Switch Made: From Linux to Apple’s Mac OS X

As I write this, my old Linux computer, the XCube, sits in the corner of my office, ready to be shipped off to my in-laws. It’s a bittersweet sight. On one hand, that computer has been with me for almost four years, and it’s still extremely capable: a 3.2GHz Intel P4, 1GB RAM (I forget what speed… 3200 maybe?), 200GB hard drive space, ATI 9200 video card, DVD+/-R/CD-R, all in a small form factor body. On the other hand, as it sits there, I sit in front of my new MacBook, a 2.2GHz Inter Core 2 Duo system with 1GB (soon to be upgraded to 4GB) of RAM, 120GB hard drive, almost-crapstacular Intel 950 integrated video (with 64MB shared RAM), DVD+/-R/CD-R, all in a beautiful, pristine white body with a 13-inch, glossy screen.

No one would guess this was a refurb. I got this for $1099, $200 cheaper than normal.

The best part? It just works.

I wish I could say that about every other pre-built, pre-loaded system I’ve ever worked with, but I can’t. All too often, whether in Linux or Windows, I’ve had to go through various steps in order to become truly productive. With this, it took me an hour to run the software updates needed, install the software I wanted (it detected the network automatically, and connecting was a snap) and get to work. Really, it’s a thing of beauty. Only when you realize that you’re working in a sickeningly proprietary environment do you even get a hint of the ugly, but this isn’t something most people run into. Hell, I haven’t really run into it, and don’t anticipate running into it: I’m not screwing around with the interface, I’m not messing around with the internal configuration files, and I’m not planning on recompiling any of the programs, since they all seem to run rather quickly already (the only reason I ever really recompiled anything).

Anyway, but enough with the heady stuff. What’s it like actually using this?

To be perfectly transparent, at first it sort of felt like I was working with two left hands. Not quite uncomfortable, but not quite comfortable, either. Some of the things I took for granted on PCs — like right-clicking, or quitting applications by closing the windows, or actually having both Delete and Backspace keys — I started to quickly miss. However, that feeling soon faded, and I started to appreciate Mac OS X for the way it does things. “Just another way of thinking,” as I tell people when they first start using Linux. Just another way of thinking. Not complicated. Very simple, in fact. Retardedly so.

Having used the Gnome desktop environment in Linux for the past… however many years, it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to switch gears. I tell you, those Gnome guys (especially the folks in the Ubuntu team) really know how to but not quite almost copy and then surpass. And if I had a choice, and I may in the near future, I’d probably switch back to the Gnome interface. Then again, I may not be saying that in a week, since it may simply be the case that I just need some time to get adjusted.

The computer itself is a thing of beauty: all white, with smooth corners, silent as a ninja’s church fart… and then there’s the keyboard. Wow. I find it interesting that I should so have fallen in love with the keyboard, since it was the thing which almost convinced me not to buy a MacBook. The keys are flat and feel weak to the touch. At first. Once some time is spent with them, the realization dawns that typing is easier, requiring less effort; their design even seems to increase typing speed, idiotic spelling mistakes notwithstanding. (I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, but it certainly feels that way.) Finally, for those of us who spend a fair amount of time typing (those of us who push the average time spent typing up) the keyboard is a blessing due to its low-impact design. Not pressing as hard means less chance of developing any type of repetitive stress disorder.

An interesting note on the MacBook’s keyboard — and I can only presume this is also the case with the MacBooks Air and Pro — is the use of the Function keys (all those F# keys along the top of the keyboard). By default, these keys are used as application launchers and system controls, instead of keeping their quasi-esoteric, not-truly-defined purpose from the PC world. Great design move. And, of course, that’s what Apple excels at: great design.

Speaking of which, I came to a realization just recently, as to the biggest difference between Linux and Max OS X, licensing aside. It’s all about how things are constructed. Engineers are fond of saying that things should work before they’re made pretty. (“Make it work, then make it pretty,” my programming teacher used to say.) Open Source software — and yes, I’m using Linux and Open Source interchangeably here, but once you see where I’m going at, I’m sure you’ll agree it was the right call — lives and dies by this: first make it work. Make it work so well that not even your overtly critical mother-in-law could find fault with it. Then, if there’s time, and if there’s interest, make it pretty. In the Apple world, things are completely different. There the rule of thumb is “Make it work, but as you do so make sure it’s pretty. It’s OK if it doesn’t have all that many features, so long as the ones that are there are purposeful and beautiful.” Here defined then is the big difference: on one side you have engineers and hackers, on the other you have designers and artists. If Linux companies would embrace this — and Ubuntu is well on its way — neither Microsoft nor Apple could stop its even more rapid ascendancy. As it is, they barely can.

Anyway, back to the Mac. As I sit here writing this, I’m ripping a DVD so I can view it on my iPod using Handbrake (also available for Linux). I’m also accessing my site using Safari (I haven’t yet decided whether I want to switch back to FireFox, or even Opera, though I’ll likely end up downloading both soon enough), editing some work using NeoOffice, putting together a storyboard using Scrivener, and downloading my podcasts via iTunes. I’ve yet to touch a configuration file, or worry about whether a plugin will work right. Everything “just works”, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

If you have any recommendations for software I should try, extras I should pick out, or if you have any pointers to give me, I’m all eyes. I’ve already stared asking around, and gotten some phenomenal responses, but I’m still looking for more.

By the way, if you’re wondering, I’ll be adding pictures later, when I upload them from my camera. I took a few shots of the unpacking, so if you’re considering getting a refurb, you’ll know what to expect. Here’s a hint: it’s not what I expected. Seriously.

One thought on “Switch Made: From Linux to Apple’s Mac OS X

  1. What? You bought a MacBook and didn’t get the new MacBook air? My Christmas present to my self was a Sony Vaio VGN-UX380N, the UltraPortable with 4.5” display. Turns out nobody can stand using a computer that small and the price was driven down from $2,500 to $900 in a matter of months. However, I love it. Sony makes good machines and with built in WiFi and an EDGE modem – I’m online anywhere.

    Yes, I’m using *cough* Vista Business Ed. The Vaio has been the only computer I’ve seen where Vista doesn’t totally bite. I’m not really fond of OS X, although I have several Mac zealot friends who would completely disagree.

    But, I always keep a Linux box going, basically for development as use as a home server. I have a big clunky Compaq Presario C500 Laptop with Vista Home as my “Desktop PC”, the thing is too huge to carry around. Sitting right next to a ThinStar 300 $10 thin client to connect to my server, or other computers as needed.

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