Friday, July 16, 2010

The Great Mac Debate

Let it be known up front that I have always been a Mac-hater. Some would attribute this to a tendency which I’ve identified in myself before in this space: to hate something just because everybody else likes it. I’ve often wondered if that was the reason myself. So many of my friends like it, could I just be reacting to them and not to the product itself? Yet every time I used a Mac something else about it turned me off. My friends would tell me I just had to use it for a while and (like the new Facebook) once I got used to the different features I would see how superior of a product it was.

When I started working this summer, they set me up on a MacBook Pro with Snow Leopard on it. I immediately saw this as an excellent opportunity to clear things up in my own mind. Using it every day for three months would grant me that longevity of experience that is truly necessary to make an informed judgment about it. I did my best to approach it with an open mind and an understanding that an adjustment was needed as I transitioned between a PC and a Mac.

I didn’t need three months. 160 user hours later (give or take) I have already come to a decision within my mind: it wasn’t just my tendency as a hater. I will never, ever own a Mac. Why? Well, I thought it would be easier to break it down into what I do like about Macs (to show why I’m not an irrational hater) and then explain what I don’t.

I should also explain before I start that I use Windows 7, which changes a lot of my comments. If I was still suffering through Vista, I may see some of these things differently. For instance, connecting to wireless networks was terrible in Vista—it was a complicated, multi-step process that was an absolute pain. Mac, however, had a very usable one that is very streamlined and made it easier. However, W7 took the Mac concept and made it better, more informative, and more useful, so that I much prefer the W7 system over the Mac. Realize that this will be an often unstated thread running through much of this post.

Things I Like About Macs

Spaces and Exposé: I’ll admit, these are two incredibly powerful tools for organizing and locating your windows. Windows has tried to do things like it, but has failed miserably. I love using them both, and if they were the only criteria, I would be on a Mac in a second.

Dashboard: Again, Apple has figured out widgets in a way that Microsoft and even Google have not. Seamlessly integrated and easy to use with tons of choices…again, Mac wins. Sidebar? Puh-lease. Not even in the same league.

Hot Corners: Some laptops have this feature as well, but it seems that Macs is better than any PC version I’ve used. Especially when there is no key combination to lock your computer (a la WINDOWS + L), it’s easy to just move your mouse down to the corner to pull up the screensaver. It’s a nice feature.

Power Cord: This one’s tricky. The cord is a double-edged sword, but I’ll address what I like about it here, and what I don’t like down below. What I like is the magnetic power port, especially on the new ones where you have that snazzy little bar that clips on. Besides just looking cool, it’s a great idea to avoid getting your laptop whisked off the table. Brilliant, Apple.

Desktop Usability: The idea of having hard drives, CDs, flash drives, etc., show up on the desktop is a good one. It’s always easy to find what you’re looking for (especially since you can’t find it in Finder…but more on that later). This is enhanced by…

Window Layout: Mac seems to have an absolute fear of letting window corners take up the whole screen. You should always be able to see multiple windows in Apple’s mind. This makes it easier to use the Desktop as well. It’s generally a good system, and one I seek to implement in my own PC.

Basic Systems Settings: It’s easy to change your desktop, screensaver, power options, etc., in Mac. W7 improved the Control Panel for PCs, but it’s still not as simple and functional as System Preferences. Especially on two-screens, this is very helpful.

See, there are lots of things I like about Macs. But obviously that’s not the whole story, or I’d be going out to buy one now.

Things I Dislike About Macs

Finder: I’ll just get it out right now. I hate Finder. I always have, and no matter how much I use it, it continues to frustrate me with its remarkable lack of usability. Now, it’s very good for a very specific kind of search. If all you’re doing is trying to find a file, then it works great. Try to do anything else, however, and you’re going to run into problems. Moving files to different folders is remarkably cumbersome, as is basically any kind of arrangement process. It essentially requires you to have two windows open to do anything, and if you’re a file structure geek like me, its complete lack of any flexibility in viewing options is incredibly frustrating. Try as I might, Finder remains the thing I hate most about Macs. There is close competition, however, from…

The Dock: Okay, seriously? When was this ever a good idea? The Dock makes Expose necessary by completely removing functionality. Basically all that it’s good for is launching programs, but once the program is launched, you have to use Expose to find it again. Minimizing is even worse, because the file becomes a screenshot of the window without a name, which is frustrating to use. Now, in W7, I think they take the good things about the Dock and the good things about the Windows taskbar and make it incredibly functional. Big moveable program buttons (just like the Dock) with the flexibility to either give separate windows when they’re open or group them all under the icon…it looks great, is incredibly functional, and adapts to meet different organizational styles. It’s what the Dock should be.

Obsession with Floating: I already said above that I like the way the various windows float, making the desktop more usable and making it appear that you have more screenspace. In an effort to reduce clutter, however, Mac took floating way too far (or at least, that’s the only explanation I can think of). Opening even a remotely complex program means that multiple windows are going to open and get lost in the Expose shuffle. Nowhere is this clearer than with…

Office for Macs: No matter what anyone says, open-source word-processing programs suck (even OpenOffice…sorry guys). Nothing is as usable or as powerful (or, admittedly, as frustrating) as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Yet Office for Macs is terrible. Half of the functionality even of Word 2003, much less 2007 or 2010, is gone or incredibly difficult to access. All the toolbars float, so if you’re working in multiple documents and moving them around, especially on multiple screens, your toolbars are never in the place you need them to be. On a PC you always know exactly where to find the tool you need: it’s always at the top of the document you’re working in. On a Mac, you never know. It could be anywhere, and it’s probably collapsed anyways. In Excel the most important part, the formula bar, disappears everywhere. It’s never in a convenient place. I could go on, but you get the idea. The world’s most powerful word-processing and spreadsheet-creating programs are frustratingly unusable on a Mac.

Main Toolbar: Moving right along with the obsession with floating, part of Mac’s solution is to always put the main toolbar on top of the screen. No matter where the window is, you always know where to find the toolbar. This is incredibly inconvenient, though, since it usually involves using your cursor more to move around the screen trying to get to the toolbar (it seems like a minor point, but it’s a big part of computer usability), and creates an extra step or two to access it for any other program. It’s annoying and unwieldy.

Power Cord: Here’s the other half: the rest of the power cord (besides the actual power port into the computer) is awful. The huge bulky surge protector is nice for wrapping up the cord, but try and plug it into the wall and it hogs the entire outlet and falls out. If the outlet is even a little bit sunk it, it’s unusable unless you get the other half of the cord, which is three prong and doesn’t work in half the outlets. It’s clunky and (in my opinion) ugly. Not that PC cords are good to look at, but I don’t expect them to be like I would from Apple.

Right-Clicks: I don’t care what everyone says—CTRL+Click is not “just as usable” as the right click button. Sure, it’s not much extra work, but when you already use a million shortcuts, making the button two spaces over into the right click causes immense confusion and mistakes. I know this is something that becomes more natural with time, but I don’t like having to use two hands when I don’t have to. It’s a minor thing that is a big usability issue, and you’d think Apple would have figured that out by now. (I know that the new mice come with the two-finger-click ability, which is nice, but still to my mind not as functional as a straight-up right click.)

Network Controls: I have to use a network extensively at work. Finder is terrible at networks. It’s hard to connect, hard to find where you want to be, hard to make usable shortcuts, and all that. Here’s a small point that has caused much pain for me: if you set up an alias (really, an “alias”? That’s the best you could come up with?) to a folder, when you click that alias it doesn’t give you the filepath you followed. So say you want to move one folder up. You can’t. You have to go back to the beginning and find your way there. It’s terrible for navigating. (This is really just my point about Finder restated, I suppose.)

Other Things: I think the location of the COMMAND key is poorly chosen. CTRL is easy for shortcuts because it’s in a corner, but there’s always some gymnastics going on when I use COMMAND. I know that you get used to it, and I have, but I just think it’s poorly placed. I could go into Mac’s incompatibility with everything, which is important, but which I don’t have the expertise to talk about, or into it’s lack of “smartness” (it’s ability to remember what I did the last time I took an action), or even into my dislike for the design (grey just doesn’t do it for me). But I won’t. I think I’ve said enough.

Overall, the thing I dislike the most about Macs, if I had to sum up everything I’ve said, is a lack of flexibility. Macs are made so that people learn the one process that Apple wants you to follow and then do it every time. If you want to do something differently, it doesn’t like that and it fights you. PCs may be a little more clunky and not quite as streamlined, but you can always find a way to do what you want to do in a way that’s useful for you, not for Microsoft. Apple seems to need to control what its users do. That’s why it hates open-source so much. If you have anybody else coming in and writing code without being under your direct control, things get clunkier. But in this instance, clunkier is more powerful. If you need smooth and streamlined because you’re a photographer or a graphic designer, than Macs are great. But if you actually want personalization and flexibility to use your computer the way you want to use it, not the way it wants you to use it, than PCs win hands-down.

That’s why I will always buy PC.

Oh, and one more thing: my Mac is just as glitchy as my PC. People say Macs aren’t glitchy, but that’s just because AppleCare is so good and replaces everything. Handy, yes, but it doesn’t remove Apple’s problems.


Michael H said...

You still need to open up your mind. ;)

After using a mac almost exclusively for two years, you get used to the keyboard layout, and it's really no better or worse than any one windows laptop's. You can't make everything work for everything, especially not when it's hardware, because some would just rather do things differently. Personally I love the Macbook keyboard, and find it so much easier to do things on by touch than any PC keyboard I've used simply because the keys are all close together without random groupings of Home,End and Delete keys in different layouts.

Oh, and for right clicks you don't have to use ctrl. If you can't do two-fingered click, you must have a really old mac, because my two year old does it. It is way more efficient than having to move your fingers to a separate button like a PC IMO.

I admit that Apple rested on its laurels a bit too much between Leopard and snow leopard. There just wasn't any improvement from a user-interface and working perspective.

I use a lot of open source software, and almost every program that I used to use on windows works just as well on Macs, and there are a few programs that are mac only that I'd really miss on windows.

Oh and glitches? Don't happen on mine, and I don't have applecare and have never had to take mine in for the past two years.

My favorite thing about macs is definitely the hardware. The operating system is for the most part very usable, and always stable, but the best part is the hardware. It just looks and works great and seamlessly combines with the software and operating system.

But hey, if you'd rather use a loud, clunky and poorly designed PC, go ahead. I don't have anything against Windows 7, it just doesn't come installed as the primary operating system on Macbooks. ;)

Laura said...

I'm a mac user--and always have been since I was little (my family only owns macs). Whenever I have to use a PC, it's like I have to jump the learning curve each time. My PC friends have no problems using my mac because it's so simple--they even tell me this.

Like the user above, I have no glitches in my mac, although I do have the Apple Care Protection program.

The two finger click vs. the right click seems irrelevant--especially if you can buy an external mouse that uses a right click (and yes even the right click will work with a mac). However, I favor the two finger click.