Switching to Mac Part 4: In Use

This post is part of a series of posts about switching to a Mac – here are links to all the posts:

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this post, but here it is at last.

When I last posted about switching, I’d just got the machine unboxed and started up. I was impressed with the experience so far, but hadn’t really started using Mac OS yet.

How did I find the machine to use? Did it just work?

Generally good, and yes and no.

The User Interface

The new interface didn’t take as much getting used to as I’d expected. The Dock is quite a nice thing to use, and I even quite liked the animated effects. I switched the interface to grey, getting rid of the blue highlights – the less colour involved in the basic interface, the better you can judge colours when fiddling with photos.

Having the menu bar fixed to the top of the screen, when it relates to the window you’re using at the time, seemed a little odd, but again, it wasn’t as difficult to get used to as I’d expected. The location of it doesn’t entirely make sense, but you always know where it is, and it’s very quick to get to.

The strangest part was finding myself having no idea how to do some quite simple tasks. I already knew that Mac apps usually arrive bundled in a .dmg file – a Disk iMaGe. It was no surprise to double-click one, and find it mounted itself on the desktop, and auto-ran the contents. I knew I had to drag it to the trash can to unmount the image. I had no idea what I had to do with the contents to install the application, though. I had to Google. Just to find out how to install an app.

It turned out to be quite straightforward. For most apps, the window that opens up contains the app itself, and sometimes a shortcut to your Applications folder. You just need to drag the app into your Applications folder, and that’s it installed. Some apps actually do need to run an installer, though, so it isn’t entirely consistent. Uninstalling an app is usually just a matter of taking the app back out of the Applications folder. If it needed an installer, though, there isn’t always a straightforward way of uninstalling. As far as I can tell, though, even these apps only commonly add a few bits to a folder of their own under one of the ‘Library’ folders.

An app is just a single ‘.app’ file. Except it isn’t really. I guessed what they really were, as it’s the same as the old Acorn Archimedes used. The .app ‘file’ is really a folder, which the OS makes look like a file. Double-clicking on it lauches the application, by running a file or script from inside the folder. Under normal circumstances, you don’t need to know or care that the app is a folder. If you need or want to, though, you can open the folder by right-clicking and selecting ‘Show Package Contents’. Probably best not to fiddle with the innards of your apps, though, unless you know what you’re doing.

Speaking of the Archimedes, the dock has its similarities to the old Archimedes bar – apps live there when they’re running, and can stay running there even when their last window is closed. Unlike the Archimedes, though, you can get any app to stay there, even when closed.

The only part of the interface I still find frustrating is creating new documents. I was in the habit of using the ‘New…’ right-click menu in Windows, and it had always made sense to me. Go to where I want the document, create a document of the type I want, then open it and start working. Many people have never worked that way, and would find the Mac way of doing things perfectly natural – run the application you want to use, start working, then save the document through the application when you’re ready, using the Save dialog to put it where you want it.

I’ve always found that an awkward way of working – the Save As dialog isn’t a nice way to get around the filesystem on any platform, and until you get around to saving the document, you have a load of data sitting there with no home. The first save is harder to do, so you put it off longer than you should, and have the risk of losing unsaved work. I’ve found a couple of neat work-arounds for this whole issue, though, which I’ll post about another time.

The Hardware

The hardware is beautiful. It all feels wonderfully solid and well-made, too. I get on surprisingly well with the tiny wireless keyboard. I mostly love the Mighty Mouse. The little scroll ball on the top of the mouse, though, gums up fairly often. Apple, it seems, forgot that there was a reason we all gave up on mice with balls. The same thing on a smaller scale, being rubbed around by your finger all day, with no way of opening it up to clean it, is a bit of a bad move. I’ve always been able to get it going again with a bit of firm rubbing with the mouse upside-down, but it feels like a bit of a design fault. On an Apple product. That’s just wrong.

Software

There’s very little software I miss. TrackMania would be nice to have back, but it’s not worth dual-booting or running a VM for.

Oddly, for a machine so rooted in design and photography, image editing software is the one area I haven’t quite got settled on yet. On Windows, I used to use The GIMP. It’s available for the Mac, but it isn’t a pleasant experience. It runs under X11, so it doesn’t get its own menu bar, and doesn’t act like a Mac app. There are a few decent independent attempts at making image editors native to the Mac, so I tried pretty much everything I could find. Once I had a few options, I tried making the same set of simple edits to the same source image in them all. Photoshop Elements stood out as being much quicker and easier than the others. Making a selection was much easier, and making changes to the selection ended up with something that looked right, while the others ended up looking a mess.

I haven’t quite taken the plunge and bought it yet, but I probably will soon.

I actually do very little editing of the sort that needs a real image editor, though. On Windows, I’d been trying out Adobe Lightroom, but really didn’t get on with it. It felt slow and awkward, and seemed to have real performance problems when dealing with the number of images I had. I could get around it by splitting into multiple libraries, but switching between them would be more hassle than I wanted. I bought Aperture at the same time as my Mac, and loved it from the start. I still do. Almost everything I want to do with my photos can be done without leaving Aperture, and with a neat little plugin, I can export directly to my Flickr account.

The Result

I’m glad I made the switch. I still use Windows at work, and switching between the two every day makes things a little harder, but there are far more things I miss from the Mac when I’m using Windows than the other way around.

A colleague told me he’d bought a Mac because he hates computers. I told him I bought one because I love computers.