iMac Journeys: First Impressions

Back in January, I pledged to buy an iMac this year. I did not actually receive my iMac until Monday. Unbelievably, it sat in its packing box for four days. Hey, I was busy doing other things like buying a car for our daughter to drive to college. Last night I finally felt that I had sufficient leisure to open it up. I placed it temporarily on a card table next to my aging and noisy Windows desktop computer.

I generally knew what to expect from my three-hour Mac tour back in January. Mine is not the souped-up iMac, just the base $1199 model available on the Apple web site. It comes with a twenty-inch monitor. Originally, I was going to get the Mac mini, which is a small Mac box minus the peripherals. When I added up all the options, extra memory and bigger hard disk that I wanted, it was not that much more expensive to just buy the iMac. Particularly since I was not paying for it, but the government was (I paid for it with our stimulus check) I felt more inclined to go with a pricier model. Except for paying sales tax, my iMac was essentially free. (More specifically my grandchildren will be paying for it. However, since my daughter does not plan to have any children, I guess it is free.)

There is not much to assembling an iMac since the motherboard, CPU, memory and disk drive are stuffed somewhere inside the housing of its flat panel monitor. Also inside (but not obviously) there is a camera and a microphone. Presumably, the “i” in iMac is not just for “me” but also for “integrated”. Apple’s selling point has always been that you are getting a completely engineered package, with software optimized to run on a particular type of highly engineered hardware. Part of the reason that Microsoft Windows is so lousy is that it is expected to work with a broad range of off the shelf computer peripherals. When you control the hardware, presumably you have extra time to work on stuff that matters, like the ultra slick OS/X Leopard operating system that comes with the iMac. There are just four things to plug in: the power cord, the keyboard, the mouse (which plugs into the side of the keyboard) and an Ethernet cable.

I am sure some iMac bigots will tell me I am so full of it, but putting the on-off button behind the left side of the flat panel monitor is counterintuitive. I guess doing so would make the iMac itself look less “clean” since, as we know, Apple is big on aesthetics. For a few minutes, it did not seem to boot. Perhaps it did not power on right away because I expected something to happen instantly. Don’t panic. Press the button and give it a few seconds.

Also a disappointment: its Chicklet keyboard. It has to go. Fortunately, my friend Jim Goldbloom knows exactly what replacement keyboard to purchase. So while overall Apple does a great job of design, they have a few minor deficiencies. I do like its mouse though, and its tiny scroll wheel. I know some people hate it, but think it is much easier to manipulate.

I have just begun dabbling with the OS/X Leopard operating system but the features I saw in January are even more appealing now that I own one. OS/X has a curious absence of OK and Cancel buttons. In general, the Mac design is that when you make a choice it should be instantly set. This is one of those obvious user interface ideas that seems to have eluded Redmond and I really like.

The first application I installed was the Firefox web browser. I used the built in Safari web browser to download it. It was straightforward to install, but because a Mac is not a PC, it behaves a bit differently. I also struggled with moving my bookmarks. I eventually found the bookmarks.html file, put it on my flash drive, and then loading it from my flash drive. I had to reorganize the bookmarks I imported for them to appear on the bookmarks toolbar. I also need to move my cookies, which I am sure can be done, but Firefox provides no obvious way to do it.

Mac Mail was simple to set up. Mac Mail is a very slick email client that I look forward to exploring and integrates slickly with the iChat and iCalendar programs built into OS/X Leopard. I can already tell that it will be better than Eudora, my previous high water mark for an email program. I pointed it to the GMail IMAP server. IMAP allows your email to stay on the server. I could not figure out why the email was not moving into my local inbox. Since I had never used IMAP before, my confusion was understandable. Particularly nice about Mac Mail is how the Mail icon on the dock will show you the number of new messages. Moving my 10 years of email out of Thunderbird and into Mac Mail looks like it will be challenging.

Spotlight (which does ultra fast searches of your hard disk), the Dock (which anchors programs to an easy location near the bottom of the screen) and Spaces (which lets you divide your screen into multiple windows and place applications in each, essentially giving you multiple desktops) are all neat features. They demonstrate how far more usable OS/X is compared with Windows. Doubtless, I will discover much more in time. I need to buy an external USB hard drive soon so I can enable the Time Machine feature in OS/X. This lets you easily go back in time to see and retrieve previous versions of documents. It also transparently performs a general backup of your files.

There are some peculiarities with the OS/X Leopard interface compared to Windows. You can only stretch windows by dragging the bottom right corner of the window, rather than grabbing a side of the window. In addition, even though your application may not take up the whole window, a context specific menu always appears at the top of the screen.

Integrating useful applications will be a challenge. The Mac simply does not have the breath of software that Windows has. I determined though that it did not matter for the applications I needed. There is a version of Quicken for the Mac but you cannot easily export your data from the Windows version to the Mac. You have to trim account and category names to 15 or fewer characters, remove special characters from your investment fund names and then export to QIF (Quicken Interface Format) files. QIF is the equivalent of storing a spreadsheet as a tab delimited file, in other words it is very basic. I have a feeling I will be I will be uttering some swear words before I successfully have Quicken working with my Windows data on the Mac. The Mac version of Quicken tends to lag a year behind the PC version, which is not a problem for me because I tend to upgrade only every other year. I am a bit miffed because even though I own a copy of Quicken, I apparently cannot upgrade to the Mac for a reduced fee. In fact, Quicken charges a premium for its Mac version: $69.99. Yikes!

I need the equivalent of Microsoft Office soon. Apple has its own peculiar version called iWork. I am sure it is spiffy, but given the ubiquity of the Microsoft Office Suite, it is probably too much of a transition. I am more likely to install OpenOffice, since it is free.

I also want something equivalent to Choicemail for the Mac. ChoiceMail is a client-based white-list email filter. It requires people who are not in my address book to authenticate at a web site using a CAPTCHA interface. I suspect there are Mac Mail proxies out there but they will take time to locate and install. Mac Mail does have a reasonably good spam filter, but like all spam filters, it is not perfect. I should also be able to get Dreamweaver for the Mac, since I have a license for it for Windows. I hope that any upgrade costs will be minimal. In addition, I need to figure out how to easily mount to external web servers so I can keep earning bucks in my side business. Since OS/X is a certified version of Linux, this should not prove too challenging.

Stay tuned for more observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the Mac in the weeks ahead. As you might expect, my impressions in the first twenty-four hours are quite positive.

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