I Love My Computer Again

I’ve become a cliché. An ex-Microsoft employee who went 100% Mac less than a month after leaving the Redmond campus for the last time.

It wasn’t my intention. Initially I just wanted a Mac to make my Ruby on Rails workflow more efficient. And that it did. Having Unix underneath makes so many things easier for web development, especially on Rails where 99% of the community is on a Mac. I had spent a few years using a PC as my dev machine for the LAMP-based youlookfab.com, but as soon as I switched to the Mac I regretted not having done so much earlier.

What I didn’t anticipate was my emotional reaction to the Mac. For the first time since my Commodore 64, I love my computer.

Part of it is performance. I have a MacBook Pro (until a month ago it was the fastest one on the market, but still modest specs compared to Windows laptops). Almost everything is instantaneous. The machine has the iPhone’s appliance-like responsiveness. The CPU isn’t the full story here though, or even the SSD instead of a traditional hard drive. I think it is the tight integration of these hardware components with the OS that runs on them that really makes the difference. My previous laptop was a Sony Vaio with equivalent hardware (including the SSD) running Windows 7. It didn’t come close to this.

Part of it is user experience. there is an overall feeling of quality that makes the Mac a joy to use. And there are a thousand delightful touches, like the file open dialog that remembers your most recently used folders, even folders you used in other apps. There seems to be consistency in the right places, but also a lot of inconsistency that gives it character. After a long time trying to come up with a good analogy, this is the best I can do: The Mac feels like a living space designed by a brilliant architect. Windows feels like an office space designed by a brilliant architect.

The inertial scrolling of the touch sensitive magic mouse is sublime.

There is also a vibrant cottage industry of Mac apps the likes of which I haven’t seen on the PC for years. People get really excited about the quality of UX on Mac apps. Even utilitarian apps like an FTP client. I found myself paying for apps again. Not big apps like Office, but little apps, like Base, a cool little GUI for interacting with a SQLite 3 database. Or TextMate the legendary text editor that web developers swear by.

Then there is my old friend Unix. Having spent my professional formative years using Solaris and FreeBSD, it is enormously comforting (and effective) to go command line from time to time. It should feel like a crack in the Aqua facade when one breaks out terminal, but it doesn’t. It feels like opening the hood of your Porche.

Not all is roses and sunbeams though. The Mac is far from perfect.

Office is awful. PowerPoint is slow, a lot like early betas of PowerPoint 2007 for Windows that I dogfooded as an MS employee. Excel on the Mac is a shadow of its Windows glory. The Apple equivalents in iWork look pretty, but don’t have a fraction of the Office power. I’ll be in the front of the line for Mac Office 2011.

Also, I’m not sure that the dock is effective — I seem to get lost in window chaos more often than I remember on Windows. Maybe I’ll get used to it over time, or use Exposé.

Perhaps the most annoying thing during my first days on the Mac was the lack of Home, End, Delete and separated cursor keys on the beautiful minimalist wireless keyboard I purchased. So I bought the wired one, only to find that although it had the keys, most apps didn’t use them in the way I expected. After some keyboard mapping mods I have the keys working in some apps, but not all. Lately I find myself using them less and less as I’m slowly assimilated into the Mac way.

If my day job was still in a big company with all the Microsoft enterprise trimmings, the Mac would probably drive me mad. And I have no idea what I would think of this MacBook Pro if I wasn’t a geek. But as a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none designer and developer it is a fantastic combination of pleasure and productivity.