More Mac sense and nonsense

Tom Yager updates his friend's Mac experience

Commenters on my Enterprise Mac blog have been begging for an update to my column "Mac sense and nonsense", in which I chronicled the early experiences of a friend who agreed to switch from Windows — her OS for her entire computer-using life — to the Mac. Updates on her progress are among those things I keep meaning to do, but 2007 has been a year of one top priority after another, all strung together. Now, in a cab to LaGuardia Airport, I’m blissfully unable to browse, and that gives me a chance to reflect on some of what I’ve observed as my friend makes the migration.

My friend loves OS X; she’s sold. Wild horses driven by a grinning Steve Ballmer carrying $100,000, couldn’t drag her back into Windows. That hundred grand might have convinced her under Tiger (OS X 10.4), but I’ve shared with her many of the published details of Leopard (10.5), due this month.

She knows that I’m an Apple Developer Connection Premiere member and that I have Leopard, and she thinks I’m a jerk for not letting her use it. She’s spied on me from a polite distance as I’ve driven Leopard around, and a couple of features stood out for her. One is the cleaner and more consistent look and feel that makes it easier to tell where windows start and end. Deeper shadows around foreground windows make them stand out starkly, leaving no doubt as to keyboard focus. Another feature that caught her eye, so to speak, is the much clearer, more natural speech synthesis.

So far, I’ve deprived her of the services of the Xserve in my lab. She’s stuck with the Mac’s mail client, to sift through the prodigious amount of spam that floods her inbox, and it’s not keeping up with spammers’ tricks. I also had her jacked into an HTTP proxy cache on Xserve. A serious user needs a server. Yes, I know; I’m a jerk. It’s killing me to keep reminding her about the Leopard release.

It turns out that, despite dreams of going portable, my subject of study is a desktop person. It takes very little decrease in vision to make a 14-inch notebook display difficult to see. Knocking the display resolution down to 800x600 makes most text large enough to see, but it turns fuzzy and fatigues your eyes quickly, and window dressing sucks up most of the display.

Leopard’s support for resolution-independent user interfaces holds promise here. I’d be happy if web designers stop assuming that 1,024x768 is the minimum display size at which to test their site, and they stopped using hard-coded, absolute font sizes instead of relative ones that let users grow and shrink fonts. What does your site do with its layout when you shrink the browser window to fit on a 640x480 display? It’s not difficult.

We discovered an unexpected hitch in adapting MacBook to tethered use on a desk: External Mac keyboards uniformly stink. I pulled in three candidates, plus two Apple keyboards, and they are all just awful next to what I consider to be the gold standard: the keyboard on the present MacBook Pro. I see well, but even my eyes get tired after hours of looking at small, thinly drawn, italic gray keycap legends on an off-white background.

The second-best keyboard at my disposal is the MacBook’s, which has black keys and nice white legends. The desk arrangement, though laughable to look at, works: we have the MacBook, lid open, tucked under and behind an LCD monitor (the monitor is mounted on an articulating arm) so that the MacBook keyboard is the desktop keyboard. Yes, the state of keyboards is just that sad. The notebook display, the bottom third of which remains visible, has even found a use as a spare room for the clock, address book, and other stationary items. She’s gotten so used to the two-headed arrangement that I think she’d miss it.

I didn’t think that Parallels Desktop would aid me in convincing my friend to abandon Windows entirely, but this security blanket has worn through. Parallels Desktop went flaky on both of us simultaneously. Despite repeated reinstalls, it crashes on me and, during one crash, it rendered my MacBook Pro’s Vista partition unusable. Small loss, you might think, but with my job, I can’t pretend that Vista doesn’t exist. Its rightful home is in a window on the Mac desktop. Parallels keeps kicking it out.

For my friend, Parallels Desktop’s ills are less dramatic than my crash logs that email themselves to Parallels, but more troublesome. I have never been able to keep her USB printer working from Windows and, recently, Desktop scribbled over several weeks’ worth of her book-keeping records.

The Windows application hasn’t a clue that anything’s amiss and, every time she opens the app, it makes things worse. I’ve done all the physical and logical diagnostics you’d think of. There’s nothing for it but to put Windows to sleep for good and resort to the last backup.

I’ve told her about Time Machine, the Leopard feature that does automatic backups of modified files. I’ve also told her that Time Machine won’t help her with Windows, virtualised or otherwise. She no longer has a fondness for Windows, and I have learned that if I wish to acquaint myself with the great beyond, all I need to do is mention the forthcoming Leopard release one more time.

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