26 months with a Mac

Originally posted at six weeks, then nine, then thirteen, then sixteen, forty-eight, and sixty-eight weeks. And again after 26 months when things were changing for the better. Now 31 months have passed and I'm revising this introduction and the final section about concerns for the future. Note that this page is now obsolete -- read Three Years with a Mac instead!

This is becoming like a blog, except it isn't ordered by time. Instead it is ordered by subject matter, and updates are marked.

Since I bought the iMac, I've upgraded to Leopard and upgraded the iWork and iLife suites. I've since have purchased a MacBook to replace the iBook (which was too slow) and a Dell Inspiron that I used in the classroom. But the MacBook is the subject of another page. Even at 31 months I don't feel rushed to upgrade -- it's still running fine with no failures except for the Mighty Mouse, about which I will complain later in this page. My wife still thinks her 4.5 year old iMac is great, and even the old iBook is still used as a guest computer.

However the Macbook failed when I got it wet, so I got a new one. Then I decided to replace my wife's iMac with a new 24" model so that she would have an Intel processor and all of the improvements in 4.5 years. Her old 17" G5 iMac is now in the kitchen.

I've also added a new section covering the software packages I use. Some are also discussed below.

So let's go back to January 2007 when this page started with...

Six weeks with a Mac

I love my new iMac, but find thing aren't perfect in Mac-land, as there are a number of nits. First, what I really like:

26 Month Update I never put an addendum here to point out that I have all the necessary software for my photographic hobby under OS X. I only need Windows for developing Windows software (business use), Microsoft Money (Quicken for Mac is no good), maintaining some "legacy" documents that won't convert correctly to the Mac, and running some engineering CAD software.

New Mac, Old PC, and Environment

First some background. 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, 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 is 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.

26 Month Update The Dimension 8300 was retired because of lack of use, freeing up some space in my office. It just wasn't needed any more with Parallels sufficing for the few Windows-only programs I need to run. I still have it as a backup for my Dimension 8200 that we use mainly as a file server. I run in a networked environment consisting of my iMac, my wife's iMac, the iBook for guests and MacBook (wireless), an XP Pro "music/photo entertainment system" in the living room, my earlier XP Pro system now acting as the file and printer server, and a Roku box to watch Netflix on our television. I've got three other mothballed systems (all Windows XP) that probably should be recycled.

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

I'd suggest viewing the "Out of the Box" at http://www.apple.com/getamac/ads/ before continuing with this section. In it, the Mac guy can start using his system right away but the PC guy can't, "I've got a lot to do...first I've got to download those new drivers and I've got to erase the trial software that came on my hard drive...and I've got a lot of manuals to read..actually the rest of me are in some other boxes"

My iMac came quickly, three business days after ordering on-line on Black Friday. About a week faster than when I've bought Dells. However I felt like the PC guy -

For some reason X11 support wasn't installed by default. It also isn't available on the menu when you insert the install disk. A call to Apple Support gave the wrong solution -- download from the Apple Website (this download is for Panther users!). I figured it out myself after digging into the hidden directories in the install disk I found the right package.

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.


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 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 details:

It's easy to change some of the keys on the Mac (not so on the PC), so I've made the caps lock key into another command key. Much easier to chord with.

Sixteen Week Update I'm still having trouble with the keyboard feel. I think because of its small size my hand naturally comes to rest in the wrong position, causing occasional typing disasters. The keyboard is still difficult to chord with. How do you type "Command Shift A" to bring up Applications in Finder without undue contortions? I'd like to go back to my Northgate Omnikey keyboard, circa 1989. A great keyboard that predates the Windows key. That key was never actually needed for Windows, but it is the Command key on a Mac, so there is no way to use the keyboard!

48 Week Update Apple has introduced a new keyboard with the new line of iMacs. I've checked it out in the store and it is bad news for typists like myself. I would guess that because of the popularity of notebook computers, they decided to give desktop users a notebook style keyboard. They also have given the new iMacs a notebook-like, glossy display. IMHO the two worst features about a notebook are its keyboard and display! This does not look good for the future. Will I have to replace my lovely iMac with a Mac Pro sometime in the future?

68 Week Update I spent more time with the new keyboard at the store, and it really isn't as bad as I thought. But the wireless version does have an abbreviated set of keys that are not as desirable when using Windows. And I still don't like the inconvenience of yet another modifier key (the Fn key). Having Fn/Shift/Control/Option/Command modifier keys is very extreme and impossible to memorize which one to use. Do you know that at one time just shift and control (or "Apple") keys sufficed?

26 Month Update I'm not a 10 key pad user, so the new wireless keyboard isn't a problem for me, but Apple has removed the embedded 10 key pad from all notebooks and one can only expect the wired desktop keyboard will change as well. Some people will not like this move. Apple is moving toward a single keyboard layout across all models, which is a good idea except it means moving toward the lowest common denominator -- the notebook keyboard.

Spotlight limitations

What's good about Spotlight is that it is fast and seems to have low overhead. It works better than the Microsoft search add-in for Windows XP or the Google search application that I tried on the PC. However, I did find a free application, Copernic Desktop search, that worked great and Spotlight, for me, is no match. The issues:

Thirteen Week Update I'm feeling much better about Spotlight now, although my criticisms still hold. What has turned out to be good about it is its extreme speed and that it doesn't load the system down. I've also switched to Mac Mail, which has helped not that my mail is under the Spotlight.

This isn't a Spotlight problem as such, but is more of a Finder Problem, or maybe even a "feature". Macs know about file types primarily by file properties and apparently only by the file extension if the properties are not known. On a PC I can quickly delete all ".bak" backup files by sorting by type, which sorts by the file extension. On the Mac, if I sort by Kind, the backup files are not grouped together as some of them are called Documents and others are called Unix Executable Files. Putting ".bak" in the search field sort-of works, but not as well as it could since that also will match files containing "bak".

48 Week UpdateIt looks like Spotlight in Leopard will solve most of my issues. Much improved search capabilities

26 Month Update Leopard's Spotlight is so good that the Copernic Desktop Search I use on my work system now feels terrible. I've also removed QUICKSILVER, which I ended up only using as a fast keyboard program launcher, because Spotlight does a better job.

Another aid to searching is the new QuickLook feature of Leopard which gives an instant file viewer (for supported data types, naturally).

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 result have 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 triangles spread out all over. The PC 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.

My solution has been to go to the keyboard (I like using the keyboard!) and use QUICKSILVER for program launching and Command-tab to see the running apps (I've got the center mouse "button" programmed to do the same, for quick switching via mouse). This has turned out to be much more convenient than anything I used on the PC.

Thirteen Week Update QUICKSILVER is still great. Best free application I've got. I'd gladly pay money for it.

Sixteen Week Update I finally found good documentation for QUICKSILVER, which makes it far more useful that just program launching. The documentation within the program is totally inadequate and I found several peoples attempts to provide tutorials lacking, although I certainly thank them for trying.

48 Week Update Does anyone think that the Leopard dock is a step forward? I think that the best bet is to remove all application icons from the dock and use QUICKSILVER for launching. Then the dock will easily show active applications (the indicator in Leopard is virtually invisible).

68 Week Update Apple shows amazing user responsiveness by correcting some UI feature/flaws introduced with Leopard, particularly with the new Stack feature. Hurray that it can be disabled!

26 Month Update Now I want to take it all back. As I've said under the Spotlight discussion, QUICKSILVER is out. And I'm finding the fixed Leopard dock to be just fine.

Lack of Appleworks

In fact lack of lots of bundled applications that used to be there.

Appleworks is considered a dead application, and I guess the official word is that is is replaced with iWork. In any case they've stopped bunding it with the system, forcing the purchase of other software.

Is iWork a substitute? Both Keynote and Pages produce more polished output and have more features than the modules in Appleworks they replaced, but:

Of course the solution is to run Open Office, or better yet NeoOffice. This gives everything but a MacPaint replacement.I use EazyDraw as the MacDraw replacement. It's a fine program.

48 Week Update iWork 08 finally came out, so I purchased it. Pages is so nice to use that it has become my preferred word processor, but it still doesn't do equations. Numbers is a disappointment -- it's the first spreadsheet application I've used where the column and row headings can't be locked to allow scrolling through large spreadsheet data and still be able to see the headings. Even 20+ year old, pioneering Visicalc did this. Numbers looks pretty, but for practical use it isn't there yet. But the spreadsheet in Word or NeoOffice work fine.

26 Month Update It took another year but iWork 09 now does equations in Pages (after getting MathType) and locks spreadsheet headings. I no longer miss Appleworks except for the missing draw and paint applications. OpenOffice (now called OpenOffice.org) now supports OS X natively, so no reason to consider NeoOffice.

When Word is not Word

Thirteen Week Update I added this new section to cover my travails with Microsoft Word for the Mac. And I've moved some old comments about Word for the Mac from the previous section.

I've found that the two Words are not 100% compatible. In fact under some circumstances it's virtually guarenteed they aren't compatible at all. On the other hand, NeoOffice (or OpenOffice.org) works better in terms of ability to accurately open Windows Word files.

48 Week Update Pages 08 does a great job of importing Word documents. Who would think?

68 Week Update I now use Pages for all new documents since it is so easy to use. Keynote instead of Powerpoint as well. Just numbers doesn't make it. I've become less impressed over time with EazyDraw. It just seems too cumbersome. I may get OmniGraffle. I do have the Adobe Creative Suite, but unless I were to become a full time graphics professional it's too much to deal with. I'll just stick with PhotoShop.

26 Month Update For new work I can completely replace Office with iWork 09. I have OpenOffice.org around for Office 2007 and WordPerfect compatibility and haven't uninstalled Mac Office for when I presumably need the presumable compatibility. I'm still using EazyDraw, but I'm not finding it easy. But I'm not anxious to learn a new tool like OmniGraffle and Adobe Illustrator is just too much to get my hands around.

The new Numbers in iWork 09 is the biggest improvement. All of it's little popup, context sensitive menus (which don't require a right mouse click that Apple is so adverse about) are super convenient and using Numbers is much faster (and looks nicer) than Excel.

After yet more time with EazyDraw, there is a new version that feels smoother. When I go back to Micrografx Designer on a PC, it seems poor in comparison.

Mouse Problems

My wireless "Mighty Mouse" isn't that mighty.

Parallels Doesn't Quite Come to the Rescue

For my PC only software. I can't get a special USB driver to install, and I've heard of other USB problems (such as with Palm syncing) so I'm avoiding things that need to interface. Speaking of which, I've got software which requires parallel and serial ports, so I'm certainly stuck needing at least one real PC. No problem since my Dell notebook has been doing this for years.

I couldn't get Nikon Capture to install under Parallels. Really unfortunate considering the Mac version won't install under OS X on the system either. (See details below.)

Basically I love Parallels except for the couple of applications I've already mentioned. Apps run fast and it's convenient to use. I probably wouldn't have bought a Mac if it weren't for this product, although I do use Microsoft Desktop Connection to run Microsoft Money on the server (my wife does too).

Parallels has eliminated my need for the Linux box, as I can run Linux under Parallels. The new Mac can provide the ssh service that I had to run on the Linux box.

Thirteen Week Update the latest releast of Parallels now handles my USB devices. Parallels also generates icons that can be used to launch Windows applications directly from OS X, even if Parallels isn't yet running. Sweet!

48 Week Update I'm really happy with Parallels. Now there is VMWare Fusion as well, but I see no reason to try it. People who have tried both seem to favor VMWare. They have been in the virtualization business longer even though their Mac product is new.

26 Month Update A new version of Parallels has come out with better performance and new features, but I haven't upgraded. It seems they have dropped support for Windows 2000, although there is a work-around. I'll hold out as long as I can, but I may just end up switching to Fusion. I'm not looking forward to my virtual machines breaking with upgrades or crossgrades.

Parallels Comes to the Rescue, iLife Doesn't

I needed to capture some PC software sessions for my class and used Parallels to run the software and captured with Snapz Pro X. Worked great. So I'm sitting here with iMovie which won't edit the high resolution videos without converting to a broadcast format. I'm just a video novice and get hit with all these formats and codecs I don't know anything about. Turns out I have to buy the QuickTime Player Pro upgrade (which should be standard on the system!) to have any editing capability.

Which reminds me of the frustrations of creating a DVD with a slide show on it. Seems the iLife software could be better integrated for this:

So what is the simple path through all of this software? Looks like you have to pass through each package as not one does it all. Why is that?

Thirteen Week Update I've registered iShowU instead of Snapz Pro X. It seems to do a better job at much less cost. I've discovered the best route is to capture as though I'm making an HDTV format video. This will travel through the path without losing quality and still will compact to <1MB/minute for the videos I make. I'm now happy.

Sixteen Week Update Looks like one has to buy Final Cut Pro to get video editing in any format. You must stick to the exact resolutions in iMovie in order to prevent it from resizing and recompressing the video -- which has dramatically bad results to the quality. Final Cut Pro is really beyond my budget for this -- I'm not a professional videographer.

48 Week Update There has been alot of badmouthing for iMovie 08 (In iLife 08), but I will say that it does handle any video resolution so it is finally usable at the 1024x768 that I want to run. Perhaps they will add the missing features back into iMovie 09, although Apple is heavily promoting Final Cut Express for advanced amateurs.

68 Week Update I've got a combination of iLife 08, iShowU, VisualHub, and HandBrake solving all my video problems.

26 Month Update Alas, VisualHub is discontinued, but will be going open source. I also forgot to add the free Perian to the list of video products. It's a QuickTime plugin that handles seeming every video format. iLife 09 will come soon and apparently will bring back some iMovie HD functionality lost in iMovie 08. Just hope it won't loose the abilities 08 added.

Intel Mac and Rosetta Problems

I expected to get a performance loss with PPC applications, but I didn't expect performance of zero. These simply don't work:

I've Aperture for handing the photos and will edit with The Gimp for now until Photoshop CS 3 is out. Aperture does have limitations in its image processing. Looks like I'll be buying Bibble for the raw processing since Aperture doesn't have highlight recovery and doesn't see the camera settings like Bibble (and Nikon Capture) does. I'll probably end up using Parallels to run JBuilder, and switch to Netbeans for new work (JBuilder's two latest versions don't run on Macs and Borland is going down the tubes anyway).

Thirteen Week Update Nikon Capture NX has been released as a Universal Binary. Now I have it to consider as well! I am using Parallels to run JBuilder.

68 Week Update I wish that I could say that everything was settled after all this time. I'm using PhotoShop CS3. Aperture 1.5 didn't really do what I needed, but PhotoShop plus Bridge is much better suited to my needs. I may consider Aperture 2.0, though. Capure NX, mentioned in the next section, is a bust on either platform, as far as I'm concerned. Photomatix Pro and Calico round out my photographic suite.

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. This has taken some time to get used to. I still can't get permissions to do anything UNIX like. Sharing folders between two accounts (by creating a new group and making two people members) just doesn't seem to work. 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 XP does as well. But Linux is still trouble without a guru handy.

Vista versus Leopard

Rewritten November 2007

With Vista and Leopard now, will things change in their relative merits? I've spent time with both and have concluded that Windows users are best served by sticking with XP for now, although I'm sure that Vista will be eventually OK. In my class last Spring there was a student that just bought a 17" HP notebook with Vista. He was having trouble getting software to install, even my software. Now I'm forced to buy Vista just to fix some bug in the install process of my software. So I'm naturally giving Vista a big thumbs down! There was also a student that bought a 17" MacBook Pro with Parallels in the same week. So far his only problem seems to be he tried to install Windows XP from a proprietary OEM disk that isn't a full release.

Unlike the dog that is Vista, Leopard seems to have improved the performance of the Mac I am testing it on. There are a few incompatibility problems with some software, but fixes are coming rapidly from vendors and I expect no problems when I install Leopard on my production system next month.

Spaces, the desktop switching feature, is equivalent to what is available from third parties, and has been around for many years in Sun Solaris and Linux systems. I just wish it worked like the Workspaces in OS/2 which preserved an enviroment of open applications that you could return to at any time. Still, it's a good addition for the notebook system.

Time machine is the big winner in Leopard. Much simpler way to perform backups that what I have been doing. Unfortunately it will not back up to partitions or even virtual disk images on servers (other than Apples XServe), so I can't make use of my Windows-based file server for backups like I could before.

Like I expected, handling of image files in the Finder still isn't up to what Windows Explorer offers. Coverflow is nice, but doesn't match up to the filmstrip view in Explorer.

What probably is most important with this release is the vast changes in the underpinnings which will make OS X stand out in the future. Superior handling of multitasking and 64 bit applications, as well as much advanced graphics capabilities (which are not yet being utilized) point to a Leopard successor that will be amazing.

One thing that changed going from Tiger to Leopard is the handling of the local area network. In theory, the handling of system discovery should be much better, except it doesn't work and things are more cumbersome than they were before. There is a new list of "Shared" systems which doesn't always populate. And it is well know that "Back to my Mac" doesn't work behind firewalls. Hopefully this problems will be fixed with Snow Leopard, which has been billed as having no new features but lots of bug fixes and performance improvements.

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. Vista 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.

I've looked at the new iMacs, and luckily that's not the case. But for some the new glossy display rules them out and would force going to the much more expensive Mac Pro. Some people also find the new keyboards difficult to use, but at least there are inexpensive substitutes. Some people are moaning over the vanishing firewire ports as Apple moves to USB and probably USB 3. 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.