The Mac Operating System (OS X)

Yay, I get first post, which is a good and a bad thing depending on how you look at it. The good thing is well, first post! The bad thing is I get to be the test dummy for how the blog will work, how to post up pictures, (finding out that you need a credit card to sign up to flickr,) and so forth. I’m still learning how to write blog posts without forgetting small, but important details (which is a terrible habit of time). It’s hard to get into the habit of writing. Next time, I probably won’t write something this large and intricate, but the topic fits well with this blog and it forces me to learn capabilities of WordPress. Now that we’re over that setup period, time got get the ball rolling with the first post!

It’s over two months in my co-op term this spring working at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center. I’m having a great time in the new work environment at a hospital, but I’ll save the piece on my co-op experience for later.

As part of the Imaging Research Centre for Cardiac Intervention group, I was lucky to get the best computer equipment I’ve ever worked with. Everything in my lab is new and has a tint of the iLife on it. I work with a Mac Pro with 4 rock-hard cores and two monitors. And with the hardware, I haven’t had a speed bump yet. With the software, it’s a different story.

The awesomeness of a window seat (Imaging Research Centre for Cardiac Intervention, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center)
Mac OS X Leopard Desktop

Being mainly a Windows XP user, I decided to write a personal review of the Mac to help others thinking about the transition. Plus, I told a friend I would write this review (sort of as a joke though).

At first glance

As expected, the Mac looks great. Everything is shiny, animated (bouncy icons), and has a consistent look (they have some seriously heavy documentation about looks, they even go down to writing alert messages). The typography is easier to read than Windows (because of font smoothing) and the icons are big. Looks like any other Mac product. (As expected.)

Mac OS X Leopard Desktop
Mac OS X Leopard Desktop

Quick Configuration

But after looking at the layout, I began noticing the small things that I missed from Windows. First of all, you have turn on the right click button on your mouse (why not use the button when it’s right there?). I also changed my middle button to match Windows’. The default middle click shows the Dashboard of widgets, which I have yet to use.

Down to work

After settling in, the first thing I noticed is that if I click on an application icon many times, only one window pops up. And when I close all the windows of an application, the application seems to continue running. It confused me a bit, until a friend told me that the Mac uses multiple document interface (MDI), which made things more clear.

MDI works like a lot like tabs in internet browsers (tabbed document interface). For example, in a Firefox window, you can open multiple tabs inside of it. But once you close the entire window, the tabs disappear. Mac’s MDI is similar, but there are multiple windows inside an application, where the application represented by the bar at the top. Like tabs, once the application is closed, the windows are also closed.

Mac’s bar representing the Finder application (similar to Explorer in Windows)
Mac's bar representing the Finder application (similar to Explorer in Windows)

Out of nowhere, Microsoft Excel also uses MDI, which I find annoying at times (I used to wonder why different Excel windows like to follow each other). It’s a topic that is nice to know if you’re interested in program designs (like me).

There are pros and cons for everything (sadly). But in many cases, I find it a bit unintuitive to not close the application when there are no windows for it. Also, opening the application twice sort of implies having another instance (or window) of the application. Maybe I see it this way because I’m a Windows user, but these little things force you to either drag your mouse a lot or learn your hotkeys. Because of MDI, Command + Q (quit application) and Command + N (new window) soon became my best friends (and then you start confusing with Windows’ hotkeys).

What I miss most about Windows’ windows

What I miss most about Windows is its ability to tile windows quickly, which avoids manually sizing your windows to see two windows at once.

Tiling windows on Windows. I find these instructions to be more useful.

Sadly, not many people know about this functionality, but it’s useful when comparing things or reading something while writing. Having two monitors easily avoids this problem because you can drag the window to the other monitor as an alternative to tiling windows.

Another thing I miss is the maximize button, instead you get this green plus button called the zoom button, which doesn’t zoom or maximize the window. It switches the window between the standard state (the window size defined by the application, which varies from application) and the user state (the manually sized window size). To be honest, I really prefer a simple maximize button – it’s that Bill Gates inside of me. You can read more about this here (I think the site has some bias though).

The good things

In the operating system

The best thing about the Mac for me is that when you plug in earphones into the computer, the volume changes to “earphone volume state”. It’s good because earphones usually feel a lot louder then your laptop speakers. (I love music okay. Ever had a moment where you put on your earphones, plug them in your laptop, only to have them blasting in your ear at max volume?)

Command + space is another one of my friends on the Mac; it opens a quick search bar called Spotlight that’s really easy to use.

Mac’s Spaces
Mac's Spaces

Two things useful things that also exist in Ubuntu are Apple’s Exposé and Spaces. Exposé shows small representations of windows to allow quick navigation amongst them. Nowadays, sometimes I feel that Windows needs Exposé too. Borrowed from the open source community, Spaces allows windows to be stored in different… spaces (look up), but required me to learn more hotkeys (yay! more friends).

The software

When it comes down to software, I think there’s enough good quality software out there for the normal user – including those popular quirky applications that people play around with that I couldn’t use at work. The provided software seems less complicated and bloated than Windows’ alternatives. Just note that there isn’t an “uninstall thingy” to remove software. Most of the time, you have to manually delete the application in the Applications folder (which could scare people who are massively paranoid about deleting files).

But if you’re missing Windows, you can always buy Parallels, which can run Windows on your Mac almost seemlessly (it’s a virtual machine for you techies out there). Great software, and it’s easy to use. Boot Camp is an alternative that’s a bit more complicated (partitioning your computer), but it comes with the operating system.

Oh yeah, you can’t really play “hardcore” games either without Windows. Almost forgot.

The little bad things

Two small quibbles (because my quick googling skills weren’t sufficient):

  1. I still can’t find the up one level button when I’m browsing through files and its stuck in a folder.
  2. I haven’t found a way to manually type in which directory you want to go into.

(edit: 1. Normally, it’s Command + Up, but I overrided it with a Spaces hotkey, so I have to make a custom hotkey (too lazy to fix at the moment though), 2. Command + Shift + G, thanks again Roman)

Steve the developer

Warning: If you don’t know what a conditional expression is, skip to the conclusion.

So did I write about Parallels, the great virtual machine (VM) software? I think I did. Mac has some other good VMs too, which can provide good/cheap/clean testing environments for those developing with platform-depandant languages (cough, Abstractive Software, cough). I did some quick research and I don’t think the VMs on Windows are as good (correct me if I’m wrong), but Wikipedia says that only PearPC can emulate a Mac.

Having a Unix base is nice, as the file structure is similar to Unix. Bash is also included, which is way better than the Windows shell.

The main problem about developing on the Mac is that the Mac is usually the last OS to be supported. Manually building libraries is a huge hassle, which is why packagers such as Fink and MacPorts exist. For a computer neat freak like me, I don’t like having things done for me, as I get paranoid about other things getting installed (and I’ve had MacPorts install random stuff by accident).


Coming from a Windows XP background and using the Mac for over two months now, I believe that working on Windows is simply easier and logical to work with, but the differences are not huge (especially if you have two monitors). Just be prepared to have a larger learning curve (learning hotkeys and making sense of Mac’s windows) and expect your workflow to slow down if you’re going through a transition. Once you’re over the bump, you’re set. And most people will probably work faster after learning those hotkeys and using their software.

If you think the iLife style is worth going through the learning curve and price, go for the Mac. Get one now before school starts.

For the developers out there, the availability of good virtual machine software for testing may be a selling point for the Mac. Otherwise, the alternatives are likely better.

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