Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Using a Mac in NUS

Another oft asked question is about using a Mac in school. Specifically, in NUS, since that’s where I work. This post is a lot more focused on users in NUS, although I’m sure several points are going to be quite generic and be quite applicable to other university students. Or possibly even be general enough to be a useful insight to those simply wondering about using a Mac in a largely Windows-centric world.

Update: There is a new edition of this post — Using A Mac In NUS 2015.

The usual concerns people have are about whether they can go about getting things done using a Mac in these environments, or whether the Mac is generally supported in the environment, or will the Mac run apps that they need.

Well, the short answer is, of course, you can use a Mac in NUS. Why not, since the Mac is offered as one of the notebooks in the university tender program. Macs are also offered in NTU and SMU too. Surely if the schools are going to sell students a Mac, they ought to be supporting that platform in their respective environments.

The big question, of course, is to what extent the Mac will work and be supported in these environments.

The Basics

The first thing you want on your Mac is Internet access. Connecting to Wifi is a no-brainer. There was a time when Wifi was complicated. Providing a secure wireless environment had meant adopting cutting-edge technologies like the Cisco-proprietary LEAP when the industry did not have much better solutions.

Fortunately, things are now very simple with WPA2 Enterprise wireless security becoming pretty much a commonly adopted standard. I was just thinking about describing how to setup your Wifi, then I recalled I already have such a guide put up long ago. It just needs some updating. Head over to Mac @ NUS.

That same guide above will also cover Exchange configuration and printing configuration (more applicable for School of Computing environment because that is the tricky one).

The NUS VPN (webvpn.nus.edu.sg) and SoC VPN software (for School of Computing people) both run on Mac. The former installs out of your browser, and for the latter, refer to documentation.

So that pretty much cover the bare essentials.

Office Suite

I used to have Linux on my primary work machine. In those days (years, actually), I tried a variety of open source alternatives to Microsoft Office. Star Office, OpenOffice, etc. When I moved to the Mac for my primary work machine, I continued to explore options like NeoOffice.

I’ve got to say, Microsoft’s most ubiquitous end-user product has got to be Office. Not any version or even all versions of Windows put together. Office is the best there is. Like it or hate it, everyone uses it and you’re best off joining them if you want to work with them and keep your sanity.

Even if no course or module in NUS specifically requires you to use Microsoft Word to submit your assignment, report, paper, or whatever, think about how you’re going to collaborate with others in a team. Surely at some point you will have a group assignment, project, or what not. You are going to share documents, or presentations, and you’re going to pass them back and forth through rounds of edits. You will, at best, waste a whole lot of precious time trying to plod through interoperability issues, fixing up formatting, etc.

If you’re somehow strongly opposed to Microsoft Office for whatever reason, then, go ahead do what you want. Otherwise, take heed of my advice. I was opposed to Microsoft Office too. I’ve given up.

There is a native version of Microsoft Office for the Mac. I started with Office 2004 for Mac. Then upgraded to Office 2008 for Mac. Now, I’m on Office for Mac 2011. Yes, the Mac versions are always one year after Windows. The Mac versions of office, I kid you not, are actually better than their Windows counterparts. Office for Mac is actually quite enjoyable to use.

You’ve got two options to get hold of Office for Mac. Buy in Singapore. Office for Mac 2011 Home & Student Family Pack costs S$228. You get to install it on 3 computers. Or, you can buy the same thing from Amazon for around US$100. I got mine from Amazon for US$80 (there was a promotion that threw in a US$20 giftcard). The silly thing about buying from Amazon is that they won’t sell us (in Singapore) the digital download, so we’ve got to get the boxed version and ship it back to Singapore. Shipping through vPost or Borderlinx costs around US$10.

The other option is to run Office in Windows on your Mac. I’ll talk about running Windows in the next section. You might want to consider this option if you already have a license for the Windows version of Office, or you want to go with the cheaper educational license in Singapore.

Running Windows

Let’s face it, you are very likely still going to need Windows. Some application required by one module or other, in your lifetime in NUS, is going to need Windows. Maybe it’s Visual Studio, or SPSS, or whatever. What are your options with Windows?

The good news is the Mac, since the move to Intel processors, will run Windows. There are two ways to do it:

  • Bootcamp: If you’re familiar with the dual-booting concept on PCs, this is basically it. Your Mac’s hard disk is partitioned. One partition contains your original Mac OS X, the other contains Windows. You can boot your Mac into Mac OS X, or boot your mac into Windows. It is either-or. You cannot have Windows and Mac OS X apps run at the same time.
  • Virtualization: My preferred solution is to use a virtualization software to run Windows from inside Mac OS X. In this way, you can have both your Mac OS X apps and Windows apps run side-by-side on the same desktop. (Full-screen works too, of course.)

Bootcamp has the disadvantage of requiring you to set-aside disk space for the Windows partition. If you make it too big, your Mac OS X has lesser space. If you make it too small, well, it becomes inconvenient and troublesome when you realize you need more space for Windows later. It’s possible to resize the space, but it’s troublesome.

On the other hand, virtualization may have a performance overhead. Your Windows, after all, runs inside a virtualized environment within Mac OS X.

My recommendation is that the convenience of having both Mac OS X and Windows apps run side-by-side, and without the need to reboot into one partition or another, easily outweigh the small (maybe even negligible) performance overhead of virtualization. However, if you have some Windows app that simply cannot run inside a virtual machine, and you really need to have that app, then you either go with Bootcamp, or use another computer for that Windows app.

You have several choices for virtualization software too:

  1. VirtualBox: Free, from Oracle (originally Sun). It’s a basic virtualization solution. It isn’t very well integrated with the Mac, and the overall experience is not as seamless as the other paid solutions below.
  2. VMware Fusion: Everyone probably knows about VMware for their virtualization software in Windows. Well, Fusion is the Mac version of it. It has pretty comprehensive features. Run Windows apps with the app’s window seamlessly displayed side-by-side with Mac OS X apps. VMware calls this Unity mode. I’ll show you later what this is.
  3. Parallels: Like Fusion, Parallels is designed to make running Windows applications seamless on the Mac OS X desktop. They have the equivalent of Unity mode. Parallels calls it Coherence mode. In fact, Parallels and Fusion are often neck-to-neck in both features and performance comparisons.

I suggest that you consider Fusion or Parallels. They cost money, but they provide a much better overall experience with running Windows on your Mac. I used to use VirtualBox, then I gave up and bought VMware Fusion.

VMware’s Unity and Parallel’s Coherence makes running of Windows apps as if they were natively part of Mac OS X. The Windows app appear right on the Mac OS X desktop. It’s difficult to describe with words, so let’s look at a picture:

See how the Internet Explorer window and Solitaire window, both from the Windows virtual machine, are displayed directly on the Mac OS X desktop together with the Safari browser. This is my secondary display, and the Windows menu bar appears at the bottom of the window (Mac OS X’s dock is in the primary display).

VMware used to offer academic pricing, but now they’ve reduced the price of the full version and got rid of academic pricing. It’s just US$49, but look out for promotions. Parallels never did offer academic pricing (they do have academic volume pricing), and the full version costs US$80.

I recommend Fusion. Not just because it is cheaper. I think Parallels has better integration with the Mac. But I found that Parallels would not run my Solaris 11 11/11 guest. So I’m now left with the impression that Fusion (which ran Solaris 11 11/11 perfectly) does a better job of virtualization. If all you ever need is to run Windows, this probably isn’t important to you.

Don’t forget that you need a license copy of Windows to install into the virtual machine.

For students in NUS School of Computing: You’ll be pleased to know that Fusion 1-year licenses are available free-of-charge. You can renew the license for as long as you remain a student. You can also get Windows free through the MSDNAA program. Take note of the EULA. (I believe most people don’t care to read the terms, but I don’t want to sound like encouraging people to rip off the academic programs.)

Other Mac Apps

There’s a great deal of Mac applications. Don’t assume that you’ll need Windows for everything. If you’re going to run Windows all the while, you might as well have bought a Windows notebook.

For browsing: Safari is Apple’s own web browser. It’s actually pretty good. The popular alternatives are Chrome and Firefox.

For your instant messaging needs: Use Adium. It’s handles MSN, Yahoo, GTalk, and too many other IM protocols.

Need Photoshop? Yes, of course the entire Adobe suite is available on the Mac. There’s a rather attractive academic pricing too. Check out The Network Hub. Adobe Creative Suite 6 Design and Web Premium Student and Teacher Edition goes for S$139.

If you want a GUI file transfer utility, there’s Cyberduck and ForkLift (the regular price is a little steep, but there was a sale at 99 cents or so).

Mac OS X, in case you hadn’t already known, is basically a Unix-based operating system. There is a shell to get to the command-line, and all the typical Unix tools you’d expect to find are already in there. For example, there’s Secure Shell (ssh) already included, as are Subversion (svn), and a bunch of pre-installed scripting languages (Perl, Ruby, Python, Php).

There’s no C compiler out-of-the-box. But it’s part of the free Xcode you can get on the Mac App Store. Make sure you also explore the Mac App Store to find stuffs that you need. Some titles are cheaper on the Mac App Store than in retail or online stores.

The major cloud storage offerings all have Mac clients: Google Drive, Sky Drive and Dropbox.

Speaking of storage, NUS provides a Windows home directory to each user. School of Computing users also get a little more space on their own servers. These Windows shared folders are basically accessed via SMB (CIFS), which is supported by Mac. Oh yes, Macs can talk to Windows computers. I hope you’re not surprised about that.

NUS Apps

There are native apps, and there are webapps. Clearly some things are not going to be so well supported on the Mac, if at all.

Things like webcasts (e.g. of your lectures) do work on the Mac. The main “learning platform” IVLE (Integrated Virtual Learning Environment) works on the Mac. Fortunately, the people in-charge know the importance of supporting the Mac.

I’m sure there must be a bunch of stuffs that don’t work. I’m not a student myself so I don’t have much first-hand knowledge about the challenges. (Maybe some NUS student can contribute some info here.)

As a staff, I know many things break or just don’t work well with the NUS Staff Intranet on the Mac.

When things break… that’s what my Fusion + Windows is for. Yup, the webapps, in theory, should run on any browser, but many intranet webapps require Internet Explorer.

Until Next Time…

I just realized how long-winded this post has become. It’s break time again.

The key takeaway here is that you wouldn’t be greatly disadvantaged using a Mac in NUS. There are challenges, but there are solutions. Even if that ultimately means running Windows on your Mac.

Five years ago, Macs were perhaps not yet so commonplace in NUS. It’s quite a different landscape now. You will easily find lots of fellow students with Macs. The IT folks recognize the Mac as an officially supported platform. You are not in uncharted territories, not anywhere near at all.

Update (13 Aug 2012): If you’re going to need to do programming on your Mac, check out my post Prepping Your Mac for Programming.

4 thoughts on “Using a Mac in NUS

    1. How/when did you do that? Tunnel through a U.S. VPN? I just tried again, Amazon still refuses to let me download. (“Software Downloads are only available to US customers”) Interesting I noticed they still offer a US$20 gift card at checkout, even though this was not mentioned on the product page.

      1. Hi ZitSeng. You are downloading from the link at Microsoft.com, not Amazon.com. I didn’t download anything from Amazon, but they displayed a 25-character code under my order, which I keyed into the dmg image from MIcrosoft. No VPN was used (I used VPNreactor once, and A.Fitch detected it and cancelled my order).

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