Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Switching to the MacBook

I’m not a new comer to the Mac. I’ve been using an oldish PowerBook G4 for the last 2 odd years. But just switching from that PowerBook to the new MacBook has been so fascinating that I’ve been wondering why didn’t I get the MacBook any earlier. I’ve been doing new things with the MacBook that I’ve never tried before with the older PowerBook, and along the way I’m discovering how many more cool things that I’ve been missing out previously. Even simple things like email using Mac OS X’s Mail application has made the mundane daily routine more productive and interesting.

I like to keep open mind and explore many different options. Even though I liked my old PowerBook, when it came time to consider getting a new notebook, I did not want to assume it will be a Mac, or to rule out other kinds of notebooks. (I hesitate to refer to the “other” category as “Windows notebook”, because clearly with those other notebooks, I would still give myself the option to install Linux. Yes I know the MacBook does run Windows too, and other x86 operating systems of course, but why would I buy a MacBook to run Windows…)

So as I was evaluating various notebook options, the question of the OS (along with apps) came up. The OS is important. It is part of the total picture. The notebook hardware is not very useful without something to run on it. What are the options with the “other” category of notebooks? There are basically two choices:

  1. Run Windows. Either Windows XP or Windows Vista.
  2. Run Linux, something like Fedora or Ubuntu.

Let’s talk about Linux first. I’m not a Linux newbie. In fact, I’ve been playing with Linux since the era of Yggdrasil, which I’m pretty sure most people nowadays have not heard of. That was the time when the Linux kernel wasn’t even at version 1.0. I think Linux is great on servers, and I do run many Linux servers, but personally I feel Linux is still just not quite there yet for desktop or notebook uses. Fedora or Ubuntu will probably “work out of the box”, but that’s only if you subsequently don’t do much with the box. There are many times on my notebook that I like to be just a plain simple end-user and have everything just work, and have everything just work with each other. Yes, everything just working is not enough, they have to all work with each other. I’m talking about hardware interoperability, application integration, network accessibility, breathe the Internet, and live the Web.

Windows XP isn’t all that bad actually. Every hardware manufacturer tries to ensure compatibility with Windows XP. Many probably also try to do so for Windows Vista, but perhaps they still haven’t got up to speed yet. If you decide to use Microsoft Office, well you have application integration between Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. However, at the same time there are also so many other compelling alternatives. Sometimes, the only solutions come from someone other than Microsoft, and that’s where we start to find things falling apart. It doesn’t seem so bad if you’ve not seen greener pastures.

Still, Windows isn’t all that bad, really, if you are willing to put up with compromises. The trouble is that after a while, I’ve gotten tired of compromises.

One thing that many techies tend to forget is that the computer should work. I am a techie too. Once upon a time, it was fun to install Linux, it was fun to figure out how to get Linux to hibernate on my Thinkpad X21. Sometimes, it seems for techies that it is more fun for the computer to not work, because then there would be something to fix.

I grew up and started to work. I am still a techie, and I still like to tinker with things. But, at the same time, I would like my computer to work as it should. It is like my phone. The purpose of the phone is to let me make phone calls (or send SMS messages, or whatever). It is nice to be able to install 3rd party applications, or write my own applications, or do a whole bunch of extra things that other people’s phones don’t do. But, the phone has to be able to make phone calls. How useful is a phone that doesn’t make phone calls?

I have to mention phones, because I had a frustrating HP iPAQ previously. Yes, a Windows Mobile phone. When there was a incoming call, the iPAQ would sometimes freeze up momentarily, just like Windows on the PC sometimes does, and by the time it registers the fact that I’ve been hitting the Answer key, the caller had hung up. Another silly thing that often happens is with the connection to my bluetooth headset. When my headset goes out of range, the phone often doesn’t know. When I answer an incoming call, the iPAQ sends audio to the non-existent headset, and by the time the iPAQ realizes the headset is not around anymore, the caller has again hung up. The iPAQ was cool because it had PDA features, WLAN and a camera. It would have been cooler had the phone worked.

So if not Linux and not Windows, I’m pretty left with only one option: Mac OS X. Thank goodness, actually, because then it makes hardware selection so much easier. Only the MacBook, MacBook Pro, or the cool new MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro was too big for me, and expensive too, so that narrows down the selection to just the MacBook and MacBook Air.

It turns out just choosing between these two, the MacBook and MacBook Air, was difficult enough. The MacBook Air is cool. The MacBook Air may have limited ports for external connectivity, but in reality, I rarely have any wires connected to my existing PowerBook G4 anyway except for the power cord. The lack of optical drive wasn’t a biggie either, since again, I rarely have any CDROM or DVD media loaded in my notebook. The LED backlighting for the MacBook Air display is nice. But the MacBook is about S$1K cheaper, offers more ports (I appreciate the FireWire 400 port for connecting to my DV camcorder), has built-in optical drive, significantly more power CPU (up to 2.4GHz after the 26 February refresh), and well, it was S$1K cheaper. In the end, I decided to go for the MacBook white 2.4GHz version.

Subsequently, there was the matter of the rumoured update to the MacBooks. MacRumors‘s buyer’s guide listed the MacBook as a “buy” because of the recent 26 February refresh. The average product refresh cycle for the MacBook is 192 days, so a new fresh is not expected any time soon. However, some sources have said that the 26 February refresh came about because Intel was aggressively phasing out the older 65nm Merom CPU chips, forcing Apple to update to the newer 45nm Penryn CPU chips. As a result the next MacBook refresh may in fact come sooner than the usual 192 days. (Remember I said I was a techie… that’s why these stuffs about chips catch my attention.)

Guess what, if you keep waiting for a better spec hardware, or better price, you’re never going to buy anything. The hardware will always get better. The price will always drop lower. Let’s not wait any longer. Particularly since nothing is firm, just speculations and rumours.

So, I went ahead to order my first original Apple hardware. Yeah, I didn’t buy the PowerBook G4. Twenty over years ago, I had a compatible Apple ][+ (I think it was called “Orange”). I haven’t actually bought any original Apple product previously.

Sadly, Apple wasn’t as good as I thought them to be.  I had to order a second MacBook because the first had some trackpad quality issues. What a bad way to start my first business relationship with the real Apple.

The new MacBook has been great. As I started out saying, I just regret not having moved on to the MacBook any earlier. The Mail application was surprisingly nice to use. I had expected to use Thunderbird at the outset, as I did on my PowerBook G4, but it turns out that the Mail app does a pretty decent job too. Then, there’s all the fun with integration with iCal. iCal in turn, via iSync, worked will with my Nokia N95 8GB. The N95 8GB worked with the MacBook to provide the latter with Internet access via 3.5G. Photos from the phone synced, via Nokia Multimedia Transfer, straight into iPhoto (and music into iTunes). The Safari web browser is pretty cool too. It’ll probably take forever to go into the details of the various niceties of Mac OS X, and I shan’t try to begin here.

I think the key point here is that I want integration. It is not enough for things to work. They need to work with other things, and they need to work beautifully.

Admittedly there are some things on Mac OS X that is still not quite so intuitive. Joining the wireless 802.1x PEAP network in my workplace is not so straight-forward. Perhaps that’s just how 802.1x is. It isn’t so intuitive on Windows XP either (I don’t know about Vista). Adding a network printer in a Windows domain is even more tricky. How will anyone figure out to right-click on the a certain tool bar to add a new too bar icon, so that Advanced printer items become available? (It was just as bad in Tiger, where you had to press Option while clicking on the + button to add printer.) They’ve got to fix these silliness.

All in all, the MacBook is simply a joy to use. I’m so happy that I’m not putting up with Windows, and it is a really wonderful upgrade from my old PowerBook G4 running Tiger.


1 thought on “Switching to the MacBook

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