Saturday, March 22, 2014

More on Mac

So, it's been a few weeks since I bought the new Macbook Pro, and I thought I'd put together a few thoughts on how well it is working out for me. Sort of a product review, from my perspective as a long-time Windows and Linux guru.

To begin, let's start with the good:

Performance. It's hard to complain about a new machine, no matter which OS it is running, as long as the hardware is recent and fully functional. If you get a new Windows PC, running on decent hardware, it will be nice and fast. I'm not talking about the cheap pieces of junk that you find at Walmart or other retailers that specialize in low-cost computers. Those might perform alright, or they might not, and it sometimes comes down to pure luck what you get. But if you buy a good quality PC, or build one from good quality parts, then Windows will run just fine on it for quite a while.

It is the same with this Mac: it's running great for now, exactly as expected. Apple may charge a hefty premium for it's systems, but you can't fault them for using crappy hardware. I've mentioned the gorgeous retina display on this laptop before, which doesn't help with performance but sure does make for a nice user experience. But on top of that, Apple was smart enough to include a powerful graphics GPU that can handle the very hi-resolution display, as well as plenty of memory. They top it off with a good quality SSD, and the only moving part in this system is the internal cooling fan. The OS handles battery/power optimization quite nicely, slightly dimming the screen and reducing some CPU cycles when it's on battery, giving me somewhere between 4 and 8 hours of battery life depending on how hard I'm pushing the system.

User Experience. Part of the user experience is, of course, how well the system performs - and in that area, it shines, as I've noted above. But beyond that, I have found that OSX is quite easy to learn. You may claim that I'm a computer geek with many years of experience learning and using multiple operating systems, thus I should have an easy time learning yet another one, and that is somewhat true. Nevertheless, OSX is different enough from Windows and various flavors of Linux (with its many window managers, desktop environments, and tweakable settings) that it was still like learning yet another new OS. And I found it very easy and intuitive to pick up.

In addition to the easy learning curve, I have noticed a few specific items that I particularly like. First, software installations are laughably easy, much more so than a typical Windows installer. For OSX, a typical software install is something like download this file, double-click the icon when it's done, and wait a few seconds (the downloaded file is a disk image, sort of like an ISO file that you get from ripping a CD; double-clicking the file mounts it like an external disk drive). One window will appear with a big icon in it. Double-click that to complete the install, and you're done (this part is what does the actual install). No questions about where to install the program. No questions about whether to do a standard or custom install. Really, no questions at all. It "just works", and I like that.

Second, supported hardware also "just works". I have an old scanner that is supposed to work with OSX as well as Windows, but I had no idea whether it would work with my brand new Mac. I plugged in the USB cable, waited a few seconds, and there it was. It worked perfectly, no need to download or install any drivers, no need for any manual intervention. Talk about "plug and play"!

Third, and back to the OS features, I love-love-love the navigational capabilities of the trackpad! Double-finger and even triple-finger swipes allow me to move quickly between different windows, navigate back and forward through web pages, scroll up and down, navigate around the desktop to launch other applications... there is so much there, and it was so easy to learn, I found myself playing around with different kinds of finger movements just to see what easter eggs I might find. I was laughing out loud at one point with the shear joy of how easy and intuitive it was to learn and use. What's really funny is, I found a few features that the geekwif (as a long-time OSX user) never knew existed, simply because she's less prone to experimentation than I, and therefore never stumbled upon these things until I showed her.

Fourth, Windows games. Wait, did I just say that? And did I actually put it in the positives part of this review? Yes, yes I did.

There are a few different ways to play games on your Mac. First, you can limit yourself to OSX-compatible games. There are really quite a few out there, some of them major titles, although they tend to be quite behind the curve. If you are a hard-core gamer, you will be disappointed by the lack of current games available for OSX.

So what do you do if, like me, you have a small library of Windows games that you want to keep playing? You actually have two options to run Windows-native games on your Mac. The first option is that you can use Boot Camp to install Windows as a second operating system on your hard drive. What this will do is allow you to reboot your Mac and choose whether you want to run OSX or Windows during the boot process. Choose Windows, and it will be exactly the same as running Windows on any other laptop. The operating system is running directly on the hardware, and you will need to download whatever drivers you need to support everything (most of them will be included in Windows anyway). You can then proceed to install whatever software you want, including all your games.

The second Windows gaming option is to install virtual computing software in OSX, and then create a Windows virtual machine. This is the method I chose, and it is really quite easy. But I should point out that if you're not sure what a virtual machine is, you might want to do a little reading.

There are two main competing products for virtualization on OSX, VMware and Parallels. I am a long-time user and fan of VMware, however in my research on OSX, I concluded that Parallels would be a better option for my gaming needs. I downloaded and installed a 14-day demo of Parallels, and then proceeded to create my first virtual machine. That was easy enough, and I then took my legal license of Windows 7 Home Ultimate, 64-bit version, and installed that into the virtual machine. Again, really easy. More details on this will require require a separate product review, so I won't go any further. What I will say is, my Mac is powerful enough to support running the virtual machine and the games that I play, while still allowing me to do other things on a second monitor, such as browsing the web, or playing music (I sometimes turn off the in-game music so I can listen to my own stuff). To summarize, then, Parallels works very well for my gaming needs, and eliminates the requirement for me to reboot into Windows just to play a game. I can remain in OSX, and continue running OSX applications while at the same time running Windows as a virtual machine and playing the games installed there. Really cool stuff.

So okay, I have rambled on a bit here about how much I like my new Mac and the OSX operating system. Are there even any negatives? Yes, a few....

First, Apple really charges a premium for its systems. In my case, I believed at the time (and still do) that the price was worth it. But it can be a difficult decision when you're comparing a $1500 Mac to a similar Windows system (similar hardware that is) for only $1000. For that extra $500, I could have bought a really nice Windows laptop with even better hardware than this Mac (i.e. bigger screen although lower resolution, more memory, bigger SSD drive). So I had to decide whether that $500 premium was worth it to me.

Second, with all of its ease of use a "just works" capability, I have noticed that my Mac doesn't exactly make it easy for me to upgrade hardware at a later date, should I choose to do so. I can upgrade the memory and SSD drive, but it will require a special tool to remove the lower cover of the laptop, and I can see that it will be a bit of a hassle. This is a minor complaint, but it is there nonetheless. If you like to buy a laptop and then tweak the hardware, this one won't be nearly as easy as a typical Windows laptop would be. Also, I have no idea whether I can replace the battery when this one starts to go south. That worries me a little bit. Hey, it appears to be possible after all. Yay!

Those are my only complaints, for now anyway.

Overall, I am still quite happy with my new Macbook Pro. I've enjoyed learning its features, and I have found it so easy to use I would happily recommend it to anyone, if I thought their computing needs and purchasing budget were similar to mine.