And I’m a Penguin (but my Mac’s well weapon)

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This Monday Charlie Brooker (Guardian columnist of Nathan Barley and TVGoHome fame) told the world why he hates Macs in the most-read page on Comment Is Free this week. He not only hates Macs, but also people who use them and “even … people who don’t use Macs but sometimes wish they did”. Thabet @ Eteraz agrees with him. Brooker reckons that “Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper computers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui” and that the “I’m a PC/Mac” adverts, which in the UK feature a comedy duo called Mitchell and Webb, whom I’ve never watched, are “devastatingly accurate” for the wrong reasons:

[Mitchell & Webb] are a logical choice in one sense (everyone likes them), but a curious choice in another, since they are best known for the television series Peep Show - probably the best sitcom of the past five years - in which Mitchell plays a repressed, neurotic underdog, and Webb plays a selfish, self-regarding poseur. So when you see the ads, you think, “PCs are a bit rubbish yet ultimately lovable, whereas Macs are just smug, preening tossers.”

I’ve been a Mac user for almost the last three years (I bought an eMac in Spring 2004). So, I’m perhaps not your typical Mac fan who’s been using them since they were only one of a number of varieties of proprietary computer system (Mac, Amiga, Atari ST) or someone who stuck with them through the tough years (the 1990s when they were struggling to get their operating system sorted and before they resorted to buying Steve Jobs’ NeXT company with a more-or-less ready-made solution). My first Mac OS was Panther, and I came into the Mac world when a Mac was what I enviously read about in computer magazines when I was 12 - a NeXT box (Cube or Station, it doesn’t matter) - with a white case and with a fraction of the price tag. And I came from Linux, because I wanted a system with the stability of Unix but with some commercial applications.

Admittedly, some things infuriate me about the Mac system. Particularly mine, which is extremely heavy and requires anyone wishing to expand it (by upgrading the hard drive, for example) to take out bits of the computer’s circuitry first. There simply isn’t an affordable Mac that you can expand by opening it up and putting in what you need to put in. You can’t install normal graphics cards, for example, in a Mac Mini because it’s too tiny, so you’re stuck with the on-board Intel graphics chips which use system memory rather than their own. You can open up the cheapest normal-size PC and stick in a graphics card (or get it included when you buy it), but to get a Mac with dedicated graphics memory, you have to pay £679 (nearly £800 when you include VAT) for an iMac. (Buyer beware: it’s extremely difficult to get graphics cards for low-profile PCs - it took me months to find the one I’m using now.)

Then there is the obsessive Apple secrecy, evident in the fact that people who obtain pre-release versions of Mac OS X are not even allowed to post screenshots of what they try out, in case “the competition” get hold of it. (Owners of websites who posted the screenshots had to remove them after receiving threats from Apple.) This morning I registered for an “Apple Tech Talk” on their site out in Uxbridge later this month, and in the invitation I was informed that it was under a non-disclosure agreement, meaning I could not reveal what I learned there - as if someone could beat Apple to market with a product they only learned about with something they learned of at the tech talk.

But still, there are reasons why I like my Mac and I won’t be stopping using it in favour of a Windows-based PC any time soon. Now that Windows VIsta is out, the first good thing about the Mac is that you don’t have to buy a brand new system to get decent graphics out of Mac OS X, because the graphics aren’t too flashy (and if you don’t like the abundance of styles, you can download UNO for free and all your windows will look the same) and they look good on all Macs which aren’t ancient. (Tiger didn’t change that and I don’t think the upcoming Leopard release will either.) It still offers the security and stability of Unix with a large user and application base which plays common media out of the box, and does not require anti-virus software even though some is available. The Mac and its operating system is produced by a company which gets the job done in a reasonable time - you can be pretty certain that the next version of the OS after Leopard will not take six years, assuming Steve Jobs is still around.

However, while I cannot see myself ditching the Mac for Windows, I have found myself increasingly using my old Viglen Pentium 3 which I bought for about £40 on eBay (with various upgrades, which brings it to rather more than that) because I’ve found a version of Linux which does not suck as much as a lot of Linux distributions do: OpenSUSE v10.2. For one thing, the digital photo manager digiKam is so much more pleasant to use than iPhoto - at least the 2004 version I was using, which is dog slow (and I’m not willing to pay them £50 for the latest version which is probably no faster). It does not take seconds to open up a picture, for example, and the system recognises my new camera (more on that in a future entry, insha Allah) when I plug it in. Unlike any of the Mozilla family of web browsers, Konqueror (via the KDE wallet system) remembers my Yahoo and Hotmail passwords. Fonts are no longer ugly, as they were on previous versions. You get the Spaces feature the Mac won’t get until Leopard is out this year. You can customise the desktop far beyond anything you can do with a Mac or on Windows (you can even have the Mac-style menu at the top of the screen if you like). And the sort of trivial software people like to charge you money for on the Mac is free on Linux, although to give the Mac developers credit where it’s due, some of the Mac shareware is better quality than some of the freeware available for Linux; it often gets abandoned when the developer finds he has other commitments.

You might notice that, having been a Linux user for a few weeks, I’m finding it more and more difficult to find things about the Mac to gush about. The fact is, however, that I was a generally satisfied Mac user for the best part of three years and I still go back to it when I need to type a letter and fax it straight out of the system’s own modem. I still go back to it when I need to quickly transfer data from my Mum’s old XP system, because although both Mac OS X and Linux use Samba to get data to and from Windows boxes, using it on the Mac is a piece of cake, which it’s not on Linux. And if I ever have to use Photoshop, I certainly won’t be investing in a Windows Vista system if it’s not out for Linux by then. I’m not saying the Mac and Mac OS X are perfect, but I think they are better than Windows by a mile, and I wasn’t convinced by any lifestyle marketing. I wanted a system that worked, so I bought a Mac. And it works.

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