A Linux Geek Embraces Mac OS X

By Jim Lynch  |  Posted 2005-01-26 Email Print this article Print

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Extreme Tech's Jim Lynch finally takes the plunge into a strange yet cool parallel OS dimension. Join him in his journey through the Mac OS X looking glass.

I've always wanted a Mac. There, I said it. I'm out of my Mac closet. I've secretly longed for one but could never really justify buying one. OS 9 and its predecessors held no real interest for me. But when OS X—really a version of Unix under the hood—came out, suddenly the idea of buying a Mac became all the more tempting.

During an ExtremeTech meeting a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about doing more operating system coverage. That was when I finally decided then to take the plunge and buy a Mac. This was before the Mac mini was announced, so that didn't figure into my decision on which one to buy (more on that later).

Bear in mind that I've never really used a Mac. Oh I've played with one for a few minutes at an Apple store but that's about it. Other than that, I'm pretty much a blank slate as far as Macs go. So what you will read in this column are the impressions of a guy very much used to Linux and Windows.

Some of my thoughts will no doubt strike veteran Mac users as silly, stupid, or downright heretical! For that all I can say is: Hey, I'm a newbie...what do you expect? Continued... When I made my decision to buy a Mac, I had to figure out which one I wanted. Remember that this was before the Mac mini was announced, so that wasn't an option. I hopped over to Apple's online store and took a look around.

I ruled out the iMac, because I already have a killer 23-inch Sony LCD monitor. Ditto for the eMac and the laptops. I already have a laptop and didn't want a G4 processor in any case. I wanted a G5. That left me with the Power Macs.

My first impulse was to buy a single processor G5, but I later changed my mind and upped my order to a dual 1.85GHz system. I bulked the RAM up to 1GB and the hard disk to 260GB. I also ordered a GeForce 6800 Ultra for the video card, since I do a bit of gaming and the games I like to run require some real horsepower. The grand total for this little incursion into the world of Apple totaled about $3000 when all was said and done. Whew! Talk about jumping in with both feet into the deep end of the pool! Or perhaps it's off the deep end...

Loyd: Just goes to show that Jim is a true ExtremeTech guy. Go for the biggest, baddest system… But ya should've spent a little extra for faster shipping!

A Cheap Spendthrift Waits Impatiently
You'd think that since I was splurging on my new Power Mac that I would also have paid for the fast shipping, right? Nope. As usual I cheaped out on the shipping and opted for a lower-cost shipping option. I hate myself when I do this. I really, really do. I did it with my Sony LCD and I did it again with the Power Mac. I ordered the computer around the 9th or so and got it about the 17th. Few people can claim that they are simultaneously extravagant and cheap...I'm one of them.

Needless to say, the wait drove me crazy! I kept checking the FedEx site to see where my Power Mac was and when it was going to get here. For some reason there was a delay in scanning it or something, which added a day to the wait. Around the 17th I finally got to the point of calling FedEx to find out just where the hell it was, and as I was on the phone, starting to bark at the poor FedEx woman...my doorbell rang.

Loyd: OK, Jim, put down the handset. Step AWAY from the phone… Continued... It just had to be the FedEx guy...I told the FedEx woman on the line "Thanks, but I'm all set." I ran down the stairs and out the front door. Yup. It was the FedEx guy with a big black box with a Power Mac on the front of it! Woohoo! My Power Mac had finally shown up! The FedEx guy got a laugh when I told him I had just been on the phone with his company. I signed for the package and then started to carry it upstairs.

It was then that I realized that this was no Mac mini! This was a big, honking mondo computer weighing about 60 pounds! And the box was so big that it was a bit awkward to get up the stairs! But by that point I was so stoked on caffeine and adrenaline, I hefted it up and bounced right up the stairs with it.

Loyd: Chiropractors love this sort of thing…

Casting all other considerations and work aside, I ripped open the box and lunged for my Power Mac. I instantly cast aside the directions, manual, and other docs. It's a frigging Mac, right? Who needs instructions? I found space to the left of my LCD and hefted the mondo Power Mac out onto the deskop! At last it was on my desk! Continued... Looking into the box my G5 arrived in, I immediately dismissed the idea of using Apple's crappy keyboard and bizarre, crippled, one-button mouse. I don't even use mice anymore, never mind one with just a single button. Come on Apple, get over it! The one-button mouse is a relic from your past. At least have the decency to put a frigging two-button mouse in the box next time! And there's no way in hell I'd use a non-ergonomic keyboard these days. No carpal tunnel for me, thank you very much!

Loyd: For all of Apple's design chops, its adherence to the one-button mouse and crappy keyboards are a mystery. All the Apple employees I know also replace their mouse and keyboard, which should tell you something. Of course, Logitech loves this…

Not having been bright enough to buy a KVM ahead of time, I had to disconnect my keyboard and trackball from my main computer as well as the DVI cable. It was here that I ran into a couple of bumps. My beloved Logitech Trackball and Microsoft Natural keyboard were PS2-based, and the Power Mac only had USB slots on it! The horror!

Loyd: I can understand the PS/2 keyboard, but a PS/2 trackball? You really play UT2004 with a trackball? The mind boggles…

Fortunately, I had another Microsoft keyboard laying around that had a USB connector on it and also a Microsoft Trackball that was USB based. Both of those would work for the short term (I can hear the groans of disgust from veteran Mac users: A Microsoft keyboard and trackball...with a Mac???). A couple of days later I got a PS2 to USB adaptor and started using my beloved Logitech Trackball and MS Natural Keyboard. Continued... After all the peripherals were connected, I hooked the G5 into my Sony LCD via DVI, plugged in the power cord, and was finally ready to boot up. With no trepidation whatsoever, I hit the power button and my G5 came to life! I saw this greyish screen with an apple on it. Hmmm...cool, not mind blowing but relatively cool. At least there wasn't a bunch of boot text mumbo jumbo on the screen like I've seen with some Linux distributions.

Loyd: Yay! DVI! Apple does a standard monitor interface! (Much rejoicing).

OS X detected and properly configured my Sony LCD at the proper resolution of 1920x1200. Again, this is unlike certain Linux distributions, which invariably don't properly configure this monitor at the correct resolution. I didn't have to do anything to get it working with the G5.

Despite being larger than my home-built box, the G5 was pretty quiet—not quite as quiet as my DIY system though. But the sound of the fans was certainly tolerable and nothing to complain about really, particularly given the large size of my Power Mac.

I had no problem with my keyboard or mouse, either. Both worked just fine despite not being official Apple products (not that that really matters, but for those of you wondering if you can use your regular Windows/Linux keyboard and mouse with OS X...you certainly can). And yes, you can right-click to pull up menus rather than having to click and hold the way you would with the crippled Apple mouse (though you can also do the click and hold thing with a two button mouse if you really want to).

Loyd: Whoa. Now that's a lot of horsepower on that desk. Probably more than NASA used during the entire Apollo program! Continued... Before I get into my comments about OS X and my first time using it, you should realize that I hadn't read anything before diving in. Nothing, nada, zip. I didn't even open the manual. I just hopped right into it. So my thoughts are those of a total OS X newbie.

The first thing I noticed was the Dock at the bottom of the screen. It's sort of like the Windows taskbar and similar menus in Linux UIs. But it's also oddly different. You can't do the same things with it that you can in Windows or Linux. I'm still adjusting to it. Part of me thinks it should be more like the taskbars in Linux and Windows and the other part of me wants to withhold judgment until I've had more time to use it.

One thing that perplexed me was the lack of a Start-type button. The Finder button is in the place where you'd find that in Linux or Windows, but it doesn't pull up cascading menus that let you access your apps. Instead it pulls up a totally separate window with all of that stuff in it. Though I didn't have trouble adjusting to using the Finder, I think it's potentially very confusing to people coming to Mac OS X from other operating systems (particularly Windows users).

Menu Madness
One thing that utterly baffled me at first was that the application menus are at the top of the screen. Why does Apple do this? In Linux or Windows, the application menus are part of the application window and thus easier and faster to access. But in Mac OS X they sit at the top on the Apple taskbar for no reason that I can figure out. Frankly, it's kind of a stupid way of doing things. I can't even use the top part of the screen for the Dock if I wanted to!

Loyd: Here we have the old familiarity bugaboo. We're most comfortable with what we're familiar with. I've seen Mac users working with Windows, and hate the way each window has its own menu. Heck, I still use WordStar command codes in word processors.

I'd at least like the ability to put the damn things back into the application windows myself. Unfortunately, no such option exists in OS X that I know of. I'm adjusting to this though but, at first, I couldn't figure out where to change settings in applications. For example, I was trying to figure out how to import my bookmarks into Firefox but didn't realize I had to choose the drop-down menu at the top of the screen. Weird...

Loyd: Here's another difference between the Microsoft and Apple philosophies of UI design. Microsoft gives you about ten ways to do any one thing. The Mac generally gives you just one (two, if you count keyboard shortcuts). While that makes the Mac more consistent, I tend to prefer the more emergent behavior you can get with Window XP. But it's more a matter of taste, and you can make a pretty good case that the "one way" approach trumps flexibility for non-tech users. Continued...

One other thing I noticed that was quite cool was the "genie" effect that happened when you opened or shrank an application. It's slick and was what I was expecting from OS X. I hate to admit it but I'd like Linux to be able to do stuff like that sometime. Is it absolutely necessary? No, not really. But it's sweet eye candy and...what the heck...why not have it in there?

I also noticed that when I booted into my OS X desktop, a window popped up offering to download some software updates. Nice! I was able to choose to have it done daily, weekly or monthly. A convenient feature for a new OS X user.

Loyd: Just wait until you have to pay $129 for MacOS X 10.4!

Installing applications was extremely convenient, you just drag the install file to your Applications folder and that's pretty much it. This didn't throw me because I had heard something about it in one of our forums a while back, so when it came time to install something, I just dragged and dropped it into the Applications folder. Linux distributors should steal this idea from Apple. Linux newbies would love this kind of convenience.

Another thing I didn't realize about OS X was that I could easily drop things like my Home directory or Applications folder onto the right hand side of the Dock. This made it easier and faster to get to them than going through the Finder. No doubt veteran OS X users are snickering now, but it perplexed me that I couldn't drop them on the left side of the Dock.

And why the hell can't I rename a file or folder that's sitting on my desktop by right-clicking on it? Or even single clicking and holding? How stupid that I have to do it in the Finder or through an application. Good lord, that's just simple file management for Pete's sake. Come on Apple, get with the program! I did enjoy how easy it was to turn a folder on my desktop into an archive just by right clicking on it and choosing the option from the menu.

Loyd: Here's one of the annoying parts of the monolithic approach to UI.

One other thing that irritated me to no end was that I couldn't figure out how to browse thumbnails of graphics in the Finder! Unlike Windows or Linux, there seemed to be no way to browse them to see what each file was, nor could I view a slideshow of them! This really pissed me off, and I was shocked that the Mac—the pinnacle of audio/video/photo excellence—couldn't even display a freaking photo slideshow in its file manager. And no, I was not going to use iPhoto for something like that. It should be built right into the file manager. Apple needs to fix that mistake in its upcoming Tiger version of the OS.

The VPN Wizard

One thing that I was very happy to see was how easy it was to set up a VPN connection in OS X. I've been harping about this in my Linux reviews and wondered if Apple would have a VPN wizard type of tool available. Sure enough, it does.

All I had to do was go to the Applications folder and click on Internet Connect. From there I clicked the VPN icon, filled in the appropriate information and was able to connect to our corporate network. Nice job, Apple. I would have been shocked if such basic functionality hadn't been included in as slick an operating system as OS X. Continued...
One of the coolest things about OS X is Exposé. Exposé lets you easily switch between windows when you're running multiple applications on your OS X desktop (and who doesn't have at least ten or fifteen apps running at the same time these days?). Hit F9 and Exposé zooms out and tiles all your open windows. You can then click one to bring it to the foreground. All your windows then return to normal size.

If you hit F10, Exposé will tile your windows again, but this time it keeps all instances of the application you were just using in the foreground, while relegating the other apps to the background.

F11 hides all open windows on the deskop and gives you quick access to your desktop.

Exposé is very slick, and once you get used to having it, it's hard to go back to the way things are in Linux and Windows. If you get a chance to go to an Apple store and use OS X, just remember to get a bunch of application windows on the screen and then just hit F9, F10 and F11 to see what I mean.

I predict that Microsoft will steal this feature in the next full release of Windows. They'd be fools not to. And Linux developers might want to consider it too. It makes navigating zillions of application windows seriously fast and easy!

I think that all of this just goes to show you that, regardless of the operating system, it takes time for newbies to learn their way around and adjust to the operating system's GUI. And yes, it's a good idea to "RTM" but let's face it, not everybody does that. Personally I think Apple should make some adjustments to OS X, but given all of their recent success, who the heck am I to question their designs, right? Oh wait, I'm one of the people they were aiming at with the Mac mini (more on that later).

Loyd: Recent success? You mean the 2% to 4% market share in the PC business? Apple is in danger of becoming the "iPod Company." That's not a bad thing in itself necessarily. But we'll have to see if the Mac mini punches up their market share for PCs. Continued... Well this is really going to sound heretical but I haven't had much time to try the iLife apps. I've played with iPhoto, which seems quite good (bear in mind that my Power Mac came with iLife 04, so I have to get the free upgrade from Apple for the latest version) and looked briefly at the others that also seem quite good. Let's face it, the iLife apps are a big reason to buy a Mac in the first place. They're cool and it costs a lot to replace them with other apps on Windows. As for me, I'll withhold final judgement on them until I have iLife 05 from Apple.

One thing I didn't like was that my Power Mac didn't seem to come with a good word processor. There was a text editor and a trial version of MS Office for the Mac (no thanks) but nothing else. I took matters into my own hands and downloaded a version of Abiword for the Mac and also a beta of NeoOffice, which is a version of OpenOffice designed for the Mac. To the Abiword and NeoOffice developers: Thanks! Not all of us want to get wrapped up in proprietary word processors, be they from Apple or from Microsoft. Thanks so much for creating Mac versions so that Mac users have other options.

One vexing problem: I screwed up my blog (www.jimlynch.com) and needed to do a redesign of it. I needed to FTP files up to the server and there was no good FTP program included with my Power Mac.

I looked on the web, and most of the ones out there cost money. I was looking for a free, open source FTP client and could not find anything with a dual pane interface. (Hey, I just spent a bundle on my Power Mac...I can't afford to pay for FTP software right?) Some of the Mac FTP clients really stink (sorry to have to say it but Cyberduck sucks!). Who wants to open and close menus to upload files? I just want to drag them from one pane to the other and get it over with.

In Linux, I usually use gFTP. In Windows I use Filezilla. But for the Mac I was forced to resort to a trial version of CuteFTP, which I'll probably be buying shortly. I don't know why the Mac lacks a good open-source FTP client, but if there are any developers out there who could do a version of gFTP or Filezilla for the Mac, please do it! You'll make a lot of peoples' day.

I found that I liked Safari, the OS X browser. It's a slick browser with a great interface. But I hit a couple of burps on the PCMag forum with it and ended up switching to Firefox for the most part. I'll be monitoring Safari's progress, but right now, I feel more comfortable using Firefox for the bulk of my web browsing. I'm looking forward to checking out future versions of Safari though.

I also liked how iPhoto popped right up when I plugged in my digital camera. I didn't have to do anything except decide which photos I wanted to import, and iPhoto did the rest. Very slick.

One application that I discovered that I like a lot is called Adium. Adium is an instant messenger client similar to GAIM. It allows you to connect to Yahoo IM, AOL IM, and MSN Messenger. But it's got an amazingly slick interface. I found myself not missing GAIM at all after using Adium. If you are using Mac OS X and want a good IM client be sure to give it a download. It's free and it's very, very slick. The symbol of the program is a duck. When you have it running in the Dock the duck is awake. When you quite the application, the duck goes to sleep. It's pretty funny to see. And don't let the frivolous-seeming duck fool you, it's an excellent instant messaging program. Continued... Yes, it is quite possible to run Linux apps on Mac OS X (remember that it's Unix under the pretty GUI) via X11. Why would you want to do this? Simple. There are a lot of terrific open-source Linux apps out there, and there aren't necessarily OS X native versions of them available. Or you may be a developer. Either way, with X11 you have a lot of options. I recommend reading Apple's technology briefing for Unix users. There's some very interesting stuff in there.

I deliberately tried to force myself not to bother with X11. I considered it cheating. I wanted to learn my way around native OS X applications without falling back on my old Linux favorites. However, I failed. I gave in to temptation and installed Gimp on my Power Mac! Naughty, naughty! But I remain unrepentant. Gimp comes in handy when I do graphics stuff, so I make no apologies for using it. It's a damn fine application.

Loyd: Once a Linux geek, always a Linux geek…

But for the most part, I'm trying very hard to stay away from Linux apps until after I've fully explored what's out for OS X. Continued...

Apple gets a lot of crap about how Macs are bad for gaming, but I've found that really isn't true at all. The main game I play a lot is Unreal Tournament 2004. It's my favorite, and I really love hopping into it and blasting away at enemies. It ran quite nicely on my DIY box under Windows XP but it ran way, way better on the Power Mac. Granted, my Power Mac does have a very powerful video card (a 6800 ultra) but the DIY box is no pushover, with an MSI 5900XT in it. My Power Mac ran UT so smooth, like butta!

Loyd: That's nice. But where is Half-Life 2, Battle for Middle Earth, Kohan 2, Far Cry, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Pirates, Joint Ops… well, you get the picture.

Another complaint is that there aren't enough games for the Mac. Well that all depends on how often you play. If you're a hard-core gamer, then you'd be better off skipping computers altogether and buying a PlayStation 2. It's cheaper and has an absolutely gigantic amount of games available for it. But if you're a casual gamer, you can find more games for the Mac than you might expect.

Loyd: Tsk, tsk. Console games are not PC games; PC games are not console games. At any rate, Apple still tends to trail Wintel when it comes to leading-edge PC games. They did get World of Warcraft, though, which makes up for a lot.

A visit to the Apple site's gaming section turns up some very good games: America's Army, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, Spiderman 2, Doom 3, World of Warcraft, and more. Will you get all of the latest releases found on the Windows platform? No, definitely not. Will a casual gamer find enough games on the Mac to enjoy? I'd say yes, definitely. There's quite a lot listed on Apple's site, but there's more than that out on the web. Sites like MacGamer, Inside Mac Games, and Mac Game Files, will turn up lots of games and many playable demos as well.

Loyd: Trust me, you don't want to call out Spiderman 2.

Don't let anybody tell you that Macs suck for gaming. It's just not true. You may not get every title that's out for Windows but there's still plenty of good gaming for Mac owners. And there's nothing quite like blowing up some snot nosed PC user in Unreal Tournament 2004. Very satisfying, indeed. ;) Continued... With the introduction of the Mac mini, many people are thinking about using OS X. Should you take the plunge? Well I'm not going to get into the specifics of the Mac mini's hardware, Loyd has commented on it, other publications have reviewed it, and so far the results seem to be a universal thumbs up (see PCMag's review). But I think I can help answer the question of whether it might be worth $500 to give OS X a try. After all, I just spent $3000—about six Mac minis!

Yes, I do think it's worth buying a Mini mac to try OS X. Despite some of my criticisms, it's a very enjoyable OS to use on a daily basis. I find myself growing more and more attached to it. And I think that the stability and security of OS X (yes Windows users, it is more secure...like it or not) plus the slick form factor of the Mac mini make it a good deal (get the extra RAM for $75 though, OS X likes a lot of RAM).

I will most likely be buying one for my mom when her birthday comes up in April. Right now she's on a very old Compaq running Windows XP. She's been very careful to keep it patched regularly, but I'd feel better if she were running Firefox on OS X than Internet Explorer on Windows. Plus I think she'll enjoy the iLife apps and general slickness of OS X. It's a good change of pace from the Windows environment, and it does more handholding than any Linux distro that I've seen (though some of them are getting pretty darn slick themselves).

If OS X interests you, go snag a Mac mini and let me know how you like it.

By the way, I've also begun lusting for a G5 PowerBook. They aren't available yet but I'm staking out Apple's web site and my local Apple store for the day they arrive. My Compaq laptop is looking less and less acceptable these days. If I can have the glory of OS X on my desktop, then why can't I have it on my laptop? Come on Apple, get those G5 PowerBooks out soon! Continued... No column about Apple or the Mac would be complete without dealing with the Mac bashers. Recently there has even been some Apple bashing by some of my esteemed colleagues, Loyd Case and John Dvorak. Both of them have taken Apple to task about various things and both have, at times, alluded to something silly called "The Apple Cult" and also something or other about a "reality distortion field" generated by Steve Jobs.

Poppycock! Nothing could be further from the truth. There's no such thing as the Apple Cult nor is there a RDF surrounding Steve Jobs. We Mac users are nothing more than everyday folk that just want to use our computers in peace and quiet.

But will crazed, Mac bashing maniacs like Loyd and John let us? Hell no! They keep attacking us and victimizing us time and time again! Well you know what? We Mac users aren't going to take it anymore! We're going to fight back and turn the tables on these stupid, evil windroid drones! Up your nose with a rubber hose, Loyd! Stick it, Dvorak!

Loyd: Uh… Jim… remember to take your meds before you get to the keyboard next time.

Down with the Wintel monopoly and their stupid pawns in the media! Down with Mac bashing goons like Case and Dvorak! They can't oppress us forever! Our time will come! The Mac mini will lead Apple to glory once again! Steve Jobs is God! Apple uber alles! Wintel will faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!!!!

Ahem...[cough, cough]...as you can see...I have calmly and dispassionately proven in the paragraphs above that there is no Apple Cult or Reality Distortion Field and if there were, I certainly would not allow myself to be brainwashed by either of them. It's all silly nonsense, trust me...

Loyd: Bwhahahahahaha!

Will you be giving OS X a try? Tell me in the forum...

Jim manages the PC Magazine and ExtremeTech forums, and is responsible for building community in the forums on both sites. He started managing PC Mag's forum on ZiffNet on CompuServe many years ago. He then transferred the staff and expertise to the Web. He left ZDNet when it moved to San Francisco and came back to Ziff after the split from ZDNet, right before ExtremeTech launched. You can get more background at his personal site: www.jimlynch.com/profile.htm.

His favorite movies include Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Three Musketeers (1973 version), Dune (Sci Fi Channel version), and gobs of others. He can't live without his iPAQ Pocket PC—,he uses it at the gym and everywhere else—,and his DVD collection features more than 200 films. His favorite game is Tribes (PC), which is more than three years old but he still plays it all the time.

Jim likes interacting with the folks in the forum and the content. 'I Love both of 'em,' says Lynch. 'It's what makes the job fun and interesting.'

You're welcome to visit Jim's site for more information about him.



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