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Mac v PC – Beauty and the Beast?

Over to the Dark Side…?
Monday 24 October 2011.

Mac users look down on PC users: they think we have no taste. PC users look down on Mac users: we think they have no technical savvy. For almost thirty years I’ve been a PC user. Since the release of Windows 3.1 in 1992 I have been not just a PC user but also a Windows user. A few weeks ago, I did the unthinkable: I bought myself a Mac.

The initial impetus for this decision was provided by a number of requests for help from students of my Ruby programming course, many of whom are Mac users. But I have to admit that I was also curious to find out if the Mac really is as great as its admirers would have us believe.

Here, then, are a few thoughts…

First, it has to be said that there are a great many things about the Mac, and its user interface, that take some getting used to. For example, the windows scroll in the opposite direction from those on Microsoft Windows. On Windows, I roll my mouse wheel downwards and the contents of the window scroll upwards. On a Mac, when I want to scroll upwards, I stroke my mouse in upwards! Obvious when you think about it but not what I’m accustomed to.

Then there is the keyboard. It confuses the hell out of me. I’ve been learning to program Objective-C in the Mac’s XCode IDE. All went well until I needed to write #include. I spent a happy ten minutes searching for the # key. There isn’t one! It turns out that you have to press ALT+3 to produce a #. Another oddity is that my lovely dinky little keyboard, which is smooth, metallic and much prettier than my ugly PC keyboard, hasn’t got a Delete key. The standard way to delete a character is to use the Backspace-delete key. In some Mac applications, including XCode, I can do forward-deletion using CTRL+D – but that doesn’t work in Microsoft Word. For someone who makes as many typing mistakes as I do, that’s frustrating, to say the least. After much Googling, I eventually found I can forward-delete by holding down the FN key and pressing Backspace-delete. This is not the most convenient keyboard shortcut but I guess it’s better than nothing.

It’s not all bad news, however. The good news (and for me, this is really good news!) is that everything comes with menus. I love menus. I didn’t know just how much I loved menus until Microsoft started removing them from its applications and replacing them with those horrible, space-hogging, counter-intuitive ribbon thingummies. Well, the Mac version of Word has a ribbon too but it can be shrunk away out of sight so that menu lovers can make use of good, old-fashioned, drop-down menus.

Word on the Mac - the joy of menus!

The advantage of a menu is that a) it takes up very little space and b) everything you ever need is listed on it. Microsoft surgically removed menus from its Windows Office applications two releases ago. Even now, I still can’t find my way around all the commands that used to be conveniently located on menus. I can’t be alone in this. In the Windows version of Office 2010 Microsoft has even supplied an interactive Help system to assist people to track down all the features that used to be on the menus. But, given the lack of a Help menu, even this is hard to find. Let me give you a tip. Click the ‘?’ at the top-right of an Office application and search for ‘menus’ in the Help dialog. The first entry that pops up is called ‘Learn where menu and toolbar commands are in Office 2010 and related products’. This comes with an interactive guide with lots of snazzy animations that (frustratingly) show you a menu system and then show you how to find the functions listed on it. It must have taken someone quite a long time to create that guide. I am of the opinion that the time would have been better spent just putting the menus back into the software.

Word on Windows - this is the help system that shows you menus that the software won’t let you use!

Of all the stuff on the Mac, that’s the one thing I like the most: menus. They are so damned easy to use. I am not quite so keen on where the menus appear, however. No matter which application you are using, its menu appears docked at the top of the screen. This is another thing that confuses the hell out of me. If I forget which application’s window I last clicked in, it’s easy to mistake which menu is currently active. I frequently expect to click the XCode menu only to find that the Word menu is active. I have to go into an XCode window and click something just to force its menu to come to the top.

So, in short, which do I now prefer: PC/Windows or Mac? There is no getting away from the fact that my familiarity with Windows generally makes it easier for me to use. That may change over time, of course. But in terms of its sheer beauty, the Mac wins hands down. Both the software environment and the elegant, slim, hardware are far more beautiful than any PC I’ve ever used. Let’s put it this way. When people come to visit, I often tell them “Come and see my Mac”. I have never ever ever felt any urge to tell a visitor to come and see my PC. The iMac is a thing of beauty. My PC is a tool of my trade.

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  • Mac v PC – Beauty and the Beast?
    2 November 2011, by Brad

    Huw- Im really curious what you think of X-Code since you are a big fan of (and run your business off of) Visual Studio. Have you tried Textmate and BBEdit also? Curiousity is getting the best of me and Ive been thinking of buying a Mac Mini if only to get ideas on how to configure Linux. Id like to use the Intel C++ compiler in Mac but I doubt the IDE/debugger toolchain would support it.

    • Mac v PC – Beauty and the Beast?
      2 November 2011, by Huw Collingbourne

      I don’t generally like to offer criticism of other IDEs (as you say, my company does IDEs built in Visual Studio so obviously I am not unbiased ;-) ). But, since we don’t do anything on the Mac or for Objective-C, maybe I can allow myself the freedom to give an opinion. In short, XCode is ok, I prefer it to Eclipse (which isn’t saying a great deal). It does tend to exit abruptly a bit too often for comfort. I also find the way that you have to ’connect up’ code and visual objects to be very peculiar. I’m used to double-clicking a button or selecting something in a property/events panel. XCode likes me to draw lines to connect code and components. I am not yet really "comfortable" with XCode, to be honest. I am still at the stage where I have to search for online help to find out how to do things. I don’t think, in all honesty, it’s in the same league as Visual Studio, but it’s ok. I can live with it. I haven’t tried any other Mac editors or IDEs apart from ActiveState’s free KomodoEdit which I use for Ruby. I know a lot of Ruby people like TextMate. Personally I would really prefer a complete IDE rather than an editor.

  • Mac v PC – Beauty and the Beast?
    30 October 2011, by Patrick

    I bought a Lion based MacBook Pro this summer but I seem to remember I was rather upset by the fact that the OS immediately wants your credit card details for the App Store.

    I’d hate it if in 5 year’s time OSes end up trying to sell you software all the time.