The Command Center

The Command CenterWhen I started my new job, I revamped my home office, which had been home to a rickety desk and stacks of books and papers all over the floor. For under $500, I got a big L-desk, a nice speaker phone, a printer stand, two beautiful wooden file cabinets, and a 6-foot bookshelf. I’ve got a pretty swank work space now. At my last job, people always joked that I was at sort of a Star-Trekkish command center because I had a flat screen monitor hooked into a Belkin port switcher that allowed me to use both a PC and my main Linux machine with just the one monitor/keyboard/mouse. I also had my laptop set up there, and all three systems were plugged into a little hub so that they could all get network from my one wall jack.

At home too I’ve got a little command center, with the laptop, a Linux box managing printing and poor-man’s samba backups under the desk, and a brand new Mac Mini sitting — get this — on my keyboard tray. The Mac is the newest addition and is a definite departure from the usual routine for me. I’ve been using Linux as a desktop OS for a couple of years and as a server platform for about five years, and I avoid PCs whenever remotely possible. Until this week, I had hardly touched a Mac in more than six years, when I did desktop support at UNC; we were on OS 7.x back then, and there have been a lot of changes. Some of my impressions about the Mac experience follow.

Setup. The system worked out of the box. Being a Linux user, I’m not exactly used to this. It took me a week of frustration to get the wireless, Synaptics touch pad, and wide screen monitor on my current laptop to work under Fedora Core 3. So I plugged in my Mac and it just worked. Today, I plugged my camera into a USB port to download the picture of the office, and as soon as I plugged it in, iPhoto started up and offered to download the images. No setup, none of the mounting of devices that I’m used to doing in Linux, no irritating system tray bubble telling me that a new device had been found and to click if I wanted more info.

Aesthetics. The Mac is a beautiful thing. Some of the default UI for applications like Safari that looks sort of like brushed metal I could do without, but the general tendency on the Mac is toward beauty. Smooth fades and slides as applications change state (focused or not), transparency of the docking bar, the crispness of the icons: These are all nice touches that make the OS a joy to use. Linux should aspire to the Mac aesthetic.

Speed. It may just be that I don’t have enough RAM (256M), but my Mac feels a little sluggish. Every Mac I’ve ever worked on felt a little slow to respond things. There was a time when Windows felt to me like it had the fastest-responding and most crisp UI going. Then XP with all its bloat and sluggishness came along, and newer versions of Linux came along that, to my mind, in most applications, topped Windows. My experience so far is that my Linux laptop is faster to work with than the Mac (part of the reason I write this from the laptop). Even with only 7MB of its 384MB free right now, my laptop is responding more quickly than the Mac, which has 62MB free.

Installing Applications. Installing applications on Windows has long been a strong point, I think. You click a setup file, and a wizard guides you through all the steps necessary to complete the installation. More and more Linux apps have a similar install procedure, though I find it about as easy to go to a command line and execute the few commands required to install most software packages (which process also happens to make you look really smart and dorky to bystanders, who watch with fascination as lines and lines of gobbledegook scroll up your screen). On the Mac, you download an install file, click it, and drag an icon from the resulting window into your Applications folder. If you launch the application straight from the icon, it sticks a drive icon for the app on your desktop, and this was sort of confusing at first, but once I figured out what was going on, I found this install process to be pretty intuitive. I suppose it lets you try an application before actually cluttering up your applications folder with it.

ExposéFinding Stuff. I’ve never found finding things on the Mac to be especially intuitive, though I guess it’s similar to the process on a Windows system. There’s always been this sort of abstract thing called the Finder that hasn’t seemed to be very useful. I’d expect to find here a list of open applications that allows me to toggle from app to app (it seems like this may have been part of the functionality years ago). OSX does have, I just now discovered, alt-tab functionality that allows you to toggle among open applications. When I last used a Mac with any regularity, I doubt I even knew about this feature on Windows systems. Again, the aesthetics of even this little piece of functionality are beautiful, with transparency, nice big icons, rounded corners, and a fade effect when it disappears. What the Mac does have now is a dock that displays pretty clearly what applications you use most frequently, which ones are open, and which ones you’ve minimized. The dock can be moved to either side or the bottom of your screen, and you add things to it by dragging to it, removing them by dragging them to the trash. As far as finding files, there’s a find dialogue, but because OSX has FreeBSD running under the hood, you can also use standard find syntax (“find /Users -name office.jpg”) at the command line. All in all, though the ways of getting at applications and files on the Mac is a little different from what I’m used to, I could get used to it and haven’t found it to be a problem. One really cool feature the Mac ships with is Exposé; if you hit F9, all your open applications are tiled nicely on your screen so that you can see what’s running and click the window you want to give focus to. This sort of replaces the Windows/Linux task bar feature that labels each window for you, and it’s actually much better because it gives you a visual representation rather than text in your taskbar, of which text less and less is visible as you open more and more things.

The Mac's dockWindow Size. This is the biggest strike against the Mac, in my opinion, and it may well be that there’s a setting that lets you get around it. Mac windows have three little bubbles in the upper left-hand corner, a red, a yellow, and a green one. Clicking the red one closes a window or application. Clicking the yellow one minimizes it (which on the Mac makes it disappear from the screen and puts an icon in a separated area of the dock). Clicking the green one seems to maximize the width of the window and to extend the bottom border down to the top of the dock; clicking it again toggles back to the original view. I happen to be greedy for window space. I want my windows to take up the full window so that I can maximize my viewing space. This is especially important in text editors, such as vi, that I use to write code; I need all the horizontal and vertical space I can get so that I can read the maximum possible amount of code. Windows and Linux have spoiled me in this regard because their windows automatically epand to use all space but the sliver of task bar. The dock on the Mac is pretty big, and I lose nearly an inch of vertical space at the bottom of my 17-inch monitor and another quarter inch at the top even when I maximize. Now there are options associated with the dock. You can make it pretty small, and you can set it to disappear when you’re not moused over the area it’s set to occupy. When you set it to disappear, maximizing windows works pretty much as it does under Windows and Linux. But here the aesthetics and the simple functionality of the dock foil you. First off, the dock is a gorgeous piece of UI, and I hate to see it go. Second off, it’s functional insofar as it displays up arrows under each open application and displays in a section on the right which apps are minimized. Additionally, if an application needs your attention (as when somebody tries to initiate a chat in iChat), the application’s icon bounces. So it’s a very functional piece of UI as well, and it’s reassuring to have it down there. I suppose there’s really not a win here. It’s just a matter of personal preference, and I can’t really fault Apple for providing me various options that I’m too finicky to combine in a fully pleasing way. Let’s not call this a strike against the Mac so much as a conundrum its elegance causes that the lack of much in the way of choice in Linux and Windows makes all the more painful.

Administration. I spent probably an hour off and on yesterday trying to get M’s Windows system to connect to my samba server. I got it to connect, but it didn’t have write access. I finally did get it to use the samba server for printing. But it was a major headache and involved much swearing and waiting for sluggish Windows UI and network, and I finally gave up on the file sharing part. If I knew how to administer a Windows system using simple command line utilities and configuration files, I would have been much happier. Linux is by and large a cinch to admin because it’s simple. There are graphical tools for administering the Mac, but if I ever get lost or frustrated, I can, in many cases, open up a terminal window and find myself at the familiar command line, where I can do simple administration with no headache. To connect my Mac to my samba server, I had only to type “/sbin/mount_smbfs -T 10 //username:password@ /Users/photos” and I was connected, with a drive on my desktop and full read/write capability.

By and large, I’m digging my Mac so far. I ordered the iSight camera, which facilitates pretty darned high-quality video-conferencing with other iChat users who have the camera. That is in fact the primary reason my company bought me the computer. If the system were a little faster, I’d be more inclined to use it as my primary system. Also, if there were more open source software for it that could be installed reasonably easily (maybe there is and I just don’t know about it yet), I’d be happier. I considered trying to install Gimp yesterday because I don’t know of any more advanced free graphical editors for the Mac and because I’m comfortable using Gimp, but it was going to be a real pain, so I didn’t. I haven’t even looked to see if Open Office is supported on the Mac. If it is, I’ll definitely install that. If you’ve got some cash burning a hole in your pocket and are intrigued by Macs, I’d definitely recommend trying one out, especially if you’re tired of Windows but reluctant to toss yourself into the wilds of Linux.

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