August 02, 2007

Day 5: Web browsing

An easy one for today. I use Firefox on Windows and there are no sites I visit which don’t work with it. So web browsing on the Mac is as easy as downloading Firefox, exporting my bookmarks from Windows Firefox on to a memory stick and then importing them into Mac Firefox, grabbing my favourite plugins (Delicious toolbar and Text area resizer), and we’re done.

I’ve seen no significant differences at all between Mac and Windows versions of Firefox and so far everything has just worked. Firefox on the Mac has needed to restart itself a couple of times during my testing, but then, that’s happened to me on Windows too. I miss Alt-D as a shortcut to put the cursor in the address bar, but Command-L does the same thing, so it’s not exactly a big deal.

I guess if I hadn’t already been a confirmed Firefox user I might have spent more time investigating Safari, the web browser that comes bundled with OS X. From a brief look, it seems fine to me, and if I hadn’t been sure that I wanted Firefox and my preferred extensions I’d probably have been quite happy with Safari (or Camino or Opera, probably, too). But Firefox ticks all my boxes.

August 01, 2007

A digression: wireless networking

I wasn’t expecting to write anything about this, because I had assumed that it would Just Work, but I have been dismayed to find that the MacBook Pro I’m testing has noticeable problems with its wireless networking. At least in part, this is just an unlucky fluke of timing; there is, it seems, a known issue with the latest software update to OS X (10.4.10) introducing problems with wireless networking, especially when running on battery.

But even discounting that bug (which is a particularly nasty one, causing kernel panics and requiring a restart), the MBP seems to struggle to work with a wireless basestation in my home, seeing it but being unable to connect to it. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I live in a street with lots of wireless basestations nearby, and there is some overlap and some interference, especially given that at least one of the other basestations is on the same channel as mine. But what makes it slightly irksome and puzzling is that my Windows laptop which is sitting on the sofa right next to the MBP doesn’t display even a hint of the same problem.

I fixed it by downloading a utility which shows all the basestations in range together with their SSID and channel, finding an unused channel and switching my basestation to that. This was probably a smart thing to do anyway, improving the quality of the connection for any and all connected devices. But it’s disappointing that the Mac is the only hardware which just couldn’t cope until the change was made.

July 27, 2007

Day 4: Switching on

So having unpacked the boxes, struggled to find spare power and network sockets (especially Jeff, whose struggles looked at one point to be on the edge of solving major string theory problems) we got around to switching the Macs on. I’ll have lots more to say about the various apps and tools which come with or have been downloaded to the machines later, but for now, a few impressions from first use:-

  • Lose some bonus points for playing an unskippable movie with sound on first boot-up. First boot-up is exactly the time when you’re unlikely to know where the “mute” key is (it’s F3, it turns out) and in an open plan office, welcoming fanfares are not the best way to win new friends.
  • The rest of the startup sequence was pretty painless, although I was slightly surprised at how determined the Mac was to capture my registration details. It wouldn’t let me move past the registration screen until I’d told it all my details down to and including my postcode. Somehow, I have it in my mind that this is more of a Windows thing to do.
  • The screen on the MacBook Pro is gorgeous; an ambient light sensor ensures that it’s always at a comfortable brightness level and it’s a joy to read. I chose glossy screens for our MBPs, which I was a bit worried about, but they’re great. The same ambient light sensor backlights the keyboard in a dark room which again is just lovely; it makes using the machine at home in the evening, or during a lecture or presentation, easy.
  • One minor quirk is that the screen hinge doesn’t let me fold the screen back as far as I would like; when I have the machine on my lap, I’d prefer the screen about ten degrees further “unfolded” than it will actually go.
  • The MacBook Pro keyboard is very nice indeed to type on, with well spaced keys and a nice, quiet action. One minor oddity, though; the MBP I’m using right now has a tiny but noticeable squeak when I press the spacebar. It’s not annoying, exactly, (or at least, not yet) but I’m surprised to hear it. I haven’t yet tried the slightly more idiosyncratic design of the MacBook keyboard, so I can’t comment on that.
  • I love the trackpad controls for right clicking and scrolling – tap or drag with two fingers rather than one. It’s almost completely foolproof – you never right click or scroll when you don’t mean to, but you can always invoke it when you want it.
  • First impressions of finding my way around the operating system are mostly good. The dock is simple and easy to understand (but why, on a widescreen device, is the dock placed at the bottom by default? Vertical pixels are exactly what’s in short supply, whereas you have a surfeit of horizontal ones. The dock should be on the left when you first turn the machine on). But there’s no equivalent, as far as I can see, of the Windows Start menu. The Start menu isn’t what I’d call a great piece of design, but it does allow for three levels of access to programs: most frequently used programs go in the quick launch part of your taskbar, so they’re always visible; your next most frequently used programs can be pinned to the Start menu so that they’re always one click away, and your infrequently used programs go in the “All programs” hierarchy. Unless I’m missing something, OS X only gives you a dock for your most frequently used programs, but you couldn’t, I don’t think, reasonably expect to get all your programs in there. But the only other way I can see to access programs which aren’t in your Dock is to open a Finder window, browse to “Applications” and then scroll through a list of all your programs. No doubt there are third party apps to address this, but it seems like an odd omission.
  • On the subject of the Finder (the OS X version of Windows Explorer, I suppose), this is the part of the system I’m finding hardest to get used to. The treeview on the left, current folder on the right model is so ingrained into me that I’m struggling to get used to this new model. How do I see thumbnails of all the files in a folder? How do I move a folder from point A in my hierarchy to point B? When I preview an image, how do I move on to the next image in the folder? When I select a file and press enter, is renaming the file really the most likely thing I’ll want to do, as opposed to opening it or previewing it?

July 24, 2007

Day 3: First impressions

Two MacBooks and two MacBook Pros arrived. Before we even switched them on, there were some things we noticed: they’re aesthetically pleasing machines, nicely proportioned and rounded (except for the oddly sharp edge on the front of the palm-rest surface which Chris noted earlier). They’re also refreshingly devoid of stickers blathering on about which operating system or processor was inside, and the build quality seems good (though not neccesarily better than Windows notebooks costing the same sort of money).

Opening them up, a few things which we wondered about:-

  • There’s apparently no delete key; how do you delete the character in front of the cursor?
  • There’s no dedicated PageUp and PageDown keys. Very small sub-notebooks sometimes dispense with these keys because there just physically isn’t the width to get them in, but the MacBook Pro has a 15” screen and the keyboard space to match, so it seems like an odd omission.
  • Double quotes aren’t on Shift-2; they’re over with the single quotes, where the @ symbol is on a Windows machine. It does seem kind of logical putting the double quote and single quote characters on the same key, but I wonder how easy it’ll be to remember. I’m vaguely surprised, though I don’t really know whether I should be, that this isn’t something which has just standardised itself across all keyboards by now.
  • Will the lack of a second button under the trackpad turn out to be a nuisance? How do you right-click without a (two button) mouse plugged in?
  • No PCMCIA or ExpressCard slots on the MacBook; a single ExpressCard slot on the Pro. As Chris has already noted, this is a bit of a pain for mobile connectivity. Perhaps you can get USB dongles that do the same job nowadays, but we don’t have any lying around, whereas we do have PCMCIA cards.

My only other observation is that my own personal preference in notebooks is for the sub-notebook form factor; I’ve used Sony Vaio TX and Toshiba Portege notebooks in the past, and my current notebook is a Dell X1 whose dimensions and weight are just about perfect. It’s silly to criticise the MacBook and Pro for not being something which they don’t claim to be, but I’d love to see Apple provide a model in their range which is comparable to a Portege or X1 or Vaio TX model – ultra-thin, 12” screen, lightweight, smaller-than-A4 footprint.

July 23, 2007

In related news…

I’m also the lucky beneficiary of one of the crop of Macs that have appeared in the office of late. However, I’m trying it out from a slightly different perspective. I was a mac user myself until about 12 months ago, when I switched to Ubuntu Linux. However, I’m a sucker for shiny new hardware, so I thought I’d give the Macbook another go.

I’m comparing it against a Toshiba Tecra M5, running Ubuntu Edgy/Gutsy. I have somewhat different requirements to John; most of my time is spent either writing code (in eclipse or emacs, generally), or ssh-ed into a terminal session on a unix server. I spend a lot of time installing various bits of infrastructure locally (web servers, app servers, databases, etc) and trying them out. My requirements over and above this are pretty modest; a browser and an IMAP mail client get 99% of the rest done, with just the very occasional need to fire up openoffice or visio (in a VMWare session).

So, first impressions (And please do bear in mind that these really are first impressions; I’ve only use the box for a weekend so far; I’ll post a more reasoned view in a few weeks).

The ergonomics of the box are something of a surprise, compared to all the Macs I’ve used previously. There’s a fiercely sharp edge running around the side of the keyboard – if you sit with good posture at a desk, you don’t notice it, but if you’re slouching on the sofa with the laptop balanced on your stomach (a common working pose for me :-)) it can be very uncomfortable. The keys have very short travel, with very little feedback. I’m getting used to them, but slowly.

Horror of horrors, there’s no PCMCIA slot. This means that I can’t use my vodafone 3G card to dial-up with, which is a major downer as I don’t have broadband at the moment. Not only that, but the bluetooth modem software doesn’t understand my blackberry, so I can’t even use that and dial in over GPRS. The only way I can get this box to connect to the internet from home is to start up the other laptop, dial in, and then share the connection over a peer-to-peer wireless network. Gah!

Now, onto software installation. Job number 1; install java 6 and eclipse. Java 6 is a bit awkward; you have to sign up for Apple’s “Developer Connection” before you can download it, then you need to bugger about with symlinks to actually make the new JDK be the default. Eclipse installed fine and ran reasonably snappily, though it still seems to be prone to the occasional 10-second spinning-beachball hang, something I don’t see much of on Ubuntu. Next job, rails. This really was a faff; I had first to download and install the Xcode toolchain (1GB), then get the DarwinPorts software installed, then port install the various bits and pieces required (ruby, rubygems, postgresql), then gem install rails. It seems to work OK after that, but it’s not exactly easy. Even solaris has an easier install of rails than this. (AIUI, rails will come out-of-the-box with the next release of OSX, whenever that is)

iTerm seems to have gained a welcome full-screen mode since I last tried it, which is a nice step forward. Monacco, in conjunction with the Mac’s slightly blurry antialiasing, is a great font, I wish there were a version of it for linux that actually worked…

Firefox and Thunderbird installed smoothly enough. Now I have the problem of trying to un-learn all the linux keyboard short-cuts, and re-learn the mac ones. I’m missing virtual desktops already – though I think they’re scheduled to appear in Leopard. Since there’s no chance of getting a mac desktop any time soon, if I stick with the MacBook I’ll have to keep switching between the two sets of shortcuts, which could be a bit of a strain.

Overall, I’d have to say that I’m not yet terribly impressed by my return to the Mac. It’s not as fast, the hardware isn’t any better, and the software support is way behind my ubuntu box. It does have one advantage; it can do a proper suspend and resume to RAM. But hopefully once this ubuntu bug has been fixed, that difference will go away. Then there’s not much to recommend the mac, apart from a nice shiny white case and a logo that lights up…

Day 2: Which model?

Having decided that we wanted some Macs for the office, our next job was to decide which sort of Macs to buy. Compared with the PC market, with its infinity of brands and endless customisation options, this was relatively straightforward: Apple only make five models:-

  • Mac Mini – a low-powered system unit with no monitor, keyboard or mouse.
  • iMac – an all-in-one unit with the system built in to the monitor, available in three different screen sizes – 17”, 20” and 24”.
  • MacBook – a notebook with a 13.3” screen.
  • MacBook Pro – a more powerful notebook with a 15” screen and metal rather than plastic construction
  • Mac Pro – a powerful workstation in a tower case with very high performance

Each model can be configured to some extent, but the choices are refreshingly limited compared to, say, the Dell web site where there always seem to be more choices to be made. The Apple store simply lets you choose your processor speed, add more memory if you wish, and select a couple of accessories. Nothing complicated.

So which to choose? For us, this was actually very straightforward. We ruled out the Mac Mini because it seemed under-powered – it’s a Core Duo system, not a Core 2 Duo – and because in value for money terms, it didn’t stack up well next to a MacBook. There’s only £170 difference between a bottom of the range Mac Mini and a bottom of the range MacBook, and that £170 is getting you a screen, a keyboard, a trackpad, a camera and a faster system overall. Unless money is too tight to mention, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose a Mac Mini over a MacBook. (Given that it’s been quite a long time since the Minis have been refreshed, perhaps there’ll be a bump in the specs soon.)

We also ruled out the Mac Pro at the top end because it would just be overkill for our fairly simple requirements. It’s clearly intended for power users working with big projects and big datasets.

The iMac all-in-one model looked appealing, but we decided against it for two reasons: (1) It’s desirable for us to be able to easily take the Macs from place to place so that we can try them out in the office, the meeting room, the lecture theatre, a colleague’s office, at home, etc. And (2) it’s fairly widely rumoured that the iMac range is just about to be updated, so it seemed prudent to avoid a model which may be at the end of its lifespan.

So that left the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, and they both seemed appealing; both fairly recently updated, both with a reasonable hardware spec, one a bit smaller, the other bigger but more powerful. So we ordered two of each.

Tomorrow: First impressions when the machines arrived.

July 20, 2007

Day 1: Why bother?

I decided a month or so ago that it might be useful for me and some of my colleagues to have access to Macs alongside our usual PCs. The office is actually fairly platform-agnostic already, with most people using Windows most of the time, but a smattering of Linux, Solaris and Mac around the place. But the reasons I thought more Mac hardware might be useful are:-

  1. Some of our customers are Mac users. It’s not a huge percentage – somewhere between 5 and 10% – but it’s enough that there is some benefit in us knowing what OS X looks like and how it works (and in particular how its browsers behave) so that if someone rings us up with a question and mentions that they’re using a Mac, we know what they’re talking about when they say “Finder” or “Spotlight” or “Keynote” or whatever.
  2. Every so often, some of our academic colleagues wax lyrical about OS X apps and their rich functionality and/or ease of use for areas of content creation in which we’re interested – podcasting, audio/video/image editing and upload, recording, etc. It’ll be interesting to see whether Macs offer better or easier solutions than Windows for some kinds of content creation.
  3. As providers of web tools, we’re concerned to make sure that our applications work on as many browsers and platforms as possible. That’s historically required us to keep lots of machines around the place just so that we can check how things look on different versions of IE, FireFox, Safari, Konqueror, etc on different operating systems. The idea of using Parallels to let us see how pages look on lots of browsers across lots of OS’s, all on a single desktop, is immensely appealing.

For extra entertainment, I’ve also decided to to try a personal experiment by switching from using PCs most of time, and Macs just now and again, to using nothing but a Mac the whole time to see how easy and comfortable the switch is. I’m a fairly ordinary user – I use a web browser, I email, I use Word, Excel and PowerPoint (but not in great depth), I have a calendar (using the Palm desktop), photos (in Picasa), music (in iTunes), and I manage my bank accounts with Microsoft Money. I do screen mockups and icon work using Paint Shop, and now and again I do bits of video editing with Windows Movie Maker. Sometimes I watch TV shows I’ve downloaded from the internet. I play casual games of the sort you find at PopCap and elsewhere. Will all those things turn out to have easy, comfortable alternatives on the Mac, or will I find myself using Parallels to run a Windows app or two because I can’t bear to switch? We shall see.

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