Mac OS X Review

Three weeks ago I acquired a brand new MacBook Pro. This is my first Apple product after having been a Windows and Linux user and developer since I can remember.

I will try to document my switching experience as objectively as possible. I will review the hardware, software, and the GUI experience as it relates to my work and leisure.

In short, there is a lot of work to be done from a usability standpoint from a maker that touts usability as their #1 feature, but overall I am relatively happy with the MacBook Pro.

Pros:

Hardware:

  • 2.4 GHz Dual-Core CPU with 4GB RAM and a 17″ LCD with 1920×1200 resolution. Let’s face it, any machine with this much power is a monster. The apps run smoothly, and the OS boots up in less time than it takes me to brush my teeth.
  • 802.11n. Despite this being only a draft of the standard, it is quite robust and fast. 950 MB of XCode went by in 20 minutes on my wireless. Try that on 802.11b.
  • Trinkets: Magnetic power cable, large touchpad, two huge speakers with good quality (as far as built-in speakers go), built-in webcam, multiple ports from Firewire to ExpressCard, user-dimmable keyboard back-light, and annodized aluminium finish. These things overall make a very good package. I did not expect less from Apple.
  • The tilt-sensor. I like having the piece of mind knowing that the hard drive will lock when the MacBook is about to hit the deck. I’m clumsy.

Software and Usability:

  • OS X itself. OS X is hands-down the most beautiful GUI for Unix (sorry KDE and Gnome). The OS feels robust because of its Unix backbone, which, by the way, happens to be my favorite thing about OS X — the Unix prompt. I can now indulge in all my Unix fantasies (bash is even the standard shell!).
  • The impressive collection of software out the box: iMovie, iDVD, iTunes, iChat, iPhoto and (i)GarageBand. iChat was especially cool because I got to use the web-cam. Yes, this can be done on the PC, but not out the box. DVD-playing support is also noteworthy.
  • Widgets. At the touch of a button, I can get my fix of mini-information: weather and time in different locations, stocks, basketball scores and news, etc. I hope Vista’s Gadgets are this easy to use.
  • Spotlight, the answer to Google Desktop, is easy to access with the Command-Space shortcut. It searches fairly quickly, and displays results in realtime.
  • System Preferences is relatively simple and intuitive from one single window.
  • Touchpad drivers are very intuitive. I find myself using the double-tap to right click and double-tap-drag to scroll through windows on other laptops. This is in the software section because without the drivers, this would not be possible.

Cons:

Hardware:

  • I would have gladly traded the speakers for a 10-key pad and a fully functional keyboard.
  • The keys feel cheap to me, and I think that’s because of the backlight. The standard (white) MacBook’s keyboard feels much better.

Software:

  • Cmd-Tab is not nearly as intuitive as it should be. It doesn’t switch to open windows, only open applications. . As an example, assume you have two Safari windows open. Hit Cmd-Tab. Notice only one Safari icon. Granted, once you switch to the application, you can flip between windows using Cmd-~, but that’s more keystrokes, thus usability suffers.
  • Furthermore, you cannot reach a minimized window with Cmd-Tab at all, unless you move the mouse to the Dock. This makes the minimize button completely useless (I have abandoned it). Following our example above, minimize both windows in Safari (with no windows visible, but not quitting the application), and hit Cmd-Tab. Notice the Safari icon, but when you switch to it, nothing really happens. What’s worse, EVEN EXPOSE DOESN’T SHOW IT! This is especially annoying when you’re trying to find a finder window. You would have to go fishing for the application in the cluttered…
  • Dock is one of the worst UI designs I have ever seen. First, it only indicates which applications are open with that black arrow only if that application’s icon is already in the Dock. If you run another application from the Applications folder that is not in the Dock, you are out of luck, especially if you have a window minimized. Furthermore, the list of minimized applications on the right hand side displays minimized windows, and the dock shrinks every time you minimize something. Also, you can only have one layer of icons and right next to them the minimized apps and folders (as well as the useless trash-can that used to be on the desktop). Click the image below to see what I mean:
    dock
    This is the true size of my dock, on 1920×1200. Insane.
  • Zoom Button is another useless UI feature (“equivalent” to the Maximize button on PCs). Firstly, it should maximize windows the entire length of the screen. Secondly, it acts in completely unpredictable ways (in iTunes, for example, it minimizes the player to the mini-player. Completely un-intuitive. I have also abandoned this button as well (this is now two out of three window function buttons I abandoned, and that is unacceptable from a usability AND form standpoints). This may be a blessing in disguise since I have stopped minimizing and maximizing applications, I guess I don’t need to switch much using the Cmd-Tab. But when I’m programming, I need the full screen, requiring me to use those buttons again. In other words, FIX IT APPLE! or at least give users the option of having it act like it’s really supposed to act.
  • Expose. Nice idea but completely useless. Here’s why:
    • It is assigned to F9. On the MacBook Pro, the F-Keys are so tiny that invariably I will hit some other button, and get all open application windows or God-knows-what-else.
    • It takes your hands off the keyboard and onto the mouse. Alternatively, you could hit F9 and scroll through the windows with the arrows, which is yet another keystroke. Either way, it’s bad design when you have to press so many different buttons.
    • If you have even 10 windows open, all of a sudden the windows become unreadable. Yes, you get a label when you mouse-over, but, for example, in KDE when you hit Alt-Tab, all the windows you are iterating through are labeled nicely.
    • If you don’t use it often, it’s easy to forget which F-Key it is simply because so many are assigned something different. F9 is expose, F10 is expose for open windows (note, not minimized!), F11 is for the desktop and F12 for Widgets. Can we please get away from the F-Keys?
  • Safari. Over the years I’ve been spoiled with Firefox, so it’s no surprise that I have so many gripes with Safari. Luckily, FF is available for Mac, so bye-bye Safari. There are just too many features that I’d like to see in Safari that I’m used to in FF, like extensions, themes, little usability features here and there. FF is simply king of the world right now.
  • Quicktime. Doesn’t support VCD format. What gives? Moreover, when I downloaded the codec, QT crashed!!! Yay for robustness. Thanks to DAB, he pointed me to VLC which is an excellent OS X multimedia player. The point is, it is unacceptable for something like that to happen, which leads me to….
  • iDVD. First time I clicked on it, I got the splash-window for a split-second and then…. nothing. I thought I imagined things, but the same thing happened again. Finally, after about 30 minutes of searching I found out that you have to wipe out some of the themes folders in your user directory. Go here for help on how to do that. This is simply unacceptable. Apple needs better QA engineers for iDVD.
  • Shortcut keys are driving me crazy. End of line is Cmd-Right, the Delete key is actually backspace, unless you press the FN ( ??) button, in which case it really acts as the delete key, Option-Left or Right lets you jump between words, while Ctrl-Left (or right) jumps to the beginning or end of line. FN-Up or Down is Page-up/Down, while Cmd-Up or Down goes to the beginning/end of the document. I think it’s a matter of getting used to it and finally memorizing the keys, but the point is there should be PGUP/PGDN/End/Home/Delete/Insert buttons on the damn keyboard. Please, I’ll give up the built-in-speakers for free. And I’m not sure, but I think that sometimes the navigational keys sometimes vary between applications too.
  • No system-wide keys for Finder windows. One thing I’ve grown to love on Windows is instant access to an explorer window by pushing Start-E. Apple needs this option because trying to find a finder window by moving windows out of the way is just damn cumbersome and a royal pain in the ass.
  • Line Breaks. Please, use the standard \r\n. Not just \r. I don’t care if Unix encodes line endings in this way, the rest of the world uses \r\n. This causes a shitload of problems when, for example, trying to load a data file into a MySQL database (and invariably causes “String too long, out of memory” exceptions).

Conclusion: Most of my gripes with OS X relate to usability and sometimes UI design. Some of these things greatly reduce my efficiency while programming and doing actual work. I understand Mac OS X was originally designed for Graphic Artists, and, I’m sure, their work flows are completely different. Still, if Apple wants to truly convert everyone they should at least make an effort to fix these things, or at least give us some options. The ability to swap Cmd and Ctrl keys is a good start.

Overall though, I am happy with OS X. I am most happy that I got to use my familiar programs like Eclipse and Firefox. I admit that the OSS community has a lot of work ahead of itself to bridge the gap between the PC and Apple markets, but it looks like it’s on its way already.

That said, would I buy another Apple? Not unless these things above get fixed. I am just too efficient on Windows and Linux – OS X definitely slows me down. And buying a $4500 laptop just to run BootCamp or Parallels on it is just silly.

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