All entries for Monday 23 July 2007

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 2007

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