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Sunday, June 13, 2010

MacBook Pro review: OS X vs Windows

Getting familiar with Mac OS X, coming from a Windows user perspective

This is Part II of my review, after spending time using the 2010 MacBook Pro unibody, 13" 2.4GHz. 
In part I, we looked at the exterior features and the start-up time. Now we will look at what makes it tick. In other words, the operating system: Mac OS X, also known as "Snow Leopard".

Coming from a Windows computer, there are 3 things to get used to in Mac OS X that might be confusing at first:

1. The Desktop
2. The keyboard
3. The "Explorer" (or lack of it)

Let's Begin.....

Mac OS X Desktop
First off, lets talk about the Desktop. A few differences that might confound those used to Microsoft's OS. Like on Windows, we would normally see a cluttered desktop, full of program shortcut icons. At the bottom we will see the tray, which shows us the open programs. When we want to shift between these programs, it's usually clicking the icons on the tray, or using the old "Alt+Tab" key combination.

Once applications have been opened via the dock, they are shown on the desktop in a window that is sized just enough for the user to view the applications content, unlike the Windows default, which opens programs in full screen. This way allows you to faster access open applications since you see more of them on the screen real estate. Even if you press on the "maximize" button (which are all located on the top-left side, rather than on the familiar Windows top-right) the application will still not encompass the full screen. This will take some getting used to at first, but can easily be circumvented by downloading several "Full Screen" Apps. 

click to zoomOn the Mac OS X, the desktop is often clean and clear of icons, at least that's what Apple is leaning us towards. There isn't so much of a need to put shortcuts onto the desktop screen, because of the Mac Dock. On the dock, the user already has access to the most commonly used programs (or as Apple calls them "Applications"). Any program you ant to add to the dock can easily be dragged onto it, and it will expand to accommodate the added icons. If that's not enough, there is also a folder shortcut on the right end, which will show a list of all the other applications when clicked, and will conveniently minimize again afterwards. On the far right of the Dock, beside the folder shortcuts is the trash can, where users can easily drag items to delete them, or even drag application icons to uninstall them. On the Far left of the dock is the "Finder" icon, which is Apple's substitute for Microsoft's Explorer, but we'll learn more about that further on. Back to the desktop, the user has different options to move the dock around the screen, or also to magnify the dock icons when the cursor hovers above it. You can see more of that in the video portion of the review below.

Eventually, even with the dock and the smaller size of app windows, your desktop will still be cluttered with a lot of open applications. You will then find out that "Alt+Tab" does not work on the Mac OS X. So how does one traverse through the applications? The icons of applications are on the dock, but you don't necessarily know which of them are open. But even without Alt+Tab,the user can still see the familiar line-up of open application icons through several means, the easiest being
to swipe 3 fingers across the touchpad. But they would soon learn that this is unnecessary on the Mac OS X, because of one of it's best features: Expose'. By activating the Expose' feature, all open applications will organize itself into "mini-windows" on the desktop. From there you can click on any one of them to switch to the program immediately. Think of it like displaying all applications as a deck of cards laid out on the desk, and just "drawing out" one of them to look at. Expose' can be activated by swiping your cursor onto a user designated corner of the desktop, or by pressing the F3 key.
Once I used this feature, I could not anymore do without it....It's that easy, that intuitive, and that Useful. I find myself now swiping my cursor to the corner of a Windows desktop to activate Expose' (and sadly, nothing happens).

You can see more of Expose' in action in the video. You can also see a demo of the other useful desktop navigation feature on Mac OS X: "Spaces". This feature works in tandem with Expose' by "multiplying" the desktop from 2 to 16 copies. Each of these copies can function as a normal desktop, and can have it's own set of Applications open by using Expose'. Used in tandem, these 2 features provide the user with probably the easiest and most natural way of managing their applications on a clean and organized desktop.  One of the trademarks of the Mac experience.

The Mac keyboard
The second item of familiarity for WIndows users is the keyboard. Most of it is standard fare, but immediately one would notice that there are 3 keys missing and 1 extra key.
1. There is a control key, and Alt key, but there is another key beside them: "Command". In Mac OS X terms, command actually does most of the things that control would do on a Windows computer. Most applications have their major shortcuts mapped to Command+"key". So what does control do then? On a MAc, it acts more as "right click". Control-clicking on an item is pretty much the same as right-clicking on it in Windows. You can also assign functions to the control key, which gives Mac more options to map out keyboard shortcuts.
2. The Home and End Keys are nowhere to be found on the MacBook keyboard. There is still a way to quickly get to the start and end of texts, and that's by using command+direction arrow.
3. There is no Backspace key. There is a "delete" located where backspace should be, and actually does what backspace is supposed to do...erase text from right to left....this may confuse at first : ) So what's actually missing is the real "delete" key. But the user can still erase text from left to right by pressing Function+delete.

Mac Finder
One of the most integral and most used components of Windows is it's "Explorer". Users can basically see a blueprint of all the programs, media, etc. and edit, move, or delete those files. Apple has it's own counterpart for that called "Finder". By default, Finder is located on the left-most part of the Dock. By clicking on it, the user will be brought to a familiar screen. It looks like WIndows Explorer, except for 1 major difference: There is no file path or root directory. What does that mean? It means you can only see the highest leel of drives or folders on your Mac, but clicking on them will not drilldown into their sub-folders, sub-directories, etc.
Mac users can still see the file paths, depending on their view, and can customize their finder to have drilldowns, but that will require 3rd party apps. At first, I found this to take the most getting used to coming from Windows. But I quickly adapted to it, mainly because of 2 good features on the Finder: Spotlight and Cover Flow. Spotlight is like the "Find" command on WIndows explorer, but it just works much faster on the Mac. As for Cover Flow, those familiar with iTunes or have an iPhone/iPad will already be familiar with the concept of Cover Flow.  It basically displays your files in "album" format, which is to a graphical view. Again, Windows explorer also has this feature in the thumbnails view, but the Mac OS X can shuffle though it much more intuitively using the touchpad or the Magic mouse.
Another very useful feature in Finder is the "Quick Look" option, which allows users to peek into the content of a file, without opening it. More impressive is the fact that you don't even need the required program to peek into it. In the video, you can see me "quick look" into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, even if I don't have Excel installed on my Mac.

Mac OS X is a very impressive Operating system indeed. Boots faster, shuts down faster, multi-tasks better, and is more "cleanly organized" than what I'm used to with Windows. There were some missing items on OS X, but as I noted above, they are easily replaced by other Mac native features. I don't want to sound too condescending on Windows, but I really do not miss:
- Frequent virus alerts
- The need to do a system sweep regularly
- Noises coming from the cooling fans persistent whirring
(correction: the cooling fans issue is more related to Apple hardware vs other manufacturers hardware, not an OS X vs Windows issue per se. Microsoft doesn't make the vast majority of its PC hardware)
- The pervasive Access and Control confirmations
- Fatal errors and crashes
- Error code "xxx000111" whatever
These are issues that are just not as frequent or not present at all on the Mac.

I would be very comfortable moving away from Windows usage and sticking to Mac's, if it weren't for the fact that Games and Macs do not go well together. Oh, they run fine...if you can find them. Most computer games are either late to arrive, or never come at all, onto Apple's operating system.
Another reason to keep the old Windows PC around is Microsoft Office, it is still the most used Productivity suite in the world. Chances are your office is using it, and therefore so are you. That exposure means it cannot be ignored, regardless of whether or not Apple's iWorks is better (which I haven't gotten the chance to compare yet). Yes, you can purchase and install Microsoft office onto a Mac, but the price is intentionally gouged high and it is not 100% the same thing, nor will it have the same support versus if you run it on a Window's PC.
Barring those 2 major issues, I can still wholeheartedly endorse the Apple Computer experience to most users. After weeks of adjusting and using it, I can understand why many people say: "Once you go Mac, you won't go back". The numbers show it too, with Apple's OS having the highest share of user-base today than it's ever had, and growing....which helped Apple surpass Microsoft with the most market capitalization last month.

If a picture is worth more than a thousand words, then what about a video? You can see all of the things I wrote about in action, right here in the abridged video version of my review:

UPDATE 06/23/2010: Part III of the review is here. In that section we cover the battery life of the 2010 MacBook Pro 13". Is it really as fantastic as Apple claims it to be? Let's find out!


  1. "- Noises coming from the cooling fans persistent whirring".

    I think this has more to do with hardware than the operating system.

  2. Good point, i actually don't want to sound like i'm hating on Windows. It's not a "demerit" for them, but more of a "merit" for Apple, because it does bring up one other advantage of a Mac: Apple makes it's own hardware, so they can't point fingers.
    With a WIndows PC, it's not their fault if the hardware manufacturer does not optimize the cooling, or the fans are designed to be noisy. But i have noticed that in some of my previous PC's (Sony, Lenovo, Acer), the heating and the fan noise was much more prevalent vs my Mac, even during prolonged casual usage.

    Meaning if I have a crash or error due to overheating, Microsoft has the option to just blame the hardware.
    If i have a similar problem with Apple, i can blame them for everything :)

  3. Hi there. I don't get it. I use an iMac in our office and I swear I can alt+tab besides the expose..