Vista vs. OS X Leopard

I've had a bit of a wild ride this last week on my quest to find a good computer with 4G (or more) of usable RAM, and a better CPU, primarily for software/web development. (Eclipse + FF + MySQL + everything else is a bit of a hog.)

My first thought was to go with Vista 64-bit running on a quad-core speedy machine. The first machine was very fast, but very big and noisy, so it went back almost immediately. The second machine was a very nicely made Gateway machine running Vista Home Ultimate 64 bit edition. The machine was good enough that I was able to keep it long enough to realize how bad Vista really is.

The key problems with Vista were very poor driver support, very poor application support, and file manager and system preferences that are impossible to navigate and butt ugly. And then the sheer sum of minor niggles was very long - UI elements were moved apparently at random, and most menu bars were removed. Many of my utilities from XP wouldn't run. I spent some time trying to address these issues individually, but in the end I gave up, mainly because I knew it didn't have to be this hard.

It's true that I could have installed Linux (probably Ubuntu) on this machine and been happy. But then I realized how crazy the whole idea of moving to a desktop was (I like to move around too much), and how important usability was, and how there's a little company in Cupertino who makes products for people like me called Apple Computer.

And you know what? I bought one (white MacBook 2.1GHz 1G 120G Penryn, home-upgraded to 4G, 200G 7200RPM). And I'm quite happy so far. The system is pretty and quiet and unobtrusive (very different than most PCs! Even the Thinkpad, by far my favorite PC, has a rather muscular, angular look in comparison). But what is really a breath of fresh air is the OS, OS X Leopard. I've come to understand why we pay people to improve the usability of software products - they earn their money, many times over, both literally and, I would like to think, spiritually. I mean, after all, isn't it nice to create things that leave people feeling happier, or, at the very least, no worse off than when they started using the product?

I think the key ingredient to Apple's success is simply this: they got the drivers right. To have a relatively stable platform to develop for has got to be wonderful. As any web developer knows, it is a sheer delight to write an app that only has to run on a single, modern browser (that isn't IE). I am sure that the same holds true for operating system programmers. One can really optimize the experience when you know approximately what hardware the user has to work with. And this frees programmers and UI people to do what they do best: a strange combination of "thinking outside the box" and obsessing over details that yields beautiful, functional software.

There are several simple things that Apple gets right with OS X. For example, the whole "disk image" thing, or dmg, for installing software is really sweet. The Windows notion of treating zip files as psuedo folders (introduced in XP SP1, I think) is brain dead in comparison. Having a real command line is huge for programmers (and end users benefit too because a happy programmer makes happy programs). I can't tell you how glad I am to get past Cygwin - not that Cygwin itself was bad (it's been too useful for me to call it that), but that terrible terminal and the file system skew drove me batty.

What's really interesting (and wonderful) is the sheer lack of things I have to install. For example, I no longer have to install ctrl2caps because you can remap the caps lock key using built-in and easy to use system preference dialogues. I've not had to install a firewall, anti virus (although I may install that), spyware blocker, or any of those sysinternals utilities designed to help make up for and recover from Window's deficiencies (although I have to add that a process explorer equivalent would go nicely). I don't have to install any "helper" software for multi-display or network setup (e.g. the Thinkvantage utilities that come with the Thinkpad) - the built in stuff works about 10x better anyway.

Then there are the pile of peripherals I don't need to buy or configure. Wifi is built in of course, but so is bluetooth and a webcam - and the last two are far from common on PCs. I won't need a firewire adapter if I get into video. And there are a bunch of utilities I don't need, like CD burning software because the Mac software just works. I don't need to install a better Explorer because Finder works. I may not install Thunderbird because Mail works (well, a lot better than Outlook anyway). I don't need DVD playing software because the Mac utility just works. (And I can't say the same for the Windows equivalents).

That is not to say the Mac is not without it's issues. Some sort of media reader would make a lot of sense (particularly an SD card slot). But more seriously, the way the mouse moves needs to be more adjustable. I'm used to a very linear mouse response curve, and the Mac seems to demand that you use a lot of acceleration - I do hope to find a solution for this as my hand is already aching. It would be nice to have some sort of docking port for the Mac, so that the tangle of cords (well, the power and external monitor cord, anyway) would be both hidden and easy to (re)connect. A second mouse button on the laptop itself would be greatly appreciated. I would like an easier way to move windows around, along the lines of the (sadly buggy) NiftyWindows for Windows. And there are some Windows things, like the excellent Fiddler debugging proxy and SQLyog, that I know I'll have to run in a VM (I hear Parallels is good), if at all.

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