[Info] A Journey From Windows to OS X

No more than a few months ago, if you had asked me, I would be adamant that I was using the right desktop OS in the right way. For 20+ years since v3.1, I’ve been a staple Windows user, knowing it’s intricacies, then working under it’s hood at various work roles and embracing it, for better or worse. My view was somewhat closed like many others – it did the job, the alternatives were there but I was comfortable in Windows, like a favourite pair of jeans. I didn’t need to know the complexities of Linux, and Macs were for hippies.

My most recent home laptop wasn’t lacking in grunt, the fastest Sandy Bridge i7 quad-core, a discrete NVidia graphics chip, a fast SSD and boatloads of spare cycles to throw at any task. But it wasn’t immune to the annoyances which, like clockwork, manifested themselves on Windows. I like to keep things neat and running at optimum – cue the registry cleanups (many of them manually), temp file scanning, removing remnants of system libraries and applications past their use, hunting around and updating device drivers, various firmware and BIOS updates, routinely checking startup tasks, investigating rogue processes, the list goes on. One day I took stock – It had become part of my routine, a tedious one and it was wearing my willpower down. I stopped and thought – I had better things to do, this wasn’t what computing should be like in 2012. Torrez sums it up well:

“I have a sub-domain for my weblog. I manage my DNS. I use a personalized domain for email. I have been using the internet for TWENTY years! Like some hipster who has been following a band for years I spent 10 of those years not shutting up about the internet, and then the second 10 years wishing everyone would get off my internet.

But somewhere in between that new iPad, the unserviceable laptop non-story, and that idiotic comment about the new Retina displays something in my brain snapped. I give up. I surrender. The war is over. I can’t care about this stuff anymore. Getting annoyed at the pace of technology is fruitless for me. Being cynical about any new bit of technology that doesn’t fit into my view of how stuff should work has been a dragging anchor in my life.

Let’s rewind a bit, one of the applications I’ve been using for a number of years was a virtualisation software called Workstation from VMWare, a popular program allowing you to run other guest OS’s in a window. I ran Ubuntu Linux, Mint Linux, Windows XP (for compatibility testing), Android x86 4.0, and Mac OS X 10.7, some were necessary for my work, some not so much – if only to learn how they worked. Two things were soon apparent, the first is that OSX is picky about which hardware it gets installed on (it didn’t run that smoothly in a VM) – though there is a community for that. The second and more interesting pattern I noticed, was that I spent a fair bit more time in the OSX VM than Windows itself.

I was puzzled, why did I prefer this over Windows? I took some time and analysed my usage patterns. The vast majority of time I was using my PC, was either in the Chrome browser (where e-mail and messaging lived), reading/writing articles, or watching video. All of these things were platform-independent, they weren’t specifically tied down to Windows. The truth is, these days many of us live in the browser, not particularly often do we need some rare platform-specific application.

I liked the way that OSX handled the same tasks that Windows did. It was cleaner, more logical, more efficient and simply more of a joy to use. There was attention to detail in the things that mattered. When I used the computer at home, I want to switch my brain off, get to whatever I want to do, with the minimum of fuss and be better off at the end of it. I want the machine to improve my productivity, my quality of life, and do it in the best way possible. In other words, an OS with user’s requirements in mind, not engineers.

Then, I installed Windows 8 Release Preview in a VM. It ran well enough, but there were … issues, both practical and philosophical. Suffice to say, I wasn’t thoroughly impressed even after giving myself ample time to settle into it. It was trying to do too much at the same time and be everything to everyone, but in the process losing the simplicity and efficiency of Windows 7. The platform itself created an obstacle, an unnecessary one at that. I really wanted to like Windows 8, it was supposed to improve on the everything that was good in Windows 7, and learn from the disaster that was Vista, but it did neither – it was closing doors instead of opening them. My thoughts on this here. Other’s thoughts here.

A moment of weakness then. Where you have immense hope for a product, only to be shown that your thinking needs to be changed. Doubt rears it’s ugly head and you consider alternatives. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this boat. So back to Mac OS X, why was it ‘better’? I hate ambiguous sweeping generalisations like this, so I ordered my Macbook Air, used it for few weeks and drew my own conclusions as an OS X rookie and Windows defector.

* It’s powerful and customisable – Even though Apple makes both Mac OS and iOS, but the key difference is that iOS is locked down like Alcatraz itself, where OS X is surprisingly powerful. Beyond the glossy exterior, a full set of network and system tools is included. The UNIX terminal allows you unbounded freedom to run commands. Customisable system-wide scripts through the in-built Automator and Applescript tools transform common tedious tasks to be painless. All of the above can be linked to app and system-wide customisable hotkeys (even the default hotkey layout exceeds Window’s shortcuts, if you’re a keyboard nut). The OS can be as simple as you want, or as powerful as you want, you choose. Sure, there’s a learning curve, as with anything, but it’s rock solid.

* It has everything you need – With OS X on new computer sales topping 10% and growing (or more than 30% in the US), and common applications being available on all platforms (like Microsoft Office 2011, Adobe Creative Suite CS6, Google Chrome, etc), the borders are being blurred. You’re not held hostage by the platform you work on, even less so now that many of us do the vast majority of our tasks within the browser itself (on which Chrome runs beautifully). I’ve installed Parallels to run a Windows 7 virtual machine, and it does that well. For maximum performance, dual-booting with Boot Camp is the logical option. Common sense things like PDF viewers, RAW file previews and dictionaries are already there. There’s the app store and no restriction on side-loading apps for the rest.

* It’s productive – Without the platform getting in your face all the time, or taking valuable attention away – the obstacles between you and the results you produce, are greatly reduced. A good tool is one that becomes transparent, not requiring you to become distracted with the nuances of it’s function. It just does the job and it does it well. Functions like Spotlight search (which are more thorough than the Start Menu search), and instantaneous native dictionary/Wikipedia searches add to this. Even third-party applications which have menu bar icons are required to have black/white options, to not be distracting – once again, attention to detail. Common sense applies in more areas with controls and keys. I actually look forward to getting more things done.

* It’s natural – There’s a reason why, like many others, I instinctively plug in a USB mouse when using a PC laptop. It offers more precision and easier button presses than the built-in trackpad, and for most people the number one input tool is the cursor. It’s been a habit for the many laptops that I’ve owned. But in using the Macbook, I’ve begun to appreciate the thought that went into the trackpad’s usage. It’s more sensitive, it’s far more accurate, creepily telepathic and it allows more fluidity than any PC trackpad or track point I’ve used. Triggering it accidentally while typing, a common occurrence on PC’s, is non-existent. The multi-finger gestures – going back a page, drag and drops, scrolling through large passages of text, easy workspace switching, are a joy to use – saving countless time and keyboard/button presses. It sounds simple, but if you’ve ever used a Synaptics or Elan trackpad on many other laptops, no matter how much you tweak the in-built deluge of options, it’s still horrendously frustrating to get these tasks done. Once again, the tools getting in the way of productivity. The Verge’s review of the 2012 Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook (which costs MORE than an equivalent Air) speaks to this:

“Elan’s software simply can’t keep up. Pinch to zoom isn’t detected well, and there’s an extremely noticeable delay before it takes effect. Inertial scrolling is ugly: If you swipe up quickly with two fingers in a webpage or document, it simply stutters along a few lines at a time like it’s spasming. There’s also a single finger drag-and-drop function which is on by default, and you might want to turn it off. I found that it liked to grab my browser tabs any time I put the cursor near them, and wouldn’t let go until I asked nicely. Last but not least, when I bogged down the machine by launching a hefty program or loading a dozen browser tabs at once, I noticed that the entire touchpad stopped responding reliably to input until the load on the processor ceased. I don’t know why this is, but Samsung and Elan still have a short ways to go to reach parity with Apple’s excellent trackpad.”

* It’s aesthetically pleasing – For somebody that preferred the ‘classic’ 95-style desktop in Windows because of it’s no-fuss nature, and even adding in monospace fonts in the UI, you’d think that I didn’t really care about the looks. But OS X has an understated appearance, there’s nothing obnoxious about the default layout, no rainbow-coloured eye-searing buffet of animated tiles, or colourful buttons everywhere with seemingly random shapes. It all blends in and doesn’t get in the way of you focusing to get your tasks done. It’s there and it’s unobtrusive, and even third-party apps attempt to carry these design standards across. The majority of applications don’t look like they just came out of the debugger.

* The fonts – The font rendering is also something to mention, no matter how hard I tried in Windows, with ClearType tuning, with custom CSS sheets on webpages, to me the fonts still looked bad – jagged and bleeding colours – they were too sharp. The screenshots (or Jeff Atwood’s article) will explain it better, and it’s somewhat subjective, but if there’s one thing we all do, it’s read a large amount of text every day everywhere – a well rendered font can make all the difference. The font management system is also miles ahead, as with the colour calibration. When was the last time you really looked forward to reading on your computer? To some, it’s subconscious, but ask any graphic designer just how absolutely crucial fonts are to efficiency of communication, and affecting our perceptions.

A sample of serif text on a Windows 7 machine. Click to enlarge.

A sample of serif text on a Mac OS X machine. Click to enlarge.

* It’s smoother – There’s two factors at work here. First, that Apple controls the vertical – the software knows exactly what the hardware is, it’s thoroughly optimised, and things run very smoothly. Even the included PDF reader is silky, 1080p videos run smoother, and with lower battery consumption. The second factor is some third-party apps, especially ones that I use, like Adobe Creative Suite, appear to be more optimised and responsive. Operations which on my technically more powerful PC laptop, took longer. GPU acceleration is supported more widely. I haven’t been left wanting more performance, even on this low-end Macbook, which boots in around 15 seconds from cold.

* Applications – Along with an official OS X App Store, there’s an increasingly large variety of applications available. Compare the fairly solid in-built Mail and Calendar offerings, with Apple’s own iLife suite (iPhoto, Garageband and iMovie), with Microsoft’s lacklustre selection of Windows Mail, Windows Movie Maker and Live Photo Editor (some of which are additional downloads). I’ve also found no issues running Office 2011 under OS X. Everything else, like Firefox, Dropbox, TrueCrypt, Thunderbird, all have OS X versions. Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3, as well as a bunch more current big-name game titles are there. You can also drag and drop the application into the trash when you’re done and it’s uninstalled. No sneaky Installshield system hooks. The irony is the only application I’ve installed that did install a whole bunch of unwanted applications along with it, was Office 2011 (such as Communicator, MSN Messenger, Remote Desktop, etc).

* The hardware – If you’re after the most powerful hardware for the cheapest price, then there’s no going past a PC laptop or desktop. But as standalone desktop machine sales continue to drop off, more people are doing their computing on tablets or ultra-portables. In the Ultrabook vs Macbook Air market, even when looking at these machines as commodities, purely a sum of their parts, the Airs are competitive on price, often even cheaper than comparable Ultrabooks. This is before considering all of the above points, and also considering that not one Ultrabook on the market puts all the pieces together well. I’ve tried using multitudes of them, from Asus, HP, Dell and Samsung, and though they have come a long way, they all were still missing one or more factors, like an accurate touchpad, a comfortable keyboard, battery life / portability, the list goes on. There isn’t a ‘complete package’ out there at the moment as good as the Air, which does everything right. It truly is the best computer I’ve ever purchased, hands down. Use one for an extended time and you’ll come to appreciate it more.

* Does it suit you? – Ultimately, the only criteria you should be considering is how the tool you use adds to YOUR quality of life. If it provides you productivity benefits over a longer period of time, if it saves you hassle and frustration, while letting you achieve your tasks faster, better and more enjoyably than before, then it allows you to spend more time on the more important things in life. Every bit helps in your pursuit of your goals, your passions, your relationships. Is this value that you get, worth the money that you pay? These are all things which don’t show up on the spec sheet at the shop. Sure, I still despise Apple’s walled garden approach, particularly in regard to iOS, but for the desktop, Mac OS X is a different beast, for now.

With luck, outlining my thought process and rational impressions through this transition might have assisted you in some way or at least opened up one possibility. Even for somebody as stubbornly loyal to Windows as me, the difference was clear after that initial learning hurdle. It’s highly unlikely that OS X will gain anything more than a minority share in the foreseeable future, but I’m now getting more done in less time and have no plans to return to Windows for my primary PC, not unless something drastic occurs. If you’ve had a similar experience or you think I’m full of it, feel free to leave a comment.

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