Sunday, February 19, 2006

One Week with the Powerbook

After having used PCs exclusively for about fifteen years, I got my hands on a Powerbook G4 and embarked on the Mac Xperiment. I haven't used my Windows Laptop since but I have to admit, I can't stop using my Media Center PC to watch TV. Back to the Mac story, what does it feel like to be a novice computer user? To begin with, it sucks any which way you look at it!

On the getting tasks done front - my computer came installed only with the applications that were on the Apple OS Install DVD. I didn't know what applications exist for the Mac, and of those that I could download, I had no past history to select one over the others. And finally, the thought of paying for software made me shake in my boots. Thank God for Google, and for Freeware apps!

On the being productive as I get tasks done front - I am a Windows Power user and almost never use the mouse. It's all about them keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts are like Robitussin, "Robitussin can cure anything." On the Mac, I didn't know any keyboard shortcuts so I had to use the mouse. Without my robitussin, I felt like a cripple; I struggled with getting tasks done, with navigating through the interface. That was till I spent time reading Mac Help; my "tussin" supply is now on the upward swing but still not at comfortable levels. Using the keyboard on the Mac is a little more complicated than on the PC though. For starters, there are 4 modifier keys - Ctrl, Shift, Alt/Option and Command. Weirdly though, most of the applications I have downloaded employ the use of very similar shortcuts to get tasks done. I'll comment on this aspect in a subsequent paragraph. For all the extra keys, they got rid of the "Del" key. Go figure...

My overall impression? I have one word for the user experience with the powerbook - sublime. First up, the hardware is top-notch: the built-in speakers deliver a rich sound, the machine wakes up from sleep within a second, the laptop is light in weight not on accessories (dvd/cd-rw drive, multiple usb and firewire ports, DVI and S-video outs, modem input, ethernet and built-in wireless) and the battery life is astounding - 4 hours on average this past week. When I first got the machine, I presumed that it was tricked out with 1GB of RAM, a huge hard disk and a super fast processor. I was wrong - this is the medium grade configuration Powerbook, not top of the line. Not for once have I perceived the machine to be sluggish; windows animate in and out of the dock, Spotlight searches through my documents, iTunes plays my music and I have 4 dashboard widgets always running. With all these applications in the background, I can browse the web and scroll documents smoothly without perceivable lag - now that's tight!

Then the applications - they are few but plain beautiful and intuitive. Application writers for the Mac have paid special attention to integrating their products with the look and feel of the OS. The following shortcuts work for all apps, without exception: Command-Q quits, Command-H hides the application's windows (all of them), Command-` cycles through an application's windows and Command-? is the universal help command; and this is just the keyboard shortcuts story. The Mac software ecosystem is very small compared to its Windows counterpart; on one side, it is frustrating at times to not have as many options and tools. On the flip side, the quality and attention to detail in the applications I have used make up for the limited choice. I'd much rather have a small set of applications that are well designed than a plethora of poorly conceived ones.

Here are the apps I am using currently and the tasks they are associated with:
Web Browsing - Camino
Music - iTunes
Video - VLC
IM - Yahoo Messenger
Sound Editing - Audacity

Here is a great list of freeware applications for the Mac: link

Time for my list of Mac annoyances. For one, I can't switch tabs using any key combination (I serendipitously discovered how a few moments ago), I have to use the mouse. The trackpad sensitivity is very high so I have had to disable its use for Clicking. My browser doesn't have built-in RSS support. I don't know where to file bugs (or whether I care to file bugs). In all honesty, the fact that I don't know enough is an annoyance - I hate feeling like a novice, especially when it comes to using a computer. That my core competency. Till next Sunday...

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