I had a lousy cold all last week, so I spent it toying with a Mac. It seems that all the cool hacker dudes are on Macs these days and I wanted to see what it’s all about. I ended up installing Vista on the MacBook Pro, but Apple’s beta drivers are still too buggy, so I returned it. I have ordered a new Thinkpad with Vista.
The MacBook Pro is a beautiful piece of hardware. Lovely bright screen. What triggered the whole exercise was the dimness of my Thinkpad screen (I now suspect that the backlight is failing). The Mac keyboard is backlit — very cool. But Apple left off a few keys — like a forward delete, page-up/down, and right-click. What’s up with that? Typical Steve Jobs pig-headedness, like leaving out the floppy on the Next.
I did not find OS X very compelling, though perhaps the next release (Leopard) will be more so. OS X is still stuck in the world of 72dpi screens, like the first Mac. So the system fonts are too small, especially when you plug in a big high-res screen. Windows has supported big fonts for 10 years or more. They say Leopard will fix this, but we’ll see whether all the apps have been recoded to be scalable.
Speaking of fonts, Vista’s system fonts are beautiful, noticeably sharper than OS X running on exactly the same hardware. I think it is the custom hinting for sub-pixel anti-aliasing. This is where Microsoft’s vertical integration pays off: they cut their own fonts, they build their own graphics system (Direct-X), and they force the graphics chip makers to support it in hardware. Microsoft has done an impressive job of redesigning their whole UI API (WPF). At long last, an API without pixels. If they can make it portable like they promise (WPF/E), it could be a contender.
A big UI difference between OS X and Windows is task-switching. Apple has a better UI — exposé is way better than flip 3D, which is actually rather pathetic. Alt-tab switching is also slightly better on OS X. But the Apple task model is needlessly complicated, managing apps and windows separately. You switch between apps, and then switch between windows within apps. You can close all of an apps windows, but it still lives on, visible only in the menu bar. You slowly accumulate running apps in the dock, until you manually kill them off. Maybe there is some marginal benefit to this model, but it is far outweighed by the complexity it adds to the UI. Call this a draw between OS X and Windows.
I like the general modelessness of OS X apps: they persist all their settings, and generally let you adjust those settings via modeless inspectors rather than the modal dialogs of Windows.
What really broke my heart was the outliners. I write down my thoughts in outlines. (Is it a coincidence that Subtext is based on trees?) I have tried just about every PC-based outlining program there is. Nowadays I use OneNote. There is a thriving marketplace of outlining programs on the Mac which I have long envied. Well, they all suck. Horrible UI’s, like Word, with all sorts of modes and arcane commands and complex configuration. OneNote is an elegant beauty in comparison (though a little air-headed).
Another thing I was looking for was a nice simple photo management app that my family can handle. Vista’s built-in photo management blows iPhoto away. It lets me use the thousands of existing photos I already have without manually importing them all into a tortured directory structure. iPhoto locks you into printing via Kodak at 15 cents a pop, and automatically crops to the print size. Vista lets me choose from half a dozen printers, and Kodak is only 10 cents, and I can avoid cropping. And of course there are a bunch of other apps to choose from on Windows but not Mac, like Picassa.
Vista has file versioning. I have missed that ever since VMS. It find it bizarre that everyone thinks it is OK to discard the current state of a file every time you modify it. Primitive and brutal.
Overall I think Vista is largely comparable to OS X technically, but has the overwhelming advantage of availability of third-party software. Many interesting technologies are Windows-only, or Windows-first, or Windows-better. I see no compelling reason to isolate myself on a Mac. Rebelling against the mainstream can be fun and rewarding, but I do that enough already in my research — I don’t need to to do it in my appliances.
[OK, lighten up guys. It’s Ford vs. Chevy. These are consumer appliances that differ mostly in matters of style. The Thinkpad’s docking station suits my lifestyle. The Java/Eclipse/SWT ecosystem is a little more robust on Windows. Small stuff.]
[Discovered more info about why Vista fonts look so much better than OSX. This long video explains the history of the Vista fonts. ClearType is in fact better on Vista than XP. The new fonts were designed expressly to be optimized for ClearType. Their goal is to improve on-screen readability. In contrast, the goal of MAC fonts is fidelity to print. They make a very good argument that what looks good at 600 dpi on paper is not optimal at 100 dpi on screen.]