iMac Journeys, Part Two

After a couple weeks, my iMac and I are settling in comfortably together. There is little sign that this marriage will require a quickie Las Vegas divorce. Mostly I love what I am experiencing. However, after having spent the last fifteen years in the bizarre world of Microsoft Windows, I can see it will take some time for me to reorient my brain to think like a Mac.

The extra peripherals have arrived and are installed. The most important one is this matias OS/X keyboard. Finally, I can type reliably again, although this keyboard is of no higher quality than any other plastic keyboard I have used. The chicklet keyboard that came with my iMac just was not working out. Also installed is a super quiet OWC Mercury Elite Pro external hard drive. It is hooked up via an ultra fast FireWire 800 cable to a FireWire port on the back of the iMac. It has 250 gigabytes, which is about average for an external hard drive these days. Its real virtue is that it lets me enable perhaps the most important but most neglected software built into the OS/X operating system, a utility called Time Machine. Time Machine not only keeps hourly, daily, weekly and monthly backups of my hard disk automatically, but also has a cool interface so I can go back in time to easily retrieve previous versions of a file. Using it to search for previous versions feels a little bit being Tony and Doug in that 60’s TV show Time Tunnel. Its main virtue is not that it keeps backups. You could do that on a PC for many years too. Its virtue is that it does it all automatically so you never have to think or even worry about it. Like much else about the Mac, after a tiny bit of set up, it just works.

That is not to say I have not had a few quirks. Mac Mail, an otherwise excellent email program, hung on me yesterday. Fortunately, OS/X figured it out and gave me the option to restart it. In addition, Mac Mail got confused today. It told me that an email in my Inbox was from X when actually it was from Y. Hopefully this is just a momentary glitch because otherwise I really like Mac Mail. I like the way that when you are focused on a message it automatically highlights other emails in the folder from the same person. I like its slick integration with IMAP mail servers. IMAP essentially lets me put all my email on GMail, but has the advantage of a much nicer user interface than GMail. Of course, if all my email is in GMail, then I can access all ten years of my email from any browser.

My Mac is just phenomenal at finding stuff easily. There is always Spotlight, which is a super fast and super easy to use search index of your computer. However, many applications, like Mac Mail, have a program-specific version of Spotlight integrated into it. In Mac Mail, for example, there is a convenient search box. Type anything in there and you do not even have to hit Return for it to start searching. It starts showing a results window specific to folder you are focused on in Mac Mail. It took a while to figure out how to import my email on my Windows machine. I was using Mozilla Thunderbird. Mac Mail would not let me directly import it from my PC version of Thunderbird. So I had to install Thunderbird for the Mac and import from the mailboxes on my PC. Then I used Mac Mail’s built in import facility for Thunderbird for the Mac. Forty thousand plus emails saved over the last ten years imported quickly and flawlessly.

So far, I found equivalents for various PC programs that I was used to using. I used Webdrive to remotely access computers as drive letters inside Windows, using the familiar FTP or SSH protocols. You can do this with a Mac but it is something of a hassle to pass the authentication information in an automated manner. ExpanDrive is an OS/X equivalent to Webdrive. I also needed a good visual code merge tool. WinMerge is a Windows solution that is neat and has the virtue of being free. I found a Mac equivalent called DeltaWalker that unfortunately is not free. That is the general problem with Mac software. There is a lot more free stuff for the PC than there is for the Mac. I do not mind paying extra money for this software for the conveniences built into the OS/X operating system.

Quicken for the Mac remains an issue. It is a little disappointing to pay $69.99 for the software to discover that it cannot even do some of the same features as my Windows version. For example, it cannot do scheduled transactions. This is annoying but right now, the larger problem is simply getting my 18 years of financial data moved over. I tried the conversion tips but they did not work. I get a “transaction file full” error when I move over my transactions. It looks like I will need some phone support from Quicken to clear this hurdle. Unfortunately, this means that I cannot donate my Windows machine quite yet.

The Mac has a cool multiple desktop feature called Spaces. The only problem is that old habits break hard. I find myself ALT-TABbing a lot, which in the Mac world is CMD-TAB but it does the same thing. I will refine these skills with time.

I really like The Dock, which is something like the Windows task bar that hangs out on the bottom of the screen, only bigger and with better icons. Unlike the Windows task bar, which only shows running applications, this one allows you to store shortcuts to your favorite applications. It also tells you which are running by placing a small luminescent blue dot beneath it. The Dock is always there so you do not have to navigate using a Start button. If an application needs your attention, it does so by jumping up and down. It is hard to miss and kind of cute!

I have just begun exploring some of the OS/X utilities. I have a movies folder and it is neat how in the folder view you can see a sample frame from the movie automatically. In addition, OS/X is smart enough to provide right and left arrow buttons on each side to let you easily browse your movies. There is also a scroll bar available to quickly zoom through your movies. On the other hand, I find some things annoying about the iTunes program. It does not seem to like Windows media and there is no conversion utility to turn them into MP3s, at least that I have found. Naturally, it wants to sell me iTunes. Moreover, iTunes seems to want to only work with an iPod. I own a Creative MP3 player. So far, to store music to it I have to mount it as a device and copy and paste MP3s into it.

I like OS/X’s Sleep mode. Windows has a Hibernate mode that most people do not use. Unlike Windows Hibernate, which can take thirty seconds or more of disk activity before it goes into hibernate mode, it is just a few seconds with the iMac. This is very convenient. Sleep mode uses very little power, and it takes only a couple seconds for the iMac to wake up. So I do not have to feel that guilty leaving it in sleep mode overnight. Everything is where I left it and fully accessible.

Unquestionably, OS/X is a superior to any edition of Windows. I would not characterize it as completely intuitive or 100% reliable. However, it is generally very consistent and reliable. With my memory upgrade to four gigabytes, it is also now blazingly fast. With its faster memory, it can download files much faster than my Windows machine. I figured the problem was that my Internet connection was relatively slow. It turns out that my Windows memory was the major bottleneck when I downloaded files.

Ah, engineering. That is what you really buy when you buy an iMac: premium hardware specifically designed to operate with the premium software. Using Windows is like driving on a gravel road. Using an iMac is like driving on a newly paved interstate highway with no traffic. It feels slick because it is slick.

More iMac adventures to follow.

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