A Linux nerd’s first Mac contact

And now for something completely different. At my employer we have a few users working on a MacBook voluntarily. I have never used a Mac seriously before. Given the chaos of Gnome 3 and the increasingly unhappy Linux desktop crowd I thought it's time to check it out to see what the Mac users love about it and learn a few lessons. Of course this won't be a fair comparison nor in in-depth review – I just spent two hours with a borrowed MacBook to get an impression and here it is.

Case: The hardware looks and feels very solid. Surprisingly the lid does not lock but is just held by a magnet. I wonder if it would open accidentally or catch dirt.

Power connector: Apple is using a fancy magnetic connection between the power supply and the laptop. While this is surely helpful if a kid stumbles upon the power cable it seems a bit tricky to connect it. I'm just happy with the old-fashioned power plugs.

Docking station: That's an easy one. There is none. At least not from Apple. Seems like the MacBook is supposed to be used as-is. That's probably nice if you don't have to work on it all day or are a road warrior. But it's surely no replacement for a decent keyboard and a large monitor.

Installation: The first-time installation of MacOS happens pretty quickly within few minutes and barely asks any questions. This is much faster than installing Linux or Windows. Reminds me of the Ubuntu standard installation that hides as much as possible.

Touchpad: There is no trackpoint – just a touchpad. Matter of taste but I can work faster using a trackpoint. The mouse button (there is just one) is built into the lower end of the touchpad. So you can't drag'n'drop with just one finger. Seems that you are supposed to abuse the lower end as a mouse button with one hand and drag your finger on the touchpad with the other hand. Okay. The multitouch gestures are pretty nice and 1, 2, 3 and 4 fingers mean different things. With three fingers for example you can tell the web browser to go back or forth in the history. Pretty nice although I've been using mouse gestures since the first day of Opera and am using the mouse for that purpose anyway. The touchpad is rather huge and nearly as deep as the keyboard – seems a bit exaggerated. And even though it's huge I rather wanted to use a real mouse instead. Also there is just one mouse button (built into the touchpad). The right mouse button can be emulated by keeping one of the Alt keys pressed (I'm running out of fingers slowly). And as far as I know there is no middle mouse button – so no copy/paste in terminal windows.

Keyboard: They keyboard is pretty nice. Its labeling is much more simplified than a common PC-based. (I randomly failed at hitting the right keys although the key layout was similar to my valued ThinkPad but I can't put my fingers on the reason for that.) The insert/delete/pos1/end/PgUp/PgDown keys are completely missing and emulated by other keys – I don't really like that but I can probably get used to that. What I don't understand is why Apple put the '@' key on Alt-L instead of AltGr-Q. (Yes, I know it's not really called "Alt".) Guess what happens when you are used to any other computer in the world and try to type '@'. The application is closed – often without even asking for confirmation. I also don't understand why there are different Fn, Ctrl, Alt and Cmd qualifying keys while Apple tries to simplify the keyboard otherwise. Also surprising is that the function keys (F1 to F12) use their special meaning by default (e.g. make the screen brighter) instead of the actual function keys. That's opposite to what I'm used on my ThinkPad. What's nice though is the keyboard illumination which works even better than the LED above the screen that my ThinkPad has. Oh, and something that Apple does as wrongly as Lenovo: the lower left key is not "Ctrl" but "Fn". That is annoying to everyone who is coming from a normal PC-style desktop keyboard because you will keep hitting the wrong key for weeks.

Screen: Actually the screen is pretty okay regarding resolution and contrast. But its glossy surface is nothing short of annoying. I need a computer display – not a bathroom mirror.

Desktop experience: On the desktop I had a mixed experience. There is nothing really revolutionary that made me get excited. I'm used to the effects and extra functionality (Compiz), virtual desktops and docks on Linux. The most annoying issue on the desktop is that Apple decouples the menus from the windows. The top bar displays the menu depending on which window has the focus. That doesn't make sense to me at all. Widgets that work together should stay together. Something else that is slightly confusing is that clicking the close icon on the windows just minimizes the window. And there is no task bar – you can just tell that the application is running from a little marker near the icon in the dock. To really close an application you have to press Alt-Q or choose an option from the menu. Is there so much RAM that you don't have to close applications any more? Okay, virtual desktops are available as "Screens". Many useful features work very similar to what I've been used from Compiz quite a while. The "Filer" (to manage files and directories) is a bit confusing. I'd rather like to know where exactly my files are on disk and I'm missing the transparency of that here. Why can't I remove the Adobe Flash installer from the desktop? Where is the software installed actually? How do I get rid of old files in the download folder? Perhaps my father-in-law wouldn't care but I do. I don't like it if my computer tries to do things automatically and hides the complexity from me. Something that I also dislike is the overuse of "Mystery meat". Often I just can't tell the purpose of a certain icon or widget and have to try it to find out. Is there no style guide for applications? Even the applications that are shipped with the MacBook suffer from that so that's not a third-party problem. I can't stand it if every application behaves differently. Yes, Gtk GUIs aren't really beautiful – but they are at least consistent.

System settings: Nothing surprising. Just that it totally reminds me of KDE for some reason. 🙂

Conclusion: A MacBook is a solid experience. Everything is well integrated. You don't need any extra drivers like in Windows nor fight with different pieces of software to set up your favorite desktop like in Linux. That's surely an advantage if the operating system and hardware come from the same company. On the other hand the Mac appears to be not very customizable. Apple tries to hide the complexity of modern computing from you. Which means it gets in your way if you know what you are doing. But it's a real time-saver if you are happy with the defaults and it will surely be a reliable workhouse that you can depend on. It is full of nice little gimmicks but nothing of that is revolutionary. As a power user I feel a bit limited. I'm the type who wants to customize every piece of the desktop. Yes, I'm one of the rare people who read the owner's manual of the hardware they buy to get the most out of it. On the Mac there is not really a handbook because you don't need it. So the ultimate conclusion is: if I should become totally frustrated of the Linux desktop then I would much rather get a Mac than a Windows laptop. But that's more like the lesser evil.

Bonus rant: At least I understand why Gnome 3 is developing their way. They seem to think that Apple is always right and thus eliminate all but one mouse button and make everything fixed. But that's really a drawback and they should have thought twice. It also gives me an explanation why Ubuntu has introduced "Unity". It's just a re-implementation of the MacOS lower edge dock. I'm neither happy with the Mac's dock nor with Unity – I just dislike the concept.

P.S.: Let me know in your comments where I'm totally wrong and I'll happily correct the article. I'm giving back the borrowed MacBook though so even you if give me smart tips I won't be able to try them out. Thanks though.

5 thoughts on “A Linux nerd’s first Mac contact

  • 2011-11-14 at 00:04

    I tend to use one hand on the touch pad for both mouse movement and clicking, with my thumb at the bottom of the pad for the latter.

    as for right clicking, ctl+click is an option, but I tend to touch two fingers at the top of the pad and thumb click for this.

    when not being used to type, my left hand is almost always at rest on the keyboard with my thumb on the command key, and my pinky on the tab key. This allows for quick access to common keyboard shortcuts like command+tab, command+w, command+q, command+c command+v, and others.

    non-glossy screens are available but are an upgrade option, tacking on a few extra bucks and not usually available in the retails stores, at least not where I live.

  • 2012-03-01 at 20:26

    close window .. closes the window. a window isn’t the application. but it doesn’t minimize the window. thats a different button.

    some App’s quit when you close their last window some don’t. I think iTunes does, but xCode doesn’t (both apple products)
    think about a word processing app. just because i closed the document i’m working on, doesn’t mean i want to quit the app. Maybe i want to open another document or create a new one. This makes it easier to do that if the menu is a menu bar at the top of the screen. (and the app is still running…)

    mac OS X has this thing called virtual memory(i’m making fun of the fact you dont’ seem to know what that is)
    and it handles it pretty well. most times you can open programs and never close them. If you dont’ use a program it just gets paged out to disk. ready for you when you want it back.

    I never liked dock stations. just another point of failure. and many hours wasted trying to get them to work. I like just plugging in my mouse and monitor. much easier.
    (but thats just my taste i realize)

    modern MacBook’s (2010- or so and onwards) don’t have a button below the touchpad. the touchpad IS the button. gets some getting used to. but once you do .. you can move the pointer and click with only one finger. even click and drag. You can still use two fingers as if there was a button at the bottom.

    I could pretty much replace everything you said about the desktop experiance with xWindows (KDE, pre 3 gnome, others) and say the same things.
    point is. with apple. there IS a method to their madness. and sometimes, once you grok it. you will like what they did. other times. you won’t.
    with linux and xWindows. its more of everybody talking at once.

    things i don’t like. no hibernation. if the laptop runs low on battery it will hibernate on its own. so when you turn it back on it will restore. but there is no way to initiate hibernation on your own. So it COULD be done. just .. they dont’ want you to. its for emergency’s only.
    no way to control what the laptop will do when you close the lid. it will go to sleep with few exceptions.

    anyways. i think you need a few more hours. like a month using it as your main machine. i think you will change much what you said in this post. You will have new and different issues… but you will have a better understanding.
    * need only if you want a better understanding…

    • 2012-03-04 at 23:09

      Thank you for the extensive feedback. And, yes, I know what virtual memory and paging is. 😉 I'm still not quite sure I'd get everything running on a Mac the way I'm used on Linux. But perhaps there are other ways that work equally well. I'm a total nerd when it comes to finding shortcuts for virtually everything. And on a Mac I feel I  need the mouse too often. On Linux I've defined a lot of keys to open terminal windows, navigate virtual desktops, move windows across virtual desktops etc. Perhaps I could get that running on MacOS, too. With my rather short evaluation period I may have missed that. Strange enough… I wanted to look up those things in the handbook but couldn't find any. The paper handbook shipping with the Mac didn't really say much more than booting the Mac. And the online help was pretty useless either. Does Apple believe that their products are so easy to use that you find everything working intuitively? That would mean there aren't any shortcuts – or they are so thoroughly hidden that only insiders can find them.

      • 2012-03-21 at 01:17

        Just wanted to say that there is a way to do everything you were just talking about either from within the OS (System Preferences, Keyboard shortcuts, Spaces) or through 3rd party software/plugins. My particular favorite is Alfred App. Google it. Pretty sweet utility that fires up with a certain key command and gives you a lot of different search functionality within your machine, customizable key commands or customized queries that can be tailored to your liking.

        Apple only tells you what you need to know to use their software and get the best possible experience. By "you" I mean the majority of people that are buying their machines. They're not trying to be everything, to everyone, but there is tons of documentation in their KB, their forums and just online (LifeHacker). 

        I personally am of the thinking that whatever works best for you is the right tool, but if you don't try out new tools you'll never know if you would be more successful or not.

        I agree that to get a real feel for it you'd be better off giving it some more time, but in real life it comes down whether it's really worth it for you or not.

        Also, thanks for the write ups. Found this blog by looking for some information on SMTP authentication and relays regarding my Mac OS X Server running Mail. 

        Trevor Gerzen

  • 2016-05-02 at 07:43

    Yes, I know that I’m replying years late, but if I just saw this, someone else is likely to see it after I did. And, it is vital that they see what I have to say as my opinion is the most important of all Internet users. 🙂

    You wrote: “The most annoying issue on the desktop is that Apple decouples the menus from the windows. The top bar displays the menu depending on which window has the focus. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. ”

    That was my initial impression when using the Mac, but the logic of it became clear to me over time: It allows a full-width menu regardless of the window size. It also allows long menus to grow downwards without concerns about them rolling off the bottom of the screen. I’ve seen way too many hokey workarounds in GUIs, with menus and submenus sprouting off in all directions when a window is near the bottom right edge of a screen.

    I started out with computers in the late 1970s and didn’t switch to Mac until about 2008, so if I can get used to it, you can, too.


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