Switched to Mac

I’ve just bought a Mac Mini and retired my five-year-old desktop PC, an Athlon XP based system running the Ubuntu Linux distribution. With steady upgrades (especially a 2GB RAM boost), it was still quite usable, but the CPU was showing its age and the graphics were miserable. I’d tried fitting a new AGP card in, but the system rebooted randomly and I’m just not patient enough to suss out the source of the difficulty any more.

Most of my computer science friends made the leap to Mac four or five years ago, while I stuck it out with Linux for quite some time.

I ultimately made the jump for three main reasons:

  • Unix without the hassle of Linux. The terminal and macports/fink give me the full power of the Unix command line and most of the Linux toolset–but I get a polished GUI on top. To be fair, Ubuntu Linux had a pretty clean, simple GUI on top… but I really got sick of things breaking from release to release, and spending hours trying to figure out what was wrong. (Examples: PulseAudio in the 8.1/9.0 releases, Amarok2 in the 9.0 release, nVidia drivers in 8.1, etc., etc.) To be fair, Mac has its share of problems too–it looks like a lot of software has broken with the Snow Leopard release, especially in the macports/fink world. But the basics will almost always work, I think.
  • Low power consumption and quiet. I’m really impressed by Apple’s commitment here: 15W / 30W power consumption on the Mac Mini (idle / active), versus 64W / 100W for a typical minitower PC. I did a bit of research on this, and PCs have certainly improved over the last 5 years—the new Energy Star-rated “80 plus” power supplies are certainly decent. But the killer these days appears to be graphics: a dedicated PCI graphics card really sucks juice, while the Mac Mini uses a graphics chip optimized for notebook systems. The Mac Mini’s chip isn’t the hottest on the market, but is still capable of playing many current graphics-hungry games like Quake 4. And because the chip is designed for notebooks, it’s very power efficient.
  • Futureproof…? I’d like to be able to continue using this system for at least five years. This is always a challenging game to play—parts come and go, new operating system versions come out, new media are invented. That said, USB and Firewire allow a lot of the customization to happen outside the box now, and the main things that are inflexible are processor, RAM, graphics and software. I’m most concerned about the software—I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple orphans the Mac Mini down the road, given the hands-off treatment of the first Mac Mini model. That said, as long as I can load Linux on it once Apple drops support, it’ll continue to be useable. We’ll see what happens.

At first blush, it looked like the Mac Mini was within $100-$200 in price of a comparable spec PC. I spent a while trying to ensure that I was making an objective decision without being seduced by Apple’s slick, glossy emotional appeal. In the end, the PC makers dropped prices dramatically for the back-to-school season, and there was no price contest; I paid a full $250 more for the Mac Mini with slightly poorer specs. I’ve justified this to myself on the basis of wanting a truly good operating system, and getting a truly energy-efficient computer.

Software 2005

On my old website, I used to keep a list of my favourite software. It was a bit silly and pointless, and I’m sure no one ever read it. But I think the idea’s still useful; everyone runs into some neat new software every so often, and it’s nice to share that knowledge around a bit. So here’s a list of my favourite software and websites of 2005. Please post suggestions, comments and questions!

  • google maps (web). I can’t emphasize how beautiful and elegant this website is. I classify it as “software” because it’s also a platform – you can make websites and tools using Google Maps, like the Vancouver Transit map I made last year. I’m looking forward to their upcoming transit map service, which has already come out in beta for Portland, OR.
  • openoffice 2.0 (windows, mac, linux). The latest version is a big improvement on the sluggish 1.0. I haven’t had a chance to play with all of the features yet, but it feels nicer to me already. It’s serious competition for Microsoft Office now, and I’m sure that’s why Microsoft has embarked on an ambitious overhaul of Office’s usability for its next release.
  • flickr (web). This seems like a simple and old idea, but it’s been done so well that I have to recommend it. It’s just a photo management system, but it allows the one feature I couldn’t find when I first moved my photos online four years ago: the ability to arrange multiple paths through the photo collection. You can put each photo in multiple ordered “sets” and allow browsing through the sets. So, an arty 1999 picture in Switzerland can be in both my “Switzerland” photo set, in my “arty pictures” set, and in my “1999” set. Better yet, you can add searchable tags to your photos, and you can have an RSS stream of photos, allowing friends to be notified whenever you post a new photograph.
  • Really Simple Syndication (web). I finally made the move to the RSS bandwagon this year. It’s a good way to read websites, I must say. I find it especially useful for things that are scattered around the web, like comics or blogs: I have a homebase for receiving them, and can keep track of new posts that I might not otherwise notice. I’ve been using bloglines so far, but I think I’ll move to reading RSS on Thunderbird or Google Personalized Home soon instead. For those curious to give it a try, check out this introduction.
  • wordpress (web). I moved my website from handcrafted HTML to a blog this year, and it’s been a pleasant experience. WordPress is a beautiful free blogging package, with a good set of plugins and themes to manage my website. I really like their category system (not unlike Flickr’s tags) for organizing the posts, and the Flickr plugin I’ve set up is quite attractive. You can find plenty of site hosting companies that will give you a similar WordPress package, if you’re interested.
  • amarok (linux). Sure, it looks like it’s just another MP3 player, with a database backend. But it’s a good implementation of that simple idea, with good automatic organization of the tricky Various Artists category, album covers from your library (or even from Amazon), and a sidebar showing you “related songs” in your library. I’ve been waiting for this for a while. It’s another excellent addition to the KDE project.
  • kcachegrind (linux). Profiling programs to find the slow and fast parts has long been a painful process. I spent half a workterm on this once, and it required a lot of digging through the output of text-based software. Now, with kcachegrind I can get a graphical representation of where time is spent in the software, then zoom in on one function and see where its time is spent. The interface is complicated, but still surprisingly manageable. This is one of the true gems in the KDE suite.
  • xine (linux). I was a long-time mplayer user for video playback, but I made the switch to xine this year. It has equally good codecs, but it can do DVD menus and it seems to play nicer with the colour keying on my laptop’s video card. The user interface is still awful, though. I’d like to see a KDE frontend with the xine backend some day.

Bike & compute

I’ve been looking around for a new set of panniers to replace my current beat-up pair. (For the uninitiated, panniers or “saddlebags” are bags that strap to the rack on the back of a bike.) Since I bike everywhere, having good bags is critical – I need to move around groceries, papers, and my computer from A to B, and I need to do it during typical Vancouver drizzles and downpours. I was a backpack man for a long time, but I needed to carry more goods, and panniers were fantastic for avoiding that sweaty back.

My biggest problem has been the computer, which is too big for my current panniers, and really needs a waterproof container. I have a Targus computer backpack that keeps the rain out, but it’s heavy and sweaty on my back. Enter Ortlieb – beautiful German-designed panniers for typical commuter purposes, although at steep prices. I finally bit the bullet, though, and picked up a $170 office-bag for the computer. It’s a real marvel of design: a roll-up top like kayaking bags for some serious waterproofing; a nice shoulder strap for carrying off-bike; and not too much of that bike-geek look. They’ve got some other good bags too, including one designed for shopping and two backpack designs.

I do own a lot of bags now. I guess it’s part of being car-free – I don’t take my own 3300L storage space around with me everywhere, so I need a few 50L bags for different purposes. (That figure is for a Saturn, with 2850L passenger volume and 450L trunk volume.)