Apparently, I’m a hipster now. According to my friend Bryce, who calls everyone a hipster who uses a Mac. Though I feel a certain kinship with PC in the “Get a Mac” commercials (who doesn’t? how can you not root for the likable underdog?), my purchase now entitles me to the same hipster gloating and proselytizing Mac users allegedly do. I’ve joined a small but growing number of Mac users, and I didn’t even buy AppleCare.
Now, for someone who spent a number of years working at Microsoft itself, and all his years since being a devoted Microsoft product guy at various system integrators, this may be a puzzling choice. Some might say it’s a choice I shouldn’t have made. It’s a little like the ad agency that was hired to create a campaign for Coca Cola and offered its clients beer after the first meeting. As someone who regularly works with Microsoft technologies, helps sell them and believes that they are good products, buying a Mac isn’t the obvious choice.
So why did I do it? As with everything, there are several reasons. The primary reason is that I wanted a small, rugged and aesthetically pleasing laptop for everyday use. What I had before was large, heavy, thick, plasticky, had poor battery life and was very powerful. Other than “very powerful,” those were not attributes I was actually looking for. But they are what you get when you work in an office and someone else orders a computer for you. It wasn’t even price that was the issue so much: the Lenovo laptop was neither particularly cheap nor a corporate standard. But it was a sensible IT decision to buy.
I was also secretly a little envious of the cachet a Mac bestowed on its devoted users.
There is simply no Wintel PC manufacturer today that offers a small, rugged, fast and aesthetically pleasing laptop for less than $2000. See for yourself; look at their websites. Many of them have models that are attractive, fast and small: Dell offers the Adamo, Lenovo has its X200 series, and Sony has a whole slew of pretty little laptops. However, if you want a reasonable specification, all of them are very, very pricey, for no apparent reason.
Enter Apple. The small MacBook Pro is a more than reasonable performer, costs only $1700 or so (I got mine for $1400) and is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Like the commercials say, everything is properly thought out. It’s a design object as much as it is a computer. From the MagSafe power adapter, to the gorgeous screen, the backlit keyboard, the great battery life, and – last but definitely not least – the aluminum unibody construction, this is a fantastic piece of hardware.
So I thought: I’ll just put Windows 7 on it. It’s a PC, Apple’s just released new Boot Camp drivers for Windows – how hard can it be? I’ll just tell people, “It’s a PC.” I even have one of those “I’m a PC” stickers – maybe I’ll put that on it. As a sort of ‘work credibility defense mechanism.’
Right. And then, I started to use OS X Snow Leopard.
Initially just to see if I could figure it out. Whenever I had tried it previously, in an Apple Store for example, I had felt like a total newbie – not a feeling I particularly appreciated. Didn’t understand how to use the trackpad, didn’t know how to right-click, couldn’t find anything, etc. Typical “Windows user tries Mac for the first time” sort of stuff.
So after unboxing my new Mac, I learned how to configure and operate the single-button multi-touch track pad (I’m fairly convinced I could never go back to a regular touchpad now). And I started clicking around. As a project, I found and installed all my regular open source/freeware software – things I use in my day-to-day computering and blogging life. I easily found all of them and the entire operation took no more than about an hour. Throughout, the OS was fast, responsive and – most importantly – entirely self-evident. I didn’t really have to stop and Google anything. I just knew how to do things. I had a copy of Microsoft Office:Mac 2008 lying around, so I installed that, too. (Entourage seems like Outlook’s hillbilly cousin, but the other apps seem perfectly usable.)
Within less than a day, I felt like I had my productivity basics in place.
Next, I installed Windows Vista using Boot Camp and the (new) Boot Camp drivers. It worked. The drivers are mostly great, with the painful exception of the touchpad driver, which is way too sensitive (and you can’t configure it to change this). Waited the customary 2-3 hours for Vista to download and install all manner of software updates… you know, Service Pack 1, Service Pack 2, Internet Explorer 8, about a thousand security updates, all that incomprehensible “Windows Genuine Advantage” stuff, etc.
And then I thought: “Hang on. Why don’t I just run Vista in a virtual machine, like all other smart Mac users who have to use Windows for work?” Enter Parallels. Cost me another $80. Apart from my Mac, those are the best dollars I’ve ever spent.
Parallels, for those who haven’t experienced it, is like Microsoft Virtual PC, but for the Mac. You can run a fairly large number of operating systems as virtual machines. Parallels installs a number of drivers in the guest OS that enable things like file sharing and graphics integration with the host computer. In Windows – significantly – this means that Parallels can run in ‘Coherence’ mode, which makes application windows from the guest OS appear as if they are being run on the Mac. For example, Outlook, Word or Internet Explorer can be started from the Mac’s Dock and ‘float’ on the Mac desktop as disembodied windows. Given that my Mac has 4GB of RAM, I can comfortably allocate 1.5GB to the virtual machine, which is plenty to run the things I need to run during work hours.
As I went through my (very shallow) learning curve, several thoughts began to take shape. First, I felt a sense of amazement and elation at how truly excellent OS X Snow Leopard is. It’s fast, responsive, reliable (I have rebooted this laptop only once since I got it 6 days ago, and that was during the Parallels installation), pretty and breathtakingly usable. If you’ve used a computer with a windowing operating system before, you can use this. Period.
Coupled with my amazement is a growing sense of sadness and confusion about where Microsoft fits into all this. I’m sure Windows 7 is a good operating system. All reports so far, both on the web and from friends, indicate it’s lighter, faster and more stable than Vista. Whenever I’ve played with it, though, it still looks and feels like Vista once you look beyond the new chrome on the Start Bar. More importantly, now that I’ve used OS X for a week, Windows looks and feels light years behind the competition.
It comes out in the little things that are simply built into OS X – and that, in Windows, you have to laboriously add in yourself. Things like software to take pictures using the built-in iSight webcam. Apple Photo Booth is brilliant, easy to use, and every computer should have it. On my last two Vista machines, the OEM had provided software to use the webcam – Windows itself doesn’t have any. The same is true for previewing files such as PDFs and images. Windows can show images but can’t show PDFs out of the box. Etc. Etc. It sounds petty. And, if you think of it on an item-by-item basis, it is. But together, having all of these utilities just there, out of the box, is brilliant. Productive and intelligent.
My new hipster Mac experience has taught me that Microsoft may be falling behind in more than just the mobile space. While the company has made great strides in server software in the last 10 years, putting itself firmly on the map as an enterprise player similar to IBM or Oracle, it has actually lost ground in both the desktop operating system and mobile phone market. In smart phones, it is reasonable to assume Microsoft may never catch up, after the iPhone. On the desktop, it’s a smaller margin (and one cannot underestimate the immense power of habit; after all, Microsoft controls more than 97% of the desktop operating system market), and maybe Windows 8 will amaze and delight. Somehow, I doubt it, though.
In the meantime, I’ll be a genuinely delighted Mac user. I will try not to gloat when I’m in meetings with people who use PCs and Windows. I wouldn’t have Justin Long’s uncanny ability to seem both superior and like a nice guy all at the same time. At heart, I really think I’m more of a PC. But man, do I love my new Mac.