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Taking the Apple: Why I moved to the dark side

Apple Logo

Apple Logo

Twelve months ago, I was ‘a PC’, as the ads would have it. I’d used Windows for most of my computing life, and had no real reason to change. To me, Macs were incompatible with everything I use, great for graphic design and little else, and owned only by pretentious idiots with more money than technological sense.

Now, I have a MacBook Pro and and iPhone.

So what changed? How did Ballmer lose his grip on me in the face of the cult of Jobs? Well, I came to the dawning realisation that Apple products are better for my needs.

My old Toshiba laptop was happily running along on Windows XP, but nearing the end of its lifespan. After four years of abuse, it was running slowly, becoming occasionally tempremental, and making worrying noises now and again. I decided it was time for a new one.

At the same time, I’d be trying to find the perfect operating system for my Acer Netbook. It came with a fairly rubbish pre-installed flavour of Linux, and I’d been experimenting with Ubuntu, Moblin, even Windows 7 (which ran so slowly it was comical). I had come to realise that operating systems could be done better than Windows – though I wasn’t sure I was ready to leap to Linux for the purposes of my main computer system.

One of the most negative aspects of my experience with Windows XP on the laptop was it’s constant nagging. Everytime I opened the lid of the laptop, it would have a handful of messages to tell me it had connected to a wireless network, updated its virus scanner, and an update or six were available – which would probably require a reboot taking at least ten minutes. My limited experience of Windows 7 on other computers and on my netbook hardly convinced me that Microsoft had reversed this trend.

What I needed, I realised, was an operating system that gets the hell out of my way, and just lets me do what I want to do – much like Moblin on the netbook.

Now around this time, many of my online acquantances were changing to MacBooks. I was mildly curious about this, but I was fairly sure that Mac wasn’t for me. I didn’t want the hassle of converting documents to use them on Windows machines, having to find alternatives to the software I use that are ‘Mac Compatabile’, and peripherals probably wouldn’t work with it either. No, I was sure I wanted to stick to Windows.

Then, with curious timing, an Apple Store opened near me. Being a bit of a tech-head, of course I naturally went to have a look. Initially, I gawped from outside at the hoards of people, wondering how people could spend so much money on such ‘toys’ instead of proper computers.

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

Within a couple of weeks, I ventured inside. Having never really examined one in the ‘flesh’ before, I was amazed by the MacBook Pro. It was a thing of beauty. It wasn’t a noisy great hulking grey plastic lump of ‘tech’ like my laptop. It was metal, and shiny, and sleek. It looked like it had been designed, rather than just being the result of an unholy union between screen and keyboard. It impressed.

Still, I scoffed at the large trackpad. Recalling that Macs have only one mouse button, I assumed one had to tap to click, and no right-click would be possible. I’ll admit to being more than a little impressed when I tried it, and found that the trackpad actually physically clicked…

And, over time, the seed planted by the Apple Store grew. I learned that that right-clicking was not only possible, but easy – just click with two fingers. I noticed how the Macs sped along, even when multitasking, compared to my slow, clunking laptop. And gestures like two-fingered scrolling and four-fingers for exposé came naturally, even from just playing in the shop.

More than anything, the more I learned about Mac OSX, the more I felt some design had gone into that too. It didn’t feel like the latest iteration of something that had gone on forever. It felt thought-through, somehow fluid, and complete. It just worked, and kept the hell out of the way.

I was given yet more confidence to make the switch by the support offered by the Apple Store. The idea that they were there, on hand, to help with any questions or struggles I had was manifestly reassuring. And the idea of being able to take a misbehaving laptop straight to the Genius Bar for repair sold me too.

So, after a little research, I took the plunge. I made a Personal Shopping appointment, took along my NHS ID and got a hefty discount off a new MacBook Pro. The shopping experience itself was brilliant. I had an attentive assistant’s undivided attention, and he was clearly knowledgable. He knew all about the machines, how they worked, and how to do stuff on them.

He didn’t try to up-sell – despite me expecting him to, when I asked if the 13″ would meet all of my needs. Ask that in PC World, and they’ll undoubtedly try to sell something horrendously overpowered to bulk up the sales figures.

The guy was trying to tell me all about the benefits of iLife – I wasn’t really interested, I assumed this was Apple’s version of bloatware that I’d remove within days.

He offered to take in my old laptop and transfer everything across, but I figured that I could do that myself – though he assured me that they’d be there if I got stuck.

I got the MacBook home, and loved it. Transferring everything across was easy, especially as most of my documents and the like are stored with DropBox. Transferring music involved a simple iTunes backup on the old computer, and restore on the new one. Easy.

The ‘bloatware’ of iLife turned out to be excellent. I use Mail, Address Book, Calendar, iPhoto, and iMovie regularly, and GarageBand for podcasting. Everything stays in sync with my Google services flawlessly – I now rarely find myself logging in to the Google Apps online.

I was initially frustrated by the lack of a “maximise” button on the Mac, but once you’re used to working in windows that are only as big as they need to be, you quickly learn to appreciate the advatanges of working in multiple windows. As I write this, I have a couple of chats window open on the right of the screen – something I never would have done under Windows XP as I would naturally have maximised this one window. I’ve also adopted this new-found multitasking behaviour on the Windows systems at work – and often try to stroke the mouse, as I do my Magic Mouse at home!

Whilst I have iWork on the MacBook, I also bought Office for Mac for pennies via NHS Discount, and find myself using that instead. Again, the layout of the software is rather different to what I’m used to under Windows, but it is in many ways more intuitive through being less formal and more fluid. Writing a PowerPoint presentation a few weeks ago seemed easier on Office for Mac than on regular Office – even though it’s regular Office that I’m used to. And I had no problem at all loading it onto a memory stick and presenting it at work.

MacOSX does what I wanted – stays out of the way. And I’ve come to appreciate that features like exposé, which look like flashy gimmicks in the shop, are invaluable – I actually don’t know how I managed without it! And I can honestly say that I haven’t found anything – anything – that I could do on the PC but can’t do on the Mac.

So, laptop wise, I’m a Mac Convert. I prefer the way Macs work, look, and feel. They are a better match for me than Windows PCs – though I accept that some will prefer the latter – I’m a convert, not a cult member.

I was going to write about how I was later converted from Blackberry to iPhone, too, but given the length of this post, I think that will just have to wait till another day.

This post was filed under: Reviews, Technology, , , , , , , , , .

Why I like Three’s MiFi

Having a usable computer based internet connection when traveling is great. I am a convert to surfing on the train, and have been for a couple of years now. On top of that, having reasonably priced access to the internet when staying in hotels is always great too.

To this end, I’ve used a number of set-ups over the last few years. Initially, I used bluetooth tethering over 3G with my then everyday Nokia phone. This was great. I didn’t have to carry any extra kit, and I only had to get the laptop out on the train to surf – the mobile never needed to leave my pocket. Great for those moments when you’re absorbed in something and suddenly realise you’re pulling into your station, as there’s little to pack away (as someone who’s very easily distracted, this often happens to me…).

The problem is that this method is slow. And I mean S-L-O-W. At the time I didn’t mind, as I was a virtuous individual who spent most of the time completing BMJ Learning modules on the train. These aren’t exactly data heavy, but even moving from one page to another in those was, well, tiresome with a slow connection.

Contemplating Hagen–Poiseuille’s law (yes, really, I am that dull), I reliased that the Bluetooth ‘pipe’ was the limiting factor to the speed of connection, and started carrying a USB cable. But that was all a bit hassley, getting out the phone, plugging it in, getting it and the computer talking – just hassle, and more often than not I just bluetoothed it.

Over time, my demands became greater. As I said above, I’m easily distracted, and so I started to want multiple tabs open in my browser, just like I do at home. This made my previous system grind to a halt – and as I was paying via my contract phone, I was constantly terrified that I was running up a bill the size of a small nation’s GDP (though, in reality, this never happened). So I went hunting for a new solution.

As a Vodafone fanboy and long-term loyalist, I went for the Vodafone PAYG USB dongle-thingy, That may not be its proper name. The reason I chose it was the fairly fair pricing, in that PAYG credit never expires – unlike all other operators.

But this dongle has its own problems. The biggest problem for me is that it doesn’t (easily) support Linux. When I’m traveling, I’m most often carrying my netbook. This has had a number of Operating Systems installed on it during its lifetime, but has most often run Linux (currently running Moblin, actually). It is possible to jimmy linux into talking to the Vodafone PAYG USB dongle-thingy, but it ain’t straightforward, and it isn’t terribly reliable.

The other problem with this solution is the resilience of the Vodafone PAYG USB dongle-thingy. When on a train – and from the design of this device, this must come as a surprise to Vodafone – there are network blackspots. Tunnels, for example. I can accept losing connection briefly during this spots, I don’t expect mobile networks to defy the laws of physics. But I cannot accept the absolutely ludicrous amount of time it takes the Vodafone PAYG USB dongle-thingy to pick up a new signal and make the connection usable. Particularly when using a jimmied linux connection, it seems to take hours. This isn’t a problem for connecting in hotels, but on trains, it is a nightmare.

Actually, the situation got so bad that when traveling on National Express trains, I started to rely on their Wifi – which anyone who has tried to use it will tell you is a serious test of patience. Oh, and then they made credit expire after 30 days, just like everyone else.

So last week, I decided to try something new, in the form of a 3 Mifi doofer. I didn’t expect much. We’ve all heard horror stories about 3’s coverage, and I’m fairly sure that even they would admit it isn’t the best.

But I have been unexpectedly impressed. The device is simple to operate, even though its five multicoloured flashing lights can be a little befuddling at first. The connection is the fastest mobile broadband connection I’ve experienced, and when a signal is lost, it regains it very quickly and seemlessly.

There’s no hassle factor – switch it on, and my laptop just connects, it being one of my preferred wireless connections, and the device doesn’t even need to leave my bag most of the time. When checking my emails in my hotel last night, I actually forgot I was on a mobile connection. I was watching TV, netbook on lap as usual, MiFi dongle plugging in and charging on the other side of the room. Fantastic!

Initially, I was put off getting a Mifi dongle because of the cost. But actually, the cost is a lot more reasonable than it first appears. For example, when I’m away for the weekend, I’m never really going to want to stream music or watch the iPlayer. I want a decent connection for bits of work and checking my email.

3 gives a 1GB allowance for £10, though admittedly this only lasts for 30 days. But looking at this from a different perspective, this is effectively all-you-can-eat internet for my purposes across a weekend, both at my destination and during my journey. Hotel Wifi would probably give me 24hrs continuous access for that kind of price… Much less convenient, and – for the same level of usage – much more expensive.

So the Mifi dongle is great for me. And for people who want the level of net access on the move that I want, I’d recommend it – so I thought I’d let you know.

This post was filed under: Reviews, Technology, , , , , , , .

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