Second Impressions Of The Mac

May 20, 2006

This follows on from my initial post. After three days of intensive use of the Apple Mac Mini, I’m impressed – but it’s surprisingly unstable, comes with odd initial settings, and is useless as a multi-region media player

I’m a software entrepreneur who last used a Mac (SE30) in 1990 & has since lived off PC laptops. Currently using a Mac Mini to assess a family switch from PCs to a couple of Mac laptops & 2 media players hanging off wireless networks in our two bases in Europe.

Acquisition

System

Ordered online from UK store – Mac Mini with 1.66 GHz Core Duo, 1 Gbyte RAM, Bluetooth Apple keyboard and Mouse, and MS Office for Mac.

Delivery

Awful – 11 days from Ireland to London!

Packaging

Very good – can be removed without the traditional need for scissors, sharp knives, bayonets etc.

Engineering

Very good – manufacturing tolerances are less than the PC world. Very quiet except for the optical drive

Set Up

A breeze. On first power-up it found the BT keyboard and mouse & then our wireless network, waited while I gave it access to the router, then immediately connected to the Internet. Downloaded huge updates for all components & installed without reboot (hooray! – but did the same a week later and this time wanted 2 reboots!). MS Office installed quickly & easily.

File Sharing With PC

Couldn’t get this to work – it could see the non-password protected files on my laptop; but wouldn’t let me at them without a password. Windows networking is a black art, so will give Apple a pass on this and RTFM. My laptop has died so it’s academic until I recover it.

Use

User Interface

Surprisingly, Apple shares the Microsoft vice of giving the new user bizarre default settings. For example, it places the window scroll arrows together at lower right, rather than at the top and bottom. You can change that in System Preferences, but surely the top/bottom model is best for the bulk of users, who either scroll up or scroll down & don’t care about the mouse movement to switch from one to the other.

Still, this odd default reminds you to explore System Preferences and fix other oddities. There you also find Expose, which provides a Xerox Star-like way of identifying and moving between windows. Much nicer to use than the W2K taskbar.

Now forewarned, you need to go through the system and every app and set its Preferences to sensible values. No big deal, but as Apple becomes mainstream, it needs to work on getting its initial preferences set to the normal user.

Dialog boxes lack a Confirm button, so you just make changes and then shut the dialog down to confirm. This is less intrusive than the W2K nannyish insistence on confirming everything, so I’ll probably learn to live with it.

The other oddity occurs when you start a new app on top of an existing one. For example, opening Excel on Word pulls up the Excel menu bar with the blank spreadsheet below it. If you shut the spreadsheet down, the Excel menu bar stays on top of the Word document & you only get the Word menu back when you restore focus to the Word document by clicking on it.

On Windows, if you close the spreadsheet, the app shuts down, which seems to me to be more intuitive.

Single Button Mouse

The single button mouse is the buggy whip on the Porsche-like Mac & the sooner Apple drops it, the better.

It’s hopeless for intensive browsing – you have to keep one hand on the keyboard and do fiddly movements to right-click and scroll. A kindly commenter explained that OS X supports two button mice, so I plugged in my little Sony USB mouse with scroll wheel and bingo, it works fine! Now all I need is a wireless version that gets good reviews – suggestions welcome.

Browser

I spend 1-2 hours a day browsing, so tabbing is essential. A kind commenter on my earlier post explained how to get Safari to provide a tabbed interface. But am not impressed with Safari – no history drop downs on Forward and Back buttons – a must for nested searching, Also Blogger doesn’t support Safari & its only search engine is Evil Google.

So installed Firefox, my PC browser of choice – it supports Blogger, has excellent tabbed browsing, Add-Ons to stop those annoying flashing ads that advertisers insanely believe will captivate us, and you can use lots of different search engines & delete Google. Nirvana.

Well, not quite – it crashes several times a day. Since it’s never crashed on my PC, I suspect the Mac environment – if it’s a Universal Binary it would be running on Rosetta. The only good part is that Apple makes online error reporting very easy

MS Office

It looks prettier than the Office 2000 on my PC, but does the same things – after you’ve hacked it into normality by changing its preferences, of course!

The apps take about 10 seconds to load –slower than I’d expect on a machine this powerful. Could be the Evil Empire’s fault, or the overheads of Rosetta emulation. If it’s the latter, it’s worth buying the fastest processor, since emulators are CPU hogs.

Bundled Apps

I expected Apple to bundle amazing graphic apps, and was disappointed with iPhoto. It’s OK for display, but provides only basic photo editing – you can’t draw on images. For example, add an arrow to some important feature in an image (crucial if, like me, you’re poor at zooming!). It too is unstable – I just pulled it up to review the Edit functions & it crashed.

The calendar, mail, & address book seem OK for newbies, but not a patch on MS Office.

MS also provides poor bundled apps, but shouldn’t Apple aim higher?

Dashboard

Nice idea, poor execution. You can pull up a calendar, a clock, a weather forecast and a calculator by mousing into whichever corner you select.

But you already know the time from your top toolbar & the default weather forecast comes set for a US city– Paris, Maine in my case, tsk, tsk. This may be fixable though – the provider (AccuWeather) provides European forecasts.

The calculator is OK, although I prefer the one I get with Firefox. And its orange color scheme looks terrible!

UPDATE: I just found out you can add many other widgets to the dashboard – unit converters, translators, dictionaries, multiple weather reports, etc. And remove any you don’t like. Makes the dashboard a splendid feature.

DVD Playing

Dividing our lives between the US and Europe means we have a mixture of region 1 and region 2 DVDs – about 300 of each. We don’t have or watch TV, so play these on projectors or external monitors attached to our PCs.

We’d hoped the Mac Mini would – after we’d completed our evaluation and bought ourselves Mac Books – become a media player. It has the right footprint, is very quiet and has a remote.

But it turns out that it has a so-far-unbroken lock in the Matsushita DVD hardware that restricts you to one region (after 4 switches). I’ve duplicated the other users’ problems mentioned in the link.

There are workarounds – stream to the Mac from a PC (but why?), attach an external DVD player (loses the point).

So the Mac Mini, and all Macs with the same DVD drive supplier will only function as single region media players & so won’t be bought in the many parts of the world where people use multiple regions, or of course by mobile folks like us.

This isn’t entirely Apple’s fault – they have to fall in line with the complex monopoly of Hollywood. But they could have chosen a player that could be easily subverted, like most PC vendors do!


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