has yet survived prolonged exposure. Another one to wait and see on.

Having said that, the keyboard is sorely lacking a hash (#) and delete key. Hash is alt-3 (why?) and I adapted to the missing delete remarkably quickly. My partner in crime Justin claims that delete is unnecessary because Mac users don't make mistakes, personally I'm not convinced.

The trackpad on my last laptop would randomly jump me around which could get very frustrating. The Mac is free of this curse. The maximum speed for the mouse pointer is too slow though, and one app that I tried (iMouseFix) didn't help. Sad

Mac OS X

Obviously there are a lot of differences in approach and 'philosophy' in the way things are done on Mac OS. I'm still getting used to it and I'm sure there are answers to a lot of the things that I haven't yet worked out.

Additionally, as I needed Windows available, I decided to install Vista onto the Mac with Parallels (described below). I'm reluctant to make the jump on my desktop as I rely on it too much, so I thought this was a good opportunity to try Vista. That means two new operating systems in one go - woohoo.

Generally, (and this is probably the wrong place to put my conclusion...) I like Mac OS; a lot as it goes. Having said that, Vista is actually visually 'slicker' but Microsoft still thinks that complexity == usability and so Mac OS wins. (Actually my boss thinks that the real reason is that for 'backward compatibility' reasons Microsoft are scared of removing any features or functionality. This means that Windows can only get more complicated and gain features and never become simpler.)

The Mac has a sensible directory structure, with a usable home directory. No 'Documents and Settings\My Documents' or whatever crap.

Application distribution and packaging is also a lot smoother. '.dmg' files (virtual disks) are a great way to distribute things and the package files ('.pkg') are a lot better too. However, on a couple of occasions I was confused by packages that claim to be installing but in fact just run the application from the dmg file. (I think Fire fox did this). Having gone through the 'installation' once, it wasn't actually installed anywhere and running again from the dmg file implied that it would install again. aargh. These cases usually mean that installation is even easier though and an app file can just be dragged into the Applications directory.

The only slightly irritating thing about opening a dmg file is that you must explicitly unmount the disk image afterwards.

Oh, it was very reassuring that Firefox looks identical and all my extensions just work. A comforting and familiar environment. Smile

One thing though: don't believe all of the adverts. Surprised My Mac came just as bloated with software I don't want or need as any PC I've ever bought! In fact more so since I've taken to buying PCs without a pre-installed operating system. This includes free trials of software I don't want. sigh

The default zipfile handling infuriated me at first. It unzips the archive in the current directory. I found a free unzipper (Zipeg), but by the time I had it installed I was so used to this behaviour that I never use Zipeg. The builtin Windows zip file handling is unfathomably slow.

When you start applications they usually show a single interface window (as expected). Quitting that window doesn't (always) quit the application - but can leave it running in the dock and with a menu bar showing when activated. This was initially confusing. Having closed the last active window, some applications don't make it easy to create another one either. Their bad I guess.

There were lots of minor differences that I'm still adapting to. These include:

Parallels

The next section lists a few programs that I've used or not found yet. Parallels is so special that it gets a section of its own.

I last used virtualisation a couple of years ago, and even given that things have moved on since then Parallels is an astounding piece of software. For those few of you who don't know and haven't worked it out yet, Parallels is a hardware virtualisation program. That means that it pretends to be a computer, so that you can install Windows or Linux and use it whilst running OSX.

In my case it means that I can use my Windows version of Word, under Vista, on my Macintosh. Vista is nice. Whilst not as good as Mac OS it is an improvement on XP.

I'm running the new (at time of writing) Parallels 3 beta. It allocates 512mb of memory [1] to the virtual machine, and as Vista switches off all its fancy aero features (whatever they may be) when running under virtualization it performs fine. The amazing thing is, that performance is more than adequate - programs seem to run at native speed! The only thing that is noticeably slower is loading and saving files which is still tolerable.

Parallels killer feature goes by the innocent enough name of coherence. What this means is that Windows applications running in the VM behave like ordinary Mac application windows (except for their appearance of course). You can command-tab between them, they appear in the dock, and they aren't constrained by a 'virtual box' like all other virtual PC type programs I have used before.

The Windows start bar is moved to the top of the screen and appears in the dock as another application. A very usable decision by the Parallels team.

All in all it makes using Windoze programs from the Mac very fluent. Unfortunately you still need to install anti-virus software and all the usual guffins you need with a basic Windows install.

When you insert a USB key into the Mac you get a dialog asking if you want this to be given to the Virtual Machine or the Mac. As I prefer the Windows handling of USB devices I usually give it to Windows and can copy files to and from my home directory which is shared. Razz

Applications running under Windows obviously use the Windows shortcut keys. This means that I am often using ctrl-key combinations on Windows and command-key combinations in the same computing session. I was surprised to find that this doesn't bother me at all. Due to the very different Operating System theming it is easy to tell which OS a program is running under and the mental transition became subconscious within a couple of days.

Resolver runs fine under parallels, which is good as it will be a while before we have a Mono version available.

Applications

I haven't yet used many applications on the Mac and there are a few I would like.

Synergy. This is another unbelievable program. It is a software KVM switch. If I run the Synergy server on my desktop and the client on the notebook then moving the mouse to the edge of my desktop monitor it appears on the Mac. Keyboard input goes to the Mac as well and the clipboard is transferred across. This is astonishingly useful as it means that I can seamlessly use both computers whilst sat at my desk. It makes the Mac a viable development platform for me and 'another screen' for viewing documents on.

Synergy for the Mac is actually two programs. The first is Synergy itself, plus a GUI front end that adds a pane to the system preferences - SynergyKM.

Most of the other software I have installed is to do with programming, so that gets a section of its own as well.

Developing

One of the first things I did was install my favourite Python IDE, Wing. The Mac version works beautifully of course.

After this I installed Mono and fired up IronPython. The version of IronPython that comes with Mono 1.2.4 is a bit out of date, so I wrote up my experiences of building the latest version of FePy from sources.

This involved installing several other programs useful for development:

Fink and FinkCommander are a great combination, but a lot of the interesting packages (switch on unstable to get the good stuff) are sorely out of date. Sad

Developing with IronPython and Windows Forms requires that applications be run from Xterm, the terminal for the Apple X11 server. This isn't installed by default but does come with the Mac. I wonder if this means that distributing standalone Winforms apps for Mac OS is impossible? It certainly makes an X11 server a requirement.

In order to discover that Mono and Windows Forms requires an X11 server I had to compile some basic C#. I would have liked to use MonoDevelop. This does have an installation guide for OS X. As you will see if you visit, this lists around seventy dependencies that must be compiled / installed first!

I gave that a miss and used TextMate and compiled from the command line. This is ok for trivial projects, but not really an option for anything bigger.

I discovered an XCode plugin for Mono - CSharpXCodePlugin [2]. Apparently XCode is the Apple IDE and also comes with Mac OS. I got as far as installing the plugin and creating a simple project but haven't used it since. Smile

The version of MonoDevelop in Fink is hopelessly out of date and won't even install anymore. I hope they fix this as I really don't fancy maintaining the dependencies myself and I would like to use MonoDevelop. Maybe I need an Ubuntu Parallels installation and can use it from there...

[1]So you really need more than a gig of memory to use Parallels - otherwise the memory allocated to the VM bites too many bytes from Mac OS. With 2 gig on board Mac still has 1.5 gig left to play with.
[2]Don't use the version 0.3 zip linked to by the XCode C# plugin homepage. It doesn't work. Download version 0.3.1 instead.

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Last edited Sun Aug 12 15:45:07 2007.