My switch to Mac: a developer's perspective on Mac OS X

December 4, 2007

So my intentions for this blog post are not to gloat about how 'uber cool' Mac's OS X is, or why everyone on PC should switch. We've seen far too many people do just that, so instead, I'll focus on my thoughts over the past couple months, during which I've completely migrated from Windows XP to OS X.

Whenever you search for 'reasons to switch to mac', you'll see lots of blog posts and articles written boasting about Mac hardware's sleek lines, and OS X's sleek UI (read: fanboys). While both of these are true and accurate observations (uhh?), they are not in themselves underlying reasons to switch platforms.

First things first. I'm what you would call a 'stubborn user of software', in that I don't embrace change unless there are clear reasons to do so and substantial productivity benefits resulting from the switch (complete opposite of my good friend Jon). So why then, after nearly 10 years of Windows use, did I switch to Mac?

Usability

Bottom line: Using OS X is just plain easier and more graceful than using Windows XP. If you're a keyboard shortcut nazi like myself, you'll be happy to know that OS X is almost exclusively focused on keyboard-centric navigation and workflow. For example, I can open any site I'd like with three keystrokes + the actual domain. Actually, scratch that, if I've been to the site before, it should only take me about 4 or 5 keystrokes. Second that for sending email, opening an IM conversation, opening any file on the computer, any application on the computer, or even any system preference 'pane'. You figure out how to do that on XP (quickly and efficiently) and let me know.

Screen organization on OS X is ultimately more refined than XP. 'Expose' allows me to spread out all of my windows and pick and choose, rather than just ctrl+tab through 40 open windows (though you could if you'd like). Spaces let's me see all of my multiple desktops (currently 4) at a glance, and I find the 'show desktop' feature much more intuitive than XP's.

Unix

Prior to my decision to finally switch to Mac, I had toyed with the idea of Ubuntu, fairly seriously. I fell in love with the terminal. For many, 'terminal' simply means nothing more to them than 'computer', as you can perform any action, and more, via command line. I got my start using command line when I moved everything under the sun into Subversion repositories for version control of my life. I've since wondered how I ever went about my business without Subversion, but that's another blog post.

So anyways - with Unix under the hood - I've got some great tools natively supported in OS X, like SSH for secure terminal connections to servers, SCP for safely copying files to and from machines, Fink for virtually any supported Unix / Linux based applications, and general day-to-day process improvements. Many times, I find it easier to manage files and folders via terminal rather than OS X's fairly quirky 'Finder'.

User Interface

When I ran XP, I had been stuck on one theme for nearly 5 years. I never thought much of it, and never really changed the theme around. I came to realize, after reading Andy Rutledge's article on Quiet Structure, that my choice of XP theme attempted to accomplish just that.

Prior to switching to Mac I began wondering what 'themeing' possibilities there were with Mac, which it turns out there are slim to none. I took some advice from a fellow XP -> OS X convert that I should just give OS X's default theme a whirl. After a few days, I realized the default theme did exactly what it was supposed to do: provide the framework for more productivity. For me, it's certainly an example of 'Quiet Structure', and I find myself thinking more about what I'm doing, and less about the visual aesthetics of the platform itself. This is a major plus for design related work.

Updates

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but when was the last time anyone really got excited about a Windows Update? I'm not really confident I could answer that, personally. From my first few weeks of using OS X, I find updates much more informative and interesting than XP's. That's probably because 90% of XP's updates were security related. While security related updates on XP are a necessary evil, not receiving so many with OS X is a nice change.

Unification

Virtualization is probably the main reason I switched. Well, it's probably the only way I could have successfully made the switch in the first place, from a process standpoint. Software like VMWare or Parallels takes the edge off of switching, allowing you to say 'well, I can always run that app under VMWare or Parallels'.

Before I switched, I had a list of software I needed to either duplicate or setup in VMWare (I'm a VMWare Fusionuser, myself). Over time, I slowly began dumping my old XP apps in leiu of equivalent (and much more elegant) OS X software. My only beef is a good text editor. There are lots of options, none of which fulfill all of my needs or desires, but for now, I'm a loyal Coda guy. Again, that's another blog post.

Quality Software

Pete Karl made an interesting point regarding third-party software out there in the intertubes. He mentioned that you'll see alot more 'high quality or bust' software. Essentially, the number of software developers for OS X is much lower than that of Windows, so you'll tend to find that software is either well written and devoid of 'malware', or it just won't exist at all.

Some of my favorites thus far:

Other Neat Features

Music sharing in OS X is ultimately more streamlined and integrated with iTunes. Well, iTunes just runs much better on OS X in general.

The 'Preview' app is a breath of fresh air. Coming from a world of specific applications for every filetype, it's quite convenient to have a built-in app that'll give you a quick 'preview' of the file. Especially nice for PDF's and PSD's, without having to open up the monster apps themselves.

According to a friend, it's been said that a Mac is incomplete without Quicksilver. Think of it as a direct path to your destination. Ctrl+Space, type what you want, and 'enter'. Works for nearly everything on your computer - files, folders, applications, network drives, system preferences, etc.

Spotlight is also a great feature. While desktop search is certainly a necessary feature, Apple seems to have done a much nicer and more efficient job than XP could ever have dreamt of.

OS X's built in Disk Utility allows you to quickly burn disk images on the fly, without the use of third party software. I'm not 100% positive XP couldn't do this, but I certainly never found that feature.

Apple's Migration Assistant works quite amazingly when switching to another Mac. I'll explain later, but I've used the migration assistant 4 times now, flawlessly. It essentally 'carbon copies' your mac to another. Brilliant.

Printer detection in OS X is genius. Simply find the printer, and add it. In most cases (all in my experience), OS X will transparently find and install the drivers for you. Not so much for XP, nope.

And now the bad part... hardware

Well, I've said quite a bit about my wonderful (software / OS) transition to OS X, and it surely has been a delight. But now I must share with you my experience over the past month or so regarding Apple hardware.

I purchased a Mac Pro with 5GB RAM, hooked it up to two 23" Cinema's for my main workstation at work (GateHouse Media). Worked great out of the box, no issues whatsoever. I'll come back to this.

A few weeks later, I purchased a MacBook Pro for my personal use. I got it from the Apple store online, and it shipped a few days later. Upon inspecting the laptop, I noticed one single pixel 'stuck' on red. Fail. Since I was in my 30-day grace period, I called Apple up and they were happy to issue me an RMA.

I proceeded to ship the laptop back, and since I couldn't wait for another, I went to an Apple Retail store and purchased another one (in anticipation of my refund from the first defective laptop). I inspected the laptop before I purchased it this time, and all looked well. I used the laptop for a few days, and began to notice a whacky 'flicker' in the screen. It was as if the screen was very quickly flickering from a slightly dimmer setting and back to the original brightness, all within just a few milliseconds.

So, naturally, I returned the second laptop, and they (unexpectedly) just gave me a new MBP for my troubles (it was only a few days after I purchased it, anyways).

Finally, the third laptop had worked as expected, for a little while. Only recently I noticed the intermittent 'blackout' of my keyboard functionality. Every once in while, the integrated keyboard on the laptop will cease functioning, and will remain 'dead' for about 10-30 seconds. This happens probably once every 1-2 minutes, until I restart the laptop. Upon restarting, the problem usually goes away for a few days. It rears it's ugly head every now and again. A quick glance at the Apple forums reveals that this is a fairly common problem, and that there is no fix. Please fix. Thanks.

So the laptop is functioning at 95% (keyboard issue is... eh).

Finally, last week, my Mac Pro (see above) decided to take a dive. I was working normally, and applications began getting a tad buggy, sluggish, and downright unreliable. iTunes lost my library, no idea where it went. So I restarted... kernel panic. I took it to the Apple store - hard drive had failed, and data was not recoverable. Thank you Subversion (see above).

Long story (not cut short), the Mac Pro is back, with a fully functioning hard drive (for now).

Oh, life.

And that concludes my ramblings. Thanks for listening, have a nice day.