From iPod to MacBook Pro: A Switcher’s Tale
By now most of you have read numerous MacBook Pro reviews filled with technical specifications, startup times, benchmarks, battery life, and counts of how many times an icon bounced on the dock when an application is launched. This is not that review. Rather, this is a tale of high drama, low comedy, anticipation, disappointment, and wonder. It’s the tale of a switcher succumbing to Apple’s vaunted "halo" effect (and not the one with the Master Chief). It’s the tale of how someone generally satisfied with that "other" operating system running on a very nice corporate laptop found himself refreshing live Jobsnote transcripts every 30 seconds, breathlessly clicking through the Apple Store, and dropping several thousand dollars on a shiny, new, aluminum, Intel-based laptop. This is my tale.
Well, perhaps it’s not that dramatic, but hopefully I can provide an interesting perspective on the role of Apple in today’s technology world, how great product design can overcome the little annoyances that make switching far more difficult than it should be, and how the MacBook Pro may not be perfect but is absolutely worth the investment despite a few key shortcomings. Before delving in to the story and review I’d like to thank Adam for allowing me to write this article under a pseudonym. My job in the IT industry ties my name closely with my employer, and a pen name allows me the extra freedom to express personal opinions safely.
Early Days — I’ve never been overly religious about my operating system of choice. In the third grade I started on Commodore PETs, used my best friend’s Apple ][ (mostly to play Wizardry), and owned a Commodore 64. We loved that you could open up the Apple ][ and see the intestinal circuitry, but back then we were far too timid to touch anything. I still remember the excitement when the original Macintosh finally appeared in our school and I delighted in explaining to the uninformed masses that the little 3.5-inch disk was, in fact, still a floppy (not a hard disk) despite the lack of flop. Needless to say, I never dated until college.
It was back in college that Apple lost me. Even with the educational discounts, Apple’s products were out of my price range (as were many food items). The operating system was no longer the bastion of usability it once was, application support was diminishing, and the enterprise world was slowly slipping into the clutches of the boys and girls from Redmond. Worst of all, my freshman roommate insisted on playing games on his Mac late into the night. With the sound on.
When I started working in IT at a university I learned to hate Macs – they were far more difficult to manage and integrate into our existing network than other options. It was fine if you went all Apple, like some of the labs did, but Macs back then didn’t fare well in a mixed environment. Still, I admired Apple’s early laptops, lusted after a Newton, and still held a soft spot for Apple as a company.
Enter the iPod — Flash forward nearly a decade. I had just left my nice Archos MP3 player on a flight back from Japan and it was gone for good. I’d recently purchased a new desktop PC from Dell despite pressure from Chris Pepper, a frequent TidBITS contributor and close friend. We discussed how I just couldn’t justify the thousands of dollars for a Mac with less processing power than a $600 Dell, despite the Mac’s superior design. I was happy with the music and image editing software available for Windows, and due to careful management didn’t suffer the performance or security issues that bedevil many home users. Then I bought a third-generation iPod to replace the Archos and started down the path that lead to the MacBook Pro.
The design of the iPod amazed me. I’d turn the lights off so I could see the cool orange glow of the backlit keys. This is when I realized that Apple created unmatched consumer experiences. I had used every gadget and operating system available, but the iPod experience was something I hadn’t felt since experimenting with that first Macintosh. It was clean, usable, and didn’t feel like a bunch of parts and standards cobbled together in whatever plastic case was lying around. I was hooked, and the halo effect started. I also started a new long-distance relationship and added an AirPort Express to my arsenal to support my new multi-home lifestyle. Next came a Mac mini – priced lower than my last car repairs and passing the future spouse test with its diminutive size. Apple had finally produced a Mac I could afford and easily integrate at home.
But what really surprised me was that Mac OS X blew me away. You just can’t get the full feel of Mac OS X playing with it at an Apple Store; it’s only when you use it every day that you really appreciate its benefits. Stability was good, but not that unusual for me since my Windows systems are pretty stable. It was the feel of Mac OS X, the tight integration across applications (especially the iLife suite), the Unix command prompt, and the wonders of AppleScript that finally sold me. I propped that little Mac mini on top of my Dell tower and never looked back. It became our primary system. I started programming in AppleScript. And next thing I knew it became my home intranet server, managing our calendars, providing local weather and traffic, distributing music, and even enabling me to dabble in home automation. But the Mac mini always felt a bit crippled – video conversion wasn’t worth the effort, iPhoto crawled, and Microsoft Office lagged. It was time for something better, but how could I justify yet another computer? As I was no longer single, this wasn’t just a rhetorical question.
Switching Chips — Intel was the answer. First came the announcement of Apple’s move to using CPUs from Intel, which meant far more than just a performance boost. The enterprise world is rapidly moving towards large-scale virtualization, abstracting an entire operating system, configuration, and applications and running them within another operating system, even on incompatible hardware. Consider Microsoft’s Virtual PC, which makes a "virtual" Windows system (called a "virtual machine") think it is running on a PC when it is in fact running on a Mac. If you’re not familiar with the inner workings of large IT shops, the virtualization revolution is just starting to hit, and the benefits are immense. On the server side, virtualization enables better segregation, simplified management, and improved licensing (imagine running four different servers, each configured separately, each isolated from the other, on a single hardware system). On workstations, virtualization will enable enterprises to install a locked-down, secure image on pretty much any piece of hardware while still allowing employees to destroy the rest of the operating system with bad behavior. The enterprise is protected, support costs remain manageable, and users still have the freedom to download spyware-laden weather applications without causing problems. We’re not there yet, but it’s close.
As I’m sure many of you know, virtualization across hardware platforms seriously degrades performance. There’s an extra translation layer where every instruction needs to be converted from one chipset to another. That’s why Virtual PC struggles on even the fastest Power Mac G5. But with a consistent hardware base – x86-compatible processors – virtualization becomes a better option by reducing the number of translations needed to get to the CPU. Using VMware (a Windows and Unix virtualization product like Virtual PC) on that Dell of mine, I can comfortably run two virtual machines and expect reasonable performance. Apple was excluded from the virtualization game because all versions of Windows and most versions of Linux are locked onto Intel hardware. But with Macs also using Intel CPUs we can expect equal or greater performance than running virtual machines on Windows. The practical upshot? I’ll be able to use a Mac for all my personal computing needs while running a virtual image of my corporate system – with all my corporate applications – in a little window in the corner of my screen. Unless you rely on some odd heavy client-server application, you’ll be able to run Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes natively in that virtual window, without compromising corporate security or increasing support. In fact, support becomes easier since that corporate image can be locked tighter than the average user desktop and easily reset. Not that my company supports any of this yet, but there’s always a way.
Switching to the MacBook Pro — And thus the last barrier to switch crumbled under the stomp of the Intel bunny-suit. I started having problems sleeping. I felt crippled when on the road and isolated from the elegance of Mac OS X. Then came the Jobsnote with the MacBook Pro as that "one more thing". But could I justify it? With an impending wedding (every geek gets his day!), a couple of grand is no small commitment. I hemmed and hawed until my fiancee asked if it was tax deductible. That was probably a mistake on her part, as I slammed the Buy button so hard I poked a hole in my mouse. Weeks of anticipation passed, and finally the slim MacBook Pro box arrived at my door.
Despite its clumsy name, the MacBook Pro is an excellent piece of design and engineering. Unlike many TidBITS readers, this is my first Apple laptop, and I love the PowerBook design. The keyboard is compact yet easy to navigate, the ports are well positioned, and it has a solid feel. The backlit keys and ambient light sensor are a very nice touch (okay, so I’m a sucker for cool lights), as are the small LED on the Caps Lock key and the charge indicator on the MagSafe power connector. The built-in iSight camera is barely noticeable yet provides solid image quality in a variety of lighting conditions. MagSafe works exactly as advertised and is easier to plug and unplug than a regular power cord. It’s just a good looking and good feeling machine. But it isn’t perfect.
On the hardware side there are some definite shortcomings. The MacBook Pro runs hot; it’s the hottest system I’ve ever used. This morning the power key was uncomfortably hot to the touch. The AC adapter is big, larger than an AirPort Express. (All this makes me wonder a bit about Apple’s performance-per-watt claims; all that heat has to be coming from somewhere.) The ExpressCard slot will undoubtedly be useful in the future, but at the moment I have a stack of wireless cards I can’t use (and still need to use). I hear a slight buzzing when the LCD is turned on, although it’s usually not very noticeable. Battery life is reasonable, but not exceptional; I get only about 3.5 hours of normal use with wireless turned on and the display slightly dimmed. Coming from the dual-button PC world as I do, the single-button trackpad is a real annoyance and needs that second button, but two-finger scrolling works much better than I expected.
Again, the MacBook Pro’s hardware isn’t perfect, but it’s far superior to anything in the PC world that’s similarly priced. In terms of raw bang-for-the-buck, it will be hard to beat the MacBook Pro, and it’s great to see an Apple laptop that’s more competitive than the over-priced systems from just a few years ago.
Software-wise, the MacBook Pro is nicely responsive – I won’t go into benchmarks. It boots in less than 30 seconds and comfortably handles whatever I’ve thrown at it so far. While I’m writing this article in Mail, I’m also listening to iTunes, have iMovie and iPhoto running in the background, and have both Firefox and Safari active. Despite that, I don’t feel like anything is lagging, which wouldn’t have been true on my Mac mini. The iSight works far better than I expected it would – iChat video chats work just like those video chats in the movies, even all the way to Australia (I checked). You know, the kind of quality you never get on your expensive corporate system.
Not everything has been sweetness and light. On my very first day with the MacBook Pro, I discovered the risks of jumping onto a new platform. The custom VPN client for our corporate network doesn’t run on Intel-based Macs, so I can’t use Entourage to check my work mail. Fink is still updating to be a universal binary; KisMAC isn’t quite universal yet; I can’t get Tor running; and I had to download a special version of Firefox (Deer Park). All these compatibility nits will fade in time, but it’s frustrating that I might still have to lug my ThinkPad around when traveling for work. Virtualization sounds close using QEMU, but it’s not available yet. Some applications are fine with Rosetta, but others can be painfully slow at times. Microsoft Office runs faster than on the Mac mini, but I use RapidWeaver for managing some personal Web sites and it can crawl painfully when dealing with photos.
Despite these hardware and software shortcomings, I highly recommend the MacBook Pro for most users. It’s one of the best systems I’ve ever used, and it’s a pleasure to work on. Pro users (the Adobe crowd) or system geeks needing specialized applications might want to wait until the tools they need are universal binaries, but for most users there will be few limitations. I don’t have another PowerBook to compare it to, but compared to my 1.42 GHz Mac mini, it’s like jumping into a Corvette after years in a sturdy VW Bug (the old Bug). There is a lot of talk on the Web about dual booting these machines, but dual-booters might consider virtualization instead. Unless you have special needs, you should be able to run your Windows desktop inside Mac OS X as a virtual machine within six months. Personally I don’t care about dual-booting; I’d rather work in the superior look and feel of Mac OS X and just open that Windows window when needed.
A Big Leap — Overall, switching was a positive experience, but one filled with small frustrations that would stymie the average user. As much as I’d like to, I can’t even completely leave Windows for my personal computing, much less work. You see, I’m one of those users who falls between the elegant, yet totally closed, aspects of the Mac OS X experience and the powerful, open-source Darwin core.
On the proprietary side, Apple provides a clean, usable experience without the complexities normally involved in personal computing. The operating system just works. The applications just work, and more than that, they work together seamlessly. Most core consumer features (music, photos, video, chat, email, calendar) are built in and easy to use, which helps maintain stability and security. On the open side, Apple gives us the power of the Unix command line along with shipping versions of open-source stalwarts like Apache, Samba, PHP, and various programming languages. Drop to the command line in Terminal, and you’re in the world of consoles and scripts, which, while it might not be easy or intuitive, offers unparalleled power in knowledgeable hands.
But it’s in the middle where Apple fails, and where switching becomes daunting. Mac OS X is all or nothing. Either you turn yourself over to Apple completely or gain the skills of a sysadmin. For example, I have yet to figure out how to convince my Epson R200 to print borderless photos from iPhoto, so I print all my pictures on my Windows box. My wireless settings are lost between sessions, and although I know there must be a way to store my home settings, it’s not readily apparent. To print from my wireless print server I must use the command line. Mail and iCal stubbornly refuse to accept or send Outlook-compatible meeting invitations, so I had to write a custom AppleScript script so my fiancee and I can add entries to our home calendars from work. While .Mac has a Web-enabled email interface, it lacks an interactive calendar, a constant source of frustration since I can’t choose what operating systems we use at work. I’m sure I will figure out ways around these problems, but I could never explain them to my parents over the phone.
What I’ve learned is if you go Apple, you better go all Apple, all the time, unless you’re a power geek and willing to spend plenty of time on the details. Everything from Apple or built for Mac works perfectly and easily, but be prepared for pain if you fall into the middle. I agree with Steve Jobs’s mantra of simplification, but not when simplification increases complexity. Every Windows user is used to two buttons on a mouse, so stop trying to change those habits if you want us to switch. Let us use Outlook/Exchange at work and still exchange appointments with iCal at home. Let us use Control-C to copy if we want, right during setup.
I’m slowly converting my entire family to Macs, but it’s hard to move past their preconceptions. I’ll probably have to pay for their machines all myself. Luckily, my family members want to use their computers for only a few activities, and these happen to be the tasks the Mac excels at: music, photos, email, calendars, Web browsing, and general family communications. I live over 2,000 miles from my family, and the Mac will be the tool that erases that distance. Video chats with the nephew who (right now) barely knows me. Photocasting with my Mom. Sleeping soundly at night knowing their computers aren’t infected twelve ways to tomorrow. Even knowing my sister can still play World of Warcraft with her gaming-addicted husband. The just-released Intel-based Mac minis might be just the ticket, despite the slightly higher price, especially if I can find some cheap iSights.
As for me, I’m firmly in the camp, if not the cult, of Mac. I know I can work through most of the restrictions that frustrate me so. Once I can get a virtual PC running my corporate life in a window and after I can connect to my IR-enabled heart rate monitor I’ll be totally satisfied. As it is, I see myself leaving the ThinkPad at home, even knowing it cuts me off from the corporate lifeline. What the heck, I still have my Blackberry, and maybe on that next flight I can edit a movie of our last vacation instead of just deleting old email messages or watching a stuttering DVD.
Switching is good. But it could (and should) be easier.