Saturday, May 22, 2004

Silence (remix): first impressions of a switcher

Saturday, May 22, 2004

As the long-suffering regular readers amongst you will be all too aware, I'm a smidgeon preoccupied with computer generated noise, or rather the elimination of it. When you've tried all the tweaks, mods and specialist racket-hushing kit available and still aren't satisfied with the results, where is a neurotic silent PC enthusiast to turn? The fruity uncharted territory of Mactopia, that's where! You heard me correctly, I've made the switch - my only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

My new G4 1Ghz iBook is absolutely silent, but for the subdued purr of the miniature hard drive. It does contain a single fan I'm led to believe though I've yet to hear it actually spinning, even after playing a DivX movie continuously for two hours! It's not that the thing is broken or stuck, the system simply doesn't seem to require active cooling - after extended use, the left palm wrest (presumably the area over which the hard drive lies) becomes only slightly warm to the touch. It looks like my days of ever-vigilant temperature monitoring are finally numbered. I think it would be safe to assume I'm just a wee bit smug about my defection to the light side of computing.

One motivation for switching you often hear bandied about in Mac circles is that Macs are so much easier to use than PCs (the distinction between PCs and Windows is rarely made since Microsoft's panoptic dominance leaves little scope for diversity). OS X may, at first, look like a dumbed-down operating system, yet appearances can be deceptive. OS X is designed to appeal to everyone - if you're daunted by the prospect of using a command shell, or manually editing configuration files, then don't - you won't be putting yourself at a disadvantage by navigating your way around the system using the charismatic Aqua GUI. Conversely, if you like to tinker and laboriously tweak every last detail of an operating system, you can really go to town learning all the intricacies and Unix-like commands of the Darwin core and XNU kernel.

Personally I think the same can be said of Windows XP - how anyone could be fearful of that idiot-proof Fisher Price interface is a complete mystery to me. It's not so much that OS X is easier to use, unless perhaps you're totally new to computers, it's just so much more refined and graceful. Take for instance OS X's effectuation of the anti-aliasing technique - it can be applied to text, widgets and window elements and is so much sleeker than Microsoft's implementation. One innovation I am particularly impressed with is the ability for applications to run within each other as services by default. For instance, my third party dictionary is able to latch onto Mozilla or Text Edit giving me the option to highlight any word and instantly obtain a definition of it. The possibilities for automatic integration are endless. I'm discovering additional simple, but beautifully executed elements like this each day. Many programs don't require a proper installation routine - you extract the single program file from a zip-like archive and poke it with your cursor to make it leap into action. Other applications do come with installers, though unlike Windows installers, they don't indiscriminately scatter unhelpfully named dependent files throughout the system. Preference files tend to be labelled logically and are sensibly stored in one place so that later manual un-installation is as effortless as dragging a preference file and application folder (or single file) into the trashcan.

10 minutes after pressing the power button I had dialled into my ISP account, checked my email and opened up Safari (the OS X equivalent of Internet Explorer) ready to visit some of my favourite web sites. Whereas I would typically spend at least an hour tweaking a new Windows XP installation, removing superfluous junk and MS sponsored spam tools and securing it against viruses, trojans, worms and hackers, with OS X there was practically no prep work for me to do. Furthermore, OS X doesn't make use of a horrendously messy Windows-like registry system and this contributes to its exceptional talent for effective self maintenance. This facet of the system is emphasized by the distinct lack of available third party repair and clean-up tools. The piddling number on offer are largely redundant since the functions they perform can easily be replicated manually with minimal technical expertise.

OS X was recently bestowed the shared accolade of being the most secure server available. Similarly, using OS X as a personal operating system is a safe bet as its out-of-the-box security is top notch. While it would be silly to declare Macs immune to viruses and worms, the threat at present is less than negligible. This is partly because virus writers and hackers aren't prepared to expend time and effort exploiting such a niche system - they want to cause maximum havoc or harvest, for example, as many credit card details as possible so they target the most widely used operating system, Windows. Another factor is that OS X is more difficult to meddle with in the first place as it requires hackers and virus writers to get to grips with bespoke Apple coding techniques.

While the iBook copes admirably with everything I throw at it, it's certainly not as responsive as my old Windows-based system. Applications take a few extra seconds to pop-up and I'm seeing the busy cursor more often than I'd like. I'm told that this is due to the fact that the system is only shipped with 256 megabytes of RAM, and that to get the best from OS X you should ideally 'max out', or at least boost the memory capacity (you can install up to 1.25 gigabytes of RAM if you so wish). It's all very well to have this option assuming you've got money to burn, but you shouldn't have to upgrade a brand new computer right off the bat. I'm sure an extra 256 megabytes of RAM would put a spring in its step and it wouldn't have killed Apple to make this the base configuration.

A more fundamental gripe on first booting OS X was the terrible mouse cursor control. Moving it from one side of the screen to the other required me to push the mouse across the length of its pad, pick it up, move it back to the starting point and repeat the motion - it was so frustratingly sluggish it was disorientating. I immediately headed for the section of the preferences panel which allows you to customize the cursor speed and budged the slider along as far as it would go. This speeded it up somewhat, but nowhere near enough, plus there was no acceleration as can be found in Windows XP. I was still missing the mark each time I tried to prod an icon, minimize, maximize or close a window - anyone watching me would have sworn I was blind drunk. Oddly there appears to be no readily available solution to this annoyance built into the operating system itself. Luckily, however, a third party utility by the name of USB Overdrive can be implemented to remedy the situation. Installing the drivers for your particular rodent can also help to speed up cursor movement, though most don't support acceleration. I'm not making a mountain out of a mole hill, honestly - you'd be amazed by how little you get done when you're not completely in control of your pointer (*ahem* damn, you've got to be so careful with these Freudian slips!).

As I already have a decent LCD monitor and five button optical mouse I decided to use it to convert the iBook into a desktop system (I completed the transformation by purchasing an official Apple Pro keyboard). The monitor's VGA cable connects to the included video adapter and this subsequently plugs into the iBook itself, while the keyboard and mouse are connected via standard USB ports. The keyboard actually has two USB ports built-in so even with a USB mouse and keyboard attached, you retain two spare sockets to connect a digital camera, printer, portable hard drive or any other USB device you care to mention. When Apple claims, "it just works", they really mean it. OS X supports the Mac equivalent of 'plug and play' so it's not necessary to install device drivers in order to breathe life into your accessories.

Why buy a laptop in the first place if I planned to use it as a desktop? Well laptops are generally designed to operate more quietly, and this was, after all, my top priority. Full sized, quiet hard drives, despite manufacturer's claims to the contrary, require a case fan, or at least good airflow, to keep them cool (they employ suffocating ‘sandwiching' material to curb drive noise and this leads to an increase in temperature). This isn't an issue for laptop hard drives as they are much slower and hence operate at far lower temperatures. Laptop components such as hard drives and CD/DVD writers do not guzzle power to the same extent as their full sized brethren, and this makes it possible to supply laptops with low wattage, passively cooled PSUs (AKA power bricks). Somehow Apple have managed to design an extremely cool-running processor that runs fast enough to cope with the everyday demands of the average computer user. Accordingly it is viable for their engineers to reduce the speed the system fan spins at, or even halt it altogether to eliminate noise. This thermal regulation procedure is all taken care of automatically in alignment with Apple's carefully researched safe temperature limits. It may be possible to control the system fan using third party software as you would with Speedfan in a Windows environment; nevertheless, I fail to see how you could make the iBook any quieter by doing so.

As modifying Mac hardware to quell the din would be out of the question I decided to sacrifice speed in pursuit of silence by plumping for the silent-by-design iBook over a faster iMac or PowerMac. The lowest spec iMac is also designed to be quiet, but even so, I'm not disappointed with my purchase - the iBook is obviously portable, allowing me to move it into the lounge where I can connect it to a large, wide-screen TV and play movies via the s-video and audio out ports, or work on it anywhere in the house.

It is a myth that the Mac suffers from inferior software support. Nearly all the must-have Windows applications you can name are also available for the Mac. If you're clinically insane you can even pollute your new, pristine, Microsoft-free environment with spawn-of-Satan offerings such as Internet Explorer or MS Office. Why you'd want to when OS X comes complete with a superb alternative office suite and browser is another matter entirely, but the option is always there if you find yourself experiencing withdrawal symptoms. For a long time I have been a diehard fan of the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email client. Fortunately, both are available for the Mac (the Mac version of Firefox is known as Camino) so I won't be forced to trade in my Mozilla spin-offs slippers and toothbrush set. VLC, my favourite multimedia player, also has a Mac counterpart so once again there's no need to compromise by using second-rate impostors. Any other software you might need can be quickly identified and downloaded through Mac Update or Version Tracker. Both are staggeringly exhaustive software repositories much like, only specifically for the Mac.

Everything considered, I'm a very happy bunny. The only thing which held me back from switching until now was the relatively high price of Apple hardware. In fact, when you compare the resale value of even prehistoric Apple kit with the rapid depreciation of PC hardware, it doesn't seem like such a colossal stretch after all, especially seeing as people tend to keep hold of their Macs for longer. I must confess that breaking away from Microsoft's stranglehold and becoming a member of a creative niche community is also a significant dynamic of Apple's magnetic charm.


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