New Mac after 3 years

I've discussed my 3 years of experience, and the evolution of the Mac user interface in 26 months with a Mac. This summer we started on a major upgrade cycle. We replaced my wife's 17" G5 iMac, the system that started our switching, with a 24" base model iMac which has been a superior system. Her old iMac is now a kitchen system. I "destroyed" my MacBook so bought a new one, got the old one fixed, and sold my iBook. My MacBook story is covered here.

I just got a new iMac to replace my 3 year old system. This one is a 27" with the quad-core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM. There certainly was nothing wrong with my old system, but I just wanted a quad core and drooled over that 27" display at the local Apple store.

What appears below is basically a rewrite of the original 26 months page, but addressing the current state, as of December 2009, with my new iMac.

I've separated out and revised the discussion of the software packages I use, although some general comments are on this page.

My Mac Experience and the new 27" i7 iMac

First, here is what I really like:

New Mac, Old PC, and Environment

I had a Mac at work (the original) for a few days back in 1984. I loved MacDraw (especially) and felt the other apps, like MacWrite, were far better than what I'd seen on other platforms. However the small memory in those early systems meant that MacWrite couldn't handle documents larger than about two or three pages. Since I had documents in the hundreds of pages, I couldn't switch. At the time I was using a CP/M system and went to a PC in about 1986. Took me several years before I found an app that would approach MacDraw on the PC.

I bought an iMac for my wife at Christmas 2004. She loves it. I loved it, too, so when I needed a small notebook for travel the next summer I bought an iBook. Appleworks had the MacDraw/MacPaint/MacWrite trio inside, as well as a simple spreadsheet, presentation, and database modules. As I intended to use the system for on-the-road examination and processing of pictures, I found it worked fine, but slowly, with the Nikon programs that I had used PC versions of on my desktop PC.

In November 2006 I decided to take the plunge and replace my desktop PC with an iMac. I had been waiting for Photoshop CS 3, but decided to go ahead since I was facing a large amount of writing and illustrating for some new classes I was to start teaching in January, and wanted to use that as my learning experience with a Mac. I still had my PC for fallback and would also buy Parallels which I had seen demonstrated.

My desktop PC at the time, a Dell Dimension 8300, has a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 processor with "hyperthreading", 2GB of RAM, 160GB HD, a 20" and a 17" LCD monitors, and Windows XP Pro. The iMac was a 20" with 3GB of RAM and bluetooth keyboard&mouse as the only options. It uses the 20" LCD from the Dimension 8300 as a second monitor.

After my iMac purchase I used Macs almost exclusively (only PCs in the classroom), after being probably 95% PC before. So it was about as close to a complete switch as possible. After five months I got a new job which uses Windows and Linux again. For me, at least, it isn't that difficult to go back and forth. I still take work home and use my iMac. And with the Macbook all my class work is Mac based.

As of this writing in December 2009, the home network consists of:

At the time I bought the iMac I never saw a student in my classes with a Mac. In my Microcontrollers class this term (Winter 2009) 4 out of 20 students have MacBooks or MacBook Pros. Keep in mind this is an engineering class, not art. They all, of course, have to use Windows for the CAD tools.

Out of The Box Experience

Unlike my first iMac, the new one had a A+ out of the box experience. It's like Apple read my web page and fixed all the issues.

I ordered my iMac just after they started shipping, but still when there was quite a backlog. Even so, it took one day less than two weeks from order to delivery. It arrived in perfect condition. The main items in the box are the iMac, a power cord, the keyboard and the mouse. There is also a screen cleaning cloth, a minimal amount of documentation, two install DVDs, and the Apple stickers, suitable for bragging rights anywhere. I've put one on my office PC.

I plugged the computer in, turned on the power on the keyboard an mouse (unlike the last time, the batteries were pre-installed), and hit the power button on the iMac. I didn't have to pair the keyboard and mouse to the computer. In fact all I had to do was select my keyboard layout, language, Wifi network password, and enter my Apple account name and password. It went online to retrieve my user information. I was up and running in under 5 minutes! And the system software was completely up-to-date.

The Applecare Box is no longer physically shipped, so everything was in one box. I did have to use the install DVDs to install the xCode developers software, but that's to be expected. The iMac came with no trial or demo software.

I used the Migration Assistant program to move the system configuration, programs, and my files to the new system. This took several hours, but all programs and data came across. All I had to do was re-enter some software license keys, reset TimeMachine, and fix a strangely broken file permission. Also mysteriously, there seemed to be a number of duplicated fonts, which was easy to correct.

Multiple Monitors

Multiple Applications

While the Mac was the first with a GUI interface, PCs allowed running multiple applications at the same time first. The old Mac "Switcher" would switch applications but only the foreground application would actually execute. Even today I feel that Windows handles multitasking better.

Keyboard

I'm somewhat of a keyboard fanatic. I guess it is because I've used one for decades and have seen things change, not always for the better, over this time. The earliest computer keyboards I used, ASCII keyboards, had a "control" key where keyboards now have the (IMHO useless) caps lock key. The control key was the only way to execute system functions as all other keys would enter characters. No function keys, no Option/Command/Apple/Alt/Windows keys. Very simple. Then IBM introduced a bunch of function keys, some labeled F-something, and others with obvious and obscure names (anybody ever used "Sys Req"?). As a way of enforcing their new view of keyboards, in a couple of years they moved the control key to where it is difficult to chord with and replaced it with a caps lock, more like the fast becoming obsolete typewriter. They encouraged apps to use these new function keys rather than the control key by making the control key hard to use. Then Microsoft came along and introduced menus that maked the function keys redundant (take that, IBM!). Meanwhile that first Mac I used had a nice, simple keyboard, and my first iMac has what I'd call a "keyboard disaster". It seems to be an attempt to "give in" to the PC world, yet is confusing probably to traditional Mac users and certainly to PC users. The new iMac has a keyboard that is the same as the Apple notebooks. It's considerably reduced in number of keys, making it more like the early keyboards I've used. The details:

Hardware Plusses and Minuses

The all-in-one design keeps things compact, and Apple has really perfected this format. The all-alluminum back acts like a giant heat sink so the fans only need to loaf at low speed. It makes for an amazingly quiet system. The lack of upgradability over time has been discussed on every forum, it seems. But since I stopped upgrading PCs years ago, I don't consider the iMac to be a problem. Every three years I just replace my entire computer.

That said, with a chassis so big they could provide more wired connectivity. While some people might be able to go completely wireless, I have many USB devices to connect, and there just aren't enough USB jacks on the back. And there are none on the front at all making attaching a USB thumb drive a real chore.

External drives either have to be on a server or NAS or for maximum performance connected via Firewire. Firewire 800 drives are expensive, while E-SATA is inexpensive, runs at drive speed, and isn't available on the iMac. The iMac chassis holds only one drive.

Thank you Apple for having 4 memory slots allowing 8GB at reasonable cost. Someday 16GB will be affordable as well. This is the only user-accessible upgrade.

My camera uses CF memory cards. The iMac has only SD. Its a new feature. But why couldn't they have slots for all popular memory cards like PCs do?

I've already mentioned my thumbs down on the mini-DisplayPort. But you can now save money by buying the adapters from other than Apple. I bought mine from Monoprice.com for about one third what Apple charges.

Spotlight

The search feature in OS X, Spotlight, is the feature I miss most when I'm using a Windows system. It always seems to find what I'm after, plus it's also useful as a program launcher, dictionary, and even a calculator.

I use an old version of Copernic Desktop Search at work on Windows, but it is no where near as thorough or fast.

What ever became of context sensitive help?

On a PC, when you ask for help in a dialog box, you get "context sensitive help" that describes the dialog box. On a Mac, the "?" icon just brings up regular help and there doesn't seem to be a good way to get to the help about the dialog items (if indeed there is any). The help feature is also very slow in searching. And the search result has no detail. Basically all available help just glosses over the surface.

At one time computers came with extensive user manuals. Now that they don't, why must we be forced to buy "The Missing Manual" for everything? Why can't there be decent on-line documentation? Has Apple ever heard of ease of use?

The Dock

Frankly, if you have dozens of applications, the Dock doesn't hack it for program launching, and it doesn't make it easy to see what is running with those little glowing dots spread out all over. The PC (talking XP here) gives a hierarchical menu for launching applications as well as shortcut icons for the few you want to launch regularly, and it organizes the display of running apps better. Casual users or those that run just a few specialized apps won't have a problem with this.

The whole document folder can be placed in the dock, or a folder of aliases to the most commonly used applications can be added to the dock and set to display as a fan. This is a good alternative to the Windows Start menu for converts. However I've ended up using Spotlight for my program launcher. Type in a few letters of the application name and it appears at the top of the list.

Every version of OS X improves on the dock. Snow Leopard has Dock Exposé which shows all the windows (even if minimized) for the selected application. This has become the real saving grace for me with the dock.

Lack of Appleworks

In fact lack of lots of bundled applications that used to be there. Our first Macs came with the World Book encyclopedia, Quicken, and some games.

Appleworks is considered a dead application, and I guess the official word is that is is replaced with iWork. But is iWork a substitute? It does produce more polished output and have more features than the modules in Appleworks they replaced, but iWork is missing drawing and database applications.

Of course another solution is to run Open Office. This gives everything but a MacPaint replacement.I use EazyDraw as the MacDraw replacement. It's a fine program. I've also added OmniGraffle for fast chart creation.

Maybe I've had it with suites. Saves money, but there is no suite that does everything.

When Word is not Word

I've found that the Mac's and the Windows' Words are not 100% compatible. I'm not talking VisualBasic here but the ability to open a document created in Windows on the Mac. In fact under some circumstances it's virtually guarenteed they aren't compatible at all. On the other hand, OpenOffice.org works better in terms of ability to accurately open Windows Word files.

The latest Pages is good enough that it has become my default word processor for new documents. Luckily I'm not doing complex documents anymore. I suppose if I needed to do so I'd run my copy of WordPerfect 8 under Parallels/Windows.

Magic Mouse

I quickly grew to hate the Mighty Mouse, but the Magic Mouse is a different story. It's almost everything the Mighty Mouse should have been. It has the excellent tracking and stays paired like the Mighty Mouse, but it doesn't have a ball to get dirty. I use the mouse like it is a standard mouse with a wheel/ball and two buttons and it magically works fine. The design is as fine as the Apple buttonless track pads as far as working intuitively is concerned. I do miss having the extra buttons for Exposé and task switching, but a free application, BetterTouchTool, gives the ability to map multi-touch gestures to these and other actions.

The secret to best results with the Magic Mouse is to have a light touch. It's missing the rounded lines of other mice so can be hard on the hands if you hold it tightly. And a light touch is virtually manditory for the trackpad surface to keep the mouse from slipping around.

Parallels and iLife 09 to the Rescue

I had previously complained about problems with Parallels to run the few Windows-only applications I need to run, and about iLife making video production dificult. Well all is solved with the latest versions of these products. Even screen video capture is now built into OS X, but I continue to use iShowU for it's flexibility. The latest iMovie '09 is all I need for my video production. For format conversion I still use Perian, Quicktime 7 Pro, and HandBrake.

Windows Does Some Things Better

Yes, it is true. Windows does some things right. At least if you buy the Pro version.

The Command Line

I've continued to use command lines since before there were GUIs so I'm glad to see OS X built on top of a UNIX. Finder obscures the underpinnings to be more traditional Mac-like, while Windows Explorer pretty much shows it like it is. However I have noticed that more recent Windows systems, like Windows 7, are moving toward obscuring the underpinings. And there is also some confusion because the OS X file system is not case sensitive but is case preserving, yet bash command completion as well as command line wildcard expansion is case sensitive (like traditional UNIX).

OS X is the Best Linux

Not a Mac nit at all. Having dealt with several Linux distributions as well as Sun Solaris, there is no question that OS X is the better than any Linux. Alas, I've never found that much of a selling point. It seems that most people that are Linux promoters are doing so because it is not-Microsoft rather than because of any merits of Linux. Those folks are just as anti-Mac as the are anti-Microsoft. The bottom line is that OS X has the polish to make it easy to use for anyone from eight to eighty, and, frankly, Windows 7 does as well. But Linux is still trouble without a guru handy. And even particularly user-friendly distributions like Ubuntu still don't have the polish of OS X.

Concerns about the Future

If you buy a Windows PC you are fairly well stuck with what Microsoft gives you for the OS, although there is considerable back compatability that keeps the old apps operating. But you have a wide choice of hardware vendors and each vendor tends to offer a wide number of models. Not so if you go with the Apple Mac. There are three desktop designs each with limited options and two notebook designs each with limited options. Software compatibility from release to release is limited. OS X Leopard won't run any program that predates OS X, which is basically anything prior to 2001. Windows 7 will run most Windows applications from the 1990's and MSDOS appications from the 1980s.

This means that once you buy into the Mac, you have committed yourself to lockstep OS, application, and hardware upgrades. It is potentially an unnecessary and major expense, but it does mean you always have the latest and presumably the best.

But what if it's not the best? What if the latest Mac computer doesn't suit your needs? What if you must keep using that old system because of a critical program that is no longer supported? The limited selection, when none of them matches your needs, can end up being a serious problem.

The new iMac works for me, but for many the glossy display, lack of 10-key pad, Blu-Ray, or other features are deal breakers. The use of display port monitor connections means added cost and inability to drive composite video, which is something I still occasionally need.

One has to agree to the Apple philosophy. Want Blu-Ray? Forget it -- it's not in Apple's view of the future. Apple pushes forward, abandoning old technologies while they are still useful. Apple was the first to abandon the floppy drive and the serial port. They are abandoning the 10-key pad on the keyboard. VGA and DVI are going as well as Firewire 400. Toss all your old stuff out and move forward. Hope you have deep enough pockets.

Speaking of which Apple is pushing their product prices higher rather than lower. While they backed off their most recent price increase with the introduction of the Unibody MacBooks, the prices are still higher than the white plastic models. The DisplayPort adapters are still 50% more expensive that mini-DVI. There is far less bundled software now. Educational discounts have been cut. The "Apple Tax" is increasing.