OS X - First Impact

6 minute read

In my last article I wrote I was going to buy a 13” Retina MacBook Pro and then try to stick with OS X at least until the end of 2014.

My first month ever with a Mac has just ended. I must say I have mixed feelings at this point. I stumbled in a couple of bugs the very fist few minutes after booting up the machine. Additionally, I didn’t know the system well enough to perform common day-to-day tasks with ease and work productivity suffered a bit, but I kept using my Linux laptop side by side to compensate for this.

Nevertheless, one week was all that was necessary to grow accustomed to all the nice little touches in OS X.

So, how was it? Read on to find out.

Prelude

First, this thing is pretty damn expensive. It has everything soldered on board and no room for user-replaceable parts. You better be prepared to choose upgrades wisely and be ok with Apple pricing policy and be damned if, later on, you learn to have made a bad choice.

The base configuration is laughable especially if you take into account how expensive it is. Modern browsers are heavy and we basically live in them. Plus, sometimes, I have to run several virtual machines at once while simultaneously be able to run loads of crap on the host system. Eight gigabytes of RAM ought to be enough, but will them suffice in two years? Better throw 16 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD in there just to future-proof what will be my main workstation for several years to come. Oh, and you better be prepared to shell out 400€ in “upgrades” even when the parts are worth, maybe, 200€ at retail prices. Don’t even bother upgrading the processor, the base model is enough and the alternatives aren’t worth the kidney Apple asks you for.

In the end I bit the bullet and forked out nearly 2000€ for the Mac, an Apple Care Protection Plan, an Apple Wireless Keyboard and an Apple MagicTrackpad. Develer, my employer, covered a good chunk of that and offered me to dilute the payment over the timespan of an year (thanks!).

The Hardware

The hardware is top of the line, period. You definitely get what you pay for. Everything from the laptop itself to the packaging is well designed, sturdy, pleasant to look at and feels durable. Even the power brick is well-though, with prongs you can use to neatly wrap the cable around. The laptop itself is lightweight and it feels, well, clean and designed. I don’t know how else to put it in words.

Apple also nails it when it comes to laptop screen ratios. They’re one of the few laptop makers putting 16:10 displays in their machines. All other manufactures believe I’m watching movies on my laptop screen all day long, thus a 16:9 screen would be the best screen to shove down my throat. Well, no no no, it isn’t. Sixteen by nine must die of horrible death outside the TV market, because, you know, I happen to do shit on my computer. It seems only Apple understands that I do not watch kitten movies all day long. How sad.

What about the Retina screen? It’s amazing and it shows that they got HiDPI on the desktop right from the beginning. The way they deal with HiDPI screens at the operating system level is simple and it works reasonably well. The graphical toolkit does all the work, you feed it with high resolution images and icons and you’re done. Other vendors and operating systems are catching up in this space, but they are some two years behind Apple in this regard.

The Software

First impression is what really matters, people wiser than me say. Well, if those words were true, I think I would have thrown the MacBook away as soon as I opened the lid. During the first day I found several bugs:

  • After clicking the “Update All” button inside the AppStore, it would flip all the buttons between ‘Update’ (active, gray) and ‘Updating’ (disabled) state every five-or-so seconds.
  • When connected to a Thunderbolt display, a two-pixel-high line would flicker below the menu bar, but only after activating Mission Control.
  • When activating Mission Control, the Apple Mail window, instead of gently moving away during the spread-out Exposè animation, would occasionally fly out of nowhere. Additionally the blue glowing rectangle which appears when you move the cursor over a Window while in Exposè mode would be bigger by a couple hundred pixels to the right, as if the Mail window was such big.
  • Several times, Safari’s miniature in Mission Control would become a slab of gray with a jarring effect when transitioning to and away from mission control.
  • There is apparently no way to tell finder to group directories before files. TotalFinder is not a solution since Cocoa file open/save dialogs would still be broken. Additionally, fiddling with string resource files is nuts. Apple should fix it once and for all.

Had I stopped there, I would probably consider OS X to be on par with Linux as far as these stupid little bugs go, missing all the nice little touches sprinkled here and there, which are the real thing which makes all other systems feel stuck back in the past, especially Windows.

The Nice Little Touches

OS X is filled with nice little touches all over the place. These are the real gems that make using the laptop enjoyable and counter all the negative impressions due to the bug I found.

Let’s take gestures for example. Gestures are everywhere. Swiping, pinching, zooming and panning, they all make interacting with applications and the system very natural, fun, even. It’s amazing how Apple managed to bring gestures usually performed on a touch screen to the desktop by the means of a trackpad. Gestures have immediately replaced the plethora of keyboard shortcuts I’ve been using on Linux to move between desktops and windows. When I dock the MacBook at the desk, I couldn’t live without the MagicTrackpad. It’s huge (as if the MacBook’s trackpad wasn’t big enough) and it makes incredibly hard to miss the mouse, something I pull out the drawer only for games at this point.

Next is Mission Control, or better, the fact it organizes and switches between desktop workspaces independently between multiple displays, all of this out of the box. This is something I wanted for such a long time on Linux without having to resort to window managers like XMonad or i3 and all the manual configuration such a choice entails. Only GNOME 3 comes close, with the secondary display getting a single desktop and the primary one holding regular workspaces.

Below the surface I don’t even know where to start from. Each text editing field, for example, is integrated with a system wide spell-checker and correction engine which is able to automatically detect and switch between languages. Almost every application stores settings and data in the ubiquitous XML Property-List format located in well defined places on disk and I can use the defaults command to manipulate them. Keyboard shortcuts, while being totally different from Linux and Windows, are very consistent (e.g.: the preference screen of each application can be accessed by pressing Command + ,). Even though it takes a while to get used to, they quickly click in. AppNap, compressed memory, timer coalescing and power management in general are great.

The whole system feels very consistent, orderly. I would dare to say that it is only its UNIX underpinning which soils the neatness of the system, while being also one of its greatest strengths. Even though it has a slight tendency to play the spinning ball too often.

Conclusions

This first month has been quite positive and pleasant, I don’t regret buying the MacBook and unless Apple does something incredibly stupid, such as locking it down like an iPhone, I see myself using it for the foreseeable future.

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