The Power of the Dark Side

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 12:38 pm

I had myself a mini-epiphany—I guess that would be an “epiphanette”—a few weeks ago. I had decided it was high time for me to upgrade my desktop publishing rig from my serviceable but long in the tooth Power Mac G5 to something more robust. I have been working non-stop on a variety of creative projects for the last four months or so, and I have calculated that a good 15% of my time is spent simply waiting for my computer to catch up with me. Photoshop filters, export translators, disk activity—all of these and more take processor and disk time, and it’s time I had to spend sitting around with my thumb up my tuchis instead of getting other shit done. The Mac OS is good at multitasking, but interrupting a highly intensive task by starting up a few less intensive ones tends to cause all tasks to slow down; better just to wait until Job A is complete before starting up Job B.

Anywho, I calculated the money required to get myself a top-flight new Mac Pro, plus a few other components that would greatly improve the experience. The total came out to about four thousand dollars. The only remaining question was when to go about getting it. The Mac Pro was getting well past it’s normal development cycle; there was bound to be a new model announced any day now. This would not only mean improved performance and new features for the money, but sale prices on the previous models. So I quelled the voices yelling “now now now now now!” in my head, and hunkered down to wait for the announcement.

About a week and a half into my vigil, I had my epiphanette. Why, I wondered, was I waiting for the advent of a new computer from Apple, when for the same money I was planning to spend, I could buy a top-of-the-line PC, cross-grade copies of all the software I use, and a fast PC laptop to go with it?

It sounds like a Microsoft ad, I know, but there it was: logic was staring me in the face, and I could deny it no longer. So, as of about seven days ago, I have become—in the timeless words of my brother-in-law—Bill Gates’ butt monkey. ❗

Not that this is quite the tectonic shift that all my drama-queen bloviating would imply. Of the six (!) working computers in the house prior to my purchase, three of them were PCs anyway; two gaming machines and my Web server. I’ve run Uncle Andrew dot Net off of both PCs and Macs over the years, with few complaints about either platform, once I prised my blog from the clutching talons of IIS 5 and moved over to Apache. And while it’s true that I’ve done all of my creative work on the Mac platform, the actual software used to perform my job differs little between the two platforms. There are a host of keyboard shortcuts that one must retrain oneself to use, of course, and there are certain pitfalls of cross-platform translation that one must be aware of. But the interface, and the visual metaphors that support it, are essentially identical. I’m finding my way around the new software with relative ease.

The operating system itself, that’s a different matter entirely. My new computer is running, of course, Windows 7. My impression of it is somewhere between lukewarm and warm. It’s not a bad OS, by any means; the common lore that Vista was Vista 0.5 and Windows 7 is Vista 1.0 seems right on the money. As with Vista before it, I like very much the fact that I can turn down various special effects like the whole Aero Glass thing, which to me is just an embarrassing distraction, the nerd equivalent of a big gaudy spoiler and a Street Glow kit on a Honda Civic. That’s something I wish Apple would incorporate into OS X, though I doubt they ever will. I really like the new way of grouping system tray items into “always visible”, “sometime visible” and “never visible” subsets; that’s a huge space-saver. I like how dragging a window to the top of the screen automatically maximizes it. And as has been the case since the Earth’s crust cooled, printing from a Windows machines seems infinitely faster than printing from a Mac, using either of the most popular printing languages, PCL and Postscript.

But my biggest requirement of an operating system—that it not get in the way of what I’m trying to do—is to my mind one of 7’s biggest stumbling blocks. Much of the Windows 7 experience seems geared towards tricking it into doing what I want it to do. Why is it that I can put the shortcut to a folder on my computer in the Start menu but not a shortcut to a folder on a network volume, like a NAS? Why don’t folders in the Start Menu jump open when you mouse over them, instead of requiring you to open the root folder and then dig through the submenus to find what you were looking for? (And for that matter, why is it that when you do click on a folder in the Start menu, the OS doesn’t instantly recognize what you’re trying to do and show you that folder on the desktop, instead of keeping the folder hidden under whatever program window happens to be in the foreground at the time?) Why can I put a shortcut to an application in the Quick Launch area of the Task bar but not a folder? Why can’t I rearrange the order of Toolbars in the Taskbar dynamically by dragging them around? Microsoft helpfully included a “Navigation Pane”, a sidebar on the left side of folder windows with links to commonly accessed items. That’s great, just ducky; so why the fuck would they not make it so you could add things you commonly use to the Navigation Pane and remove things that you don’t? I will never, ever need the “Homegroup” link. What I could really use is a list of folders, selected by me, containing my most commonly accessed projects.

And the killer, the Big Kahuna granddaddy WTF³ feature of all time has to be the way Windows handles special Unicode characters like ®, ™, ß and so forth. On a Mac, in any application and the OS itself, if you want a ™ symbol, you hit “Option-2”. In Windows, if you want the same symbol, you hit “Alt-0-1-5-3”. That, or you go to the Start menu, open the Accessories folder, open the System Tools folder, select Character Map, find the ™ symbol, highlight it, select Copy, go back to your document and select Paste. What could be easier? 😡

Now it is true that many individual Windows apps have much simpler keystroke combinations built in for such characters, but the Mac OS has used “Option-2” for the ™ symbol for any and all scenarios since time immemorial. I imagine that there must be some good reason for keeping Windows wedded to such a bizarre array of rules regarding special characters, but I have no idea what it is.

[I brought this particular gripe up at a party yesterday, and my friend fisherbear explained that this convention was a holdover from the early days of Windows, and that it allows for access to the complete UTF character set from the keyboard so it is in fact a more complete solution that that offered by Apple. To which I say; maybe so, but just because a system offers more options doesn’t necessarily make it better. My feet can take me over a broader range of terrain than my car, too; doesn’t mean I’m going to walk to my in-laws’ house in Bellevue instead of taking my car.]

And yet despite all my kvetching, here I am with a brand-new 2.6GHz Core i7 machine with 12 gigs of RAM, two 1-terabyte hard drives, two DVD burners, a Radeon HD 5850 video card, Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Extreme Gamer sound card and Windows 7, lovingly constructed by my favorite local computer store, plus a lovely little Sony Vaio laptop and up/crossgrades to all my software, all for around the same price as a dual-Xeon Mac Pro with 6 gigs of RAM, one 640 GB hard drive, One DVD burner, an NVidia GeForce GT120 and stock audio. And no upgraded software, save for a copy of Parallels so I could run Windows on it as well.

None of which is to say that I don’t still love the Macintosh; I’ve just kind of drifted away from it over the years as I’ve gotten my hands “dirtier” in the working innards of computers. I think that the Mac platform is a boutique product. It’s there for people who want performance, stability and superior design from a computer, and are willing to pay a premium price for it. Unlike days of yore, the Mac is no longer solely for people who “don’t know anything about computers”. Because of the UNIX roots of OS X, there’s now a sort of “donut hole” effect in the demographic of Mac users; a demographic that spans all the way from grandmothers and dorm-dwellers to oceanographers and astrophysicists. In the middle of the donut hole are those of us who want power and performance but don’t want to pay out the pooter for top-notch ‘puter. People who are willing—nay, are compelled—to tweak and tune, fiddle and futz with our machines until they are everything they could possibly be, or at least until we break something and have to start all over. I would never dare to imply that this sort of person is either smarter or dumber, more or less mature, higher or lower on the invisible yet pervasive ladder of technocracy than those who choose another path. There is room in the digital firmament for every constellation; Windows, OS X, Linux, Unix, Amiga, BeOS, what have you. All except the CP/M folks; they need to be cleansed from the Earth. Joke, people, it was a joke.

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