My first Mac — why I don’t think I’ll be switching quite yet

Published October 10, 2010

I’ve been telling my father for years to get a TiVo — or any DVR. When I got my first one, it wasn’t quite life changing, but it was pretty close. It just made things easy. So I’ve been trying to get Dad to dump his VCR, knowing how simple things will become when he can just click to record.

And I started thinking: Is this how Mac users think? Am I my Dad? He has all sorts of trouble with his VCR, but still does OK. I don’t have problems with Windows, but if I switched would I be kicking myself for not doing it sooner?

I got the chance. Our office IT guy (we call him “T.O.” because he’s the Tall One we interviewed) offered me a coupla-year-old Powerbook G4 with OSX. I jumped at the chance, and took it home yesterday.

Going in

I am coming in prejudiced. Mac users left an awful taste in my mouth, and Apple’s policy of “only run what we approve” on the iPhone and iPad goes against my freedom-loving Windows/Linux/Android self.

Also, I know Windows, so I know what buttons to click and where things are. So this will be like driving a car with the controls in all sorts of different places. Not better or worse places, just different. So I must be prepared for some level of confusion — “How do I … ?”

BUT the few times I’ve used OSX I thought it was pretty nice, and the amount of praise heaped on it has to mean something. AND all these years Macs have been touted as “just working” and incredibly intuitive. So I figure even when I can’t get something right away, it won’t be hard to figure out.

First Mac impressions

I booted up at home. It took about as long as my PC to do so, but I expect it to be quicker because this was the first boot on a brand-new OS.

And here we go. First step: Get online, get Firefox installed.

I was hoping for a pop-up saying something like “Wireless networks detected. Do you want to connect to one?” (Windows does something similar.) But no joy. But it’s easy enough to to open the system preferences and choose Network.

I have a choice of “AirPort” and “Internal Modem”; I assume AirPort is the name for the wireless network. I choose that and get this (click to enlarge):

mac_network

Huh. No list of wireless networks. After trying a few things I give up and hit “Assist me” and eventually get that list — it includes my home network and a random one from the neighborhood. Oddly, it doesn’t include my neighbor’s, which is the second closest. I hit reload or rescan or whatever, and it gives a different list of networks, still not including the neighbor’s. Rescan again, and a different list. Weird.

So I connect to mine and all is well.

Next: Firefox. I download it no problem, but then what? Where did the installer go? So much to figure out. I find the installer and double-click it.

Nothing. Huh? I double-click the touchpad again. Nothing. So I double-click the mouse button and it works. What the heck? You can’t double-click on the touchpad? Grr.

Anyway. On Windows, it would then offer me the chance to install, maybe give me some options, and so on. Here I get this:

mac_firefoxinstall

What does it mean? Hovering the mouse doesn’t give a tooltip the way Windows does, so I’m at a loss. I try double-clicking. No joy. In try a bunch of things and eventually something works and Firefox goes through its setup (do I want to import, do I want Firefox to be my default browser, etc.).

Excellent. But now I have this odd icon on my desktop. It says Firefox, but it looks like a hard drive. I double-click it and get that previous menu. You can’t right-click with a one-button mouse, but I figure out the equivalent is Ctrl-click. That leaves me more confused, because one option is “Eject.” Does that mean delete? Better not touch.

Some little things

I walk away for a bit. When I come back it has gone into sleep mode. But it won’t wake up. Then I realize that (unlike Windows) it won’t wake on mouse movement. I hit a key and it’s back.

It comes back slowly, I notice. Not because the machine is slow; this is intentional. Instead of immediately brightening, the screen slowly makes its way to full power. I guess it’s supposed to look nice.

But that’s it: Too many small annoyances. Time to get into the system settings and fix a few things.

A ha! Yes, I can tell it to let me double-click using the touchpad. (Why isn’t this the default?) I can speed the mouse, too, although I can’t adjust acceleration (a la Windows), which I always liked.

I tweak a few other minor things — for example, when you click a program on the dock, it spends two seconds having the icon bounce up and down. Cute, but I’d rather it load two seconds faster.

Now, back to Firefox. I install my favorite addons without a hitch. Then it’s time to download stuff, starting with uTorrent, my favorite BitTorrent app. There may be a better one for the Mac, but I’ll check that later.

Sure enough, the uTorrent site links me to an OSX version, which I download. Again, I double-click the file it downloaded and get the weird two-giant-icons window. I think I install it, but when I try to launch a .torrent file (which now sports the uTorrent icon), nothing happens. Where’s the uTorrent window?

No amount of clicking, dragging, and searching gives me the answer. I give up for now.

Differences, good and bad

On Windows, every window you have open sports the name of the program you’re using and the file that’s open:

image

On the Mac, though, there’s a single bar across the top of the desktop that tells you what you’re running; the bar will change as you switch to different windows.

Here’s the rub: You can close all a program’s windows, but not the program itself.

In Windows, the program wouldn’t hide like that; you’d have either a blank screen…

image

Or a welcome screen or a new, blank document. Something. But on the Mac you need to keep your eye on that bar on your desktop, in case you’re using a hidden program.

Why? Because you may think you’re using Firefox because that’s what’s filling your screen, but you may actually be using Word, but because all your documents are closed it’s hidden. So… when you hit Command-Q to quit, it looks like nothing happens. (In fact, you’ve just closed Word.)

This takes getting used to. You can’t tell what window you’re using just by looking at the screen. You need to keep an eye on that top bar on the desktop. Eventually, I assume, this becomes second nature.

Explanations

Back in the office today, I start up. The Mac can’t find my home network (naturally), but this time it pops up a window asking if I’d like to connect to the office. Excellent. That’s how it should work.

T.O. happens by to ask what I think. I him what’s happening, and explain that I can’t find uTorrent. I also ask about the weird Firefox icon that looks like a hard drive — the one that brings up this when you double-click:

mac_firefoxinstall

For all those who tout the Mac’s simplicity, let me share his explanation.

Oh, he says, when you run a downloaded program “it mounts a virtual drive. And in that drive is the installer.”

[blink blink] So when I double-clicked the installation file, instead of running an installer (the way it works in Windows), it creates a virtual hard drive, and inside that hard drive is the actual installer.

Maybe it’s me, but that’s not intuitive.

And in that window? I’m supposed to drag the Firefox icon to the folder icon. That will install it.

Why wasn’t there a simple tooltip explaining that? Heck, why wasn’t that on the screen? “Do you want to install this program? Drag it to the installation folder.”

All right, maybe the whole virtual drive, you-figure-it-out installer is just something I need to get used to, now that I understand it.

So, what about uTorrent? Why can’t I get it to open? I show T.O. what I tried, and he figures it out.

“It’s not running for whatever reason,” he explains. (I thought it might be in the background.)

But the Mac just didn’t bother to tell me — no error, no window, nothing. It just didn’t run. (Windows will pop up an error saying something like, “This is not a valid application” or “Unable to run such-and-such.”)

Why not? No idea. But, T.O. says, “There are logs that will show you why in the utility folder.”

Again: [blink blink]

It’s easy to make fun of the error messages Windows will throw at you, but I’d much rather get an error message than nothing at all, and have to ‘check the logs in the utility folder.’

T.O. has brought me the iLife disk, which is what I really want — I’m looking forward to playing with iMovie among other things. So next I’ll see how to install from a disk.

Initial conclusions

Despite what you may think, I really did want to love the Mac. I wanted it to be like TiVo, where I kicked myself for missing out all this time.

And OSX is very nice. It’s smooth and pretty and once you get used to the differences it works well. But I don’t (yet) seeing it as better or worse than Windows, just different.

What drives me nuts is the little things. The Mac is hardly intuitive. Installing software, which should be a matter of double-clicking, is more complicated (virtual drives???). And things that are supposed to make the interface pretty, like bouncing icons and the slow fade in from sleep mode, just get annoying.

But these are only first impressions. It’s quite possible that once I get used to these differences I’ll be able to zoom through tasks and be very happy. So I’m reserving judgment.



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