Focal Curve

Rejoining the Cult

Well I finally did it. I bought a Mac. A 15.4″ 1.83GHz MacBook Pro, to be precise. It’s the first Mac I’ve owned since 1995, the first I’ve owned to run OS X, and my very first Apple notebook. I’ve had it for six days now, which was five days longer than it took to fall madly in love. This is simply the sleekest, sexiest thing ever to rest in my lap. Well, technology-wise anyway.

A closeup photograph of my MacBook Pro's keyboard and label

I grew up with Apple computers. In the fourth grade I was first introduced to the world of computers with a classroom Apple IIe, cut my geek teeth on the family Apple IIGS, graduated to a Macintosh LC 580 in high school, took my dad’s old Mac Plus with me to college, and finally got my very own Performa 6116CD my sophomore year.

In 1999 I jumped ship to a Windows PC, with cost as the driving factor. I wanted a new computer and could assemble a PC from component parts for a fraction of the cost of a new Mac. The Performa was given to my parents (who were still using the LC 580 until it was stolen in a burlgery) and settled down with my rag-tag 500MHz Celeron (assembled by my friend Richard, who is much more knowledgable in the ways of PC hardware than I) running a pirated copy of Windows 98. That brandless black box has served me well, surviving a series of upgrades and mods and The Great Reformatting of 2001. It now sits derelict with a failed power supply, though I really must resurrect it some day since it seems otherwise fully functional and there is precious data on its drive which I must recover.

I acquired a Toshiba Satellite A15 notebook in 2004, getting a killer deal by arriving on the doorstep of the local CompUSA at 4AM for a 6-hour Day-After-Thanksgiving riot/sale. It’s been my primary workhorse ever since. But after 2+ years of daily use its battery will no longer hold a charge, tethering my activities to an outlet until I round up a replacement battery.

But all along I’ve intended to someday return to the cult of Mac. It happened the evening of Saturday, March 25, 2006 when I walked into the Apple store on Bay Street and walked out as a new man. A Mac owner. Being the geek blogger I am, I naturally chronicled the MacBook’s unpacking on Flickr. But once it was out of the box and in my hands the real evaluation process began.

Outside

I was immediately stricken by the beauty of the MacBook’s engineering. At a glance it’s essentially the same design as the PowerBook G4, with its low profile and seamless aluminum shell. The bottom surface is as clean and simple as the top (unlike my Toshiba, whose underside is a cluttered patchwork of panels and bulges). The interior is a broad flat plane, with the keyboard and trackpad inlaid nearly flush with the surface, so the entire work area evokes a sense of clean whitespace. The MacBook just feels good to hold, the weight and proportions balanced just so. Its matte finish is almost skin-like and I find myself stroking its lid tenderly when I put it to sleep.

Many small details are noteworthy as well. The magnetic power connector, which I felt was dubiously overhyped (I mean, really, it’s just a plug isn’t it?) turned out to be a spiffy little innovation. The magnet is quite strong to allow some maneuverability without it dropping out of socket, yet pulls away easily with a tug just as it’s intended to do. The built-in iSight camera is an unobtrustive pinhole that produces surpsingly decent images for such a small cluster of optics. The ghostly backlit keyboard adjusts automatically to ambient light, dimming in the dark to prevent distracting glare (there’s a pair of light sensors under the speaker grilles, and I enjoy covering and uncovering parts of the keyboard to watch it pulsate). Even the battery tester hidden on the undercarriage is a thing of beauty, a wee button of machined metal and a fine stream of green LEDs that wink into life. As has been said: Apple hardware is pricey, but you do get what you pay for.

Inside

My sum prior experience with OS X consisted only of occasional site testing on the desklamp-model G4 iMac at my office. Now I have to see how it fits into my workflow/lifestyle in regular productive use. Of course, the very first priority was downloading some cool desktop pictures and icons. But then came downloading all the vital software and finding OS X equivalents to the set of Windows essentials I’ve settled into over the years.

I’m sticking with Firefox as my browser of choice (running the Deerpark universal binary build until a proper universal Fox is released), though I’ve been regularly using Safari, Camino and OmniWeb as well, just to feel them out and see for myself what Jon is always going on about. I’ve chosen Adium for instant messaging, since I talk to a few people outside the iChat/AIM network and wasn’t terribly impressed with Fire. Cyberduck is a good opensource FTP client and MAMP made setting up a local dev server a breeze. And following Jeremy‘s advice, I installed Quicksilver which has indeed lived up to the hype.

As far as serious productivity, I have yet to do any real work on the MacBook. I’m still evaluating text editors to replace my beloved Homesite (BBEdit vs TextMate vs skEdit… TextMate is in the lead) and I’ll be purchasing Mac versions of Photoshop and Illustrator shortly [I have some minor concerns about their performance under Rosetta emulation until universal binary versions are released, but I don’t have much choice — Photoshop and Illustrator are as essential to survival as water and oxygen]. And while there may be alternatives, I must reluctantly bend to MicroSoft’s utter marketplace dominance by acquiring Word:Mac.

Having used OS X for a solid week now, I’m definitely counting myself among the converted. Behind all the GUI eye candy it’s just a much more intuitive system than Windows. The machine seems to think like a person, rather than the person needing to adapt to the workings of the machine.

The Airing of Grievances

Lest you think me a gushing fanboy, I do have a few minor complaints. The aluminum case acts as a giant heatsink by design, but this means the underside can become uncomfortably hot to the touch after prolonged use, especially when resting across one’s lap. It seems the Apple designers were counting on the casing’s heatsink effect to provide enough cooling so they could sacrifice a bit of ventillation and fanpower. But the internal fans are ninja-quiet, so the tradeoff seems worth it aside from the risk of scorched thighs. I need to pick up an iLap stand, which is itself a metal plate that will wick heat away from the machine’s chassis while lifting it up to allow better air circulation.

As with the PowerBook, all the ports are located on the sides. The drawback to this is that when anything is plugged in the total width of the base is effectively widened, taking up more desk space (the plug for my USB mouse juts out two inches to the right). A minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience still.

My only other complaints thus far aren’t flaws in the Mac per se, but PC features I like that the Mac lacks. I miss some of the functionality of an extended keyboard (I could plug one in, but most PC notebooks include those keys already). The “Home” and “End” keys are invaluable for jumping to the start or finish of a long line of code. There may be an equivalent key combination though I haven’t found it yet. Even with a peripheral extended keyboard I’m told those keys behave differently in OS X, but they could be easily remapped. Forward deleting is accomplished with function-delete, requiring two hands. That’s just something I’ll have to get used to.

There’s a lot I’ll have to get used to in making this switch, a period of adjustment as I break my Windows habits and unlearn what I have learned. Already my muscle-memory has been retrained to guide my thumb to the Command key instead of the Control key two spaces to the left. Returning to my work PC, I constantly find myself hitting the Alt key when executing shortcuts. And I actually had to resort to Google when I couldn’t find an “uninstall” option for a program I wanted to dispose of. Turns out it’s as simple as throwing the program away. Who’da thunk?

So I think I’m gonna like this thing, and I hope after the honeymoon we can have a loving, stable relationship for the next few years. Welcome home, MacBook Pro. It’s good to be back.

Update: How dumb I feel. I just discovered that “function-left-arrow” equals “home” and “function-right-arrow” equals “end.” I learned this completely by accident, mind you, and while attempting to reenact the fatfinger goof that revealed this valuable information, I finally and for the first time actually looked at the arrow keys. Sure enough, they’re plainly labeled and I’m just an idiot. Scratch one annoyance from the list.

3 Comments on 'Rejoining the Cult'

  1. Jon Hicks said:

    Yay! One of us! One of us!

    Good to hear that your experience of returning the Mac was a good one! One more software recommendation for you, if you play a lot of music in iTunes, grab the free Coverflow ‘demo’: http://www.steelskies.com/article/44/more. Its like Quicksilver – it feels like it should be a part of the Mac!

    Have fun!

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  2. Idella said:

    I’ve been thinking about a Mac. Right now I’m working on a custom build Desktop computer that runs windows and my Toshiba Satellite R-10. And I just found this site and it’s cool!

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  3. Rob Mientjes said:

    Another way to jump to home and end is Ctrl-A and Ctrl-E, respectively. It can be done with only your left hand, which I think is easier. I never use my right side function keys.

    And congrats, welcome back. Like Jon said, have fun. That’s essential and inevitable ;)

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