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Experiment: XP


October 3, 2007 11:54 PM PST

osx.png Almost 7 months ago, I switched completely to the Mac at home. Since that time, I've picked up an iPhone and moved my home network to Airport Extreme.

It hasn't been completely trouble free, and I find my myself wondering if I shouldn't go back to my old set up: Mac OS X for my laptop and Windows for my desktop.

What caused me to start doubting my switch? There are a lot of little things that irritate me when using a Mac.

window focus

In Windows, when you click on a window that doesn't have focus, it becomes focused AND it passes the click through to the application. So, if you click the "play" button on iTunes when it doesn't have focus, it becomes the active window and toggles the "play" button. Mac OS X doesn't do that. The first click does the focus, then eats the click. You have to click a second time to push the button. I suppose they did this to prevent accidental clicking, but it's really irritating when you want to quickly switch to the next track.

no place like home

Mac OS X has some seriously messed up behavior for various keys. Home and End are keys that I use constantly as a programmer, and I expect them to go to the beginning or the end of the current line. Most Mac applications use them to go to the beginning and end of the document. This makes no sense when editing text or writing code, as I'm far more likely to want edit locally than jump to one end of the document or the other.

Command line applications like vi are also broken by bad keyboard defaults in, and it's not simple to change it.

menus and monitors

There seems to be some evidence that the Mac menu at the top of the screen is easier for new computers to reach than the Windows model. But what happens when you have more than one monitor? Basically, you end up trying to put applications on that second monitor that don't require as much menu access, but you still end up having to mouse across a long distance for some operations. It's a bad situation.

application molasses

I don't know what exactly the issue is here, but Apple's applications, particularly iTunes and Safari, feel very slow and heavy. Resizing their windows feels like the CPU is getting pegged out... not very responsive at all. And this is on a 2.33 GHz Core 2 Duo iMac with 2 GB of RAM and an idling system! iTunes and Safari are much worse on my faster Windows XP machine at work. Downloading songs and videos from the iTunes music store seem to take up far more CPU than necessary.

Windows applications just feel faster. Take Picasa, for example. It is far faster and more responsive even when running on a lower end Windows machine AND with a larger set of pictures than iPhoto. Big Apple applications like Garageband seem to take forever to launch.

Oh, and don't leave iTunes running in shuffle mode with cover flow on. I did this for a week on and off, and my machine started to get unresponsive. Looking at top, iTunes was using 1.5 GB of RAM! Apple, learn to use free() or delete or [ ... release]. Please.

Here's a neat experiment: launch iTunes and go to the iTunes Store. Run top in the terminal (or use Task Manager) and start moving the scroll bar in iTunes. On an otherwise idle 2.33 GHz Core 2 Duo iMac, iTunes consumes on the order of 85% CPU! In the past, just clicking on the scroll bar and holding the mouse button down on the Windows version of iTunes would consume 100% of the CPU. We're talking some seriously gifted engineers here. Do these people even use their own software?

Is this slowness the price of Objective C's and Cocoa's dynamic nature? I don't know, but Apple needs to seriously pay some attention to application tuning. Application speed is one thing that Microsoft seems to take seriously.


I'm concerned about the closed nature of Apple's platforms: no third party games for iPods, and no third party software for iPhones. Apple gave some completely silly excuses about protecting AT&T's network from a bad application, but (a) other smart phones on that network can have third party software, and (b) AT&T needs to seriously figure out how to architect their network to prevent abuse, not cower in fear from a straw-man argument.

Apple could make a pile of cash by requiring third party applications to be sold via iTunes, which already provides a seamless purchase, download and install experience. Can Apple imagine every single cool thing you can do with the iPhone? No, and that's why there should be third party applications.

On a creepier note, iTunes embeds some kind of GUID in songs that you rip from your own CDs and doesn't display that in iTunes. When you right-click on a song, select "Get Info" and look at the comment field, it's blank. Now look at that same field in the song info using Winamp... what's going on here?

gaussian blur

I have to say that I prefer Windows ClearType to the blurrier Mac fonts. Joel talked about this quite a bit already, so I'll leave it at that. Since I spend all day looking at code, I use non-smoothed fonts so my eyes don't melt.

we know what's best for you

There seems to be a "Mac way" to doing things, and if you don't like it, tough. I think that most of the time, things like window focus and font smoothing are better left to Apple to figure out for consumers. Less options means less overwhelming. But for people who make a living sitting in front of their computer, having control over these sorts of things is critical.

Where are the ergonomic Apple keyboards? Do you remember the cramp inducing revision A round iMac mouse? I've got a new Apple flat style keyboard, but the space bar often misses key presses. It isn't just my keyboard because I tested it on multiple keyboards of the same type: it's a design flaw. But you can't get the older style of keyboard because his Steveness has had those discontinued. I could get a third party keyboard, but I want something that goes well with the iMac, since I like the idea of a computer that is a natural part of the room.

One complaint I had about my iMac purchase was the choice of wireless mouse and keyboard. Don't ever select those options! Though my iMac boots in seconds, the bluetooth keyboard takes approximately one minute to bind, so you sit there staring at a log in screen until the keyboard is found. The wireless mouse is worse, since it regularly forgets its ability to right click. That's right, after a few moments of use, right click stops working and you have to go back to the system preferences to turn it back on. Try that in the middle of World of Warcraft. The Apple Store's own forums catalog many users running into this problem, so it's not just my mouse, it's a design flaw, and given Apple's general dislike of multiple button mice and right clicking, how soon do you think that will get fixed? Can you imagine Microsoft getting away with not having a working right click on their wireless mice? Not a chance!

the sun also rises

Having said all that, I still do like the Mac. Many of my complaints will be things that other Mac users love, so YMMV. The user interface is so much more pleasant, and the iMac is crazy fast when not using Cocoa applications: I had a second monitor attached to it and I'd regularly watch a DVD full screen on it while compiling Firefox and surfing the web and never did anything stutter or pause out.

All you have to do to get Windows to freeze its entire UI for seconds at a time is to have just one application think about touching the file system. Seriously, when I start a build or check out some code at work, it's time to get a coffee and play a round or two of Robotron 2084.

Of course, Mac OS X is using a nice solid Unix core so you'd expect it to be good at multitasking. But this isn't rocket science, so I don't know why Windows sucks so hard when it comes to UI locking and file access.

It's like some kind of twisted inverse: choose either Apple's great OS and crappy slow applications, or Microsoft's frustrating OS but a large selection of fast applications. Pick your poison.

still deciding

In the end, I regularly re-weigh the alternatives and regularly conclude that I should stick with the Mac, even with the lack of a gaming machine option at the Apple store. EVE Online is coming to the Mac soon, most independent developers do a Mac port these days, and Blizzard is great for releasing Mac and Windows versions of their games on the same CD (so I won't be missing out on StarCraft 2).

But BioWare's Dragon Age and Microsoft's XNA Studio and Robotics Studio are seriously tempting me to buy a Windows machine. These solutions could work via Bootcamp, but Macs don't tend to have the most powerful graphics cards so the idea of dedicated gaming station is something I'm still considering.

Of course, it helps to have an Xbox!

Comments (6)

FredB, October 5, 2007 03:26 PM:

I did some development for a month using xcode on a Mac. The lack of keyboard shortcuts was infuriating and the extra mousing was causing cramps. I also disliked the menu bar for applications becoming the only menu bar, placed at the top of the screen. On a large enough screen, I could be looking at a window in one quadrant and then have to swing my head over yonder to see the menu.

Could be worse, tho'. Remember the Solaris/Unix CDE interface which forced your mouse to float over the active window? Bump your mouse and you lost focus.


Paul, October 5, 2007 03:33 PM:

I really hate that old school Unix "focus follows mouse".

It's funny that you mention Xcode. It's certainly got some significant problems like the ones you mentioned, or my personal beef of its poor quality debugger. One thing it does that Visual Studio doesn't is open each file in its own window, so it supports multiple monitors nicely.

Xcode has been getting significantly better with each release, so I'm willing to cut them some slack there. This is in contrast with iTunes, which seems to increase the suckage with every point release.

Paul, November 19, 2007 10:23 PM:

I got a new keyboard of the same type, and it doesn't seem to have the missing spacebar clicks that my previous one did. I don't think that I had a lemon since I was able to reproduce the problem on the Apple Store demo keyboards. I guess they've fixed the manufacturing process.

shawn, February 20, 2008 07:38 PM:

i also hate how control left/right dont work in a mac, although i ahvent tried wthotu disabling spaces (this is 1 mac feature i love), another lame thing is that you cant tab to a dropdown list in web browsers

Paul, February 20, 2008 09:58 PM:

Actually, I'm using Firefox 3 beta 3 on the Mac, and I can tab to dropdown lists. Yay, progress.

Jack, November 26, 2008 04:40 PM:

For those of you who hate anything about the way the Mac keyboard works, check out these two blog posts (especially the second link):

In the second link pay particular attention to the program KeyRemap4MacBook (which actually runs on any Mac, I use it on a Mac Mini). These articles explain your various options. Just be sure to heed the warning about never installing both KeyRemap4MacBook and DoubleCommand on the same machine, or you will totally lose the use of your keyboard (I learned this the hard way!).

All links will be marked with the nofollow tag, making them useless for search rankings. Any posts containing spam URLs will then be deleted.