Getting used to my new Mac

Picture of my new Mac (with the external DVD drive on top) on my deskAs I think I’ve said before, my main present (from my parents) this past Christmas was a Mac. I laid out my reasons for wanting a Mac in a post a couple of weeks ago. I still have my old (2003) eMac, which can’t run any version of Mac OS X after Leopard (and in fact still runs Tiger, when I ever put it on, which I never do) and always intended to upgrade if I could ever afford it, or persuade someone to buy me one (or if there was ever one whose specification justified the cost). Back in 2006 I wrote a post in response to someone who said (in a long post on OSNews) why he would never buy another Mac, and said I would replace my old Mac with another, which in the event I didn’t (I’ve been using PCs with Windows and Linux since retiring that one). I’ve always liked the Mac OS, just not the hardware.

The Mac mini doesn’t come with a keyboard, a monitor, a mouse or indeed anything except the system box. You can (and for a week, I did) use a Dell monitor, keyboard and mouse. However, Macs are set up to work with Apple gear, so for example, Apple’s font rendering is meant to work with Apple monitors like those you see in an Apple store. For a few days after, I looked in dismay at “black” text that looked like it had been written with a pen that was just about to run out of ink. Then I found this article which explains how you can restore decent text on a Dell monitor if your Mac is using Snow Leopard or Tiger. The short version is: you go to a Terminal (which you can find by clicking the Finder — that’s the smiley face — in the Dock, choose “Applications” from the list at the side, then double-clicking “Utilities” which is where the Terminal is — and entering this command:

defaults -currentHost write -globalDomain AppleFontSmoothing -int 1

You can’t change this in System Preferences; Apple got rid of the setting in Snow Leopard. It’s a bit worrying that they have banished this to an obscure setting which you have to use the Terminal to set; in the past, this has been the prelude to getting rid of it altogether. (The article says that the last figure can be 1 or 2 to give acceptable fonts.) To get rid of the setting (say, if you acquire a dedicated Mac monitor), you can type this:

defaults -currentHost delete -globalDomain AppleFontSmoothing

It’s depressing that Linux offers more readable fonts for free than Apple does on a computer that costs a minimum of £529 (UK prices).

The first thing I sought to install were the developers’ tools, and the Qt libraries I needed to compile my application (which I’m using to type this entry) to run on my Mac (and hopefully, anyone else’s). Unfortunately, it being Christmas Day, it appeared that everyone was activating their new computers, smartphones and tablets and large downloads (such as the updated version of the Mac OS itself) were impossible: even more frustratingly, they would get to the end of the download and just stop, telling you it was corrupted. Later on in the day, this fixed itself, but it would have been better if Apple had actually loaded the update onto the computer before shipping it (it was released in October).

Anyone who’s used Linux will know that one of its best features is how easy it is to download software, particularly open-source software: there is a package manager, there are archives, and you just use a package management tool to download your package (and anything it needs to run, called dependencies) and install it. Sadly, this isn’t true on the Mac. Back in 2004, a project called Fink provided the package manager and archives, but for some reason it has ceased to provide compiled downloads, only source downloads, which MacPorts already offers, so I am not sure what it provides that MacPorts doesn’t. This means you have to go to the vendor’s own website and download their disc image if you want a compiled (that is, runnable) piece of software. This is a major weakness of the Mac as a development platform. Perhaps it suits Apple’s purposes, as it hinders cross-platform development and encourages Mac developers to develop Mac-specific software, using its own developers’ tools.

A further disappointment was how my application actually looked once I’d got it compiled. Clearly, the developers of Qt have not anticipated that an app would look, and handle, totally differently in Cocoa (the native Mac toolkit which is inherited from NeXT) to how it did when Qt was based on Carbon (the “old-Mac” toolkit). I had hoped to simply compile and release that day, certainly within a week, but that’s not possible: there is an unsightly large status bar (the bit at the bottom where messages are displayed) and a problem setting the window to the size I want (that is, the size I set, or the size a user will set). I can forsee having to personally write a replacement for the status bar.

I have also had some difficulty getting stuff that makes the Mac fit into my existing cluttered desktop with its jumble of cables. My keyboard, mouse and monitor all work with the Mac, but I only had one of each, and it would have been nice to have some sort of switch that I could use so I didn’t have to unplug and replug each cable every time I wanted to switch computers. These switches are known as KVMs and Maplin’s do one with a brightly-coloured box with various misspellings and old logos that positively screams “Made in China” for £39, but it doesn’t do DVI switching, only VGA. New computers usually come with DVI outputs now, and DVI produces better colour output that doesn’t require calibration (I never could quite get white to show as white when I plugged my Dell monitor into my old Mac). DVI has been around for years, so it is a mystery that there are no affordable DVI switches. That cheap and nasty-looking switch in Maplin’s would have let me double my keyboard and mouse, but I decided to get an Apple keyboard instead (which has USB sockets that I can plug the mouse into). Mac minis no longer have DVD/CD drives, so you will need to buy an external one (and if you shop around, you can find one much cheaper than the £66 Apple charges for theirs; mine, by Samsung, cost £35).

Finally, one thing that was a bit of a culture shock the first time I got a Mac was the totally different nature of the Mac and Linux presses. Linux magazines are all about in-depth stuff — news and comment on the politics of open-source, patents and the like, reviews of fairly low-level software (programming toolkits, for example), articles on setting up servers and services, and programming tutorials. There’s very little of that in the Mac press: much of that is about products you can buy, and learning to do things like use iPhoto, iMovie and the like. A lot more software on the Mac has to be paid for and that doesn’t always mean it’s of better quality than the free software that is available for Linux, even if it is more polished. Still, there are some products which are fairly inexpensive, like Apple’s own Pages and Keynote, the second of which was good enough for Steve Jobs to do his own presentations on.

The Mac itself is pretty fast — considering that I do a lot of development on it, it really burns through jobs that took hours on my old machine — and quiet: the fan comes on only rarely, and only when the machine is seriously working (I did not realise it had one until several hours after first turning the machine on). My ‘old’ 2009 Dell, which has an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, was incredibly noisy and sometimes made a barely tolerable sawing noise. I’ve yet to test out iPhoto and I’m not sure if I’ll use it for keeping photos — I still have a lot of old photos on my Dell which still has two barely-used 500Gb hard drives in it. I will probably use this much more for movies, as I have a camcorder which I haven’t used much so perhaps will do so a bit more (and maybe get working on that film project I’ve mentioned to one or two people, although perhaps that needs a better camcorder than mine and better software than iMovie). Anyway, however much old stuff remains on the Dell, I’ve not used it since Boxing Day, I think (I’ve used my older Dell laptop a bit, though). It’s a great little machine and I expect to get a lot of good use of it the next couple of years.

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