This is a follow-up to my previous post about Macs (trying to provide an unbiased view). The question of Mac v. PC (“PC” meaning “Windows PC,” unfortunately; Linux seems to get left out of the picture completely) often comes up for Windows users thinking about whether they should switch to Mac or not. So the natural flip side to that question is: should you stay with Windows? Is it even worth exploring alternatives like Mac or Linux?

Well, obviously if you like Windows and enjoy using it, you should stick with it. But it’s not usually those who enjoy Windows who ask about Mac or Linux. It’s usually the dissatisfied Windows users—the ones who imagine Mac or Linux offer a perfect world of trouble-free computing.

So, to you restless Windows users, I have a few questions for you (answer honestly):

  • Is vast consumer hardware selection important to you, especially for base models (not as much peripherals)? Would the thought of researching hardware compatibility before a purchase make you shudder?
  • Do you use any Windows-only software? (AutoCAD, OneNote)
  • Do you own a Zune?
  • Do you often like to play the latest commercial game on your computer (not on a gaming console)?
  • Do you hate learning new ways of doing things?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I would highly recommend you stay with Windows. If you worry about Windows crashes and security issues, here is what you should do: back up everything, reinstall Windows, set up a limited user account you use all the time, set Windows updates to install automatically, use Firefox with the NoScript extension, educate yourself about social engineering, and stop pirating! Do all that, and you won’t have to deal with (useless) antivirus software, excessive crashing or slowness, and various security compromises.

Now, if you answered “No” to all of those questions, then you may actually be a prime candidate for a switch to Mac or Linux. Windows is not a bad product, despite all the bad-mouthing it gets from some Mac and Linux zealots. Unfortunately, though, it has been shoved down students’ and employees’ throats all over the world to the point where a lot of folks are just crying out for alternatives.

There are various reasons (which I outlined in my last post) you might want to switch to Mac OS X. The biggest one I can think of for considering it as a Windows alternative over Linux is if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch. Apple has made it difficult to get those devices working without iTunes. The ways to get those working in Linux are complicated and often end up obsolete in the face of firmware upgrades.

You might be a prime candidate for Linux, though, if you are a dissatisfied Windows user who avoids iPods altogether (or has an older-model iPod), especially if you don’t have enough money for a Mac and if you primarily email, web browse, lightly word process, organize photos, and listen to music. Linux can do a lot more than that, too, but if you are a professional graphic designer or video editor, you’re probably better off with a Mac.

The best thing about switching to Linux from Windows is that it can be done in slow steps and for free. You can run Linux inside a Windows session (using portable Ubuntu), you can run Linux as a virtual operating system inside Windows (using VirtualBox or VMWare), you can run Linux as a dual-boot with Windows (using Wubi or a traditional repartitioned drive), you can run Linux as a “live” session that doesn’t affect your hard drive at all (just using your RAM and a CD or USB drive), and, of course, you can install Linux right over Windows (though I would recommend that only as a last step).

I’d really like people to get rid of these stupid OS (operating system) wars. Mac isn’t better. Windows isn’t better. Linux isn’t better. There is no better. There is only better for you. It’s all about assessing your needs and your means. If you need Windows-only programs, you’re going to need it (Sorry, but Wine does not work 100%). If you like Windows, use it. If you like Mac OS X, use it. If you like Linux, use it. You actually can use all three (you don’t necessarily have to choose).

At the end of the day, an operating system is only a platform to run applications and manage devices. If your operating system runs the applications you need and manages the devices you own, then you’re set. Switching from Windows to something else isn’t a magic bullet that brings you to computing nirvana. My wife is happy she switched to Mac, and she would never go back to Windows, but she still has problems from time to time. Likewise, I’m happy I switched to Linux, and I would never go back to Windows, but I still have problems from time to time. Computers aren’t magic. They’re wonderful machines that sometimes have problems.

An unbiased view on Macs

May 26th, 2009

I don’t know why it’s so difficult to find honest, unbiased views on Mac OS X and Apple computers. I know a lot of Mac fanatics and anti-Mac fanatics. I regularly participate in a Linux forum (the Ubuntu Forums, specifically), and it seems to be the same deal there—some users making it sound as if Mac OS X is the be-all and end-all of computing experiences, and some making it sound as if Macs are just the biggest ripoff that Apple can get away with.

Are non-Apple users just ignorant people waiting to be (or too poor to be) enlightened? Are Mac owners unthinking sheep who just do whatever Steve Jobs says?

Why can’t it be somewhere in between? Why can’t we acknowledge that Macs have some good points and some bad points? As I have mentioned before on my blog, Macs are computers. They are not magic. They are not garbage either.

Here is what I consider to be the God’s-honest-truth as the good and bad of Macs, and this is from someone who uses Mac OS X and Linux at home, and who uses Windows at work.

The Price
The entry level for purchasing a Mac is very high compared to purchasing a Windows PC. This should be an incontestable fact. If you compare spec-for-spec on low- to middle-end hardware, the Windows PCs will be cheaper for sure. As you get into more high-end hardware (the most suped-up Macbook Pro, the most suped-up Mac Pro), you’re far more likely to get a better deal with the Mac than the Windows PC.

What I have stated above I have observed by comparing many Windows systems to Mac systems over the years. Once you present a Mac fanatic with actual dollar amounts, you get the backpeddling about the difference in money being worth it and about Mac OS X coming with iLife and Windows having nothing like Garageband. You also get the anti-Mac fanatic proclaiming that Mac is overpriced garbage and Apple is ripping off its customers.

I don’t want to get into questions of whether the price difference is “worth it” or not. That is something each computer user must decide for herself. Right now I just want everyone to agree—Macs are usually more expensive than Windows PCs with similar hardware specifications.

What does this mean? Usually, not a whole lot. As I said before, most Mac fans will pay the difference anyway and think it’s worth it, and most anti-Mac fans will refuse to pay the difference. If you’re on the fence, though, and like Mac OS X and Windows Vista equally (i.e., if you are marginal and almost non-existent segment of the population), then I would say if you have basic needs (email, web browser, word processor, photos, music) and have only a little money, go for a cheap Windows PC (or even a Linux PC). Otherwise, go for a Mac PC. Simple. Isn’t it?

Hardware
I’ve heard many a Mac fanatic say Apple charges more for Macs because the hardware is superior to non-Apple PCs. I’ve also heard many an anti-Mac fanatic say Macs have exactly the same hardware Windows PCs have.

I have found the exterior hardware for Macs to generally be well-thought-out and well-designed. In that sense, the exterior hardware is superior. The edges seem to be smooth and aesthetically pleasing. The weight seems to be reasonably light for the size. The blinking light for sleep mode is not obnoxiously bright (it slowly fades in and out instead of blinking on and off). The power cord for laptops is magnetic (and, yes, I am, like many others, clumsy, and I do trip on power cords, so it’s nice to have the cord pop out without breaking when that happens). The power button is never too small to press, and it’s flush with the surface so as not to be too obtrusive. The laptops all have backlit keyboards and high-resolution displays.

But the interior hardware is exactly the same as the interior hardware in non-Apple computers. I’ve seen hard drive failures in Macs just as often as in Windows PCs. That’s because those are hard drives manufactured by the same people who manufacture hard drives for Windows or Linux computers. The RAM isn’t some special RAM made by Apple. The graphics cards are regular graphics cards also in Windows PCs. Macs use Intel, Nvidia, Seagate—all the regular brand names in Windows PCs.

Apple does put a lot of care into making sure laptop speakers aren’t tinny and webcams work in low light. The hardware is always well put together. That doesn’t mean the hardware is of a superior build.

Customer Experience
I don’t agree with Apple’s closing off (via End User’s License Agreement) of people using Mac OS X on non-Apple computers. I do, however, agree with their being proponents of tightly integrating the software and hardware by limiting the supported hardware options and thus making it easier for OS X developers to optimize the operating system (it doesn’t have to work on everything, just these few models). I wish Ubuntu went this route. The Linux kernel, of course, does try to support as much hardware as possible, but it’d be nice if the Ubuntu developers could especially vouch for no bugs or regressions occurring in certain Ubuntu-supported laptops and desktops.

Of course, Apple does sometimes take it too far. They don’t say “Oh, install it on whatever you want, but we support only these models.” They say “These models only. Only our computers. No other computers.” And that’s generally the Apple way, which is good and bad. If you play the Apple way and don’t mind those restrictions, it can be a very good experience, because you don’t have to worry about anything. If you buy an Apple TV, an Airport Extreme, an Apple Cinema Display, an iPhone, and a Macbook, you know they’re all going to play nice together.

The flip side of that is that you may not get as good support or as seamless an experience with non-Apple products. Maybe the wireless card in your Macbook Pro isn’t playing nice with the WPA encryption on your D-Link router. If that happens, do you think Apple is going to say “So sorry. We will work on getting that working as soon as possible?” No. They’re going to say “It should work, but if you want to make sure it works, buy this Airport Extreme instead.”

It’s certainly possible to use non-Apple peripherals with an Apple computer, but you will constantly get the message from Apple “use our stuff, use our stuff,” and they’ll have very little sympathy for you not using their stuff.

User Interface
Even though Mac OS X’s interface has some nice touches (uninstalling applications by just deleting the application icon from the Applications folder, being able to drag and drop files to an application icon to launch the file in that application), I’ve generally found Mac OS X does not have an intuitive user interface. But I’ve also found that intuitiveness is highly overrated. There are counterintuitive aspects to Windows and Linux as well. These counterintuitive parts of Mac OS X are surmountable, but I do get annoyed when Mac fanatics keep repeating that Mac OS X is intuitive, when it is not. Here are some bits that are counterintuitive. If you can get over these quickly, maybe a Mac may be good for you:

  • Enter renames files. Cmd-O opens them.
  • Double-clicking an application download does not install the application. It mounts the application into a disk image container that has inside the application files that should then be dragged into the Applications folder.
  • Dragging icons from the Dock to the desktop does not move or copy the icons. It makes them disappear in a poof of smoke.
  • Even though you can cut and paste text or copy and paste files, you cannot cut and paste files through the menus or through a universally recognized keyboard shortcut (like Cmd-X, which works for cutting text).
  • Dragging mounted volumes to the trash ejects them.
  • The plus sign on a window has no consistent or predictable behavior. “Zooming” is pretty much useless (supposedly, it adjust the window size to fit the contents of the window, but if the content size changes, the window does not dynamically shift to refit the contents), and in iTunes you don’t even get a zoom—you get a switch between mini player and normal player.
  • Closing the last window of an application does not close the application. This can be useful for some applications, but it doesn’t make sense for most of them.
  • Windows can be resized from only one corner (and that corner may well be behind the Dock).
  • There is no keyboard shortcut to access the toolbar menu.
  • The symbols for certain keyboard keys are confusing (option, control, command, shift).
  • The toolbar is for applications and not for windows within in application. This sounds great in theory… until you are using a huge monitor or extended desktop.

One thing I will give Apple, though—they seem to have put a lot of thought into their interface decisions. For every counterintuitive tidbit I see, I also can easily imagine a rationale for it. A lot of it sounds good in theory but just works out poorly in practice.

Looks
Why doesn’t it matter to Mac users that Mac OS X is counterintuitive in so many ways? Well, apart from the fact that people just get used to counterintuitive interfaces and deal with it, Mac OS X is a beautiful interface, and that beauty makes a lot of its users overlook the counterintuitive aspects. Now I’ve heard many a Linux user say Compiz looks much better than Mac OS X and can do fancier stuff. In screenshots, yes, I have seen some amazing-looking Compiz themes. And, yes, Compiz can do fancier things (raindrops, wobbly windows, spinning cubes).

But Mac OS X has really smooth animation that I have never seen in Compiz. Everything seems to just flow. I rarely see excessive pixelation in icons or stuttered movement when dragging things. And even though a lot of Linux users I’ve “met” online think Aqua is ugly, every person I know in “real” life thinks Mac OS X just looks amazing. I love the high resolution icons, and I’d love for my Linux computer to look just that way (and not a single Mac clone theme I’ve encountered over the years has come close to the real thing).

One thing I will say against the Mac OS X look is that it isn’t very easily customizable. If you’re into customization, I don’t know if Macs will be your bag, though.

I’ve also not seen any real performance gains in OS X. I think all the Mac users claiming Macs are faster than (Windows) PCs must have had malware-infested Windows installations. If anything, I’ve found OS X to require (perhaps like Windows Vista, as opposed to Windows XP) a lot of RAM in order to perform adequately. The smooth animations I mentioned before may also contribute to perceived notions of better performance or speed.

Security
Here is another area where I rarely see balance presented. On the one hand, you have some Mac fanatics saying Macs are nigh-invincible—use a Mac, and you won’t have to worry about any malware. Go on your merry way! On the other hand, you have some anti-Mac fanatics saying Macs offer no security advantages over Windows, and the only reason Macs haven’t been exploited as much as that they aren’t as big a target for malware writers.

The truth is somewhere in between. Yes, a larger marketshare does make you a juicier target for malware, but Macs do generally have better security than Windows, especially Windows XP. Macs are not invincible. You do still have to use strong passwords, not enable extra network services, install security updates, back up your files regularly (note: antivirus is as useless on Macs and Linux PCs as it is on Windows PCs). But Macs implement sudo, which allows administrators to operate as a limited user and temporarily escalate (after a password authentication) to root privileges. Unlike Windows Vista’s UAC, this isn’t annoying, and it also cannot be easily turned off.

Unfortunately, since more and more malware uses social engineering (i.e., tricking the user instead of exploiting software vulnerabilities), Mac OS X will be compromised more and more (as we recently saw with the trojans in pirated copies of iWork and Photoshop) if Mac users continue to be complacent about security.

Security isn’t just the best or non-existent. There are many shades in between (good, okay, bad), and if you have an ignorant and gullible user who can be tricked into installing software from untrustworthy sources, then all your operating system security goes out the window anyway.

I’ll also say that if you are a Windows user who is considering going to Mac for only security purposes, don’t bother. If you like Mac OS X for other reasons, that’s fine. If you actually like Windows, there are some easy ways to make Windows just as secure as a Mac (use a limited user account, install Windows updates, use Firefox with the NoScript extension, get rid of useless antivirus software, turn off autorun, etc.). And if you’re just looking for an alternative to Windows, most Linux distributions actually have more robust security than Mac OS X, and they’re free.

This is like that lie about Macs not crashing. If you have a problem with Windows crashing, you’re either using Windows ME, or you don’t know how to secure your Windows installation (see tips in last paragraph). Occasional crashes might happen on any OS, though. I’ve seen the blue screen of death on Windows XP about as much as I’ve seen the rainbow circle of death on Mac OS X or the black screen of death on Ubuntu Linux. Crashes happen. Get over it.

Application availability
If you are part of a small minority of computer users who uses computers for high-end commercially created gaming (instead of using a game console or just not gaming at all, like the rest of us), then of course you will use Windows. If you use Windows-only applications, you should use Windows. But if you are reliant on only cross-platform applications, then you can choose from Windows, Mac, or Linux.

And for all those Mac users who say “Oh, you have all these Windows-only applications? That’s what boot camp is for,” are you really going to suggest people buy a Mac only to install Windows on it?

The applications you use should be one of the primary reasons you pick an OS. If you need specialized software, make sure it works on the operating system you pick! Only if you are like me (email client, web browser, office suite, photo manager, music player) can you pick from any OS on the market.

Is Mac OS X for you?
Unfortunately, despite my long rant about the pros and cons, I don’t think anyone should make a computer purchasing decision based on what people say on the internet. (Unfortunately, with the dearth of Linux netbooks available in brick-and-mortar stores, I had to do that.) If you are a Windows user thinking about moving to Mac, don’t believe the Mac fanatics, and don’t believe the anti-Mac fanatics. Go to an Apple store and try it out yourself. See how you like it. If you don’t have an Apple store near you, just find someone with a Mac and ask to try it out (it helps if you say you’re thinking about getting one… it also helps if you’re in a public place like a coffee shop and not in some dark alley).

I’m a big Linux fan, and I prefer open source software, so I won’t be switching to Mac full-time, but I do enjoy the time I spend on my wife’s Mac (which has made it financially impossible for me to also get a Mac, anyway). It is a good user experience. It’s not perfect. It’s not magic. It’s not god-awful. It’s just good. Same as Windows. Same as Linux. Just use what works for you.

Anyone who read my last post knows I am not a fan at all of the HP Mobile Internet Experience. It was a huge disappointment that made me almost regret buying the HP Mini 1120nr.

Good thing I didn’t give up on it, though, just because of the bad MIE interface. I installed vanilla Ubuntu on it, and it’s great now!

First I had to consider whether to install Ubuntu lpia (lower-powered Intel architecture) or the regular i386 version. Presumably the lpia version is optimized for the Intel Atom processor in my HP Mini, but…

…not to mention the fact that almost all third-party .deb files (TrueCrypt, DropBox, Opera) are compiled for i386. Since the battery life on the HP Mini appears to be between 2 and 2.5 hours (less than the 3 hours I got on my Eee PC 701), an added 12 to 15 minutes of battery life wouldn’t really help anyway. In any case, I don’t travel much, so battery life would be just something to brag about, not necessarily something I would need.

Instead of the hours I spent trying to make the MIE interface usable (to no avail, by the way, and it wasn’t any more responsive even after I switched from 1 GB to 2 GB of RAM), the Ubuntu installation and configuration took me only about 40 minutes and was extremely painless.

I took a vanilla Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope), booted it from USB, clicked the Install button on the desktop, answered the easy questions quickly, resized my MIE partition to make way for regular Ubuntu, took 20 minutes to install, then rebooted.

Almost everything worked straight away—Compiz, screen resolution, function keys, resume from suspend. Even wireless worked (and it’s a Broadcom card, which is notoriously Linux-unfriendly). The only thing broken was sound. So I did a quick Google search and came across this fix. I pasted those few commands into the terminal, rebooted, checked a couple of boxes in the sound preferences (check to enable speakers, uncheck to disable PC beep), and everything was running quite smoothly—and with no lag at all.

It’s a shame HP didn’t put more usability testing into their preinstalled version of Ubuntu… or just put more thought into sticking with regular Ubuntu.

Edit (26 May, 2009): Actually, the sound settings would reset after each reboot. Usually, I just suspend to RAM, but every now and then I reboot, and it’s annoying to have to mute the PC Beep and unmute the PC Speaker every time.

The fix is:

  1. Get the volume settings exactly the way you want them.
  2. Paste the command sudo alsactl store into the terminal.
  3. Edit the /etc/rc.local file as root (sudo nano -B /etc/rc.local) and then add in the line alsactl restore before exit 0

Now if you reboot, your sound settings should stay the same.

Every now and then, Linux users get outraged because Dell prices the base model of Ubuntu cheaper than the base model of Windows, but when you match the specs of the two computers, Windows ends up being cheaper. This happened for the Dell Mini 9s when they first came out, for example.

What I’ve noticed is a cycle of Dell pricing Ubuntu cheaper and then offering some kind of promotional discount that makes Windows cheaper. The Linux community complains, and then Dell adjusts the pricing. I created an IdeaStorm idea called Implement a system by which Ubuntu systems automatically get promotional discounts their Windows counterparts get, but it got only 19 votes. No word from Dell on that.

The only official word from Dell on pricing is another IdeaStorm idea (Implemented: Ubuntu Dell is Le$$ Than Windows Dell) that was marked as implemented back in 2007 and that obviously has gone from implemented to unimplemented and back again. A Dell representative wrote on March 24, 2007:

Changed status to **IMPLEMENTED**.

On average, comparably configured Ubuntu systems will be about $50 less than Windows systems.

Well, I’m not sure if they’re going to make this suddenly in favor of Windows again, but I did a price comparison on the Dell Inspiron 15 (Windows Vista) and the Dell Inspiron 15n (Ubuntu Intrepid) today, and Ubuntu is more than US$200 cheaper.

See screenshots for more details:
dell-inspiron-15-with-windows dell-inspiron-15n-with-ubuntu
(American? I haven’t checked the other Dell sites yet) Linux users complaining about pricing? Get them while they’re still hot!

I love this line from Preston Gralla’s latest bit of anti-Linux propaganda:

But when you try to install new software [in Linux], or upgrade existing software, you’ll be in for trouble. I won’t get down and dirty with the details here, but believe me, it’s not pretty.

Actually, I don’t believe you. Why should anyone? I find it quite pretty. I find it beautiful and simple.

Since Gralla doesn’t want to spend the time explaining to you the details of software installation in Linux, I will. I will get down and dirty with the details here.

I’ve been using Ubuntu for the past four years straight. When I want to install software, this is what I do:

  • I click with my mouse on the Applications menu.
  • Then I select with my mouse the menu item Add/Remove.
  • I do a search in a little text search field (which I can click in with my mouse) for the software I want (or what the software does) and then some results come up in the search with little pictures and descriptions next to them.
  • I pick the result I want and check with my mouse the little checkbox next to it.
  • Then I click with my mouse the Apply button.

That’s it. Some pretty dirty details there. If you want to see screenshots of this “not pretty” process, you can visit my Ubuntu software installation page.

And the best part is that I don’t even have to worry about upgrading applications. Every six months when I upgrade Ubuntu, all my applications automatically get upgraded. How easy is that?

Gralla, welcome to 2009 (or actually even 2005). I don’t know why you’re still using Linux distributions from ten years ago. Do I make judgments on Windows based on my experiences with Windows ME?