I Dreamt I Was a Mac, and then I Woke Up

I Dreamt I Was a Mac, and then I Woke Up

pass along this cautionary tale, just in case, like me, you had considered a “change in life”. I’ve always enjoyed broad changes to technical infrastructure just for the fun of it, but this time the change was expensive, and ultimately failed for me.

Late in 2006, having recently finished a series of long-term writing projects, I found myself at the end of my company’s fiscal year with the need to find some new tax write-offs. You know the drill-the goal is to pay the government fairly and legally, but as little as possible. Having lived with the current laptop computer for three years, I figured it was time for a replacement. The goal was to find a Core 2 Duo processor machine, and to make it my main work machine; I had grown weary of synchronizing data among two or three computers. Amazingly, at that moment, Apple released its new line of MacBook Pro laptops, using the newest Intel Core 2 Duo processors. It was like a sign!

I’m easily manipulated: I’ll admit it. Friends’ opinions, commercials-they all sway my decisions. So, after watching those cute “I’m a PC; I’m a Mac” commercials with the boring guy as the PC and the hip youngster as the Mac, I figured, “What the heck!?” I had never even touched a Mac before, but the fact that you could supposedly run Windows on the new Intel-based Macs, and the fact that they’re so pretty, I started the research. I spent days and days perusing the Apple Web site. I visited the Apple store and played with various configurations for hours. I considered a ginormous Mac Pro, which priced out at somewhere close to the price of my first car. Reasonability snuck in, and the 15″ MacBook Pro ended up the winning choice. I special ordered a version with 3GB of memory (the most they’ll support, due to addressing limitations of the current round of Intel chipsets), with the 160GB hard drive option. A winner, I was sure.

The Mac arrived. I spent weeks configuring it. My assumption was that I’d use the Mac software, and OS X, for everything I could, and switch to Windows when I had to (for work). The virtualization software of choice, Parallels Desktop for Mac ( is a marvel. (I’m not kidding. Visit their site and check out the features of this product. It is absolutely amazing.) It runs Windows XP (and apparently, Vista) as well as any PC I’ve ever used. It certainly seemed faster running Windows under Parallels on the Mac that it had on my old Thinkpad. Creative software (drawing/charting/music/movies) on the Mac all pretty much runs rings around similar software on the PC. And hardware? It just works. Plain and simple. If the Mac supports a device (and that’s most everything you can find), you plug it in, and it works. No driver installations, no headaches, no swearing. (For comparison: I’m using a Microsoft Bluetooth mouse, with a Microsoft Bluetooth “dongle”, on Vista, which as I understand it, is a Microsoft operating system. The darned thing works 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, I sit down to work, and the Bluetooth connection is dead. I have to take five minutes to reconnect, and let the Bluetooth software rebuild its connection stack. Never happens on the Mac.)

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So, for the first two months I owned the Mac, I fiddled with it. I pretty much took two months off to get used to the thing, and fell in love. I can use Windows for work, and OS X for “life”, I figured. I was a convert.

January rolled around, and suddenly, I had work to do: Courseware to write, articles to rip out, code to spin. And suddenly, I started to see the warts. My old friend, Bernard Wong, had warned me. He has kept a Mac on the side for years, for creative work, and his description was: “OS X is quirky.” He wasn’t kidding. I’m sure, if you spend full time with the Mac, and you’ve used it for years, all the little quirks make sense. But for me, I just found that I was working at somewhere between half and quarter my normal speed. Sure, when I worked inside Windows, I was using the same keystrokes, and the same tools, as I always had. But my goal was to use the Mac (and OS X) for everything I could-why else have this expensive (very expensive) piece of art as my only machine?

Here’s an anecdote that I think describes it all: I was in the Apple store, checking out the MacBook Pro, and noticed that it doesn’t have a dedicated set of Home/PgUp/PgDn/End keys. You have to use the arrow keys, along with the Function key, to get the functionality of those keys. When I suggested to the trendy youth assisting me that for writing, having a full keyboard is helpful, his response was (and I’m not kidding) “I’d rather have this beautiful laptop than one with all those ugly keys.” I just laughed. In his face. Apparently, this is the Mac experience.

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Even with an external keyboard, I found using OS X applications bewildering. The standard Mac keyboard includes Command, Ctrl, Alt, and Shift keys. In various applications, each of these keys, combined with Home/End/PgUp/PgDn, and arrow keys (and remember, without an external keyboard, all but the arrow keys also require you to use the Function key), did different things. The keyboard handling in Entourage (the Outlook replacement in Office on the Mac) was very different than in Word on the Mac, and was different than keyboard handling in the text editor, and other applications. Each time I tried to type more than a few words, I ended up trying various combinations of keys to select words, lines, paragraphs, and so on. I swore that one day I would figure out, and internalize, each application I was trying to use. But instead, I wasted keystrokes just guessing. Sure, if you’re a “mouse” person, you probably wouldn’t ever encounter these issues. My friend Russ Nemhauser, who really got me started on this, was amazed at all the finger tangling I was going through. He had never noticed any of the issues of which I complained. He loves his Mac. He uses it daily, running Windows in a Parallels virtual machine, as his main machine without complaints.

Ultimately, I grew more and more despondent about the purchase. I wasn’t getting work done on the Mac “side” of things, and if I was just going to run Windows, why not have a Windows machine that could make use of the dual-core processor, and use all the memory I had installed to get better performance with multiple applications loaded? In addition, because I was running Windows inside a virtual machine, spreading it out over multiple monitors wasn’t working, and I felt totally constrained when working.

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So I confess: I went back to a standard PC, with standard hardware, running standard old Windows Vista. Oh, I’ll use OS X for fun things, and there really are software applications that work much better on the Mac than on the PC. I’m certain that if I gave OS X enough time, I would learn to be as productive on it as on a PC. But that’s not going to happen in the midst of writing tens of thousands of words each week, and ripping out code and courseware examples daily. I’m finding it hard to believe that I’m saying this, but I’m now convinced it’s true: Although OS X is a beautiful, secure, well-conceived operating system, its applications (at least, the ones I tried) aren’t as consistent about user interface as those on a PC. Perhaps Windows developers are lazy. I don’t know. But I sure get a lot more writing done a lot faster without OS X in the background. Maybe you can live with a Mac as your only computer: I couldn’t make that lifestyle change. I feel like a loser, but at least, I finally woke up and realized that not everyone functions the same way. Perhaps us boring old folks should just stick with what works.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the May/June 2007 issue of CoDe Magazine, and is reprinted here by permission.


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