The Great Mac Experiment

apple_macI’m going to start this blog with a posting on a controversial topic: Mac verses the PC. Apple has come into favor over the last few years, with their tremendously popular iPod and iPhone devices. In fact, it’s these devices (along with some good TV commercials) that are making some die hard Windows PC users consider switching to an Apple Mac system. I for one can say that I’ve recently considered switching to a Mac, not because of the iPod or iPhone (I don’t own either one), but rather due to some issues my wife was having with her Windows Vista OS system. She’s got a pre-assembled HP machine with a 1.86 GHz Intel Duo 2 Core processor, 2 GB of memory, and 250 GB SATA disk drive. A few weeks ago, she was complaining about system lock ups, slowness, and applications that just hang for no reason. Since her system is about 2 years old (and the fact she likes to install various freeware applications from time-to-time), I thought a complete reinstallation of Vista was in order to correct her issues.

After spending a day wiping her disk clean and installing Vista from scratch, she proceeded to reload her various “needed” software and was on her merry way. It wasn’t before too long that she began getting the “Blue Screen of Death” (or BSOD as some people call it) which means something running on her system is causing major problems. I suspect that she’s loaded a bad driver for one of her attached devices, but she denies that could be the problem. Instead, she just simply muttered, “… maybe I should get a Mac”.

That innocent little statement began to resonate in me, and made me ponder if a Mac was better and could replace my main desktop PC? It’s been a long time since I’ve used a Mac (circa 1990), so maybe they are better than the Windows machines? They definitely look cooler (especially the Mac Notebook systems). May be the Mac operating system (OS X) is more stable than Microsoft Vista? Thus, The Great Mac Experiment had begun!

Now, I didn’t want this grand experiment to be very costly, so I decided to go with the least expensive Apple model: The Mac Mini. This system is the primary entry-level  machine that most PC users buy when switching to the Apple Mac, since it can use standard PC hardware (i.e., display monitor, keyboard, and mouse). Thus, a PC user can theoretically swap out his or her computer system with the Mac Mini and use the same external PC components.

Before making an actual purchase, I visited the Apple Store in the city of Bellevue, WA to get some hands on stick time with a Mac system. I was a bit enamored by the Apple Store, as it was filled with numerous MacBook notebook systems, big screen iMacs, iPods, and iPhones. Of all the various devices and systems in the store, there was a single lonely Mac Mini machine hooked up to a 20-inch LCD monitor. I immediately tracked down a Mac “expert” working in the store and proceeded to bombard him with a multitude of questions. I also asked him to give me the grand tour of the Mac OS X, which he did quite proficiently.

Over the course of two days, I spoke with two Mac associates who were very evangelistic regarding the Mac OS. When I asked them about their level of Windows PC experience, both claim that they had used Apple Macs nearly all of their lives, with just a short stint using the Windows PC when required (in school and college). I’m not sure if they were entirely truthful, or just saying they had limited PC experience so that I wouldn’t ask so many comparison questions. But, it was apparent that they both live in a Mac world with no regard to co-existing with the Microsoft PC machines. For example, I asked about mounting a shared folder from a PC to a Mac for transferring files, and both Mac associates didn’t know what I was talking about (later, I discovered that it can be done and it is a trivial process). I also asked about running Windows Vista in a virtual machine environment (ala, the software called Parallels), and that also seemed to dumbfound them. Obviously, they live a partisan life wearing their Mac blinders.

After a dazzling demo of the Mac OS and reading numerous magazines and online articles, I decided that a Mac Mini might be something I would want to use. Thus, I made my first step towards getting a Mac, by ordering the following system:

mac_mini

  • Mac Mini – 2.0 GHz Intel Duo 2 Core
  • 2 GB RAM Memory (677 MHz)
  • 120 GB drive (5400 RPM)
  • Superdrive (DVD/CD read/write)
  • Built-in WiFi and Bluetooth

Note, that the specs on the Mac Mini aren’t that impressive, since it uses laptop hardware components. The hard drive is relatively slow at 5400 RPM (with most desktop PCs running at 7200 RPM), and the RAM memory speed is only 677 MHz (most PC systems run at 800 MHz). Nevertheless, I was expecting the speedy Mac OS X (which is based on UNIX) to make up the difference.

Before making my final purchase, I asked about Apple’s return policy, and was told I could return the hardware within 14 days for a refund (less a 10% restocking fee). That seemed reasonable to me, since I was 90% sure I was going to keep the Mac Mini and make the switch from the Windows world.

After getting home with my Mac Mini, I unpacked the small system and hooked it to my 21-inch wide screen LCD Sceptre monitor (DVI cable), USB PC Keyboard, and Logitech RF-Wireless mouse. I then simply turned on the Mac Mini, and let it go through the initialization sequence. After answering a few questions for identifying my keyboard and connection with my home WiFi network (the Mac Mini has built-in WiFi-g), I was up and running. I then began exploring the various features of the Mac OS X, doing basic operations, mounting shared folders on my PC, installing downloaded shareware applications, browsing the web using Safari and Firefox, running the OpenOffice suite of applications as well as the built-in email and calendar apps. After working with the Mini Mac for nearly two days, here’s my feedback and comments:

First, I’ve been a Windows PC user for a number of years going back to Windows version 3.1. I had a short stint of owing a Mac SE (black/white 9-inch screen) and Mac IIcx (color 13-inch screen) for about 3 years before moving back to the PCs. So, I’ve used Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, and I’m currently beta testing Windows 7 (next generation Windows OS) on my Dell D610 laptop. Now that you understand my credentials, I have to say there’s lots of reasons why I like the Mac OS X system, and here’s my short list of likes:

  • The Mac Mini boots up very fast (even with the slow 5400 RPM disk drive), with the system up and ready to use in about 45 seconds. The Mac Mini also shutdowns very quickly, in about 15 seconds. Now, that’s very fast bootup and shutdown times when compared to a standard Vista PC machine.
  • Since Apple controls the hardware that is contained in their machines, their OS is tightly tuned to work with it, thus, there are fewer issues with rogue drivers, etc. As such, the Mini Mac seems to run very quickly and efficiently.
  • The WiFi setup was a snap, and very easy to configure. I simply identified which WiFi router belonged to me, and entered my WEP password. That was it. No having to install and reinstall device drivers, messing with complicated settings screens, etc. It Just Works, as the Apple slogan goes.
  • The icons and graphic images look great on the Mac OS X, much better than the Vista OS in my opinion.
  • Mounting a shared folder on the two PC machines on my local wireless network was a breeze.
  • The Mac Mini ran virtually silently on my desk, with only the slightest flow of warm air being exhausted out the back.
  • The Mac OS X is based on UNIX, so you can easily open a “Terminal” window and type in UNIX commands (which is great for an old UNIX guy like myself).

So in general, I was impressed by the ease in configuring the hardware and the speed and efficiency of the operating system. Now, there were some issues that I uncovered that I didn’t like with the Mac OS:

  • The Mac OS is definitely different from the Microsoft Windows implementation, specifically how the menu bar and windows work. The menu bar for the active application is always positioned at the top of the screen, instead of at the top of the application’s window as in the Vista OS.
  • The Minimize/Maximize/Close icon buttons are on the left of the application window, and not the right side. That wasn’t such a big deal, but the “Close” button (or “X” button) doesn’t really close down and exit the application. Instead, the application window disappears but the application is still running in the background. So unless you issue a “Forced Quit” the application is still running and consuming memory.
  • The dropdown menus and windows all reminded me of the standard Linux OS packages that you can download and install for free (e.g., Redhat, Suse, Mandrake, Ubuntu). As such, it has what looks like to me a cartoonish appearance. I was expecting something more polished, and thus I have to say that the Vista OS looks overall better to me.
  • The biggest fault of the Mac OS is the way text is rendered on the screen. The Mac OS X uses a different font smoothing algorithm than Microsoft (ClearType), and thus the displayed text looks very blurry or fuzzy to me. This topic comes up very frequently on the Mac Forums, with a divided camp on whether the Apple fonts or Microsoft fonts are the blurriest.
  • If you’re a Microsoft Zune owner, you’re out of luck if you want to sync your Zune with downloaded songs or videos. The required Zune software does not exist for the Mac system. The best you can do, is install a version of Microsoft Windows on the Mac in dual-boot mode or in a Virtual PC window (using the Parallels or VM Fusion software).

Now, the last two points that I just made are the main deal breakers for me in switching to the Mac. I love the speed of the system, however, I just could not stand the display of fuzzy text on the screen. I tried really hard to get use to the Mac font smoothing technology, but it just made my eyes go blurry when I tried to read web pages and documents. I tried everything to adjust the displayed text to minimize the blurriness (i.e., reduce and/or increase the font smoothing, adjusted the monitor brightness/contrast/color settings, etc.), but in the end I just couldn’t get use to the fuzzy fonts. In fact, when I went back to using my Vista PC and Windows XP laptop, I noticed that the text was displayed extremely crisp and fine. As it turns out, Microsoft’s ClearType font smoothing algorithm adjusts the displayed text to fit the screen pixels and thus sacrifices the true shape of the font for screen readability, while the Apple font smoothing algorithm strictly adheres to the true font scaling and thus sacrifices displayed text crispness. Strangely, some Mac users swear that the Mac displayed text looks great and is not fuzzy, while criticizing the Microsoft displayed text as being blurry. Maybe my eyes are so use to the ClearType method, but I just can’t believe anyone would think the Mac text is clearer.

The second big issue is the lack of support for Zune syncing on the Mac. Of course, that isn’t through the fault of Apple (since Microsoft didn’t port the Zune Software to the Mac OS). Since I use my Zune multimedia device quite heavily for viewing downloaded TV shows, I don’t want to dump it for an iPod when it works perfectly well and meets my needs. Also, I have a TV Tuner card installed in my Vista Desktop system that I use in conjunction with the Vista Media Center software for recording my favorite TV shows, and I use the freeware application called DVRMSToolbox to convert my recorded video files to WMV file format for automatically syncing to my Zune (with all commercials removed). To duplicate this operation on a Mac Mini would require me to buy a USB TV Tuner device (Mac compatible) and find software that will do the conversion process. Even so, there is no way to sync the processed video files to my beloved Zune from the Mac.

As such, I’ve concluded that the Mac Mini isn’t a good fit for me. Again, the biggest issue is the blurry fonts which I don’t believe Apple will fix anytime soon (since this issue began with the release of the OS X software about 8 years ago). So, I’m destine to return the Mac Mini for a refund, unless my wife decides it’s a better system than her troublesome HP Vista machine.

Just as a parting comment, the Mac Mini system that I described above sells for around $800 US, compared to a more powerful PC system (Intel G35EC Quad Core Barebone Kit – Intel Core 2 Quad Q6 700, 2.66Ghz OEM CPU, 8GB DDR2-667, 750GB SATA II, DVDRW, Mid-Tower Case, 450W PSU) for $500 US. Since the Macs have a locked down system, you can’t build or upgrade your system as easily as with a Windows PC machine.

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3 Responses to The Great Mac Experiment

  1. Bob Davis says:

    I think I’m going to buy that barebones kit. I’m a quadriplegic so I have to get someone to put it together for me. I used to own a Apple Lisa back 84,got screwed once buy Jobs & it will never happen again. Glad to see you are not going to be a “Steppford Wife”

    • zunetips says:

      Good luck with that barebones system, as it looks really fast!

      My conclusion on the Apple Macs is that they are nice systems (and pricey), but they do have a niche market with graphic designers, etc. that don’t need to rely heavily on daily business activities that most PC users do. The fuzzy fonts is the real deal breaker for me, so I’m planning to stick with my current system and will probably go with Windows 7 when it comes out. So far, Windows 7 beta is running pretty good on my Dell D610 laptop (which is about 3 years old).

  2. […] initial impressions. Note, that I’ve never used a Mac at great length before (other than my Great Mac Experiment), so this is all coming from a Microsoft Windows user’s […]

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