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Review: Apple OSX

It should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I feel a strong sense of disconnection without regular access to a computer. Despite this, for most of my life I’ve spent substantial portions of each summer travelling, camping, and otherwise incommunicado. This summer was different: everywhere I went during August, I lugged around a Powerbook I borrowed from my Dad.

Until that point, my only experience with Apple’s operating systems were on ancient System 7 machines, which I despised. I’d be hard-pressed at this point to name specific flaws with those systems, but I’m pretty sure my loathing wasn’t baseless. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to discover that the OSX experience was generally a positive one.

My overall impression of the current Mac OS is this: there are certain use cases which the designers expect of the owner of the machine, and for those cases there are well-polished applications which generally behave quite pleasantly. I was particularly impressed with the ease with which I could use it to keep my cell phone’s calendar and contacts synchronized with the contacts on the computer and my Google calendar–it took about 15 minutes of research and setup, and thereafter exactly three button clicks to update things. If you want to write a document, watch a movie, browse the internet, burn a CD, or any of a large number of other common tasks, the computer comes with a convenient application for the purpose.

On the other hand, once you stray from the expected use cases, the ease of use plummets dramatically. The only way I could figure out to export my Safari bookmarks was to download a third-party program purpose-built for that task. I tried feeding internet to the computer through the bluetooth link to my cell phone; it took about four hours of research to discover a cryptic magic incantation to type into a special terminal that would launch if I ran a particular program; this incantation had to be typed manually each time because there was no obvious way to automate it.

There were a few quirks that I didn’t really like. The alt-tab analogue seemed broken to me because it switched between programs instead of individual windows, which didn’t help me at all when I had four IM windows going at once. That was just a symptom of a more general trend: in Windows, someone who knows what they’re doing can generally get along without a mouse, even though things get much more cumbersome. Attempting the same on OSX, so far as I could tell, would be futile. I really disliked the tendancy to fly icon bars over, under, and around the working space in their own miniwindows; I like to keep my icons in one place relative to the workspace of a window, where they won’t overlap or be hidden by anything.

Other differences were noticeable, but easily adapted to. I still think that it is strange for a program to stay in memory after its last window has been closed, but I bet there are people who appreciate the near-instantaneous “load time” it gives their applications after the first time. Individual windows tend to take more screen space than I’m used to percentagewise, but that drawback is neatly counterbalanced by “Exposé”, which flies all your windows into individual panes which you can choose from. Putting the menu bar at the top of the screen didn’t bother me because there was almost never a need to use a menu.

Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend an Apple to someone with little or no previous computer experience, as it’ll do just about anything they’re likely to want to do with less trouble than they’d encounter on a comparable Windows machine. The only real exception to this general rule is that someone interested in computer games would be much better served to just get a Windows machine.

On the other hand, I also know that I would not be happy using OSX full time. I actually am interested in computer games, which is really the deciding factor. Beyond that, though, I have a decent understanding of how Windows works–I’ve been using it for over 10 years, and I know what to expect and how to do things the quick and easy way. It may be that the stuff I dislike in OSX can be configured around or have non-obvious analogues, but I wouldn’t look forward to going through the learning process again. Also, I have a FreeBSD box for “serious” purposes; while it’s possible to do most of the same stuff in OSX, I see no reason not to go for the free OS which runs on much cheaper hardware. I’d expect the same would apply to other power users.

OSX in one sentence: it is bright, shiny, rounded, easy to use for limited purposes–exactly like the toys given to four year olds.

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Comment by alchemeron
2006-09-05 01:39:19

Intel processors and bootcamp have added a clever wrinkle.

Comment by silversliver
2006-09-05 07:36:06

To switch between windows within a program without a mouse, you need to utilize the expose feature with F9, followed by arrow keys for window selection. There are serious 3rd party software development tools, as well. I wouldn’t quite chatacterize it as a “shiny toy” ubut i guess that’s an improvement over “strongly disrecommended for all.”

Comment by tauceti
2006-09-07 10:03:37

A few extra things:

The general shortcut for switching windows within an application is command-~
That and more are outlined here:,00.shtml

I also think this:
might help. I used to use another script written by some fellows live at WWDC, but I have since misplaced it.


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