Pavlos (pavlos) wrote,

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Intel outside, Microsoft away today

As you may recall, I wanted a portable computer of my own (not from work) to carry around in coffee shops and airports and write stuff on it. So, after some deliberation, I went out and bought a portable Mac (PowerBook G4 12''). If you are interested, you can read my review of it below. Be warned, though: I am an unreformed geek. I've been using computers since 1982, and programming since 1983. I've used BASIC computers, PCs, Unix mainframes, and old Macs, which tended to display a cartoon bomb whenever I got near them. So, here's what I think of the new machine...

I am absolutely delighted with it! Here's why:

  • It just works. No, really! It doesn't sort of work, or work except for some device, or work after you've changed all the options round, or work in a sort of patronising and annoying way. It just works. When connected to a network, it works. When you close the lid, it sleeps, and when you open it, it works. The built-in software works. Software installation and update works. And when it first wakes up it knows what time it is.
  • It is physically nice. The machine is pleasant to touch and look at. It's small, and smooth, with rounded edges. It's made of metal, and gets nicely warm, but there are no fans. It is silent. There are no protruding latches, no flashing lights, no distracting logos or case colours. The caps lock light is on the caps lock key! There is no num lock or similar stupidity. All the sockets where you might plug cables are together on one side, rather than randomly spread around the case. It's lightweight and seems durable enough to carry around. The screen bends back far enough, so you can read it at various table heights. It has good balance when you rest it on your lap. And it has a glowing apple on the back.
  • The software is nice. Windows and buttons are pleasantly coloured. Text is smooth, and in attractive fonts. Text is usually the right size, and you can easily change the size to suit you. Transition effects are attractive and helpful (they show you where a window's gone, or what a question dialog relates to) rather than just annoying demonstrations that it can do transition effects. Colour is used sparingly, to draw your eye to certain buttons or controls. Folders are not bright yellow! Text selections are a nice pastel blue. It comes with attractive screen savers and full-size, brand-free, full colour desktop backgrounds. Icons look pretty at all sizes, and bounce playfully when they have something to tell you. Even progress bars and spinners are attractive.
  • It is infused with purpose. It acts like a personal computer, for a person, as opposed to a noncommittal container of brand-name software. When you first turn it on it asks you who you are and where you live. It stores addresses and a calendar for you, in the way that a computer ought to do but a PC doesn't. It syncs them with your PalmOS device, only it has good address and calendar apps, so you don't have to use the ugly Palm Desktop or Outlook. It has a good mail program. It plays music media and internet radio. It plays movies and can keep your digital pictures. It stores passwords. It offers to back up your personal data. It syncs with your phone. It offers to encrypt your files. It is actually designed with a sense of what a person might want a personal computer for.
  • The whole user interface is ergonomically designed. Windows open in the right place, and the contents are displayed the right way. Keyboard focus, mouse actions, shortcuts, and scollbars, do the right thing. Although the screen is relatively small, that's not a problem. You can keep programs open, but out of your way. The Mac "single menu bar" approach works. You can find anything quickly, at obvious places. Instead of having confusing "Cancel, Apply, OK" buttons, most settings are simply applied. Immediately. With Windows, you start out with terrible usability but you can get round it by right-button dragging very precisely on tiny areas of the screen. The Mac, on the other hand, is designed to be usable with a few clumsy clicks.
  • The system speaks to the user sensibly, informatively, and not in a patronising way. For example it says "You cannot eject the CD while it is being used to import songs", or "The AirPort is active but it's not connected to any network". If you block everything with the firewall, iTunes says "Other users will not be able to see your shared music because port 3689 is blocked by your firewall". How often does Windows get to use the word "because"? You can attract the system's attention by clicking on the Apple icon at any time. There are just as many UI preferences as in Windows PCs, only they let you choose between sensible behaviours.
  • It's Unix for the desktop. The ethernet interface is called en0, and the wireless one is called en1. Software packages come as gzipped disk images, which you mount as virtual disks to run the install script. My documents sensibly live in /Users/pavlos/Documents, and my desktop is /Users/pavlos/Desktop. Why is it not like that in Windows? At some point I couldn't see some obvious way to create a shortcut so that Documents appeared on the desktop. I opened the help browser and asked for "Unix shell". The help helpfully said that the system has a variety of Unix shells, that the default is Bash, and would I like it to open one for me. Yes please. I typed the obvious "ln -s ../Documents Documents", double-clicked on the desktop, and a Documents folder icon with a little shortcut decoration appeared! Like Gnome, only it works. And tab completion works too.
  • The system has a healthy attitude to security and passwords. When you might expect to need the root password on a Unix system, for example to install software, the Mac does indeed ask you to type your password. You can then click a "lock" icon to secure the system down again. The system comes with the ability to encrypt your home folder with 128-bit AES; the option to enable this tells you clearly what disk encryption involves, including the fact that nobody could recover the data for you if you forget the master password. And there is a "Secure empty trash" action clearly visible on the system menu.
  • It has a proper FireWire port that's the right size for human hands, and can actually charge an iPod or power a hard drive. Unlike USB ports, you can also see which way the plug fits without fumbling with it (what were the USB designers thinking?). When you plug in an ordinary analog monitor, the Mac immediately extends the desktop to cover both the LCD and the monitor, using a high refresh rate, without asking any questions. If you drag the display preferences dialog from one monitor to the other, it changes to display the monitor's capabilities! If you set the two monitors to different resolutions, it still works. The AirPort (WiFi) card is internal, with an antenna built into the case. Somehow, even though I can see no speaker grille, it manages to play clear, loud, music. And apparently there's a microphone built in somewhere.
  • Although it only has a 1GHz CPU, it's never unresponsive, and you never see the disembodied window frames that appear in Windows when an application is too slow to render the contents. Everything, apart from one Java-based office application of questionable quality, has perfectly good performance. It runs SimCity 4, keeps several document windows open indefinitely, plays DVDs perfectly happily (and with a pleasant user interface), and imports CDs to mp3 (320kbps, VBR, HQ) at 5x to 8x speed. Motorola actually knew how to design DSPs before they designed the Velocity Engine (SIMD instructions like MMX/SSE, only good ones).
  • It has a decent battery life of around four hours. The power socket glows amber while charging and green when fully charged. When you unplug the power, it says it will last four hours, and then it lasts four hours. This includes actually using the computer and the wireless network, not simply looking at the screen. You can send the computer to sleep just by closing the lid, without having to choose between the bizzarre Windows distinctions of "standby" and "hibernate". When the battery is low, the "juice" becomes discreetly red. When it is nearly exhausted, a dialog comes up, once, and says "You are now running on reserve power and should connect the AC adapter. If you don't, the system will go to sleep in a few minutes to preserve the contents of memory" (and it does that). Compare that with the charming Windows message "You must switch to mains power immediately or risk losing your work!" (and you do).
  • It has two good, fast, web browsers, with tabs, popup blocking, font overrides, google search, privacy management, and high-quality standards-compliant rendering. Flash comes installed. And apparently there's even a legacy browser called Internet Explorer installed on the system somewhere, should you need it for compatibility with some old web site. When you open iTunes, it asks, once, whether you'd like to go to your music library or to the digital music store. By contrast, every time you start the Windows Media Player it tries to open some MSN site that looks like ESPN and suggests you consume Britney Spears or other junk culture.

So I'm really pleased. There are a few things that are not 100% ideal with it. Here they are:

  • The Apple Mail program, like Outlook or Evolution, aggregates all your mailboxes to a unified view. This is the right behaviour if, like most people, you've come to possess several email addresses but really you think of them as one. In my case I carefully created separate email addresses for friends, work, business interactions, etc. so I prefer to see them separate, the way Mozilla or Thunderbird does it. I should try Camino.
  • Microsoft Office is available, but costs around £300. One alternative, Think Free Office is sort of OK, but it's written in Java and it's slow (it's usable if you install the Java software update). Appleworks I did not try, but it has a so-so reputation, both for compatibility with MS Office and for conforming to the Mac application UI guidelines (even though it comes with an Apple brand). You can run OpenOffice, but only under X11, with its usual clunky UI.
  • The keyboard has a slight "ring" (double characters) if you hit the keys quickly and lightly.

The machine was rather pricey, at £1500. Having seen the result, I would gladly give Apple more money.



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