Notes from a Mac convert (well, sort of)

OK – so in recent months I have made a fulltime jump from PC to Mac. I have leant a lot from this experience, and I’m sharing some of the highs and lows here.

Your author has been a sole PC user since his father first borrowed an IBM PC XT from work back in 1987. There was a brief dalliance with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and then an Amiga 500, but the PC has been pretty much a constant feature for 25 years now (depressing). First it was PC-DOS, them Microsoft DOS, then Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and so on…

My previous work machine of choice was a powerful HP Workstation, with dual processors, lots of RAM and 3 big monitors. It was a brilliant tool for the work I do, very powerful and the perfect machine for developing in Microsoft Visual Studio, Zend Studio, or the Dreamweaver Creative Suite. In recent weeks, my laptop has died a death, and my HP Workstation was showing some signs of age, and was due for replacement. I was naturally considering another power desktop workstation, however after reading blogs from a number of Windows developers who had started using Macs, I thought I would investigate further…

My requirements were to be able to run my regular software which includes Adobe Creative Suite, Zend Studio, MS Office, Visual Studio and Quickbooks, the latter applications will only run in Windows, there is no Mac equivalent, and there (probably) never will be. I wanted a powerful laptop that I could use on-site, and dock at the office, rather than run two machines. I was struggling to find a well-built, and well designed laptop that ticked all my boxes. That was before I saw the new MacBook Pro (late 2012, with Retina display), which, whatever you think of Apple’s product line and ethos, is a thing of beauty. I investigated further, and decided to commit. 

Not only is it nice to look at, but it’s powerful too. I mean really powerful. I chose the best I could, with 16GB of RAM, lots of SSD disk space and a fast Intel i7 processor. I am using Parallels desktop to run Windows 7 within the Mac Mountain Lion operating system. Parallels allows me to run all the Windows applications I need, specifically Quickbooks and Microsoft Visual Studio. We have an in-house VMWare vCenter Server which we use to host a number of other Windows systems that we use for testing the software we develop, but I needed Windows on the laptop itself. Everything else I have moved over to the Mac way of doing things. I have moved to the Mac versions of Zend Studio and Adobe Creative Suite, and installed the Mac version of Office too.  

The powerful machine doesn’t blink when I’m compiling complicated applications, it puts my old PC to shame, even though I’m doing this stuff in a virtual Windows 7 desktop running under Parallels. So whilst the hardware is 100% Apple, the software I am using is probably 50/50 Microsoft / Apple.

After a few weeks of use, I am reporting back on some of the stuff I miss when I am in Mac land…

The Taskbar

There is no direct equivalent to the Taskbar in OSX Mountain Lion. In Windows, just by casting your eye to the bottom of the screen, you can see what applications you have open, and what files are open within those applications, and you can jump straight to them with a click. In Mac land, there is Mission Control” which shows you an overview of all your open programs and files but if you’ve got lots of applications open, and multiple windows within those applications, it’s pretty useless. You also have to click a button or press a key to see it, rather than seeing what’s running all the time like you can with the Taskbar in Windows.

The Dock

The Dock is the Mac equivalent of the Windows Start Menu and Taskbar, just not as good as either. The Windows Start Menu is a nice and efficient way of structuring all your files and applications, and accessing them quickly. On the Dock, there is no comparable folder structure, just a big fat icon for each program. Windows has dropped the Start Menu from Windows 8. If you look for the number of 3rd-party applications to restore the Start Menu to Windows 8, then you realise that people rather like the Start Menu! I miss it in Mac land, so i’m making do with a desktop icon for all the applications and files I use regularly.

Closing is not Quitting in Mac OSX

In Windows when you close a program it is gone from the desktop, and no longer resident in the computer’s memory. In Mac land, when you close a program, the application does not close, it basically drops back to the Dock. You have to explicitly quit the application using the mouse or a keyboard shortcut. This takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s arguably a good thing, as applications are quick to launch, however when you have lots of applications on the go, it can be a bit cumbersome.

Where did the Hash key go?

Apple decided in their wisdom, not to put it on the keyboard. I use it quite a lot as it happens, but thanks to this brilliantly named website, I know how to get round this problem.

There’s a whole bunch of other big differences of course, and many of them are improvements over what i’m used to in Windows. However even speaking to other long-term Mac converts, they also miss the functionality of the Taskbar and the Start Menu, so I’m not alone.

Overall though, the experience is positive. It amazes me that a little 15″ laptop which is super-light is capable of running three big displays, (a 27″ Apple Thunderbolt display, plus two 24″ HP Monitors. It handles Visual Studio and all my intensive development work with ease. The built-in display is amazingly sharp and a joy to use. I can have Windows running on a dedicated monitor, or I can use Parallel’s convergence mode, which runs Windows applications alongside Mac applications on whichever monitor I want.

For the benefit of any Windows developers reading, all is well, however there seem to be some issues with characters not mapping correctly between the Mac and Windows under Parallels, but I think these just require a bit of extra configuration to solve. But rest assured Visual Studio (2010 at least) works a treat under Parallels, and I have not hit any obstacles.

I’m sure the Taskbar / Start Menu gripes will pass in time!

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