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Macbook Pro After 6 Months

Some readers of this blog probably know that for a very long time (ca. 1998– 2010) I’ve been a devout linux user. I’ve been using this system exclusively on all the computers until the Fall last year, when I decided to give Macbook Pro a try (mainly for hardware-related reasons). I’ve written about it a couple of times already, but it’s still a subject I keep thinking about, and about which I’m being asked by my friends constantly. ‘Why have you bought a Mac?’, they ask, ‘how is it any better? Don’t you miss freedom? Don’t you miss Gnome?’

Yes and no. But let me elaborate on that.

(This is a rather long post, so if you’re not interested in the topic or simply don’t want to read the same old rants over and over again, let me offer you a one-sentence wrap-up of what’s written here: Linux is cool, Mac is uncool, but then again Mac is also cool or even cooler.)

I miss the freedom of choice I love so much. When you’re running Ubuntu or Fedora, or any other linux distro for that matter, and you’re annoyed/bored by your current graphical interface, you can just switch it to something else. Don’t like Gnome? Give KDE a try. Don’t like either? Go for LXDE, Openbox, Fluxbox, WindowMaker, Xfce, Enlightenment, FVWM, Awesome, Xmonad – you name it! I know that tweaking and playing with your computer’s operating system kills productivity, but that’s just the way I am: I like to be able to change things a bit. Here on Mac OS X it’s either the Apple way, or the highway.

Furthermore, it seems like I’m a man of habits, and I can’t get used to some OS X-specific features. For example, the distinction between applications and windows. Let me tell you how this works: in OS X, if you’re running (a default e-mail client) and you’re having the main program window open plus you’re composing a new email (that’s another window), you can’t switch between these two with Cmd+Tab keyboard shortcut. Cmd+Tab will switch you to another application you’re running, for example Firefox. If you want to switch between windows within the same application, you need to press Cmd+`, and there’s no way around it. You can’t disable it, you can’t force OS X to cycle through all the windows of all the apps with Cmd+Tab. I understand some rationale behind the distinction, I sort of see the point, but… I hate it. If I’m writing this post in Firefox now, and I want to switch to another window which is within another application and it’s not in the foreground, I need to first Cmd+Tab and then Cmd+`. In Gnome or KDE it’s just one shortcut. Also, if you minimize a window with Cmd+M, you cannot switch to it either with Cmd+Tab or Cmd+`, you have to click on it’s minimized icon in the Dock, or invoke Exposé. It may be clean in terms of design and logic, but it’s all just terribly impractical.

Ok, let’s get to the hardware now. The aluminium unibody Macbook Pro is incredible. It’s sturdy, lightweight, compact, beautiful and absolutely noiseless (unless you’re playing Half-Life 2, but then it doesn’t really matter because the noise coming from your shotgun drowns all the other sounds). It has a fantastic backlit keyboard, and its screen produces a crisp, vivid image. But: the super-duper-magic-buttonless touchpad is just bad.

Some features of the touchpad are actually nice. It’s nice that it’s so big, and I like the inertial scrolling. But it’s imprecise, way less precise than a proper trackpoint. Also, I don’t usually use the gestures, which are so revolutionary. They’re neat if you want to show off to some friends who don’t have a Macbook, but in daily use I find them… difficult to perform. Perhaps it’s just something wrong with my hands, or my fingers – I don’t know. It’s just not comfortable. It’s funny that what I was initially afraid of hardware-wise was the super glossy screen, but I actually got used to it. But not the touchpad.

And it would be even ok if the touchpad sucked – they all do – if OS X was better suited for keyboard control, but it’s not. Many, many things require mouse usage. You can’t open up a terminal and do an apt-get update && apt-get dist-upgrade. You can update your Macports from the terminal, but any other updates you want to perform (via OS X’s internal system’s update mechanism or via the Mac App Store) require a mouse. Finder (a file manager and a shell for OS X user interface) is ok, but again – you have to click everything, you can’t use the keyboard for most tasks (or at least I don’t find it as comfortable as moving around the filesystem using Gnome’s Nautilus). There is no built-in interface that allows you to run an arbitrary command in OS X, like Alt+F2 that invokes a “Run program” window in Gnome/KDE. Sure, there are great 3rd party apps like Quicksilver, Launchbar or Alfred, but only Quicksilver is free, and its development is rather stagnant (maybe not when compared to Gnome-Do, but definitely when compared to Krunner). Managing windows sucks. There’s no way to maximize a window with a keyboard shortcut other than using a 3rd party application. Keyboard shortcuts are sometimes inconsistent amongst even standard apps that Apple ships with OS X, for example I’m never sure whether it’s Cmd+F or Cmd+Shift+F that I should hit to enter fullscreen mode. Oh and one last thing: in Gnome I can Alt+click any window in its arbitrary point, and then move it. This is very, very useful, and you can’t do it under OS X.

It’s not all that bad, obviously. The biggest strength of the Mac is the way the apps are integrated. You can drag and drop everything into/onto anything. OS X is also very fast compared to Ubuntu+Gnome on a similar (or even faster…) hardware. Apple of course makes some other devices than computers these days (well who knew, huh?) and if you happen to have one of those, you’re living in an ecosystem where everything stays in sync. Your email (and not only Gmail-based), your contacts, your photos, music, videos, calendars (and not only Google Calendar!), notes, todos, and what have you. The iPhone can be a remote for your iTunes, and it can also be a remote for your presentation if you’re using Keynote. It’s being constantly backed-up every time you sync it.

Another enormous advantage over the FOSS world here are the applications themselves. Sure, I’m just a PhD student and not a graphics designer, and it’s true that most of the time I use free tools available for both platforms, such as Emacs, TeX, Mendeley, Firefox, etc. But if you like photography, then no matter how amateur your skills are you will probably prefer using iPhoto rather than any photo management program for linux. Be it F-spot, Digikam or Shotwell, they’re no match for iPhoto. And there really isn’t any app available for linux you could compare to Aperture or Adobe Lightroom. It’s not all about graphics-related software, there are tons of great productivity apps, like Things. And if you hate OpenOffice as much as I do, you will definitely appreciate the speed, polish and overall neatness of iWork (which is very, very cheap these days). The App Store has a terrible interface, but it’s very easy to buy programs using it, and most of these programs are cheap and good (quite often they’re brilliant). And in contrast to linux there are even games available for Macs. I know, there aren’t many, but then again compared to the linux market I feel overwhelmed (not that I buy or play any of these games, but the sole possibility of buying and downloading CoD feels good). It’s also funny that some of the free apps I know from linux actually run better on a Mac. Mendeley is more stable here. LyX is faster (probably due to better 2D graphics support).

And finally, OS X is stable like hell. Ok, this may not be the best comparison, but let’s just say it’s very stable. I reboot it only when I travel by plane, because I’m a very paranoid and obedient person, and when the flight attendant asks to switch all electronic equipment off, I do actually switch my Macbook off. Other than that, it’s always on or suspended, or hibernated, or whatever. I don’t care about the uptime, and I’m never worried about any system crashes or colorful artifacts on my screen after I open up the display lid. Ubuntu 10.04 I’m using on my now-office-based HP EliteBook is generally also stable, but it likes to crash every now and then, especially after resume. My previous laptop, Dell Latitude D430 liked to crash as well, especially with the newer versions of Ubuntu. And my Thinkpad T40 was, how to put it, un-suspendable. I always had to shut it down if I wanted to close the lid, and then boot it up again.

Ok, so why have I written it all down in such a lengthy post?

First and foremost to show to my dear friends at the Dept. of Computer Engineering, that I’m not yet as much of an Apple fan boy as, for example, my supervisor is.

Secondly, I wanted to put my thoughts in order, and blogging works miracles for me in this manner. You see, for me being part of the whole FOSS community was an important part of my life. The decision of going to Eplehuset, entering my PIN, confirming and leaving with a white paper box wasn’t an easy one. When I came back home I felt pretty sad, no excitement about the new hardware whatsoever (that is of course until I finally unpacked it). It took me a couple of months to convince myself that this was the right decision, and I had to share this with everyone who reads my blog, because (a) that’s the way I am and (b) because what is written is properly confirmed in existence.

And finally, I wrote this post as a last of the I bought a Mac, look how (un)cool it is series. There will be no posts about these matters, and I don’t want to hear any more questions about it. Cheers.