Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Where is this dreamland in which Windows “just works”?

First of all, I have to say it is not my intention to bash Windows. I am not a Windows hater. I actually like Windows. I use it at work every weekday, and I have found ways to have a generally pleasant experience with it. I like Mac OS X better than Windows, though, and I like Ubuntu Linux better than Mac OS X. I actually am quite a firm believer in using the operating system that works best for you and that all the major platforms have pros and cons.

What I can’t stand is Windows power users having a bad experience trying to migrate to Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution) and then proclaiming “This is why Windows will always dominate the desktop” or “This is why Linux isn’t ready for the masses.” This in these contexts meaning that they had some problem using a peripheral or getting their wireless to work or whatever. I don’t get it. Really. I don’t understand where the logic in this proclamation is. Such a conclusion comes from several flawed assumptions:

  1. Windows always works.
  2. People choose Windows because it always works.
  3. If Linux always worked, the masses would suddenly flock to Linux.
  4. The problem I had with Linux is a problem everyone would have in Linux.

The truth is that if you work in tech support (I don’t officially, but I have unofficially in my last two jobs), you know that there are problems (many problems) on both Windows and Mac OS X. Windows has been the dominant platform at both my current and previous workplaces, and every single day there are Windows problems abounding—cryptic error messages, printer driver conflicts, wireless drivers preventing laptops from going into standby, blue screens of death, rogue viruses, and frozen applications. Believe me, our official tech support guy doesn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs. He is busy.

Oddly enough, when people have these constant Windows problems, they don’t decide Windows “isn’t ready for the masses.” They just stick with it. Maybe they’ll say “I hate computers.” Maybe some smug Mac user (who also has problems of a different sort but somehow turns a blind eye to them) will say “I hate PCs” (and by PC they mean Windows PC). Oh, but the second a Windows power user tries Linux and encounters one or two problems, suddenly Windows is this always-working utopia. “I’d never have this problem in Windows.” Sure, buddy. Let me tell you about problems.

Last week, a friend of mine wanted to create a playlist of songs to put on her iPhone for a party she was throwing. Here are the problems she encountered:

  • The iPhone wouldn’t update because it couldn’t connect to the iTunes server
  • After it appeared to start the update, iTunes estimated the update download to take 54 minutes.
  • When the download failed after a half hour, she gave up on getting updated firmware on her iPhone altogether.
  • After installing the Amazon MP3 Installer, the download of the purchased MP3 failed midway through and would not complete or offer a useful error message after clicking retry.
  • The iTunes store worked better for purchasing music but cost more ($1.29 per song instead of $.99 per song)—not really a technical problem but still annoying.
  • She couldn’t sync the songs in her playlist to the iPhone, since the iPhone had been authorized on too many computers already, so she had to call Apple to get them to deauthorize her other computers so she could authorize her current computer.

So that’s “just working”? These are not the only problems she’s had on a Windows computer, and she’s had multiple computers. More importantly, she could not solve all these problems on her own, but she needed me to walk her through almost every step of the way. Is this pretty typical? Yes, actually. As I said before, I’m not even the real tech support guy at work, but people still ask me for help with their Windows problems every single day of the week. It could be Microsoft Word inserting some stupid line that can’t be erased or deleted. It could be Firefox not accepting cookies for website even when you’ve enabled them in Tools > Options. It could be the printer icon not allowing you to delete an errored out print job.

If there were really an operating system that offered you a flawless experience that didn’t require you to be your own tech support or for you to find outside tech support, then a lot of people would be out of jobs. Help desks everywhere would be laying off employees by the tens of thousands.

So does Linux have problems? Sure. It has a lot of problems. But those problems are not the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) reason most people use Windows. Windows’ dominance has mainly to do with inertia, marketing, brand-name recognition, and a near-monopoly on preinstallations. Why should I have to state this obvious fact? Because again and again Windows power users perpetuate this nonsense—because they have spent years or even decades perfecting the art of making Windows a bearable experience—that there are no problems in Windows and that any problem in Linux must be the reason Linux for desktops/laptops/netbooks isn’t more popular than it is.

Further Reading
Linux-for-the-masses narratives
Macs are computers, not magic (part 2)

Categories
Computers Writing

Can eReaders replace books?

Several years ago (possibly even before the turn of the millennium), my brother told me that books would soon be a thing of the past and that everyone would be reading eBooks. Is it possible? Could eReaders and eBooks replace paperbacks and hardcovers the way cars replaced the horse and buggy, the way portable audio players (iPods, for those of you who don’t know alternatives to Apple exist) have replaced CDs and tapes, and the way email has replaced letters?

I use the word replace rather loosely, of course. In some rural areas, horses and buggies are still around. CDs are still available for purchase in stores, and some used music stores have old tapes, which people will still purchase occasionally. And the post office still delivers letters, mostly from businesses to other businesses. Nevertheless, the primary way for even the most affluent of people to read books is still to read paperback or hardcover books. I know no one who owns a Kindle. The first Kindle I ever saw I saw only once from far away on a bus. I haven’t seen horse-buggy combos outside of Pennsylvania, most people I know use portable audio players, and almost all communication I get from family and friends is electronic.

Will we give up our books for eBooks? I may end up regretting these words in ten years, but I don’t think I ever will. Yes, I’ve heard the Kindle can store hundreds of books. Yes, I’ve heard it doesn’t have a backlight, so it won’t be a strain on your eyes. Still, I don’t believe I’ll ever use an eBook Reader in place of reading real books. Of course, back in the mid-1990s I didn’t think I would ever email instead of writing letters to friends.

I wasn’t around when cars started replacing other modes of transportation, but I do very much remember switching from records to tapes to CDs and, eventually, to MP3s. I do have a bit of nostalgia for exchanging mix tapes with my friends, and I love the sound of a crisp record being gentle stroked by a turntable’s needle. All the letters people wrote me back in high school I have kept and will probably at some point, unlike the emails they’ve sent me over the years, re-read them. Why won’t I give up books for eBooks?

A few reasons:

  • Even though I like having hundreds of songs at my fingertips in a small device (because I can actually listen to many of them, if not all, in a week), rarely do I read more than two books at a time—usually only one.
  • When I have an electronic device, I have to make sure it’s charged, make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I have to take care of it. Now—I don’t throw any of my books against the wall, spill pizza sauce on them, or rip the pages out, but I like that I can just throw them in a bag, read them in the bath, and even leave them around (without worry they’ll be stolen).
  • The idea that Amazon can remotely erase an eBook I bought is ridiculous (as came out in the whole 1984 scandal recently). No book store is ever going to break into my apartment and take a book back that I bought just because they realized they didn’t have the rights to sell that book to me in the first place.

Go ahead, Amazon (or Sony), try to make me eat my words! I think the only way I’d switch to eReaders is if everyone else does and the only bookstores still left around are used book stores…

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Music I Like Ubuntu

A professional musician switches from Mac to Ubuntu Linux?

I just read Linux Music Workflow: Switching from Mac OS X to Ubuntu with Kim Cascone, and I have to say I’m shocked, especially after reading Kim Cascone’s Wikipedia entry. Kim is a serious musician, not just some schmoe dinking around in his basement.

I’ve been a full-time Ubuntu user for a little over four years now, having switched from Windows XP. My wife switched around the same time but from Windows to Mac, as she uses Mac for serious graphic design work.

Even though I get annoyed when anti-Linux trolls make it sound as if no one could use Linux just because Linux isn’t great for certain niche commercial applications (AutoCAD, Adobe CS, certain graphics-intensive video games), I have to concede that Linux is not for everyone. And if someone had come up to me yesterday and said, “Hey I’m a professional musician who uses a computer full-time for audio stuff. Should I use Linux?” I would probably laugh in her face and tell her to go with Mac OS X.

Even though I don’t use Linux for serious audio work, I’ve seen enough of the Linux audio mess of Pulse Audio, OSS, and ALSA to know it can be an obstacle for someone seeking to use Linux primarily for audio work. After reading that blog post, though, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

And I also think that, even though there is a myth of meritocracy in the software world, arguing about how freedom is important isn’t going to win over the general public. If open source is really a better development model, it will create better software. There shouldn’t be a choice between functionality and ideology. If the ideology of freedom being better is true, then it should produce the best functionality eventually. And maybe it is slowly getting there.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that if Ubuntu (or some other Linux distro) fixes all its usability issues that all of a sudden hundreds of millions of Windows users (and Mac users?) will just download .iso files, burn them to CD, boot from CD, and install and configure a new operating system themselves. But why have extra obstacles?

Keep on bringing the improvements, Linux communities. This is definitely a cool development.

Categories
Computers Windows

The 6 Best Ways to Secure Windows

Introduction
Step 1. Install Windows updates automatically
Step 2. Make your primary account a limited user account
Step 3. Use Firefox with the NoScript extension
Step 4. Read up on social engineering and how to avoid being the victim of it
Step 5. Do not pirate software, music, or movies
Step 6. Avoid all “antivirus” or “security suite” software

Introduction

Out of the top three consumer-oriented software platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, various Linux distributions), Windows is my least favorite operating system, but I’m no Windows hater. A lot of times I hear Mac and Linux users saying they switched because they were tired of viruses and malware in Windows.

While it’s true that Mac OS X and most Linux distros make it easy to keep your operating system secure with their default settings, you can make Windows just as secure, and that’s what this six-step guide is for.

If you follow these instructions carefully, you should pretty much never get malware (spyware, adware, viruses, trojans, rogue viruses, worms) in Windows.

The screenshots use Windows 7, but the same principles apply to Windows Vista and Windows XP as well. The steps may just be slightly different (especially for Windows XP). If you’re still using Windows 98, pay for an upgrade to Windows 7; or if you’re too cheap for that, just switch to Linux. There’s almost nothing Windows 98 can do that Linux can’t, and Windows 98 no longer receives security updates (it also has no limited user accounts).

You can click on the screenshot thumbnails if you want to see larger versions.

Step 1. Install Windows updates automatically

In early 2009, there was a lot of paranoia about the Conficker worm, which was supposedly going to do scary things and which had already infected 10 million computers. Which users had to worry about Conficker? The Windows users who did not install Windows updates. A full month before that iteration of Conficker became active, Microsoft had already released a patch for the flaw Conficker exploited.

Windows Updates can be just annoying prompts to install a new version of “Windows Genuine Advantage.” More often than not, though, they are actual security updates that patch flaws and security holes in the Windows operating system. It is a good idea to set these updates to install regularly.


Go to the Start Menu > Control Panel > System and Security


Then under Windows Update, select Turn automatic updating on or off


Make sure updates are set to install automatically. Then click OK.

Step 2. Make your primary account a limited user account

Have you ever had your Windows installation infected so thoroughly (registry, dlls, startup programs, other system files) that it was apparent it would take less time to reinstall Windows than it would to try to clean out all the malware that destroyed Windows? Are you kicking yourself because the infection came through one or two clicks of the mouse?

Well, that’s because Windows, by default, makes the primary user a full system administrator. In newer versions (Windows Vista and Windows 7), there is something called User Account Control. It’s that annoying “Are you sure? Are you sure?” prompt you get that you end up conditioning yourself to always click “Yes” to.

By using primarily a limited user account, you can feel free to click on what you want and not worry about infecting system files. When you want to finally install software, you can do so by temporarily authenticating as the administrator account.

First, we’re going to create a new administrator account.


Under System and Security in the Control Panel, select User Accounts and Family Safety and then Add or remove user accounts


This is that annoying User Account Control prompt I was talking about before. Click Yes.


Click Create a new account and then make sure the new account is going to be an Administrator account and click Create Account.

With the soon-to-be-regular account called Susan, I’m going to be naming the new administrator account SuperSusan so I know it’s a special account I shouldn’t be using on a regular basis.

And, by the way, even Microsoft recommends you use a standard (or limited) user account. You can click on Why is a standard account recommended? for more details about that.


Now click on the newly-created administrator account name and then select Create password


Make sure your password for this new account is significantly complicated. It should contain no dictionary words or personally identifiable information (birthdays, social security numbers). It should have numbers, lowercase letters, uppercase letters, and punctuation in it, though.

So you don’t forget your password, go ahead and write it down on a sticky note somewhere near your computer. The greatest threat to your security is an online threat, not another family member. Besides, anyone with physical access to your computer and a little know-how can easily reset your password, anyway.

When you’re done, click Create password


Log out of your normal user account and log in as the new administrator account. It is not enough to switch users in this case. Make sure you properly log off.


Go to Start Menu > Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts


Click on Manage another account


Click Yes and then select your normal user account


Click Change the account type, select Standard user (also known as a “limited user”), and then click Change Account Type.


Log out of the administrator account and log back into your normal (now standard or limited) user account. You should never have to log in as the administrator directly again.

Step 3. Use Firefox with the NoScript extension

I see a lot of confused Windows users wondering which web browser is “the safest.” Is it Opera? Is it Chrome? Is it Firefox? Internet Explorer? Safari?

The truth is that if you use any modern web browser with its default settings, they’re all about the same in terms of safety. They all have pop-up blockers that block 95% of pop-ups. They all have warnings about potential spoofing websites. They all get regular security updates when flaws are discovered, and every browser has flaws. There is no perpetually invincible web browser.

If you use Firefox in combination with the NoScript extension, that’s about as secure as you’re going to get, though, since NoScript by default blocks JavaScript, Flash, and just about everything else interactive on websites unless you explicitly whitelist specific sites.

Think of your computer as an exclusive nightclub. Do you think it’s easier to secure your party by having a bouncer outside the club who screens all incoming guests, or by allowing anyone inside the club and then having bouncers inside trying to drag people out? Well, NoScript is your bouncer outsider. It’ll block everything, and then it’s up to you to let trusted websites in on a case-by-case basis.


To install NoScript, in Firefox, go to Tools > Add-ons and then click on Get Add-ons and then Browse All Add-ons


You’ll be taken to the Mozilla add-ons website. Search for noscript.


Once you’ve found it, click on Add to Firefox and then Install Now (after a three-second delay, the button will appear as clickable).


You’ll be prompted to restart Firefox to activate the NoScript extension. Go ahead and restart Firefox.


Now you’re web browser is as secure as possible. Of course, this may seem annoying at first.

Convenience and security are always at odds. It may be convenient to have thousands of dollars of cash on you at all times, because it’s always easily accessible, but if you get mugged or pickpocketed then all of your money is gone. It’s slightly less convenient to keep most of your money in a bank, but it’s a lot safer in the bank (and also insured up to a certain amount, in case the bank gets robbed).

For the first two weeks you use NoScript, it may seem pointless. It may seem as if you’re just whitelisting every single site you visit. Don’t give up. After a while, you’ll realize you’ve whitelisted just about every site you do visit regularly, and then you can spend a lot less time whitelisting (or keeping blacklisted) potentially shady websites you stumble upon on a less regular basis.

Step 4. Read up on social engineering and how to avoid being the victim of it

Have you ever heard the term trojan virus, gotten scared, and thought “I hope I never get one of those”?

Well, the good news is that you don’t ever have to get a trojan. Trojans don’t just happen. You choose to install them yourself. Trojans are becoming increasingly the most popular kind of malware, and they can thrive on any operating sytem (Windows, Mac, Linux), because they exploit a security flaw the operating systems cannot patch—the user.

That’s you. You are potentially the biggest security hole for your computing experience.

Trojans and phishing scams rely on something called social engineering, which is just a fancy term for tricking someone into lowering security guards.

It can be someone calling up and pretending to be your IT support department in order to get your password. It can be someone pretending to be your bank to get your private personal information. It can be a pop-up window pretending to be an antivirus scanner that’s found malware on your computer (and if you pay the scammers $50, they’ll remove the non-existent malware for you… or actually install real malware now that you’ve been tricked into installing it).

You wouldn’t hand your car keys over to fake valet. Don’t hand over the keys to your computer to a fake… anything (fake pirated commercial program, fake warning about malware, fake credit card company request for information verification).


Do yourself a favor. The absolute most important step to take in securing your computer is making yourself an educated user. Google the term social engineering and read the first ten results of that search thoroughly.

Step 5. Do not pirate software, music, or movies

I’m not saying if you pirate software, music, and movies that you will definitely contract malware, but by not pirating all that stuff, you lower your chances significantly of installing a trojan or some other kind of malware.

If you’re hard up for cash, the best way to look for trustworthy free stuff is to look for open source stuff.

The website Open Source Windows has lots of great free (and malware-free) software. No pop-ups. No trial periods. No scams. No activation keys. No exhorbitant costs.

You can also find some more-obscure open source projects at Source Forge.


Here’s an example of installing an open source instant messaging client.


Note that for the script that automatically starts downloading the file (without manually clicking the download link), you’ll have to whitelist the site from the NoScript icon. You’ll also have to do this the first time you watch a video at YouTube or Hulu or the first time you try to book airline tickets on a site like Expedia or Priceline.


Once you’ve saved the file to your downloads folder, in order to install it—now that you’re a standard (or limited) user—you’ll have to right-click the file and select Run as administrator


You’ll then be prompted for the super-user or administrator’s password you set earlier. Enter that and you can continue.

In addition to open source software, there are also writings, pictures, and music released under freer-than-traditional-copyright licenses. You can find more information about this at Creative Commons.

There’s also free (and legal) music at Jamendo. Really, though, if you need commercial music, Amazon’s MP3 store has reasonable prices, and even several hundred free sample tracks.

Step 6. Avoid all “antivirus” or “security suite” software

Although this doesn’t directly make your Windows installation more secure, it is a good idea for several reasons:

  • If you already have solid security in place, pretend security (Norton, McAfee, AVG, Avast, MalwareBytes, Kapersky, etc.) just takes up extra hard drive space and sometimes extra system resources. This means you have less storage space for your actual files (music, movies, documents, pictures). It can also mean your computer doesn’t run as fast as it would otherwise.
  • So-called antivirus and antispyware programs encourage complacency. Rather than being proactive about security by locking down the system and educating the user on how to avoid social engineering–based attacks, these placebos make people think they’re “protected” while wasting space, resources, and possibly money.
  • If you constantly rely on these security suites to protect you, you’re more likely to fall for rogue viruses pretending to be antivirus scans.
  • There are two ways antimalware tries to protect you—by keeping a list of known offenders and comparing files to that known list, and by trying to guess what might be an offending file or application. The list of known offenders can never keep up with actual new offenders. And guesses lead to a lot of false positives, making users unnecessarily paranoid (about tracking cookies, for example).

Of course there are always folks who will say “But I want to just run it just in case….” In this case, there is no just in case. If you follow all five of the previous steps carefully, antivirus will do nothing to protect you. And if you refuse to follow all five of the previous steps carefully, antivirus will also do nothing to protect you.

It would be like a soldier suiting up with heavy armor and kevlar and then adding a razor-thin layer of tissue to the top as “just in case” protection against bullets. If you have armor and kevlar, that’s the best protection you have against bullets. The tissue won’t be offering additional protection. And if you don’t have the armor and kevlar, again the tissue won’t offer additional protection.

The armor and kevlar in this analogy are the first five steps in this tutorial. The tissue is “antivirus” software, security suites, and all that other garbage that offers you no protection.

Hopefully you’ve found this tutorial helpful. As you can see, security woes are no reason to switch away from Windows. If you have a genuine interest in exploring Mac OS X or Linux, though, I think you’ll find them both rewarding computing experiences in their own respective ways.

Categories
Computers Linux Writing

Google Chrome OS isn’t Linux?

Add one more to the tech journalism hall of shame.

From PC World‘s “Google’s Chrome OS May Fail Even as It Changes Computing Forever”:

First, Google will compete with another operating system, Linux, that has tried fruitlessly to replace Windows on consumer PCs. The Linux camp will give it another go with a Linux variant called Moblin that has the backing of Intel and is headed for netbooks soon. (No specific partners or dates have been announced.) Dell says it prefers Moblin to Chrome OS.

Hey, Tom Spring—Google Chrome OS is Linux, just as much as Intel’s Moblin is, just as much as Ubuntu is. Linux is a short-hand many people use to designate any operating system that uses the GNU/Linux kernel… and Google Chrome OS uses the Linux kernel!

Maybe this mistake is a good thing.

If even tech “journalists” think Google Chrome OS isn’t Linux, then maybe people will give Chrome a chance because of the Google brand and not be afraid that Linux is only for geeks. After all, no one ever said you had to be a geek to use TiVo.

If Chrome OS is successful, Linux’s “year of the desktop” may not even be recognized as such, because most people (not even supposed journalists) won’t even realize Chrome is Linux. Of course, I don’t buy that Google is directly competing with Microsoft. Yes, Chrome OS is an operating system. Yes, if it’s successful, it will take some marketshare away from Windows. But cloud computing can be only so successful in the near future. Not everyone has broadband internet. Not everyone wants confidential documents on someone else’s servers. Not everyone wants to migrate away from her current platform. Not all applications have “cloud” counterparts.

If Google is successful in taking over the netbook market, it’ll be a huge blow to Microsoft, but people will still be using their Windows desktops and Windows laptops for heavy gaming, for niche business applications, for graphic design (if they aren’t using Macs).

Windows does not need to be totally overthrown, though. Any gain in marketshare for Linux will mean more hardware support for Linux users, which means ultimately more freedom and choice for even those Linux users who use non–Chrome OS distros.

Categories
Computers Windows

Should you stick with Windows?

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.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers

An unbiased view on Macs

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.

Categories
Computers hp mini Linux Ubuntu

Vanilla Ubuntu on the HP Mini 1120nr

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.

Categories
Computers Linux Ubuntu

Inspiron 15n: Dell finally properly prices its Ubuntu option

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!

Categories
Computers Linux

Know why software installation is difficult on Linux? It’s a secret. I can’t tell you.

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?