…or, “My Mac Conversion”
As I had posted previously, my good friend Bob gave me his old Apple Powerbook G4 12″ back in January. I had wanted a Mac for years, but was a dedicated Windows user (I also ran both Red Hat and Ubuntu Linux, but they were secondary machines). Windows had everything I wanted – games for entertainment, MS Office for “real work”, Firefox for web browsing, iTunes and WinAmp for music, VLC for video, etc. I was an Apple user from 1982-1986, but Windows/DOS was my primary platform since 1986. I had switched to PCs as a junior in college, mostly because I needed to use Turbo Pascal, which ran well under DOS (I ran it under CP/M on an Apple II before then). After 21 years, I was very comfortable using the command line, writing applications, upgrading hardware, and troubleshooting problems.
The problem is that “troubleshooting problems” became more and more prevalent. Something always seems to go wrong with Windows-based systems. Windows 98 was most certainly the low point for me personally (I thankfully skipped Windows ME) and Windows XP was fairly stable, but there was always some problem that needed to be addressed. Adding new hardware was sometimes a scary endeavor, especially when a new version of Windows was released. The Windows Vista release is a primary example of this, where hardware that was rock-solid in reliability under Windows XP or 2000 is now either not supported or broken by alpha quality drivers.
All the time I was blissfully using/troubleshooting Windows, I noticed that my friends who were self confessed “Mac heads” had an almost religious devotion to their platform. While I would complain and gripe about Windows, they would praise the Mac. They each had several Macs, and would make pilgrimages to the Apple Store. My brother Jamie, a graphic designer, had been a Mac user for years and never had anything bad to say about it. This was particularly true when OS X was released. Their eyes would gloss over when they spoke of ease of use and stability. I was intrigued.
So, when Bob offered to give me his old Powerbook, I thought what the heck, I can play around with it and see what everyone is so thrilled with.
Getting around the UI was very easy. The single toolbar metaphor hadn’t changed much since 1992 when I had a Mac Quadra 950 at work for multimedia software development. The dock was nice, and easier to navigate than Window’s “Start” button. Office X, which Bob had preinstalled for me, was OK, but different enough from Window’s Office 2003 that I had a bit of a learning curve. The first thing that I fell in love with on the Mac was the terminal. As I had mentioned, I had been a Linux user for years, and before that I primarily did software development under Unix and Sun’s Solaris OS. Having direct access to the bash shell on OS X was fantastic. I could do in one line of piped commands things that were impossible using multiple UIs. While I could fake this in Windows by using Cygwin, this wasn’t smoke and mirrors – the terminal gave you a real portal to access the underlying OS.
Replacing my Windows Apps
Finding replacements for my favorite Windows applications was fairly simple. There are many good Mac websites that offer recommendations for free and commercial Mac applications (my favorites include MacApper, Cool OS X Apps, Lifehacker, and Download Squad).
Office was easy – I had Office X installed and subsequently upgraded to the much better MS Office 2004. Free alternatives include NeoOffice, and Open Office (which is still in beta as it is being ported to use Apple’s Cocoa UI library)
Again, a no brainer. The Mac version of Firefox is available for download from Mozilla’s servers. It hasn’t been ported to use Cocoa, and can use a bit too much CPU and memory (then again, it did the same under Windows), but it works well. I can’t live without Ad Block Plus and del.icio.us.
Obviously available from Apple’s web site. I haven’t looked for alternatives, as it does everything I want.
I have been a Google Picasa user for several years now and swear by it. It’s an excellent image file management application, and has some of the best and easiest to use image editing tools. The Mac’s pre-bundled iPhoto application mostly does the trick. It lacks some of the image manipulation functionality of Picasa (especially red eye removal, which is fantastic in Picasa), so I’m not 100% sold. For now I’ll continue to do most of my image file management under Windows.
On the positive side, iPhoto’s book publishing service is excellent. I created a picture book for my wife for our last anniversary and not only was the software easy to use, but the printed book was beautiful. The images were crisp, and the cloth cover and binding were very professional looking. A+.
VLC also available for the Mac, but I haven’t tried it yet. Quicktime does the trick so far, but I may need to find something more robust. DiVX is available for download and works well. One roadblock I hit was support for Windows Media embedded in web pages. The Firefox developers no longer support Microsoft’s plugin for the Mac, as it is buggy and no longer maintained. Instead, they recommend Flip4Mac’s free WMV plugin. It seems to work well so far – much better than Microsoft’s plugin.
Ah, here’s my biggest failure so far. I love EverNote, and happily paid for its unsurpassed capabilities. EverNote plugs in just about everywhere – your browser, email client, etc. You can cut and paste into it, send it data via a drop folder, you name it. The data is stored in one long “infinite” note. There’s nothing even close to it for the Mac. EverNote developers – please please please create a Mac version! Until then, I am using Yojimbo from Bare Bones Software and Journler to keep track of both lists, notes, and random stuff.
I have been a Trillian user for years. It’s an excellent multi-protocol instant messenger client. This application was easily replaced by Adium, a free IM client for the Mac. So far it’s working flawlessly with AIM, Yahoo!, and Jabber.
I use KeePass to securely store my passwords, credit card info, web site login info, etc. Since it is open source and popular, it has been ported to OS X (as well as many other OSs).
After talking to other Mac users and reading all of the popular Mac web sites, I have discovered several other notable applications – several of which have no good counterparts in the Windows world.
The most notable of these applications is QuickSilver. I don’t say this lightly – QuickSilver may very well be the most powerful, well designed, and mind bogglingly useful application I have ever used, on any platform. At its simplest it is a program launcher. Hit ctrl-spacebar, start typing the name of an installed application and hit enter. You can launch an application in under second.
It can also send data and control to applications. Want to quickly create a text file? Type ctrl-space, press “.” to enter the contents of the file, tab, type “Create File”, press enter and then enter the filename. It’s easier than it sounds. 🙂
Want to do some math? Press ctrl-space to launch QuickSilver, press the “=” key, type in the equation (e.g. “sqrt(2) * 3”) and press enter.
QuickSilver can also control your Mac (e.g. shutdown, change volume, etc), send email, do web searches – you name it. There are dozens of plugins available.
I have been (mostly) using David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity technique for a few years now and have had a good amount of success. One of my main problems implementing GTD was finding good software to support it. I initially purchased Allen’s Outlook plugin and thought it was lacking (as is just about any Outlook plugin). Over time I tried 2-3 other Windows-based GTD applications with limited success. They all lacked one or more features, or worse, had features that were so poorly designed that they made the application unusable.
After doing some research on 43 Folders (a Mac-oriented GTD web site), I decided to try out iGTD, a free application written by Bartlomiej Bargiel. I was sold the minute I started using it. Not only did it do everything I needed, but it also integrates well with QuickSilver. I can add a new task to iGTD from anywhere – just launch hit ctrl-space, type in the task (e.g. “Reformat my PC’s hard drive”) and select the “Put into iGTD Inbox” action. You can also send tasks to yourself via email, and as long as you format the contents properly, iGTD will detect it when the email arrives. Good stuff.