Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The strange world of Macs (Part 1)

If you had to name the two most common operating systems, you would most likely say: Windows and Linux. Well, in the US there is a third common operating system. In fact, it's even more popular than Linux. It's called MAC OSX. In the Bay Area, not far from Cupertino where Apple Computer is headquartered, Macs are very common. It sometimes feels like more people use Macs than Windows.

Macs are supposed to be easy to use and intuitive, so I tried using one in my local Apple Store in Palo Alto. They have working laptops there than anyone can come and use.One of the first things I've noticed was a lack of mouse buttons. We've all heard about Macs have only one button, well the new ones don't even have that. The trackpad is the button, and there is no right or middle button. Dragging requires manual effort to keep the heavy trackpad pressed, and if you've reached the end of the pad, you're out of luck. Can't just hold the button.

Another thing lacking was a scrollwheel, the standard right-side-of-pad scrolling didn't work. I  happened to find by chance that you can scroll on a Mac by using two fingers on the trackpad. It's weird but it works pretty well.

The other input device I was having trouble with was the keyboard. Ctrl combinations don't seem to work, and there are no PgUp/PgDown keys. I had to ask to know that most Ctrl combinations are replaced with a new key called "command" (it's similar to Meta), though some things like ctrl-left/right to move a word back and forth is actually with the alt button, which is also labeled "option". The PgUp/PgDown require yet another modifier key "fn". The total of five modifier keys leave little space for the space bar, and the most useful one ("option") is not near the edge of the keyboard as one might expect, but near the spacebar.

One of the first things I tried to do was install FireFox and an IM client called Adium (I googled "mac IM" and that was the first result). Software installation on Macs is different from Linux or Windows. Downloaded files are "Disk Images" (something like an ISO) which you have to mount. Then, (and this is never explained, I had to ask), you need to drag the application icon to a nearby icon of a capital "A". I tried to attach a screen cap of that but the capture application only saves to TIFF.

 Mac Disk Image

Anyway, even after you install the software, it only appears in a secret menu called "Applications" that you need to do the following to reach: Click on the desktop, click on the "Go" menu, click on "Applications", browse to the application among a whole lot of stuff (like the "Programs" menu in Windows, but not sorted by vendor). The terminal BTW is under another sublevel "Utilities". No wonder I couldn't find it.

Now, I tried to look for some tutorial to explain these basic features. I found a help page about transitioning from windows that didn't explain anything (such as scrolling, or the "command" button, or how to install or uninstall software).

I can talk all day about how non-standard Macs are. The close/minimize/maximize buttons are on the LEFT and are only color coded (red=close, yellow=minimize, green=maximize). Alt-F4 and other common combos don't work (well, it opens an "Expose Settings" screen). Command-F4 doesn't work either. It seems the combo is Command-W (I guess W is for Wlose, or they copied it from Firefox's close tab combo). I tried some of the pre-installed software too, but about that in a future post.

Update: I figured out how to use an image conversion program called "Preview". It seems Macs copy the awful Windows default of hiding extensions, so I had to guess what version of the image I'm uploading...


  1. was thinking about switching to mac, but now you've scared me...

    btw, one of my wierdest experiences came about two years ago, when I tried to figure out how to access my mail on a Mac *In German*.

  2. Hi TBH and thanks for reading my blog! I guess they have Macs at Tel-Aviv university, since I've only seen one Mac at the Technion. I am now left to wonder who is is from TAU that's reading my blog...

  3. When I look at my Mac, I see the first and only UNIX system with a usable and complete GUI system that even my mother can use. No other UNIX system does that.

  4. I completely understand and respect the UNIX foundations of Mac systems, the problem is maybe your mother can use the GUI but for me some of the things seem too difficult, and the basics are not well explained.

    As Apple advertises Macs to be easy to use out of the box without virtually any learning curve, I find the level of introductory transition material very disappointing. The help section about transitioning from Windows, for example, is abysmal. It's not built as a tutorial and does not explain that the "command" button should be used instead of Ctrl or Alt or how to use the trackpad to scroll. Heck, I could more easily find a tutorial on how to play the piano on the MacBook than on how to use a Mac.

  5. I am a software engineer, working with both windows and linux operating systems for over a decade.

    My younger sister got a macbook pro because she is studying graphic design and animation, i had to sort all kinds of stuff for her (like copying stuff to her mac from a windows network, set up wifi, backups, and other stuff..

    I felt like how my grandmother feels when she tries to use a PC.. absolutely clueless.. no shortcuts, programs don't quit by default, but minimize to dock, all the known shortcuts don't work.. and i was frustrated, simple tasks that would take 30 minutes on any normal OS (and 40 minutes on a shell).. took over 3 hours, not including the actual copying... no help, no manuals nothing.

    The fact that their gadgets and massive consumer products like the ipod and iphone are accesible and very intuitive to use, doesn't say anything about OSX or it's ease of access or migration to from other OS's. it just extermely nice graphics, and very polished looks and hardware design.

    i will never spend my money on that stuff... i can make linux look like osx, and behave like i want it to, even windows can take a mac skin.. other than it's looks.. it's not worth a cent in my opinion