Sunday, 26 October 2008

Falling far from the tree: the story of a switcher

MacBook Pro

I dislike Apple. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I hated Apple – ‘hate’ is a very strong word – but as a company they have always struck me as arrogant and anthropomorphically stuck up their own collective arse. A bit like the Guardian newspaper, with the downside that Apple products cost more and the upside that Polly Toynbee doesn’t come free with every purchase.

That said, they do make fine laptops.

Judging by the lingo used on Mac forums, I am a ‘switcher’: a convert from the perceived evil of Microsoft Windows to the greater good of OS X. There is a traditional route that ‘switchers’ take, which largely involves trying to make their Mac work like a PC, and then realising how wrong they were and letting the Leopard do its own thing. In fact, what I think happens is that ‘switchers’ just give up trying to get OS X to work like Windows.

Part 1: I own a Mac

Specifically, I was given an Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB of internal RAM, a 15-inch screen and OS X Tiger. For the non-geeks out there, this is the laptop equivalent of an African famine victim being given a locked box full of doughnuts: it’s fucking awesome, as long as they can figure out how to get inside.

I decided to do some background reading. Turns out that, as far as MacBooks go, mine is pretty good. I wanted to see what it could do.


Part 2: Apple lies – Macs are not for pleasure

Tommy Tallerico, at the recent Video Games Live concert in London, got the crowd to hold up mobile phones, PSPs and DSs instead of lighters. One person held up a laptop, and Tommy asked what type of laptop it was.

“It’s a Mac,” came the reply.

“Good choice,” Tommy yelled back, “You ain’t playing any games on that.”

For a product that markets itself on being able to do cool things like make pictures and music and whatnot, Macs are curiously game-less. Sure, games exist, but they’re not exactly in abundance. For £40, you can buy a port of Civilization IV – an excellent game, but you can buy it on PC for £10 with both expansion packs.

Spore, my most recent purchase for my old laptop, plays on both a Mac and PC. However, it won’t work on OS X Tiger. It wants Leopard, the relatively new operating system.

So I visited the Apple store.

Part 3: The plastic population

The Apple store on Regent Street, London, is huge. Spread over two floors, it sells basically everything Apple makes, plus everything – pretty much – that’ll run on a Mac. Despite this, the average Game store, which you could fit into the lecture stand at the back, probably holds more stock.

No one looks happy in an Apple store. They stare at the merchandise like mechanised zombies while orange T-shirted youths with less hair than the average leukaemia ward slouch about looking superior. These are the people that are so eco-friendly that when they lose a family member they phone the council to have the corpse recycled.

On the plus side, a copy of OS X costs £85: less than a legal home edition of Windows XP. Not that anyone has ever actually bought a copy of XP. Ever.

OS X LeopardPart 4: Fuck me, did that actually work?

I don’t remember installing Leopard. I don’t remember installing much on the Mac. I’m not telling you this to get out of explaining the process. I’m telling you this because there is no process. Generally, you click an icon, then drag it to the appropriate Applications folder. Sometimes it’ll ask you a few questions. In the case of Leopard, I think it took 30 minutes and then restarted the Mac.

By way of contrast, the average PC program – games in particular – require you to submit to a Mensa-worthy intelligence test, figuring out drivers and graphics or sound options and whatnot. They try to install themselves into obscure places on your hard disk. Frequently, they don’t work until the second install.

So the first time I installed something on the Mac, it was so fast that I thought it hadn’t worked. It took me half an hour to realise that my program – ironically, Microsoft Word for Mac – worked just dandy.

Spore worked once Leopard was installed. For some reason, I still had to meddle with the graphics settings. It was the first – and so far only – Mac program that didn’t everything automatically.

Part 5: Big cats

Leopard is a neat piece of work. For a start, the default background is a space scene. I liked it so much that I nearly kept it on my desktop. In the end, via a brief stint with the eye of HAL 9000, I settled on a view of the Earth from space. Basically, Leopard’s first impression was a good one.

Two things in particular impress me about OS X. One: the search function – called Spotlight – is incredible. No one uses the search functionality of Windows, because it invariably takes ages and finds nothing. Spotlight goes through every hard disk plugged into the laptop – reads every document, the works – and gives you every result in less than five seconds.

Time Machine

Two: the back up system in Leopard, called Time Machine, is beautiful. It’s functional too, in that it backs up your hard disk every hour and doesn’t require you to stop working at the same time, but it just looks gorgeous. It swoops onto your desktop like a pterodactyl catching a fish. Honestly, it’s more fun than some games I’ve played.

Part 6: Back through the looking glass

Leopard was wonderful for many reasons, but it lacks a certain level of functionality that I absolutely need from a computer. Firstly, the games – as I’ve already said – are rare at best. Secondly, Creative – the company who built my MP3 player – are so shit-scared of competing with iPods that they won’t release any software to make their products work on a Mac.

I needed Windows. Thankfully, Leopard comes with a program called Bootcamp, which divides your hard disk in two and lets you install Windows on one half. This process is more difficult than it sounds. Bootcamp is easy enough – just make sure that you read the instructions and don’t have any programs open when you run it – but try and find a copy of Windows XP (a program no longer supported by Microsoft) for less than £100. Even an only-technically-legal OEM copy costs £40 on eBay.

Thankfully, my dad is anally-retentive enough to keep every CD that comes his way, and had no less than three copies of XP. One of them worked fine, and the Leopard CD is smart enough to install all of the relevant drivers to the Mac. So I installed the Creative software and Dawn of War and…

Part 7: I made a PC out of an Apple MacBook Pro

…wait. I got a Mac and installed Windows? Yeah, but you have to if you ever want to play more than a handful of games. It’s sad, because the Mac is a good-looking, well-built machine with more horsepower than it knows what to do with. Spore proves that it will run games, and run them well. But no one seems to want to play them enough for the games developers to take any notice.

Part of this, I suspect, is the price of the average Mac. My MacBook Pro, when new, was worth in the region of £1,300. I would never have been able to buy one on my own; hell, you could buy four games-worthy PC laptops for that money. I would guess most people who can afford this exorbitant price either don’t have the time for games or don’t want to turn their purchase into a games machine, which is a pity because you can have a games machine that does practical things as well. The irony is, of course, that entertainment devices such as the iPod (and its DRM-happy backend, iTunes) have done more to sell Macs than any Mac-specific tools.

That said, I like the Mac. It’s quick, and its reluctance to let me play around at the back end of some of the more technical jobs is made up by the fact everything tends to work first time. I may still hate the company Jobs built, but I will confess that I like the things they make.

The human potential for laughing inappropriately at exactly the right moment

After the earthquakes a few months ago in Chengdu, a group of Russians were working with local Chinese emergency services as volunteers to dig for survivors. One survivor, when he was found, saw the green eyes of his rescuer and reportedly said:

"Ta ma de, zhe dizhen zhen xiong, ba wo zhen dao wai guo lai le!"

Apropos of very little, but it made me smile. Thanks to Yu for the story.