OS X and XP compared
I've been using Macs pretty much for my entire life. I have also used Windows PCs and Linux. I was the system admin for 4 cluster computers running Windows XP in my lab, so I am experienced with how Windows works. I have also set up 5 Linux machines (various flavors) at AYS for the kids and director to use. I have since setup 5 Mac mini's that have been running without any maintenance for over a year.
I know there are many arguments that go back and forth about which OS to use. Before you think about arguing against some platform, think about the last time you used it. If you haven't used the most recent version, OS X 10.5 (released October 26th, 2007), or Windows Vista (released January 30th, 2007), then go try it before you start bashing it.
I originally wrote this summary because a guy in my lab had been harassing me for a few weeks about using Mac. His impression of them was pretty low and he kept telling me that I should get a real computer. So, after a while, I started to get a little annoyed and told him to sit down and I explained a few things to him about why I like the Mac better. After about 15 minutes of explaining how I can connect to my machine from home and run applications (back to Mac), use exposé, host a web server, and use the search bar in every Finder window (not to mention Spotlight), he was starting to understand that OS X is more than just pretty eye candy. He said several times things like: "Oh, that would be nice to be able to do," "That is pretty cool," "The next version of Windows will probably have something like that." In response to that last one, I said: "Yes, it probably will, but I have already been using it for two years. When is the next Windows version coming out? A year and a half?" After this converstation, it got me thinking about all the things I really like about Mac OS X, so I thought I would make a list of them. So, here they are:
Exposé in action.
- Exposé: It so elegantly shows all the windows on your computer to help you find exactly what you are looking for.
- F11: There are so many times I want to drag a file onto my mail to attach it, but that window is covering up the file. Typically, you either have to move the window or "Show Desktop" and copy the file and then open the window and then paste the file in or click attach and go through the directories to find the file. With exposé, I accomplish this in about 2 seconds (press F11, click and hold file, press F11 and let go). Selecting "attach a file" and then navigating through the directory structure takes noticeably more time.
- F10: I often open a bunch of images and want to compare them. Generally, files open on top of each other or staggered, but either way I can only see part of the images. With exposé, one click of F10 arranges all those images on the screen and darkens the rest of my windows so I can focus on just those images and compare them. Without exposé, you have to manually move all of these windows around - very time consuming.
- F9: It also works as a great application switcher. I press F9 and I see all the open windows and click on the one I want. Alternatively, I can use the app switcher that works similar to Windows. Most people who have used Vista will then compare the Flip 3D function and say that it works like exposé. The problem is that Flip 3D still requires you to flip through all the windows one at a time. It is actually no different than the window switcher, just a little fancier so you can see the whole frontmost window. I actually find it very annoying that the other windows are mostly hidden until they come to the front. One other hint about the application switcher is that you can go both directions around it. Press command-tab to open it, keep holding down command and press tab again to go right and ` to go left and it will wrap around, so you can quickly get to the app you want.
- Quicklook: This is such a simple, but useful utility. When in Finder, simply pressing the space bar will open a floating window showing what the file is. The file could be anything such as text, an image, a PDF, an office document, or any other file on your computer. This makes it particularly fast to find the correct document you are looking for. As you scroll down a list, the quicklook will update. If you highlight multiple images, you will have an option to view all the images in a exposé-like fashion. Quicklook even works in Mail, so I can quickly show my wife multiple pictures that people have emailed me. The alternative approach is to scroll through images, but the images often get cropped since the window is too small or you have to precisely adjust the slider location. Two clicks in OS X and all the images are shown on the screen at once or you can view them as a fullscreen slideshow. Very convenient.
- Networking stuff is easy: Might sound strange, but I routinely work from home just as if I was at school.
- ssh access: I can ssh in from home and run Matlab. I'm at home, but using the resources from school since my desktop is much faster.
- Easy web sharing: Basically, I click a button and it starts the apache web server, a very customizeable server. I assumed it was as easy on Windows, but when I asked some Windows users to just share their files over the internet, the didn't know how. I looked, but it turns out that there isn't a webserver installed with Windows XP Pro. Same thing goes for ftp.
- Easy file sharing from home: I just type in the IP address of my school computer and I connect to all the files, just like I was there (but slower since it's over a pokey internet connection). I've always had a hard time getting Windows to connect to another Windows machine that is not on the same subnet.
- Rendevouz: When I bring in my laptop, I don't need to know the IP address, just the computer name (which doesn't change) and my desktop connects and works. It will even select the printer for whatever location I am at.
- In window searching: I try to name my files intelligently, which makes searching for them trivial. Each Finder window (Windows equivalent - Explorer) has a search bar. It is customizeable, so if you don't like it, you can get rid of it, but I don't know who would. When I have a folder open, I just type in part of the name I am looking for and only files with that name are displayed. I often generate thousands of plots for my research and I only want to look at portions of them at a time, so I open the folder, search for the portion of files, select all results, open up 20 images or so and then use exposé to compare them all. This all takes a few seconds to do. Alternatively, you can search the contents of the files in a folder the same way. This is great for searching through a directory (or multiple directories) of PDF's. I often have many research papers, so narrowing down the one I am looking for based on the words inside is tremendously useful.
- Searching (Spotlight):Searching can either be done in many application windows or as a service located at the top right or command-space. Spotlight searches the contents of files on a computer within seconds of downloading the file. It is fast enough that I use it as an application launcher - press command-space, type Fire, press return and Firefox starts opening. It is also very convenient as a calculator: typing "cos(pi)*exp(1)*pow(8,2)" would show 179.97...
- Well laid out directories: All user files are located in one place - the home directory. OS X enforces a security measure that only allows write access to that directory unless you enter an admin password. So, I always know where my files are and better yet, know what to backup, if for some reason I didn't want to use Time Machine.
- Easy backups: I was helping my wife to back up her Windows machine and had to look in several places to find all the files she wanted backed up and even then I still wasn't sure I had them all. We recently found out that Windows skipped a whole bunch of files when backing up her system from several years ago. I initially tried to just backup her home directory, but kept getting error messages saying that some files were in use and couldn't be copied. On OS X, I just back up my home directory and know that all of my files are safe and I don't get any messages saying that they are in use. On Windows, I actually had to go in manually and select only a few folders from her machine. Again, very time consuming, whereas a Mac backup requires me only to drag and drop my home folder to a backup disk. Also, Time Machine is a great backup that has saved me several times in the past year. Windows simply does not have any built in mechanism to backup user files. It does have a great set of backup and restore tools for the registry though. (OS X does not have or need a registry.)
- Column view: This is a view that is like list view, but it shows your the directories above the current directory also. This makes it so easy to travel around between different folders. I hardly ever have to copy and paste between different directories, I can just drag and drop. I always know where I am. When I go back to a Windows machine, I get so lost in folder navigation - I can't tell where I am. With column view, it is so obvious where I am - it requires almost no thought.
- Title bar obeys Fitts' Law: The title bar on the Mac is always in one predictable place, the top left of the screen. Anytime I want to go there, I can just send the mouse to the top of the screen and click and I am in the menus. This requires almost no positioning effort. In Windows, even on a maximized screen, you have to carefully position the mouse to the menus. There is always a bar at the top of the screen, so if you just send the mouse all the way to the top of the screen, you have to bring it down a little before you can open the menus. This save a little time on the Mac, but this little bit of time multiplied by the number of times I use menus really adds up to a large saviings. On Windows, when the window is not maximized, the menu will be closer, but you will still have to spend that extra time carefully positioning the mouse to open the menu. Read about Fitts' Law to understand this more. The "hot corners" are the easiest place to hit on the screen. OS X allows you to define special functions for each corner.
- Window transparencies: All windows in OS X can be made transparent. This is marginally useful for copying stuff, but I find it very useful for comparing images or lining up images. Lets say I have two plots that are on the same axes with different data. I just line them up on top of each other and I can fade the transparency of the top one. This allows me to very quickly compare the data in the two plots. Just going back and forth works, but there are a few things I've missed doing it that way. This feature is built in, but I need a third party app to have control over it. I use the free utility called GeekBind.
- Smoothed zooming: Pressing command-option "+" or "-" smoothly zooms in on the screen in OS X (turn it on by pressing command-option-8 or going to Universal Access in the System Prefs). I use this all the time when I want to look at an image or movie in a web page closer or when I am showing someone something on my computer. This is particularly useful when using a Mac mini connected to an HDTV. The TV may be a little too far away to see certain things. I just zoom in on it and they can see if from a much further distance. Windows has this, but it is not smooth and only half the screen is used for zooming and you have to open an application to do it - very awkward.
- Print to PDF built in: I often save web pages as PDFs. Saving them as html causes all sorts of problems with images and links. PDFs are exactly what I see at the time. OS X allows anything that can be sent to the printer to be saved as a PDF. This is very convenient for saving info from websites and order confirmations. I don't want to print it out cause that wastes paper and I don't want to deal with them. With a PDF, I can save it for later and if I need to, I can print it out. This functionalilty is available for Windows, but you have to install something or buy Adobe Acrobat - it is quite expensive. Additionally, Windows cannot natively open PDF's at all - OS X does.
- Autosyncing with iSync: I have a laptop at home and a desktop at school. Using iSync, my calendar, address book, encrypted Keychain passwords, and bookmarks are synchronized automatically. This is great cause I have access to the same stuff regardless of where I am. I don't have to manually enter information in twice or worry about which computer I put the info on. All my information appears on the other computer.
- Shadows: Every OS X window has a shadow around the edge. The frontmost window has a larger shadow. This makes it visually very apparent which is the top window. This transparency is very subtle, but makes a huge difference. Vista added this feature, but they also added the transparent menus, which just makes it more difficult to see the border, which partially negates the benefit of the shadow.
- Customizable sidebars: Each Finder window has a set of favorite places that you can just drag and drop to add or remove a location. And, it applies to all Finder windows. So, if I am going to be working with a directory, I can just drag it there and then it is always accessible. When I am done with it, I get rid of it. Very simple.
- Same view in "save" windows as finder windows: I can use the same column view as above, which means I don't have to think about where I am. It is the same view, as it should be. Also, the locations in the sidebars are the same, so I still have easy access to the locations that I am currently using.
- Mail junk filtering: On average, I get about 5 spam e-mails a day. Typically, I only notice about 1 every other day though. The junk filtering on Apple's Mail application is great. Occasionally, when the spammers figure out a better way to send it, I will notice more of the mail, but after about 10 spams, Mail figure out their new method and starts to get rid of it as well. So, I hear of people complaining that they are getting tens of junk mails a day and spending noticeable amounts of time going through and I never understood this problem until I was helping my friend with their Eudora. They were receiving a lot of junk mail that was not dealt with. Then, I understood why people were complaining so much about it. It hasn't ever bothered me that much.
- Labels: I have recently found that coloring files/folders is a great way to help me find what I am looking for. Labels make it so much easier to find what I am looking for. I have a color scheme that I use and I can quickly find the file I need without reading any of the filenames. The files I use often just sort of jump out at me.
I am not saying OS X is perfect. Here are a few things that I actually like better about Windows:
- Start menu: I like the concept of one place to go to open everything. The problem is that it gets very cluttered as you install new programs. I don't understand why applications install all those other files into the start menu. I just want to open the application, not read any of the license files - please just put in an alias to the application and not in a separate folder. So, on both the Mac and Windows platforms, I will organize one place where I have only aliases to applications that I use frequency. The idea of the start menu is very easy for beginners on a computer, but quickly gets limited as too many applications are installed.
- Runs Solidworks and AutoCad: These are the only apps that I would like to run that doesn't on the Mac. People are always saying that there is no software for the Mac. It is true that there is not nearly as much, but I do not have a problem finding the stuff I need. Games is one area that the PC is far better, but I have a Wii. The Wii is so much better suited to playing games than a PC, especially with the WiiMote, which was designed very well. And, with this setup, I have a portable computer and am able to have two people using them at the same time (i.e. no fighting over the computer for work and games).
- This list used to be longer, but there is very little these days that I actually think Windows is better at. Particularly, now that Intel Macs can dual boot or vitualize Windows, I actually find very few reasons to ever buy a non Mac. Cost is about the only reason, but I don't find this a very compelling reason if you consider the life of the computer. I have sold two five year old Macs for about 1/3 the original price on eBay. Low end (non-Mac) computers generally have a very low resale value and end up getting thrown away, which is worse for the environment. Even if Macs weren't sellable, I'd still think they were worth every penny.
- My Philosophy of computing
I also think that it is vital that there be multiple choices between operating systems. Having two OSes, each with 50% of the computers in the world would decrease the number of successful attacks for both OSes.
Let's just assume there are two OSes, OS A and OS B, each with their security flaws (equal number of flaws). If 100% of the computers in the world were OS A, then hackers are going to spend all of their time trying to hack into one of them. More specifically, the robot hackers that try various attempts to gain access will only be using the flaws for OS A, so there is a pretty good chance that they will succeed.
Now, if the two OSes are split evenly (50% each), then the hackers will, presumably, attack each one evenly. So, the robot hackers will have to try the flaws for both OSes on all the machines. That will be twice as many attacks to try. So, that will mean that there will only be half as many succesful attacks for each given OS. This would be benicifial to each OS.
If there are three OSes split evenly (like, Linux, Mac, and Windows), then the number of successful attacks will go down much more. And, if there is a severe attack, not everything would go down at once, 2/3 of the machines would be unaffected. If a system admin really wants something to be guaranteed up 24/7/365, I would hope that they have fail safes on different platforms, at least for the critical stuff.
- Useful applications for Mac OS X:
- Graphic Converter: It may seem strange to list a single App, but there is nothing close to Graphic Converter on Windows for simple image editing/converting. For $35, you get the ability to do batch converts, which lets me set up various items to apply to all the images and it does them. This is great for digital pictures to post to my web page. I set a size I want them, crop them and save them all as a certain size. It takes a couple minutes to convert 40 images. I have not come across anything this easy or powerful for Windows.
- GIMP is an open source (free) image editor. I use GIMP for everything that requires multiple layers and GC for anything that just needs adjusting or resizing.
- OmniGraffle: is a great drawing program (costs ~$85), but InkScape also works well. Both of these are vector drawing programs, so the output will scale to any size.
- TexShop: If you use Latex on the Mac, this is a great one. If you don't know what Latex is, it's a document creation program that produces very nice output. A little harder to use than Office, but works well in certain instances. TexShop takes a little bit of time to setup, but once setup, it works really well. One click compile and the PDF is made.
- AppFresh will check for updates to all your software (not just system software) and will even install some of them for you: it's beta, but works very well. AppFresh
- Coconut Battery keeps track of the health of your battery (I've been using my laptop on battery for several hours just about everyday and the battery has good health - from my one data point, it seems that batteries like to be used.) Coconut Battery
- Dark Castle demo: This is a classic Mac game from the 80's that has been resurrected and updated. Amusing game
- DiskSpy adds a disk activity icon in your menu bar. DiskSpy
- eDrawings lets you open and view .dwg files, but you cannot modify them. It's free and helps to dissuade the one piece of software that does not run in OS X. eDrawings
- VLC: A nice app that will open many formats that Quicktime won't handle (can even play some Windows Media files). VLC
- Other useful tips that you may not know about OS X:
- Remap menu items: You can remap any menu item to any keycommand. Go to System Prefs: Keyboard & Mouse: Keyboard Shortcuts. Example: in TexShop, I map the latex button to F5 so it acts like Matlab's run F5 command.
- Internet Browsers: Try out both Safari and Firefox: FireFox 3 is very nice on the Mac, but I also really like Safari.
- ScreenSaver: Kind of odd and very oldschool, but the photomosaic screen saver is very nice. Select a pictures folder from iPhoto and put it on the PhotoMosaic option - it's very cool as it makes photomosaics out of each picture and then zooms out from that picture to reveal another picture. It's kind of like an infinite photomosaic.