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Mac OS X: A Veteran Windows User’s Perspective.

I’ve been using the Windows line of operating systems for nigh on 2 decades now for my own personal PC and apart from the occasional tinkering I haven’t bothered trying anything else. My professional life is a different story as with VMware being a heavily modified version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux I’ve had to become more familiar with the open source alternative so that I can troubleshoot the more esoteric problems that it might throw at me. Additionally I had the (mis)fortune of managing one of Apple’s token stab at the enterprise market the Xserve which, whilst didn’t give me any large amount of grief, had its own way of doing things that made most trivial tasks take hours. That was probably the most experience I had had with an Apple OS up until I took my shiny new MacBook Pro (separate review coming soon) with me on my trip around America where I decided I would thoroughly test Mac OS X as my primary operating system.

The initial experience of starting up OS X for the first time is a world away from what I’m used to with Windows installs. You’re greeted with a short video presentation showing the various aspects of the OS which is then followed by the sign up process. I do remember it asking me for my iTunes account name and password during part of this which I thought was a no-no ever since Microsoft got into trouble for trying to get everyone to have a MSN account¹. Less than 5 minutes later I was ready to start bumbling my way through a new OS, and bumble I did.

My first initial task was to install Windows 7 on it since I know OS X wouldn’t be able to run everything I wanted it to. Getting bootcamp configured was pretty painless with the help of the guide Apple provides so there’s some big props for them there. About 20 minutes later I had a full Windows 7 installation running with all the drivers I needed, although I did update the video card with NVIDIA’s latest offerings. Satisfied that everything was fine on the Windows side I flipped back over to OS X to give it the initial shakedown.

First I tried browsing the web using the inbuilt browser, Safari. It opened up in a not-so-fullscreen manner so I hit what I thought was the maximise button to get it to fill the screen. It didn’t do anything and after researching around a bit I found that OS X doesn’t really have a concept of fullscreen and that button really only serves to switch between window sizes. I could get a close approximation to the maximise button by stretching everything out but that could also end up a window bigger than the screen it was on, especially with the lack of precision granted by the trackpad I was using.

Here is where I feel Apple is let down by its community. Whilst I’m not an easily offended person my searches for a solution to the fullscreen problem brought me to this forum thread in which it takes no less than a single post for a OS X user to abuse someone for trying to find a feature similar to Windows. I’d love to say that it was an isolated incident but time after time when I found myself looking for the answer to some problem I could easily solve in Windows this kind of elitism seems to follow quite closely. Granted I’m not saying all OS X users are like this but there’s enough of them to do a royal disservice to those of us who aren’t complete novices when it comes to computers but are unfamiliar with the world of OS X.

Undeterred from those experiences I went ahead and signed up for the Apple Developer Program and downloaded the latest version of Xcode. Installation was pretty easy and I was able to build a simple program about 10 minutes later with little hassles. Regular readers will know of the trials and tribulations I’ve been through since then but overall I’d count Xcode as a decent IDE but still needing some work to be up to the standard I’ve come to expect. Thankfully most of my questions regarding the IDE (such as deploying code to a real iPhone) were already answered in the online documentation which goes a long way to bridging the gaps.

Not long after using the laptop as a development machine I packed it up and took it with me on a trip around the USA and Canada. Here OS X started to show some of it’s convenience features that I really started to appreciate. The first was it opening up iPhoto when I plugged in my camera, where upon it began walking me through creating events and some of the other features it has. Unfortunately it didn’t like the way my camera stores movies (and iMovie doesn’t like the format) so they had to remain on the camera. Still it was nice to be able to load all the photos on the laptop at the end of the day and have them nicely arranged in a bunch of tiles.

The fun really started when I began trying to do things I had never attempted in another operating system before. Mostly this was troubleshooting things like why my camera wasn’t showing up (needed a reboot) or when I was trying to spoof my MAC address so that I didn’t have to pay the exorbitant price for the hotel Internet connection (why a $50/night place gives me Internet for free and a $400/night place doesn’t is beyond me). It seems in these areas of esoteric OS X issues and chicanery the community is much better than what I had initially encountered with me being able to Google up several solutions without any high and mighty Apple attitudes creeping in.

All the rudimentary programs (Finder, TextEditor, StickyNotes) function as expected and are pretty much identical to their counterparts on Windows. The same can be said for the system settings as once you click on it you’ve basically got a Windows control panel staring back at you. So whilst the visuals might be different the administration of OS X settings isn’t too far removed from what many of us long time Windowers are used to. Of course a bit of familiarity with the *nix terminal won’t go astray when you’re trying to do something really out of left field, but if you’ve used the command prompt or written a script in windows I don’t think you’d have too much trouble.

Overall I found OS X to be quite satisfactory as a desktop OS as it provided all the functionality I required of it whilst providing some value add that I wasn’t expecting. Still the experience wasn’t exactly mind blowing and there are many differences that are there just for differences sake (using the command key instead of control, close/minimise/maximise buttons on wrong side) that don’t do them any favours. I won’t be removing OS X completely as it works extremely well for what I use it for but I won’t be replacing Windows 7 as my current default OS. Would I recommend it for others? Hard to tell and it’s something that I’ll probably explore in a future post.

¹I did this set up over 2 months ago now so I might just be remembering this incorrectly but I did give up my iTunes account info well before I saw the desktop. It may not be required to use OS X but I wouldn’t have put it in unless I thought it was required.

9 Comments

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  1. Interesting. You have gone into it with many expectations that it should behave like windows. This is a pretty bad assumption as it is a different OS. Windowing is different (that + button means ‘best size’ not full screen, and using expose is amazing and much faster then anything on windows).

    With regards to the use of command instead of ctrl… that has existed since the beginning. Your complaint is like an apple user going to windows and saying, “ctrl does everything instead of the windows key”. That is, it’s a silly complaint.

    As for some ‘nice’ work flow improvements you could make, install ‘quicksilver’ (http://osx.iusethis.com/app/quicksilver) and put the launch bar to minimize (I have mine on the right side of the screen with almost nothing in it and it is very very small and never on screen). It gives much better real estate.

    I think once you get used to OSX you’ll come around a bit. Until Windows 7 microsoft was a long way behind in terms of usability. They have made up some nice ground recently. One of the things to remember is that OSX has been this nice for almost 7 years… Microsoft are just starting to bridge the usability gaps.

    (You using the XCode 4 beta? It’s pretty nice IMO)

  2. I’ve been using OSX for about 3 years now, I still use XP at work so i end up spending more time on windows per week. I’ve also recently installed Windows7 on a new mediabox (which i was surprised to see runs on a p4 with 2gb ram just as well as XP did).

    You touch on a few annoyances I had when i first made the “switch”, like no true maximise, but eventually you get used to these little differences and find replacements or work-arounds (eg, lots of apps have ‘zoom’ under the window menu which full screens it).

    One thing that still annoys me is the way you navigate folders through finder. I find the way windows does it to be a lot easier and a hell of a lot faster. Having said that, there are ways to speed up the process in OSX like creating shortcuts to your folders on the finder toolbar. Also, date modified / created never seems to work, i’m constantly searching around for my files and spotlight rarely finds them straight away.

    I think the way OSX treats applications is a lot simpler and more seamless than windows. Most apps you don’t even need to run a package, you just drop the file into applications (and soon it will be even more seamless with the mac app store, which is a debateably terrible idea, time will tell i suppose.) Overall I think windows is faster to use, but I still prefer using osx at home.

    I think you have to keep in mind that osx isn’t really copying windows or trying to keep up, in fact Apple invented the GUI and mouse back in the 90s before windows existed. Regardless, OSX is not really in direct competition with windows, apple is more about competing their Mac hardware against PCs.

    chris.

    (wow. didn’t think i would write this much!)

  3. I think if you come into OS X from Windows and expect it to be a carbon-copy of Windows, then it will disappoint. If you come into it thinking of it as being completely different and for a different toolset, that is when it is great.

    I think the ease of use of the OS compared to Windows is where it is good for people like me in design, and moreso with many different applications open at once and many different windows. I find it frustrating when I am working in Windows trying to navigate between all the programs I have running.

    I have been using OS for the past 7 years, and the last 2.5 years full-time as it is what I use at work. The couple of things you hint on are things I am probably used to now. The fullscreen thing doesn’t bother me too much as I tend to have many things open at once, which is useful for when I’m copy/pasting a lot of things between programs and referring to something else while working on a job. The best advice that I can give you for this is to move the dock to the left side of the screen – and auto-hide dock is so annoying I never have it on :P

    Navigating folders i actually find easier in OS to be honest – just make sure you change the way it does it as the default is very frustrating. I have it so it keeps a trail of the folders as you go through and just uses new columns for each jump. This makes burying into folders fantastic, especially copying files between folders where you can just drag them into a folder 3 steps backwards without have to have multiple finder windows open.

    I just find OS more intuitive to be honest, but it may just be that I’ve been using it for so long i’ve become used to the things that other people have troubles with lol

    I still use Windows at home of course – OS is still pretty lame for gaming :P

  4. I know you would be expecting me to comment on this article, and I’m not going to disappoint you Dave :-P

    You touched on my least favourite part of MacOSX, the maximise (or lack-thereof) function. So I agree with you on this. I also agree there are many users out there who let the Apple community down by acting as wankers when some newbie asks a question.

    One I have to say – the very fact you find almost all features are the same between the two OS’es, is a tribute to MacOS X, as many of the features you mentioned there started in the Mac OS X before it was introduced in Win Vista/7.

    I personally feel OSX is getting a little long in the tooth and I absolutely love Windows 7, without doubt the best product Microsoft has made in years.

    Two things to improve your experience (if you haven’t got them already) – expose is the BEST feature about the mac OS. And quicksilver, download it.

  5. Wow this one got a lot more attention than I thought it would! Let me respond in kind :)

    @chris : Agreed on many of your points. I eventually found work arounds for pretty much every issue I encountered which I’d expect of any mature OS. There will always be those little issues but for the most part you’re able to let them slide as long as they don’t impact on you constantly.

    The OS game is always about one upping each other and so in some respects all competitors are playing catch up with one another. In fact Apple didn’t invent the GUI nor the mouse, both of those inventions are rightly credited to the Xerox PARC research company. Apple was an early adopter however but crediting them with the invention of those things is unfortunately wrong.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_graphical_user_interface
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mouse_%28computing%29

    Apple is at heart a hardware company and nearly all of their endeavours can be traced back to driving their hardware sales. Mac OS for the Mac lines, iTunes for the iPod and finally the App Store for their iDevices. This is because of their extremely high margins on these platforms and whilst their other endeavours may turn them a pretty penny it’s nothing compared to their hardware turn over.

    @Daniel :
    I came in thinking that it would be a world away from what I was used to and on the surface that’s what it looks like. However whilst the differences between Mac OS and Windows were stark in the past I believe the gap has closed significantly with nearly all applications have direct replacements on each platform.

    Since I’m not in design it’s hard for me to comment on how good the base OS is for design although I do acknowledge that Mac is dominant platform for this area. They have to be something right ;)

    Most of the things I mention were small annoyances but I don’t consider them show stoppers. Many of the features people mention that’s good in OSX are now (and many have been) available in Windows for some time. However with Vista failing so hard many of them went unnoticed until just recently, giving the false impression that Windows hasn’t had said feature for the better part of a decade.

    I hear the “intuitive” angle a lot when mention OS X and whilst I’d like to comment on it I really can’t say it’s any more intuitive than its Windows or KDE/Gnome based Linux competitors. I say this because I’m far too familiar with computers so any clever design to make it easier on the user is lost with me. Hell I thought the new Ribbon in Office 2007 was intuitive, everyone else seems to hate it.

    Apparently OS X runs World of Warcraft faster when its in Bootcamp, go figure ;)

    @Gareth :
    It seems that this maximise thing is a pretty common theme amongst everyone who has used this OS so it’s interesting that I’d never heard of it before I hit the problem myself. Granted it’s really a non-issue but pretty much every other graphical OS does it so I guess its just one of those oddities.

    There’s definitely a lot of convergence in features between OS X and Windows and I think that’s indicative of platforms that are approaching a similar level of maturity. I’m interested to see Apple’s next step with Mac OS as it will detail their overall strategy for the coming years. Already it would appear that they’re more keen to move away from the general computing scene (cancelling Xserve, App store for OS X) but until they release the next OS the question of whether or not Apple is still a computing company will remain unanswered.

    I’ve used Expose (which I can see is the inspiration for the window + tab thing in Vista) but hadn’t seen Quicksilver. I’ll have to grab it.

    Phew! That was almost as much work as the post itself.

  6. @stramit :
    Didn’t see your post until I got into my moderation queue. Allow me to respond! :D

    An OS, for what it’s worth, will have a lot of similarities no matter what it happens to be. I think my comparisons between OS X and Windows are fair as they both attempt to achieve the same goals, albeit in different ways. The differences I noted are more to highlight how similar it is to other offerings, especially if it’s something like “The windows don’t maximise like I think they should” (yet everything else is pretty much the same).

    I know the reason behind why they use the command key for everything and I was merely noting the difference. Sure I’m a little facetious about the fact that everything should follow the Windows standard but for anyone looking to make the switch to OS X it’s something they’d have to learn. It’s a small issue granted, except when I kept trying to Window + C everything after I used OS X for a month :P

    I used OS X for a month straight with only a dozen or so switches in Windows in order to do a few things. It’s functional but in the month that I used it there was no killer feature in it that would make me switch away from Windows 7. I’d argue that Windows has been as usable as OS X since Vista as that’s when they really revamped the UI so whilst Apple may have had the lead on them it’s no longer an issue.

    Still using Xcode 3.2.4, will have to give the latest beta a whirl this weekend :)

  7. Touché :)
    I had heard the mouse & gui thing somewhere, always like to be proven wrong :D (i should have googled that one!).

    Anyway, my point was simply that apple was way ahead of microsoft as far as usability goes, whether they invented the technology isn’t really the point (even though i should check my facts, especially when posting on your blog where i know you’ll fact check everything i say :P)

  8. Heh I knew that one off the top of my head but I made sure to Google myself up a couple links before saying anything. You’re right about Apple being ahead of Microsoft in many respects (UI design, base OS level functionality, ease of use) and I’d agree that they’re the reason why Windows 7 became what it is today.

    Yeah I’m a bit of a stickler for the facts, especially on the Internet ;)

  9. blah blah blah blah blah – lots of comments, not really going to bother reading them but as a big mac fanboy I best comment.

    I’m not a gamer, I quit gaming 7 years ago because I felt it was a massive waste of time – I spend huge amounts of time online, working 95% of the time, and OSX has made me about 10 times faster. Once you get all the shortcuts figured out, and expose, you start flying through work flows.

    I still write a lot of little apps on .net via VNC, but more and more I’m writing PHP apps to get things done and using a few nifty terminal tricks.

    The worst thing about OS X is the microsoft apps – they are missing hundreds of features and they are about as stable as a granny without her zimmer frame. Simply trying to copy data from excel to another app crashed the thing.

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