Don’t ever let anyone tell you Macs are for dummies. An hour with a Mac and you find yourself thinking Macs are either for hyper-intelligent beings afflicted with a technophobia that leaves them intimidated by a TiVo remote, or Macs require a degree in stupid to be well operated.
I am largely enjoying my iMac experience – the display is to die for; remember when you switched from your 4 year old, mostly burned-out 15in CRT display to a 19+in LCD? It’s that again. So crisp, so vibrant, so rich.
Maybe it’s my own facial expressions of frustration or delight being being reflected back so clearly in the wonderfully clear monitor that augment my curiously rollercoaster feelings about this encounter.
I’m trying to write this in Safari on my iMac, but I have yet to learn the fineries of cursor control in a textarea input box on the Mac. I finally figured out Command-Cursor-Left and Command-Cursor-Right for moving to/from the end of line, but how the hell do you advance a word at a time?
First, its pretty…
With a few settings tweaked and a sticky on the monitor saying “they press ‘Command’ not Ctrl or Alt” you can get the hang of the UI enough to only find it annoying and not frustrating: Who cares if the window on the screen is Safari, the top left of your display says “Finder” so that MUST be what you are doing.
If, like me, you aren’t a Mac user but you once had an Atari ST, Mac OS X is at heart that same single-tasking operating system that Atari’s “GEM” was based on. All menus go to the top of the screen. All Mac applications are essentially headless; they run in the menu bar, windows are provided merely as a visual aid to any data.
The grabber app – which takes screnshots – is a great example of this at work: When you run it, it consists solely of a change to the system menu: there is no grabber window. When you take a screenshot, each screenshot gets its own window. It’s like the Windows MDI concept, but everything uses the same parent window – the entire screen.
In the screenshot (above right) you can tell grabber is running because the menu bar says so, and there is a tiny little light under its icon in the dock. Yeah, the screen full of other stuff is irrelevant. “Grab” and “tiny light” are the indicators of what the computer is doing. Sigh.
Pretty, but alien…
This is an important concept to grasp because otherwise you quickly start to get annoyed that you keep closing down applications only to find they are still running — all you actually did was close a window! If you wanted to shut down the application, you would have gone to the system menu and selected ‘Quit’, dummy. What are you, some kind of context-seeking faggot? Closing an application window is a lot like minimizing it without the icon in the “dock” (task tray).
My Mac came with a three button mouse with scrollwheel. Ehm. Well, my Mac came with a clicky thing. It cunningly looks like a 1-button mouse, but it employs a tilt wheel so that it can tell whether you clicked to the left or the right. Yeah, that’s right, or. Fortunately, the limitation is purely physical – if you plug a real mouse into the Mac, it can handle you clicking two buttons at once.
The scroll-wheel is actually a tiny, tiny little trackball. Which is really cool for a little while. To make it a good scroll-wheel, its stepped: it doesn’t move smoothly. The end result is that it feels sharp after a while.
Oh, the 3rd button. This is actually two little pressure-sensitive areas on the side of the mouse. Ergonomically situated where you put your thumbs while holding the mouse during normal operation. That’s right, a pressure sensitive spot right where your thumb rests during normal operation. Yes, you heard me right, the place you put your thumb when holding the mouse during ordinary usage will register any pressure, such as you gripping the mouse, as a mouse button click.
In their infinite virusless, rebootless wisdom, Apple decided to showcase a new OS X feature by assigning it to mouse button 3, something called Expose (with an accent). Expose temporarily resizes and shuffles all the windows on the desktop so that you can see all of them at once and pick one. It’s actually very handy.
Unless, of course, every time you go to interact with a window or click on something, the window moves because you’re unaware that the simple act of gripping the mouse is the trigger Expose is default-configured to react to.
Not a hostile alien…
MacOS is infamous amongst IT staff for being the “idiot OS”, because all of the inner workings are hidden from the user. When MacOS just works – which by and large it just does – it really does just work. On my Dual Core 2.66Ghz Intel Mac, its really quite slick and eerily silent. But when things don’t work or don’t quite work the way you wanted, it’s a bit like letting the ice-cream truck drive off before checking if you got the limone gelato you ordered or yellow snow.
Actually, this is probably the single biggest Mac / every-other-modern-OS gap.
All that information is invariably tucked away somewhere; if you can break thru the preconception that you are facing an idiot box and if you can remind yourself that it’s not Windows…
For instance, if this was a Windows box, you and I probably wouldn’t bother going to the Event Viewer or looking at an install.log file because we would know the chances of it meaning anything to us are really really tiny, right?
Well with the Mac, the “installer” app isn’t just the little window which it uses to tell you what you’re installing and ask where you want to install it. No, it’s also that menu along the top of the screen, wherein is a hidden goodie “Window > Installer Log”.
Suddenly the system menu makes an ounce more sense. The application is uncluttered by all this unlovely stuff, but there is actually a menu up there which can expose the innards. And – so far – every log I’ve logged at has been meaningful and helpful (well, ok, except when I couldn’t install new stuff until I rebooted).
Likewise, there is a secreted-away “Console” which is basically a Unix system console, only most of the output is Appleified: meaningful.
But if you’re so used to Unix/Windows logs that are full of crap, then you’re not going to think to go look there and you’re going to feel stranded. “I can’t tell why this application isn’t running” “Did you look at the log file?” “No, where do I find that/why would I want to do that?”.
The big trick is learning the various ways in which Apple conceals clutter. If you’ve tried Vista, you’ve discovered the new world of “Approval Pop-up”s – and Mac OS uses the same concept. Only, far, far more manageably. Individual settings panels can be locked or unlocked, with a lock-state change requiring password approval. Allowing you to fiddle some some aspect of settings without being bombarded with dialogs or – as most Vista users do – just turning that system off and reverting to zero-security security.
Lots of windows use this little “Lock” paradigm, others use a little gear-cog icon which brings up a drop-down with advanced features for a window – for instance, when trying to access a network file share for which the password is saved in your keychain, a little cog icon tucked in the corner of the window offers you a way to provide a different password or username. MS Windows: It’d either be tucked away somewhere or it would be intrusive; Mac: it’s inobtrusively just there.
When it’s good, it’s good
I could rattle on about all the things that, so far, have plagued and annoyed me about Mac OS. But the display is so freakin’ lovely, and I kinda like the keyboard, so I’ve given it an extra dose of chance.
Vista introduces us to lots of slick new UI concepts and components that can give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but on the Mac it strikes you as panache rather than glitz.
You’ll find yourself struggling with concepts like “How do I uninstall this product?”: You don’t, products are singularly encapsulated so that they are presented as a single item on your file system: every application goes entirely and exclusively into its own “.app” folder. The OS hides the “.app” in the explorer (finder), and it just looks like a program icon. When you’re done with it, just delete it – and the whole thing is gone/uninstalled.
Having not used MacOS before it became FreeBSD based, I don’t know what it was like pre-Unix, but I find I am a little dissapointed at the lack of consistency. For instance, because of the Apple mindset behind windows you can easily get lost trying to find that particular window. Under MS Windows you would just alt-tab. In MacOS you can use the Window system menu to find the specific sub-window, but when it comes to hotkeys, they really don’t seem to be standardized for switching between sub-windows.
And right clicks … some places it seems to be a click, some places it seems to be a click and hold. I haven’t gotten familiar enough with the Mac to get the logic of context menu organization either, so it feels very unstandardized.
A few things have really amused me about my Mac experience. Firstly, I’ve had to reboot so many times, and I’ve encountered a bunch of things to which people say the solution is to reboot – Finder occasionally decides it doesn’t need to have the navigation panel on the left, and the only way I’ve found to stop it recurring (even after a force-quit) is just to reboot. There is some networking stuff that benefits from a reboot. And there have been several software updates that quietly put the machine into a state where the best policy was a reboot.
And then there’s the “No hourglass” thing. It’s true, the Mac doesn’t use an hourglass mouse pointer to tell you that the machine is really busy right now. No, it uses a little spinner mouse pointer — if you can find the right thing to mouse-over. Your Mac can be utterly and totally bogged down and thrashing like mad, and there’s no way for you to tell unless you find the application(s) that is/are hurting and mouse-over some significant part of them to see the busy moues pointer.
But that’s just another little “difference” to get used – it takes a lot to make the Mac unresponsive, unlike Windows – the kernel multi-tasks really well. But as an end user, you’re often left sitting staring at nothing while an application goes about its business with nothing but a menu on the screen…
Once you get past some of your Windowisms, particular not trying to shut down applications all the time – just settling for them being loaded somewhere on the machine with no windows currently displaying, things do get a bit zippier. MS Windows has adopted a lot of Macisms, which makes them a lot more confusing when now confronted with a Mac.
I think the fact that I’ve used so many different OSes, particular lots of different BSDs and Linuxes makes me less intolerant of finding the “Program Files” is just “Applications” in finders, and that instead of lots of folders to wade thru to find the program, the operating system says “Wait, this is a program file, well then I should be able to use it to launch the application”. Hey, that’s actually rather neat.
Since I have to work with a lot of Unix boxes, the Mac OS X is probably going to be a fairly comfortable environment now that it has a *NIX under the hood – I’ve already started automating the Rick’s Mac build process with some perl scripts, infact we were using CodeWarrior for Linux when I started so the CodeWarrior-derived XCode is fairly easy to get used to. I miss the “all-in-one” toolkit feel of Visual Studio, CodeBlocks, Eclipse etc, that really just works for me, but it hasn’t taken me long to get a feel for it.
My plan was to use BootCamp and make the machine dual boot XP/MacOS, or use Parallels and run my windows stuff in a native-like virtual machine, but I’m actually torn now. I haven’t been won over by Mac OS or Mac by any stretch, but I’m surprised how easily I have fallen to using it as my “launchpad” for all the other stuff I have to do.
It is, hands down, the best *NIX based environment I’ve worked in ever. You get what you pay for.
I think Apple really ought to think about doing a “Mac in a Box” virtual appliance package the way Microsoft has gone nuts doing demonstration appliances for various Windows products.
The real trick to learning to use a Mac, if you’ve used something else before, is to take a step back. It does a vastly better job of “working with you” than most versions of Windows, but a lot of experience with Windows will put you in the mindset of having to drive the machine, and the Mac just isn’t like that. It’s not like going from a stick-shift to an automatic: it’s like switching from a stick-shift to a car with an automatic clutch an a brake pedal where the clutch ought to be…